by Ellen Sims
Acts 16: 9-15
It starts with a dream. It ends with extravagant welcome.
I want to key in on a series of strong verbs in today’s story about Paul’s sense of what God had called him to do.
Paul (then known as Saul) began his followship of Jesus with a vision, a dream, of the risen Christ. He was then struck blind, trading physical sight for his new insight. Soon after, a disciple in Damascus named Ananias received a vision instructing him to heal Saul, the very person who’d been viciously persecuting Jesus followers like himself. Ananias obeyed, restoring Saul’s/Paul’s sight and discipling him in the process. Paul became the movement’s key missionary. Today’s story tracks Paul into the territory of Macedonia because of another vision. Paul dreamed one night that a Macedonian man called out to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Not a detailed dream—but one that required no interpretation. Come and help us, called an anonymous person from a territory across the Mediterranean Sea. Paul become “convinced” of the rightness of this dream (Acts 16:10).
What strikes me most about that dream—and the other dreams reported in this book about the early church is this: The church’s dreams are about meeting someone else’s need.
A PBS documentary defined the traditional American dream as “a home in the suburbs, a good job, [and] raising your family” so that they can “be successful and have a good life.” This popular notion of the American Dream usually focuses on aspirations for ME and MY family. Maybe nothing wrong with that. But is that a Christian dream?
Paul felt convinced he was called to pursue a dream that met the need of another, and it happened that the other person in today’s story and in many of these stories lived in another country and was from another culture. Following in the Way of Jesus primed Paul for a dream about others, very different others.
Friends, can you think of times when we as a church have dreamed and discerned together a shared vision for our work in the world?
(The congregation shared many memories and insights about our dreams of welcoming and including all, of developing our first signature ministry for LGBT teens, etc.)
As I think back on the three years (as of this month) that we’ve been a church in full standing in the United Church of Christ, the six years since we became a new church start, I recall times when we envisioned where we might gather to worship, but we spent no time dreaming together about a beautiful building that one day would be ours. We have dreamed of ways to impact our community, but we’ve never dreamed collectively about being lauded in the larger community as an affluent, popular, or even respectable congregation. That’s not been our aim. That’s not been our dream. Our dream has been as simple and inglorious as this: to follow in the way of Jesus.
Paul’s dream called him to share good news. Paul and Silas (his traveling companion not named in this passage) believed they were “called” to share Good News and that they’d been invited into a new place and context. As you recall, our English word gospel is a translation of the Old English words for “good story” or “good message” or “good news” and that phrase is rooted in the Greek word evangelion, meaning “good message.” An evangelist is the messenger of that good news. There are many ways Christians have understood what is the good message we’re to share. In fact we have four “Gospel” accounts of the life of Jesus included in what became the New Testament. Four different “Good Stories.”
And throughout the New Testament are varied meanings of the good news. You’ll find in I Corinthians 15 Paul’s confession of faith in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus as the “good news” he shares. But Matthew (4:23, for example), stresses the gospel/good news as the merciful kingdom of God that is already here but not yet fully here. Ephesians 6:15 speaks of the Gospel of Peace that Christ made possible. Different groups understood Jesus’s saving work in different ways. This is not the time to unpack how these good messages cohere or diverge. Instead, let’s consider our own personal experiences in which Jesus has represented good news for us as individuals and as a church.
What would you say is good news that you have found in the life and teachings of Jesus and in the resurrection his ongoing life might mean for your life? What is the Gospel according to YOU? What is the good message you could share about the Jesus story? The Christian Gospel is always about Jesus, but it is contextualized and interpreted through cultures and individuals. How has the life and ministry and death and life again of Jesus been a good story, a good message, good news, Gospel, for YOU. Has your experience of the Gospel here at Open Table given you something to share with others? You don’t have to use preachy terms or religious language to offer a gospel word—good news—to someone else. What’s an example of a good story, based in the good story of Jesus, that you might share with someone needing good news?
(The congregation shared many beautiful responses.)
What you’ve described is evangelism: sharing a good message.
As a child I lived in terror that God was going to speak to me in a vision and call me to Macedonia or China or Africa or Siberia or New York City. I wish someone had told me then that I could share “the gospel” in simple ways, that I could live the gospel by being good news to someone.
Paul’s dream led to his sharing good news . . . which led him to a place of prayer. After arriving in Philippi in Macedonia, Paul didn’t stand on a street corner or rent a stadium to preach the gospel/good news. The implication is that Paul and Silas spent some days getting the lay of the land, and on the Sabbath they looked for a place of prayer. Maybe they joined with other Jews worshiping in a synagogue along the river. In which case Paul in some sense situated his ministry in a familiar context. The good news of Jesus is understood best within its Jewish context—even today. Paul rooted the radical news of Jesus in a traditional spiritual setting. Remember that Jesus announced the start of his mission, according to the writer of Luke-Acts, in the synagogue.
