Acts 16: 9-15
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility [in the household of God], we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them [and us] find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth
Today, friends, I want to speak with you about sharing in one household in mutuality and the Christian life together. Come and stay! Share in the love of the household of God.
Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our family and the one whom always welcomes us and all people home throughout all time and across the vast distances of heaven and earth. Amen.
“During the night Paul had a vision.” That is how our Scripture auspiciously starts this morning in Acts—the Lukan narrative of the Adventures of the Apostles. And you all thought that Game of Thrones was Epic! In the early dawn hours, we imagine Paul waking everyone up and rushing them to the seaside. The first condition of traveling with Paul, apparently, is being a morning person. “Get up! I’ve had another vision!” Early in the morning, Paul and his companions enter a new region for the first time and go looking for the people in prayer. They don’t even know who they are called to meet, but they know that they are sent. In response to a vision, Paul goes looking for a Community in Prayer in unfamiliar territory without a known destination. The second apparent condition of working with Paul is being comfortable working without a set itinerary or plan.
Paul intuitively goes down to the river where a group of women, including Lydia, worship and pray. Then in a reversal, often missed by traditional scholars, Paul and his band are saved by Lydia. She was a powerful women and merchant of the rare item of purple cloth.
She “prevailed” upon them means that she welcomed them to her home and fed and provided for them. She demands that Paul receive (reciprocal) her hospitality as a sign of gratitude and community. Blessing is not a one-way street. The Apostles are brought into her household, into her home, and they find welcome and radical hospitality in a new land.
In this passage we find a deep sense of mutuality and reciprocity that makes us ask some question: Who is really being saved here? For whom is this story more of a blessing? Do Lydia and her household save Paul and his friends, or does Paul save Lydia? I would argue that they save each other in Christian mutuality and the radical welcome of God. Importantly from a narrative/structural analysis perspective, after Lydia’s story in Acts, there is a long list of near-death and very demanding experiences throughout the Greek territory through the rest of Chapter 16 and 17. Would Paul and his apostles have been able to survive it without the service and sabbath of Lydia? The text does not say how long they stayed and recuperated at Lydia’s house. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this salvific, restorative moment is exactly half way through The Book of Acts. Does this time of rest at Lydia’s home save the whole Christian story? Read in context, I think that is a true interpretation. Lydia, perhaps, saves Christianity.
Unlike many imbalanced passages in the Bible around money, spirit, power, and gender discrimination, this short passage in Acts, Chapter 16 is a glimpse of Sacred Community called into being be a vision grounded in mutuality (the need for all people and their gifts), gentleness, and hospitality.
Lydia demanded that they accept her care just as she had received a gift of the Gospel from Paul. Mutuality. Lydia demonstrates equality with Paul here that is significant in a Feminist and Progressive Hermeneutic or reading of the New Testament. This is the leaders of two spiritual communities meeting. Moreover, the text implies that they needed each other. Paul was called over the waters to Lydia to bring her good news, but he also finds renewal and blessing from her household. Unlike the imbalanced passages in Scripture and most of Christian Tradition, here we find a moment of balance and mutual need and acceptance.
How is your giving of time and love to Church Community also a gift to you? Where do you find mutuality in your Christian walk with others? How do you need community to show-up for you today? Come and stay, friends, here in the household of God. Sustainable service requires a sense of mutuality.
With the end of Game of Thrones (a show I have never watched by the way because of the violence), there is a lot of talk about something called a Spoiler Alert. Have any of your heard of this idea? Since I have no plans to ever watch Game of Thrones, I ignore such warnings. A Spoiler Alert is an alert that the premise of a show or book will be shortly given away in the form of an overly-simplistic summary. So, *spoiler alert*—friends, here is the summary of the next 8 minutes of this sermon: Christianity is about being called to share and to receive. Christianity is about receiving hospitality from unexpected sources with grace. In offering hospitality, in sharing Gospel hope, in living in community with those whom many have rejected, we are not only giving home and household of God, but it is how we truly become Christians living in mutual need of one another. Spoiler Alert: This is so basic, but we need each other and those in need as much or more than they ever need us.
Progressive Christians like to see ourselves as the heroes, but we need the gifts of those whom we serve as much as they need us.
This reminds me of a great theologian, activist, and spiritual visionary who died a couple of weeks ago named Jean Vanier—the founder of the International L’Arche Communities. These are houses set aside like group homes for those living with developmental and mental disability, but the care providers and staff live in the houses as well and share in life and community. Unlike group homes where the service and the giving are unidirectional, this is life in community embodied. Jean Vanier believed that this was mutuality and mutual blessing. Jean Vanier was a young man studying to become a priest when a visit to an institution for mentally disabled men would change him and the world forever.
