Thursday, May 30, 2013

June 2, Proper 4: A Geography of Prayer, Number 1: The Planet

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

Dearly beloved, we have entered that period in the church’s calendar that we call Ordinary Time. Ordinary time is most of the year. It is all those Sundays outside the seasons of Easter and Christmas. In those two seasons we celebrate the events in the life of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. In Ordinary Time we look at our own ordinary lives, in the ordinary world, but as this world is the Kingdom of God.

In Ordinary Time, by ecumenical agreement, each Sunday gets its proper prayers and lessons. Today is Sunday Proper 4. Why we are not starting with Proper 1 has to do with the changing date of Easter, as I could show you in some charts and tables, but not in a sermon.

My next seven sermons are going to be a series on prayer. My method is to look at the proper lessons every week with this question in mind: what can these lessons can tell us about prayer. And if we believe that scripture is God’s Word, that means we’re asking God to tell us about prayer. So my sermons are going to be reports. I will report to you what I have heard the scriptures say, and what God is telling us.

Well then, scripture lessons for Proper 4, what can you tell us about prayer? We start with our first lesson, from First Kings. First, the obvious: people pray. We talk to God, and we use words when we do it. We assume that God listens to what we say and can understand us in any language. We assume that God has a mind of some exalted sort, and that God has a will, so that God can choose to act or not on what we tell God.

Second, people can pray together, with one person leading. King Solomon prayed out loud, and the assembly of Israel listened to him, and by their listening they were praying too. Some of us believe that the prayers of a designated person have more value than a common person’s prayers, but Protestants aren’t supposed to believe that.

Third, we pray in certain places which are designed for prayer. Some of us believe that the designated place adds value to the prayer. Christians aren’t supposed to believe that, unless its value is for ourselves; designated places can encourage and inspire us to pray, and it’s more than convenient for the congregation to have a designated place for our common prayers. So then, although all of us pray elsewhere as individuals and as families, we assemble here to pray, we let ourselves be led in prayer and we pray with our leaders by listening, and we assume that God listens and understands and at least considers doing what we ask.

Fourth, foreigners pray. Prayer is global. Almost all religions pray. I would say that prayer is the most religious thing that people do. Our religions incorporate such ordinary activities as singing and eating and teaching and serving and committing and making communities, but it’s only in religion that we pray. Prayer how we cross the boundary between our ordinary lives and whatever is transcendent. Human beings are the animals who pray. We are the animals with such strong imaginations, and we can imagine transcendence, and we try to enter into that transcendence which we’ve imagined, crossing into it by our thoughts and by our speech, and we imagine that someone transcendent is listening, even if that someone is not talking back, at least not directly, not in any way you’d call a conversation. God does not pray back to us! Prayer is a strange form of communication, being so one-sided. How do I know that anyone is listening, or that anyone is even there? But billions of people all around the planet keep on doing it.

Fifth, we can invite the people of the world to pray with us and we can pray with them, without regard for their belonging to the church or not. God listens to them too. That’s the assumption of the first lesson and the implication of the gospel lesson. Jesus heard the request of the pagan centurion. Our church is loyal to the Lordship of Jesus, and in his name we pray to God, and we witness to the way of Jesus and the truth of Jesus and the life of Jesus, but God is not constricted to our loyalty and God is greater than our witnessing. God is faithful to the church but not confined to the church. God’s goal is not the salvation of the church but of the world.

Sixth, when we pray in church we can pray for our own needs but we must also pray for all the world and for all sorts and conditions of human kind. That’s also in both the first lesson and the gospel lesson. This is what it means for us to be called a kingdom of priests, as we repeat it in the Ascription of Glory every week. A priest is someone who prays on behalf of other people. So if all believers are priests, one of our missions is not only to pray for other people but to help them pray. People don’t know how to pray. People are afraid to pray. People have given up on prayer. We help them pray.

Whether the people are saved or not or Christian or not is up to God, that’s not up to us, our mission is to help everybody pray, and I have discovered in my fellowship with Muslims and Jews and people of other faiths, that if I am truly open and humble and respectful, I can always pray my prayer in Jesus’ name and most of them are fine with that.

Seventh, from the gospel lesson: The Lord Jesus has authority, as prophet, priest, and king. He has authority to be a prophet, a healing prophet, like Elisha in the Old Testament, who healed the pagan officer Naaman, which story is the background to what Jesus does. Jesus has authority to be a king, which the centurion recognizes by calling him Lord and by saying that he’s unworthy to have Jesus come into his house. And as Solomon was a king who acted as a priest, so Jesus has authority to be our priest. He has authority to intercede with God on our behalf. More than that, he is himself the living temple to whom the people go to offer their prayer. And so we believe that the Lord Jesus has authority to hear our prayers to God and act on them. That’s why we pray to God in the name of Jesus Christ, because of the authority he bears for our sake.

