by Ellen Sims
text: Acts 16: 9-15
The first verse of our reading from Acts reminded me, oddly enough, of the iconic scene from the original Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker receive a plea for help via a hazy hologram. You remember. The hologram projects a woman asking Obi-Wan to come to Alderaan: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” When General Kenobi invites Luke to leave his family behind and accompany him to Alderaan, Luke initially declines. After his aunt and uncle are murdered, however, Luke aligns himself with The Force and against the evil Empire and adventures follow.
If we Christianize the Star Wars saga, we might imagine The Force (as in “May the Force be with you”) as the Holy Spirit and those who serve that force as working, like Jesus followers, for God’s reign and for the end of oppressive empires. That was probably not George Lucas’s intended message, but it’s a way of thinking about the forces at work in that galaxy far, far away–and in the kingdom that Jesus served.
In today’s story from Acts, it’s not a mysterious woman but an unknown man from Macedonia who appeals to Paul for help in a vision: “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he pleads. So Paul and others sought passage on a seafaring vessel—-a very early version of the Millennium Falcon, no doubt—-seeking the man who was seeking his help.
“Help us!” the voice of an unknown man called to Paul from an Empire 2000 years ago. “Help me!” the voice of an unknown woman was transmitted “a long time ago [from] a galaxy far, far away.” As Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke resisted the Galactic Empire’s aggressions, so Paul and other apostles tried to curb the Roman Empire’s abuses by traveling to distant districts and colonies with a message of love and liberation.
Unlike Luke Skywalker’s Jedi tactics, however, Paul’s Jesus-y fight against Empire was nonviolent. And unlike Luke Skywalker, Paul never found the specific person he saw in his vision. In fact, Paul found not a man but a woman, Lydia. And eventually Lydia and her household came to a faith in God, resisting the ways of Empire. But that was after Paul meandered from city to city in Macedonia without any recorded events about the initial stage of that journey, though he likely was preaching along the way and probably keeping an eye out for the man in the vision. Finally, he and his companions journeyed to Philippi, “the leading city of Macedonia and a Roman colony” (Acts 16:12), where the Roman Empire’s impact might have been strongest and where we see Paul finally interacting with Macedonians.
On the Sabbath, several days into their stay in Philippi, Paul and friends walk outside the city gate to the river, which they assume is a place of prayer. As one commentator explains, synagogue services were sometimes conducted “in the open air” and “whenever possible, urban synagogues were built near rivers or springs so members could purify themselves in running water.” By the time Paul finally came to Philippi (by way of Troas and then Samothrace and Neapolis) without having yet encountered the man in his vision, Paul might have been ready to give up his expectations about the person with whom he was to share the Gospel. By then he might have been ready to disciple a woman, a non-Jewish woman no less. There’s often a change in itinerary for those who want to follow Jesus, a change in plans for those resisting Empire, a change of expectations for people who are “faithful to the Lord” (Acts 16:15), a change of heart and mind for those on a quest for justice.
For Luke Skywalker and Paul of Tarsus, heeding a call to confront Empire can eventuate in unexpected friendships with surprising characters. Thus begins many a risky adventure for those (in fiction and real life) who oppose Empire’s violence, authoritarianism, and standardization. What does Paul’s simple conversation with and conversion of a woman have to do with upsetting empire?
The Jesus Way certainly doesn’t involve light sabers. The Jesus Way upsets Empire just by being relational, peaceful, nonhierarchical. Paul and Lydia’s relationship seems mutual. Paul taught and baptized Lydia. But Lydia hosted Paul him in her home, a magnanimous role. In next Sunday’s reading from Acts we’ll learn that after Paul and Silas were jailed and then miraculously freed after an earthquake, they returned to Lydia’s house, which had become something like a home base for them in Phillipi. Lydia became a key supporter of Paul and a leader in the nascent Christian community at Phillipi.
If we want to undo Empire, we’ll listen to the women, the children, the poor, the sick, the immigrants, the prisoners, the marginalized. If we want to help usher in the reign of God, we’ll attend to those crying out for help and beware of leaders who operate by intimidation, disrespect, and fearmongering; understand situations and perspectives; resist stultifying roles and labels; extend hospitality; be in community; recognize that conversion of the individual human heart impacts conversion of a complex political reality.
It’s not clear to me if there’s a straight line between Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man calling for help–and Lydia’s conversion and leadership. But the story does say Paul went looking for one person in need but ended up serving another’s need and elevating her role. And in the process Paul received what he needed. Maybe I’m not getting it. Or maybe that’s the point. In the kin*dom of God the stratified roles within the Empire fall away. Some disagree about whether Lydia was wealthy merchant or a slave. But labels and titles needed within the empire disappear in the kin*dom. And chance may be a means of grace. Perhaps Paul meets up with Lydia, the first Jesus follower in Macedonia, by accident. Plans that make corporations and armies efficient are not necessarily the means for bringing in the Kin*dom. Businesses may need long-term goals and strategic plans. Even churches plan strategically and craft mission statements. It is good for us to come together and dream and agree to do certain things in order to adhere to our values and keep our commitments.
Recall both the careful planning we undertook to discern Open Table’s first signature ministry and to launch Mobile’s support group for LGBTQ teens. But also consider the nearly traumatizing impact on us a little over a year ago when the organization with which we first partnered folded. Scrupulous planning is necessary, but living in the Kin*dom sometimes requires imaginative thinking and bold responses to the unexpected. Now over a year later, Prism has become an independent 501(c)(3) with expanded services and still receives support from Open Table.
God’s kin*dom, unlike Empires, fosters innovation and experimentation. God’s Spirit—-as one of my mentors insisted—-is always dancing out ahead of the church within the big justice “movements” of human history. For instance, long before the Civil Rights movement was embraced by the mainstream white Church, people led by the Spirit were fighting for civil rights. And long before churches offered explicit welcome to LGBTQ+ folks, people, prompted (knowingly or not) by God’s Spirit, were marching and organizing for those rights.
And even now something amazing is happening within the brains and hearts of Open Table members and participants. Many of us have developed a hunger for liberating theology and are listening to the Spirit’s leadership and are asking brave questions. For instance, in recent weeks in our 9:30 class we’ve been discussing substitutionary atonement theology, and some of us have been critiquing some expressions of it and recognizing it may present God in harmful ways. At Open Table we think it’s a hard but helpful practice to question received doctrines if God is presented as unloving. Many feel empowered to “deconstruct” their theological worldviews—and then to reconstruct in ways that seem logically consistent and loving. It is freeing to become a beginner theologian: to question, create, critique, and to do so without fear that God will be displeased.
Life led by the Spirit is bracing and often surprising. Let us not fear the new or reject out of hand the old. Let us be a respectful friend to both. But let’s be prepared for the unexpected and expect to rethink life and scripture and God . . . again and again. In so doing, may we follow the movement of the Spirit and resist entrenched Empire. Amen