The New York Times remembered this moment in Jean Vanier’s recent obituary in the following terms: “Jean Vanier, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for people on the margins and founded two worldwide organizations for those with developmental disabilities, died on Tuesday in Paris….The turning point in his life came in 1963, with his first visit [as a theology student] to an institution for people with intellectual [and developmental] disabilities. He was so moved by their pleas for help that he bought a house and invited [prevailed upon them] two male residents to live with him. It was the beginning of L’Arche…Today L’Arche…has 154 communities in 38 countries…[in which] people with [core members] and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong….Mr. Vanier studied how people with mental disabilities were being treated throughout the world and resolved to create a community where they could live with one another in dignity… By living with them, Mr. Vanier said he truly began to understand what it meant to be human. ‘Before meeting them, my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and individual success really meet them and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.’”
That article was poorly, terrible, unthoughtfully entitled, “Jean Vanier: Savior of People on the Margins.” It was poorly entitled because Jean Vanier and the L’Arche model of Christianity would fundamentally understand it in the inverse. Jean Vanier wasn’t the savior of those at the margins at all, but he was the one who was saved. He was saved from a false sense of self and an artificial reality by those at the margins. That is how he would have understood it and how all those who live in and support L’Arche Communities (including the newest one in the world emerging now in Fort Collins) understand church.
Lydia and the women of Macedonia worshiped on their own by the river because they were on the margins operating outside of the official and formal circles of power, and it is to them and their community that Paul goes to be welcomed home into the household of Lydia and God. Amen?
The late theologian and Biblical Scholar, Gail O’Day wrote of this passage that, “This Sabbath gathering suggests that as early as the first century, women believers sought their own voices and stories in worship freed from the dictates of the male-dominated church.”
Spoiler Alert Again: It is in mutuality with those at the margins that the Church has always found its real meaning and is saved time and time again. The church is saved and renewed by the margins.
Vanier once wrote: “One of the risks that God will always ask of a community is that it welcomes visitors, especially the poorest people, the ones who disturb us. Very often God brings a particular message to the community through an unexpected guest, letter or phone call. The day the community starts to turn away visitors and the unexpected…is the day it is in danger of shutting itself off from the action of God…We are too quick to want to defend our past traditions, and so to shut ourselves off from the new evolution God wants of us. We want human society, not dependence on God…We are all in danger of living superficially, on the periphery of ourselves…Community life demands that we constantly go beyond our own resources. If we do not have the spiritual resources we need, we will close in on ourselves and in our own comfort and security or throw ourselves into work as an escape. We will throw-up walls around our sensitivity; we will perhaps be polite and obedient, but we will not live in love. And when you do not love, there is no hope and no joy. To live with “gratuity” we have to be constantly nourished. It is terrible to see people who are living in so-called community that has become a boarding house for bachelors! It is terrible to see elders in a community who have closed up their hearts, lost their initial enthusiasm, and have become critical and cynical. If we are to remain faithful to the daily round, we need daily manna…It is the manna of meetings, of friendship, of looks and smiles that say, ‘I love you’ and warm the heart.”
The household of God is rooted in mutuality of shared and unexpected blessing.
The National Pension Boards of the denomination asked me this past week to respond to a questionnaire about “the future of the church.” They asked us young clergy NGLI participants to answer the question: What does the future of the church look like? I have put some thought into this.
What does the future church look like? It looks like every local church taking the call to be a living and real household of God. It means the local congregation’s living into the freedom of dynamic mutual community like that of Paul and Lydia. The future of the Church looks a lot like L’Arche. It looks like communities living into the wholeness and the giftedness of each person in mutuality of blessing.
Perhaps this Scripture story isn’t really the “Conversion of Lydia” at all, as it is traditionally called, but it is the true and real conversion of Paul into accepting mutuality and the strengths of others. Perhaps we miss in this story a transformation that happens in Paul more than in Lydia. Maybe the one being saved here isn’t Lydia and her household, but it is Paul and the Apostles who need the saving from their busyness. There is Scriptural evidence to this effect. That is how I choose to read this story and understand Christianity. Come and stay, friends, in a truly mutual Realm and household of God.
She prevailed upon them and they were brought into her household where the one who in busyness and in power thought he was saving others… is in turn saved. Would they have made it through the remaining half of the Epic Adventure of the Acts of the Apostles without the mutuality of Lydia, I think maybe not.
