A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 6 – Acts 16:6-15
Today is the last day of a four-week series this Easter season called ‘That Changes Everything’. It’s an expression meant to describe what happens after Easter – after you come to a renewed insight – one that changes how you look at everything – including, and especially church! The four weeks have been called Awakening, Arising, Adapting, and this week Advancing.
We’ve been using stories from the book of Acts to guide our reflections in this series. I love how prayer is at the center of them all – that faithful people are moved to action when they open themselves to Spirit and let it move them. I hope you’ve noticed over these weeks that in all these stories of visions coming to people in their quiet times, that the person of faith is always being invited to go and help a person on the edge of faith – not to barge in on unsuspecting folks. The Spirit seems to be nudging us to be on the lookout for seekers and questioners. We get that again with Paul today.
A little bit of geography will help us understand today’s scripture better. Philippi is in northern Greece. Near as we can figure it, this is the first time Paul (and Christianity) has entered into Europe! So now Paul and his friends Silas and Timothy are about to answer the prayer of a man from Macedonia that inspired Paul (through a prayerful vision) to venture into an entirely new mission field and bring the message of Jesus to an entirely new audience.
Being a Roman city, Philippi would not have marked a Jewish Sabbath day, so the whole scene is modestly subversive. Paul and his friends had to go outside the gates of the city to worship. The ‘synagogue’ they find is simply an open space by the river that they gathered at to pray.
And who does Paul end up talking to? Not a man from Macedonia – but a woman from Thyatira. And what an interesting woman! Her name is Lydia, and she’s described as a worshipper of God, which means she was a Gentile attached to the Jewish faith – an adherent rather than a member. Lydia is a dealer in luxury cloth, which means she is a businesswoman! Not a poor peasant, not a disenfranchised widow, not an oppressed Jew – she represents an entirely new kind of potential-Christian. She’s not unlike folks we encounter here in suburbia – independent, spiritual, ‘seeking’, but not ‘belonging’ to a particular faith tradition.
Lydia came to faith that day by listening to the preaching of Paul and his friends. Acts 16:14 says, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” The Message translation says, “As she listened with intensity to what was being said, the Lord gave her a trusting heart – and she believed!”
I love that phrase “listened with intensity.” It speaks of a spiritual hunger and thirst. Remember that every story we’ve encountered in Acts in this series has a person of faith being inspired to go and minister to an ‘outsider’ who is hungry and thirsty for God. Lydia fits that description. Do you know anyone in your life who does?
Lydia is so inspired by Jesus’ message of ‘dying to what was and being reborn into renewed life’ that she and her entire household were all baptized into the Way. And she “prevails upon” Paul and his friends to stay with her. Prevails, as in insists, as in Paul didn’t really have much of a choice.
And so we have our first European Christian – a strong businesswoman who leads her household to faith and becomes the first church leader in the new mission field. She is a counter-cultural leader of a counter-cultural spiritual movement. Think about how she became that leader. There’s a pattern. A person becomes inspired, or inspirited, then they’re nurtured in the faith by their faith community (because there are no solo Christians), and then they’re propelled into mission or ministry, or in other words, leadership.
But there’s a critical piece that isn’t explicitly said in this passage. In the verses after our reading it tells of how Paul, Timothy, and Silas stayed around Philippi for a while, presumably at Lydia’s house where Lydia would’ve been in the thick of the evening discussions, and strategizing, and reflecting, and prayers. And then the three men left. They moved on, advancing the Way of Jesus in new places, leaving Lydia to lead a brand new community of faith. For the new person to lead the leading person needs to make room for them, possibly by getting out of the way. So Paul left.
Faith United came into being because people had a vision of creating a church that wasn’t shackled by generations of “we’ve always done it that way.” It was, and is, a powerful vision. But, (there’s always a but,) I’m wondering if after 25 years we’re kinda falling into some patterns where we always do it a certain way! As we start to emerge out of our forced pandemic hibernation, I’m sensing that returning to ‘business as usual’ is not going to be an option. That means a bunch more adapting, like we spoke of last week. And it also means, perhaps, new ways of going forward – new ways of advancing into the future. If so, we have two really important questions to ponder: What shape will our ministry take as we advance? – And who will provide the leadership as we advance?
Take a look at this scripture story. It’s not a story about Jesus – it’s about Paul. The leadership has shifted. Paul was definitely not one of Jesus’ disciples. Paul came to The Way later. And now he is a new leader in the movement. And not only that, look where he is! He’s in Europe! We’ve definitely never done it that way before! Paul and his friends are venturing into a brave new world where the Way of Jesus has never been shared, never been practiced, and never been nurtured. Paul is encountering people with very different cultural expectations and experiences, and yet what does he find? People hungry and thirsty for the nourishment that Jesus’ Way offers.
