6th Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2013
Acts 16:9-15 and John 14: 23-29
When we went to Greece and Turkey in 2010, we took a flat picture of Jesus with us to photograph in all the places we visited. I think of this for two reasons: first, we took flat Jesus with us when we went to the ruins of Philippi, and renewed our baptismal vows at Lydia’s river, and second: the Spirit of Jesus keeps popping up in the most unlikely places in these Post-Easter readings.
Today we have another story of Paul – now the consecrated missionary who’s on his second trip around Asia Minor, also what we now know as Turkey. He wanted to go back to the places he’d visited on his first trip, to visit and encourage those believers and then to venture into new towns and cities to preach. His preaching has been a huge success, touching hearts and making disciples all over the place. But they were prevented by the winds, which continued to oppose the direction they wanted to go. It was really frustrating, until Paul had a vision in the night. We hear about this in today’s story. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” says the man in the vision. Macedonia is the northern part of Greece that connects with Turkey across the Aegean Sea. Those winds were favorable and it was a straight shot across the sea to the island of Samothraki and then to Neapolis, a lovely seaport that is currently called Kavala. From there it is a short trip to Philippi, and old city that was beautifully built by Augustus as a retirement place for the legions of Roman soldiers who had helped him defeat the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and consolidated his hold on the whole Roman world. Philippi was a place of consequence, and Paul heads straight for it.
It’s important to remember that there was a large population of Jews outside of Judea, and there were synagogues and followers of the Yahweh in every major city and town across the Mediterranean. When there were ten men, a community could gather as a worshipping Jewish synagogue, but if there were fewer than 10, followers of Yahweh often went down to a local riverbank to gather for prayer. And so we find Paul joining a community of “God-fearers” as followers of Yahweh who were not Jews were called. And there was Lydia, seemingly a wealthy woman, independently running a household and the target of the Holy Spirit in today’s story. She listened eagerly to what Paul had to say. Lydia wastes no time asking to be baptized with her whole household. No wonder she’s been so successful in business, she wastes no time asking for what she needs and prevails upon Paul’s party so persuasively that they all move to her house to continue their work.
These stories continue to amaze and encourage me, as I look at the shrinking size of the church in today’s world. God, through Jesus, is still calling people to faith and still at work in the person of the Holy Spirit to bring together the most unlikely prospects and open the door of faith.
In the readings for Easter, we have the two storylines side by side: Jesus preparing his disciples for the time when he is no longer with them, and the story of the Holy Spirit at work in them and in the world to spread the story of God’s love through Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading, we have the story of Jesus preparing his disciples for his coming arrest and interrogation and brutal death. He promises to send his Spirit – the Advocate, the Comforter – who will open up for them everything he has taught them, and be his continuing presence with them. Jesus promises peace to those who keep his commandments. And what are they? To love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That promise turns out to be true for all believers and disciples of Jesus, down through the ages.
You may feel very far away from these stories that we read out of these writings from thousands of years ago, but you are not. I am still amazed that the God of the Universe, so powerful and running the vastness of space with just a Word, is the same God who touched me in the water of my baptism. It is the same God who sits with me when my world falls apart and I need the strength of Jesus to get up and face everyday. This God has called me and blessed me everyday of my life, just purely out of love. This God died to show me the depth and breadth and width of his love, and came back to show me the power that love has to conquer every evil that can waylay or sideline me. My faith feels so small and insignificant but it bears the gift of a powerful love that gives me the strength to speak out against wrong and speak up for what’s right when I look at the world. That powerful love has made it possible for me to find a word of hope for those who struggle in grief and loneliness and sickness.
If you ever doubt that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, just remember that anytime you offer to pray for someone or talk about how your faith made it possible to do something important, the Holy Spirit is working through you to open a heart. When you fight for what’s right for children, veterans, the hungry, the Holy Spirit works with you to change the world. In everything that you do you carry the peace that Jesus has put in your heart into the world. May you find the power of that peace.