by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
In June of 1977 I (along 20 other women and men) was ordained a United Methodist deacon in the auditorium of Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC. Bishop Thomas from Cleveland, Ohio was the guest preacher. I will never forget one thing he said, “Sisters and brothers, be aware – in your ministry the Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you do not wish to go. If you wanted to go there, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.”
As our reading from Acts begins, Paul has had a vision; a visitation of the Spirit that has called him to go to a new place, a place he had never thought of, a place and a ministry which had never crossed his mind, a place he probably did not want to go. God showed him a “man of Macedonia” that is a Greek, pleading with him to come over the sea and bring the Gospel to that land. So Paul and Silas set out, following the route that so many Syrian refuges have taken in the last year, setting out in a tiny boat from the northwest coast of Turkey to cross the sea to Macedonia. From there they worked their way inland to Philippi, which had been named for Philip, Alexander the Great’s father.
On the Sabbath, Paul and Silas went looking for the synagogue, the gathering of Jewish believers. This was always their missionary starting point. They went to people with whom they were familiar, hoping to get a hearing. There was a very tiny Jewish community in Philippi. Having no building, no house of worship, they met under the trees, down by the river. Many Roman towns had laws that forbade foreign religious practices within the city, so the Jewish community had to go outside the gate to pray. And there Paul and Silas found them.
Verse 14 says, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was a dealer in purple cloth. The LORD opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”
“A worshiper of God.” Lydia was not Jewish. She was a Gentile who was interested in Judaism. In some ways, she was a First Century version of what we now call “spiritual, but not religious.” She was not “religious” in the sense that she did not unthinkingly adhere to the the established faith of her country, her community or her kin. She did not participate in the standard, time-honored religious observances just because everybody else did, and always had. She was looking for something more, something real; she was a person primed to hear what Paul had to say.
The modern church is surrounded by Lydias, by people who have no interest in doing church just because it’s Sunday and that’s what you are supposed to do. We are surrounded by people who are looking for something more, more real, more true, more personal. We are surrounded by people who are ready to hear the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. We live in the midst of a people who are dying of spiritual thirst and we have the Living Water and we are called to find a way to give it to them. Do we see the vision, do we hear the voice of God inviting us to reach out to them with the love of God?
“The Lord opened her heart to listen “ Many times we fail to realize that God is the one who leads people to faith, not us. We are simply God’s instruments, God’s tools, for saving the world. God does it, not us. That means we don’t have to worry so much about knowing the right thing to say, or finding just the right time, or developing a correct outreach strategy. It’s really not that hard. It’s just telling the truth about your life and faith to another person, eventually inviting them to experience with you the church community that supports your faith.
According to business research statistics, “word on the street,”“buzz,” “word of mouth” are the most powerful marketing tools around. When it comes to brands, consumers say they’re influenced by people, not by ads. 56% reported trying a new product because of recommendations of friends or family,10% because of TV ads, 9% newspaper ads, 6% radio ads. (Time, April 23, 2007) Think of what this means for how important it is for us to personally share our faith story with our friends and neighbors.
There is a scripture verse that is often translated “How shall they hear without a preacher?” Because we’re used to thinking of the “preacher” as a minister, a pastor, we fail to recognize that the Bible is really talking about everybody. A better translation would be, “How can they hear without someone to tell them the Good News?” Each of us is invited to be that someone who tells for somebody.
We know that Lydia responded to the Gospel. She shared it with her family and soon she and her household were baptized. Her conversion had a ripple effect; first Lydia; then her household, those nearest and dearest to her, then others. From these beginning there came a church, the church to which “The Letter to the Philippians” was written.
Christianity is not a private or personal religion, not really; it is a faith that must be lived out in community. Dr. Paul Tournier, a Swiss Christian Psychiatrist, has said, “There are two things we cannot do alone. One is to be married; the other is to be a Christian.” This is why, as much as we can respect the spiritual and emotional honesty of those who say that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” we must encourage them to become a part of a community of faith.
For we all need the church in order to be Christian, if for no other reason than we cannot love and learn to be loved alone. It is within the daily bump and grind of living and working together as the people of God that we find out what it means to be forgiven for our failures, praised for our efforts, appreciated for our virtues, prayed for in our sorrows, helped in the midst of our troubles, and loved in spite of ourselves. We need each other in order to practice our faith and learn to be a truly Christian people.
For thousands of years, a major part of the loving activity of God in the world has been focused on making the community of God’s people ever bigger; on including all humanity, throughout all time and in all places. The story of God is the story of an ever widening circle of active love, moving always outward to bring more people into relationship with God and each other.
We are invited today to join in God’s missionary outreach, we have an opportunity to become a part of bringing more and more folk into relationship with God. We are called to be Lydias; people who hear the Good News, who embrace the Good News, and who share the Good News with others..
Amen and Amen.