So where are the disciples in all this? Where are the originators? Well, many of them were still very active and ministering at that time, but they also released others into ministry too. And so it has been from generation to generation as we come to faith, grow in faith, and share the faith inviting others into this awesome pattern.
Paul was a next generation leader, doing next generation ministry. And he in turn became a mentor to Timothy, and here in today’s reading we learn how Paul became a mentor to Lydia as well. And so on. What I’m suggesting is that we need to look at Lydia’s journey really carefully and learn from it. We must learn to nurture the next generation of leaders here.
Just for fun, let’s say that I’m kind of like Paul. 15 years ago I came to Faith United from a different place, representing a next generation of leadership. And just like Paul, I’ve been prevailed upon to stay and help lead, and nurture people on their faith journey. (No, this is not a pretext to saying I’m leaving – you’re stuck with me. Unlike Paul, I’m not moving on.).
But here’s my question. If I’m Paul – who’s Lydia? If my calling is to share the message of Jesus, and fan the sparks of inspiration and flames of faith, who is being inspired, and called, and nurtured to step into ministry leadership? Before you start thinking, “Phew, glad I’m old enough that he can’t mean me!” – I do mean you. Every single one of you, no matter what age or stage you may be. Every single one of you is a Lydia, in some way.
Every single one of you is capable of leading in some way.
Some will lead by coordinating or organizing ministries.
Some will lead by offering to share their learnings with others.
Some will lead by faithfully rolling up their sleeves and pitching in.
Some will lead by cultivating and sharing their gifts and passions and talents.
Some will lead by doing the incredibly counter-cultural thing of showing up most Sundays and being an example to their family and neighbours that this faith thing is important.
And some will lead by dreaming dreams, and seeing visions, and inspiring all of us into wondrous new shapes and forms of ministry together. Paul, Silas, and Timothy advanced the Way of Jesus into new frontiers that no one had ever dared to explore – like Philippi. What are our new frontiers today? Who are our new leaders?
What does Lydia look like in 2022? Well, according to our rich Christian tradition she may look decidedly unlike what you might expect. In other words, the next leaders may be unlikely leaders. That’s kind of the way it’s always been in churches. The first disciples were unlikely followers of Jesus. Jesus didn’t go to the biggest universities and recruit the top prospects; he invited people into his vision and those who caught it dove in.
Peter was constantly bumbling, doubting, saying the wrong thing, denying, and yet he became ‘the rock’ of the entire church. Paul was once the main persecutor of the early Christians. Timothy was ‘just’ a young guy. And Lydia – jeez, Lydia was a woman! An independent and strong woman who ended up representing a whole new way to look at Christian leadership.
The United Church has a proud history of welcoming leadership from unconventional places, but not because you have to be unconventional to be a leader, just because our denomination has been so beautifully insistent about being open and inclusive of anyone who seeks a relationship with God through Christ as being fully welcome in any aspect of ministry. We have been on the leading edge of welcoming people into leadership regardless of their gender, or age, or orientation, or ethnicity, or disability, or, or, or.
Nothing is preventing you from offering leadership in this church. If you’ve been inspired and have an experience of sacred Spirit, and if you’re actively seeking to grow and nourish that experience through participation in church life, then you are qualified for ministry. I also hope you’ve noticed that it’s really critical for a person to be inspirited, to catch a vision or dream a dream, but then the scripture tells us that they immediately share their vision and draw others into it. The early church folks were not lone wolf evangelists. They were a community of faith striving to be faithful to the visions that they’d discerned. From the very start we’ve seen that ministry is a shared enterprise – a community of faith.
Today we heard a story about a new frontier being explored by new leaders sharing the abundant and renewed life that Jesus taught and lived. Well guess what? We have a new frontier to explore too – and it’s much more vast than just our geographical neighbourhood. Our church community stretches as far as the internet travels. And while it’s rooted and grounded in this physical place it is by no means restricted to place. We don’t preach a place – we preach a Way.
And we have a fantastic crop of new leaders to share their story of how their experience of the presence and love of God has enriched their lives – YOU! You can lead in this community of faith – whether you’re youngish or oldish, and whether you’re newish or seasoned-ish. You are called to come to faith, grow in faith, and share your faith. If I may adapt a famous quote: Together we are called to boldly go where no church has gone before! To advance the way of Jesus in ways that we’ve never done before. To shift our thinking from populating buildings to empowering ministries. To let go of some things so we can reach out and love more people in more ways, while holding fast to the core principle of love, love, love. Awakening, arising, adapting, and advancing the love of God in the Way of Jesus. A way of deep spirituality, bold discipleship, and daring justice. THAT is a beautiful Easter vision – and that changes everything! Amen.