Like Jean Vanier, we choose to believe that we all may and must be transformed in authentic mutuality by the gentleness of love.
 Gail O’Day, “The Book of Acts,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, edits. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 397.
 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 161-169.
 “Jean Vanier and the Gift of L’Arche,” The Christian Century, June 5, 2019.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Poem Response to Sermon 5/26/19
by Anne Thommpson
down at the river to pray.
Then come to my home.
Who is being saved?
How do we save each other?
Equality and balance.
What needs do we bring?
What are the needs met?
We need gifts of those we serve
It is more bless-ed
That we both give and receive --
Look to the margins,
to your own periphery,
Giftedness of each
can save even powerful
from their narrowness.
Community of needs and gifts
Blessed and being blessed
Easter 5, Year C
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Hal and I jokingly call this story “The Great Apostolic BBQ.” God uses Peter’s image of all those squirming animals in that sheet to make a revelatory declaration, “Everyone is invited! Ya’ll All Come! No one and nothing is unclean and excluded!” This is a pivotal story in the narrative of the book of the Acts. So pivotal it is actually told twice in the Acts of the Apostles. We have just heard the second telling from Acts, chapter 11, that occurs as Peter gives account of his experiences in Joppa and Caesarea to the burgeoning community of the Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. You can read the whole story happening in “real” narrative time in Acts, chapter 10. It's not too long, and worth the read, because this story is a game changer for our earliest Christian ancestors.
In Peter’s holy vision he is invited to eat things he has never imagined eating. And he is justifiably horrified as a good Jew who works hard to keep the dietary laws of his time in as a sign of his faithfulness to God. Despite his shock and horror at being invited by God to completely reverse his dietary thinking, Peter pays attention. Something is up. As we heard, he is soon led to understand that his vision is really not about the menu of his next backyard BBQ. It is about God’s inclusive Spirit. God is inviting and commanding the followers of the Way, those faithful Jews following Jesus, to reach out farther than their Jewish community to include all of humanity as God’s people. God is inviting this new community to share the good news of God revealed in Jesus the Christ with everyone.
His startling and disturbing vision gives him an inkling of meaning when the men, most likely Gentiles, maybe soldiers, from the man, Cornelius, show up inviting Peter to the home of this Roman centurion. He and his companions are essentially invited into the camp of the “enemy. ” Though Cornelius is known as a God-fearer, a Gentile seeking the God of the Jews, he is still a Gentile who does not keep the purity laws. He is not a circumcised Jew. He is not one of them. He is also employed by the oppressor of the Jewish people, the Roman empire. Peter and his companions must have thought, “What in God’s Name.....literally....is going on?” Yet they trust Peter’s vision given by the Sprit and they go to Cornelius’ house where the inclusive work of the Spirit is confirmed when Peter hears the story of Cornelius’s vision of the angel. Confirmation really sets in when all the household receives the Holy Spirit just as Peter and the other disciples had on the day of Pentecost. Gentiles are receiving the Holy Spirit of the Almighty, the God of the Jews! God is truly making a new thing! A miraculous thing! A thing of compassion and expansion and love! Peter and his friends understand and rejoices!
After this miraculous experience, when Peter and company return home to Jerusalem they find a not so welcoming community of believers. Their companions following Jesus on the Way do not immediately recognize this new thing God is doing. There’s no “Atta boy” or Good Job” for sharing God’s good news, for helping an entire household into the family of the Risen Christ.....just horror that Peter broke all the laws of purity by dining in a Gentile household. “How could you eat with those uncircumcised people?” From our point of view this may seem so narrow-minded! But we are not part of an oppressed people who has fought form generations, through slavery and exile time and again, to retain faithfulness to God and to one another in order to preserve our way of life and our religion and our very lives. Even though they have received the good news of God through Jesus, old ways die hard. Its that whole domino effect. One broken link in the tradition and belief chain can bring the whole structure tumbling down. And now they are not only under the Romans thumb but are also seen as suspect by the Jewish authorities for following this renegade rabbi, Jesus. No wonder they react first with fear.
If I were Peter, I know I would be really angry and hurt by their question. I might lose my cool and started arguing, quoting scripture to prove my point as I pointed out their complete narrow-minded pin-headedness. And the impulsive, brash fisherman, Peter that we know from the gospels may have been tempted to do that. But Peter seems to have learned through listening to his life – to his fear-based betrayal of Jesus after Jesus’ arrest, to the tragedy of crucifixion and then the inexplicable joy of the empty tomb, to his personal experience of the Risen One. His faith has been transformed. He has learned that “stories, not arguments change lives.”
