Acts 16:9-15 is Scene #1 in the drama that is Paul’s visit to Philippi (which I try to recall as in the background when I read Philippians). The healing of the possessed woman, and the jail non-escape are to come, and frankly are part of what makes the overall story thrive and pulsate with meaning and hope.
Responding to a voice, in a vision, Luke’s “we” set sail from Troas (ancient Troy? – now that’s interesting), “a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis” (the port for Philippi). We skate right by this, but ancient readers would have said “Wow! You’ve gotta be kidding!” With the wind and waves being so moody, and the rocks near the shore so perilous, such a journey might usually take a week or two. The implication is that the Spirit (the “wind”!) is engineering this.
Philippi was a “little Italy,” where Roman veterans had been resettled as part of the reward for battle. I wonder if they had something akin to Memorial Day, when they thought of their comrades who had died in the battles they had survived? Can a sermon touch on this without glorifying war and country unduly? Perhaps just envisioning the ongoing grief and memorializing that surely happened in Philippi might show we understand.
They go “down to the river to pray” (think Alison Krauss and O Brother, Where Art Thou?). There was no synagogue for them to attend on the Sabbath – and so, failing to find a quorum of Jews for worship, they come upon some women including Lydia. She is “a worshipper of God” – which we’d size up as someone not needing conversion! The Greek term indicates she was a God-fearer, interested in Judaism, even prayerful, but not a fully observant member of the community.
She’s fascinating. A “dealer in purple cloth,” which the wealthy purchased – and so was she at least relatively affluent? “The Lord opened her heart” – reminding us clergy that at the end of the day the work of preaching is in the Lord’s hands, not ours. She beseeches them to come to her home – which, if verse 40 is taken into account, becomes the church in Philippi! In its earliest days, Christians gathered in homes, and a wealthier person would have a larger space.
What’s intriguing about this new church in Philippi is its shattering of social convention. Wealthy Lydia, a slave girl, and then a middling government official, the jailer. People going to the wrong side of town, diverse peeps eating together, doing ministry to the needy together (could we even think of Lydia’s house as the outreach center?): this must have provoked whispers, raised eyebrows, even harsh words.
No need to give your people a thrashing – but who comes to church? Who doesn’t? Who comes to your home? Who doesn’t? Isn’t Christianity holier, nobler, and more itself when we bridge gaps, when we shatter isolation and segregation? Lillian Smith, in Killers of the Dream, dreamed about our overcoming of division by musing, “If we could realize our talent for bridging chasms.”
Our Gospel, John 14:23-29, looks at the heart of what made the previous passage happen yet from a different angle. It is love – God’s for us, ours for God, ours then for one another – that gets us busy keeping God’s word. I love Lewis Smedes’s thought: “Somewhere people make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. If you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.”
The promise God keeps is beautiful depicted by Jesus. Speaking of himself, and God his Father, Jesus says “We will come to them and make our home with them.” I might just repeat that a few times and call it a sermon. How lovely, how provocative, how tender, how hopeful.
I always hesitate in preaching to say a little about the Holy Spirit. Need to go full-in – as our people carry thin, emotive notions of what the Holy Spirit is. It’s a surge of feeling – right? Never in Scripture, actually. Here we see a few of the Spirit’s tasks. Advocate – and we need one. Teacher – as we don’t know a zillionth of what we need to know just yet. Reminder – as we get spiritual amnesia and need constant recollection of all Jesus was about. This parakletos makes Jesus present to us once he’s gone. I wrote a very short little book on The Holy Spirit (called The Kiss of God), really a collection of brief daily devotionals, trying to help people – and myself as a preacher! – think carefully, truly and biblically about what the Holy Spirit really is all about.
This Spirit brings peace. Think Hebrew shalom in its fullness: not simply placid calm, not the absence of conflict, but the rich delight in God’s presence, the joy of community, the sharing of God’s blessings among all God’s people, the implementation of justice for all. I wonder if a sermon might lift up instances of shalom. When have you seen it – in your life, in your church, in your city, even in the world?