But maybe Paul sought the outsiders. After all, the group Paul met with was worshiping outside the city gates. Maybe he found a small group of Jews worshiping without a synagogue along the riverside. In that sense, Paul, like Jesus, was rooted in that tradition even as he resisted it. The river where he met to pray might represent a liminal site of change, a theology of fluidity, a place for crossing over into new freedom, and, of course, a reminder of Jesus’s baptism by the radical John. That flowing body of water does not suggest stasis. And then Paul began to talk with a group of women. Women? Women had not been welcomed to join the men in the synagogues of Judea but had been included by Jesus and were treated with respect by Paul and became significant leaders in the early church.
The particular woman in Phillipi who was most receptive to Paul’s good news was not even a Jew. She was what the Jews called “God fearers”—Gentiles who worshiped the Jewish God but had not (yet) converted. Paul’s focus on Lydia is stranger still when we recall he had dreamed of a MAN beckoning him to Macedonia. (See Kathryn Matthew’s collection of commentaries on this text.) That part of the dream was very clear. How is Paul’s conversion of Lydia, a woman, an appropriate response to his dream?
What does that tell us about the relationship between our dreams and our prayers? Might places of prayer help us adjust or refine our dreams? Should we be wary of letting a rigid literalness limit what might be consistent with gospel good news?
And now our story focuses on Lydia’s response. Paul had a vision of someone needing good news. Had traveled far to share good news. Had situated himself in a place of prayer. Now it’s up to Lydia and the movement of God in her life. The narrator remarks, “She was listening to us.” How critical it is, as we work together in our community of prayer, to listen to one another. Apparently, the listening was mutual between Lydia and Paul. After all, Paul and his fellow missionaries to Phillipi learned by listening to her that Lydia was a God worshiper, that she was a seller of expensive purple cloth, possibly an affluent merchant. The church’s capacity to listen actively, respectfully, patiently and take time to hear one another’s words and one another’s hearts is critical to what it means to be church together. The church must especially do a better job of listening to the voices of women whom Jesus and Paul included but who were marginalized for most of the church’s history. As they are in most church settings today.
Think about a time when you felt really “heard.” I thank those of you who have shared your thoughts and all who listened carefully to what you’ve just shared. What gifts we give and receive here. Think about a time when you listened and reflected back to the person what you thought they had said and heard more and understood more deeply—and knew your relationship became stronger as a result.
Finally, notice the response Lydia gave to her listeners. After Paul arrived at the place he’d dreamed of, after he shared and prayed and listened, Lydia responded by listening, too, and extravagantly welcoming him and his cohorts and the Christ they represented. She opened her heart to this good news and opened her home, insistently opened her home, as a sign of her commitment to this new community of hers. While the story cursorily mentions her baptism by Paul and the baptism of her household, it accentuates her invitation to host Paul and company. In Lydia’s case, her hospitality to Paul and the other disciples of Jesus seems as much a sacrament as her baptism. Welcoming Paul is the visible sign that Lydia has welcomed the grace of God, the God whom Jesus revealed and Paul preached. With Lydia’s leadership the church at Phillipi was founded.
May our extravagant welcome be the sign by which our Christian faith is shared and known.
It starts with a dream. Seven years ago a handful of strangers were dreaming what a faith community of Jesus followers might become to one another and might mean to our larger community. We have dreamed together, shared, prayed, listened and welcomed.
We are Paul. We are Lydia. It starts with a dream. Which results in extravagant welcome that we give and receive.
Here’s my invitation to you:
If you think our current book study of Just Mercy can be one small step toward making our society more just, then you have good news to share with folks you know and can invite to join us. If you think a worship service at Open Table might expand someone’s vision of God or deepen someone’s faith or enrich their spiritual lives, then you have good news to share. If you know of someone who has experienced church that excludes and judges but would find healing here, then you have good news to share. If you thought evangelism was about strong arming others to believe what you were taught to believe but recognize now that evangelists are actually people who share good stories, good messages, good news of God’s grace—then you can be a messenger of good news.
We are approaching those summer months when many folks are at the beach or traveling on weekends. I’m going to take a Sunday off this summer. I hope you, too, will enjoy travel and family reunions and rest. But know that your presence here is important. You are needed to help welcome someone who is looking for a place to dream, to share, to pray, to listen, to be welcomed and to welcome.
PRAYER: God who authored the Jesus Story, help us recognize good stories from our lives and the pages of scripture that we may share with others. Amen.