Step by step he leads his community through the story of this amazing transformation God is offering, implying with each turn in the story, “This is God’s doing. Not mine. It could have happened to any of you. You could be the messenger as well as me.” He says to them, In the midst of it all “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave [these folks] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" And in the silence that follows his story, The hearts of the believers in Jerusalem are transformed. Their minds are changed.. Their faith and its practice is altered from then on throughout the book of Acts. Gentiles are included.
This is a timely message for us, is it not? As we seek to bridge divides in order to bring about God’s realm in our world. As we seek to invite all people, and particularly, those often uninvited in our wider community, into fellowship and service with us and with God. This is a story about the leadership, power and ultimately grace of God found in talking across divides, breaking down barriers that separate us as God’s people! This story is foundational for the ministry we do together as part of the Plymouth family of God because of its message of inclusion and because it teaches us to share our stories of faith.
“It is hard to argue or split theological hairs with a compelling story” Yet as progressive Christians we often shy away from telling our own stories of God’s work in us partly because we know the power of story. We know that story can be used for transformation or to manipulate and twist the facts if used in the wrong ways. We know its power to heal or to distort. And we want to get it right!
We may not tell our personal faith stories of transformation because we do not want to appear manipulative or better-than-thou or self-righteous. Because we cannot find just the right words to speak of the holy, numinous moments that have changed us. Because we don’t think we have all the theological answers that we should have.
I am telling you this morning/evening, my friends, .... you ALL have at least one, and probably many, stories of being transformed by the loving power of God to share. God’s world needs your stories. Our faith community needs your stories, your children and grandchildren need your stories, the children and youth in our Christian Formation programs need your stories. The people in your neighborhood, in your office, at your school need your stories of being transformed in faith. The people who enter our doors through the Homelessness Prevention Initiative/Neighbor to Neighbor program and through Faith Family Hospitality need your stories. Those of you who work in our wider community through our immigration advocacy ministry teams, or Habitat for Humanity, and in our newly forming Stopping Gun Violence ministry team need your stories. We need your stories of stunning insight or quiet revelation, your stories of transformation where, like Peter, mistakes were made before new life was revealed.
For example, I can tell you a brief story of mistakes before revelation....I was 19 and had just finished my freshman year in college. A church youth group friend came to me saying, “I’m thinking of being gay. What do you think?” “Being gay” was hardly on my radar screen at this point in the mid 70’s. I knew that as Christians we loved everyone. I didn’t know the ethics or theological specifics about “being gay.” I didn’t even know that there were scripture passages that could be considered prohibitive. All I knew to say was, “What ever you decide, I will always love you. I think as a Christian you should investigate what God says about it.” Not bad advice on the surface. Unfortunately, being the mid-70’s in Missouri there was not too many places he could go for investigation. He took my my advice literally and that led him into a very conservative Christian group that tried to “cure” him. By the time I found out about this, I had a very different perspective on “being gay.” I had close, close friends who were like brothers, struggling with being Christian and being who they were made to be in the image of God as gay men. I know that I am not God and not responsible for my high school friends faith journey. But like Peter after his betrayal of Christ this memory of my youthful naiveté stings. What pain did my advice lead him into? For a long time now I have understood that all of us are made in God’s image, gay or straight or bi or transgendered or non-binary gender, I have been an open proponent for God’s message of love for all. We are all in the sheet from Peter’s vision together. Now if I were asked in a similar situation, “What do you think?” I would say, I love you just as you are. And I think you should know that God loves you just as you are and made you just as you are. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
How have you experienced the transforming love of God for you and for all humanity and creation? God’s transformation does not have to come in big dramatic visions and prayers, or dramatic events and moments. It also comes in conversations, reading, day dreaming, serving, parenting, teaching. It is as likely to come in the midst of a work day as in the wonder of the wilderness. Moments so real....then fleeting. Did that just happen? Yes, it did. God is speaking to each of you. Listen and remember. How have you been transformed by faith? What comes to mind? Pay attention to what first comes to you. Then go deep. Make some notes on your bulletin. Think about this for just a moment – 30 seconds to be exact. (Pause)
Now you know there is at least a germ of a story of God’s work made manifest in you. As Peter did, go and tell and rejoice in God’s good news! Who are we to hinder God? Amen.
1) Stephen D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective on Act 11.1-18”, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 453.)
2) Ibid., 455.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. All rights reserved.
Jane Anne is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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