Eighth, in this story we see two kinds of prayers. Petition and intercession. A petition is the request you make for yourself or for someone very close to you. That’s what the centurion did. And what the elders did was intercession, a request you make for someone other than yourself. Of course these overlap, and we should balance them.

Anne Lamott has written that the most basic prayer is “Help me!” That we can pray for our ordinary needs was confirmed by Our Lord in the prayer that he taught us, for what could be more basic help than praying for our daily bread? But we also pray, “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come.” Which means that in all our petitions and our intercessions we trust in God’s authority to answer our needs according to God’s own will and as our requests conform to the coming of the Kingdom. We will not see the final answer to our prayers until God’s kingdom has fully come on earth as it is in heaven. That is the gap we have to live with when it comes to prayer, the gap between our own knowledge and God’s providence.

Ninth, did you notice in the story that Jesus and the centurion never meet up with each other or even see each other, and also that the slave is healed by Jesus at a distance and in silence. Is not this the normal experience of prayer: the distance, the silence, this unseeing, the lack of physical contact and physical certainty? The distance of God, the silence of God, and if we have any real sensation or feeling of God’s presence we cannot prove it, it can be explained away by anyone who does not believe it, and if we point to a seeming answer to our prayer from God, that too can be explained away. We cannot disprove the disproof, we cannot escape the gap, which is why it takes such faith. It does take faith to pray. I think it takes more faith than doing good deeds for the poor.

In this sermon series, I expect to be coming back to this problem of the gap, and the distance, and the silence. I hope to have more to report to you. But today I leave you with this: The silence of God is not the anger of God. When we are angry we do the “silent treatment,” but God doesn’t. The anger of God is always spoken and always very clear. The silence of God is like your silence when you sit down with a hurting friend and you are wise enough to  keep your mouth shut and let them do the talking. The silence is God suffering us and also suffering with us, God waiting on us, God giving us great space to live our lives, with good and bad, with joy and sorrow.

And this you will have to accept as my testimony, I cannot prove it. I have learned, through my own prayers, which I’ve been practicing every morning now for twenty years, that while you’re praying, you will begin to experience the silence of God as the love of God. Honest. I certainly am not the only one to have discovered it. That’s why I pray every day, because it’s in my prayers that I experience the love of God. I recommend the same to you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 24, 2013

May 26, Trinity Sunday, "Why We Love the Holy Trinity"

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Today is Trinity Sunday. Unlike most Sundays in our calendar, we are not marking any specific Biblical event, but it makes sense to celebrate the Trinity on the Sunday after Pentecost. On Pentecost God exposed God’s self in the Holy Spirit --- God came among us in the third person of God. Fifty days before that, on Easter, God exposed God’s self the Lord Jesus --- God was among us in the second person of God. The Easter season celebrates the mighty acts of God for our salvation as these actions of two persons, so now that the Season is over, we can put God back together!

Notice that God did not expose God’s self as the Father, as the first person of the Trinity. God the Father has chosen to be exposed in the person of the Son and the person of the Spirit. Recently we heard one of the disciples tell Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied." Jesus answered, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." Which means that when you have Jesus you have all of God, not just a part of God. Likewise, when you have the Holy Spirit, you have not just a third of God but the whole of God, in the person of the Spirit. That’s the special Unity of the Trinity, a unity that is unique. God is One but God is free, so God is not confined to the mathematical restrictions of oneness.

So not three gods. Whenever you have one person of the Trinity, you have all three, but in that person. So when you receive the Holy Spirit, what dwells within you is not just a third of God but all of God—the Father, Son, and Spirit, in the person of the Spirit.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is challenging and even difficult. It is believable, and many people have believed it with integrity, but most of humanity has not. On the one side, it seems narrow and bigoted to claim there is only One Lord God, the God of Abraham, and on the other side it seems illogical to claim that this One God is in three persons. The doctrine has sometimes been reduced to make it easier, but it’s better to increase our capacity for what is difficult.

The Early Church had to do that from the start. After that first Easter and Pentecost, the Church, in the power of the Spirit, explored the truth of Jesus and expanded that truth into the breadth of human culture and philosophy. The Church experimented with language and logic on how best to witness to the mystery of One God in three persons and not three gods. These linguistic and logical experiments were controversial, but they were consolidated into a common formula in A.D. 325 by a church council which met at the little city of Nicea, and the Nicene Creed contains the formula (revised at Constantinople in A.D. 381).


Ever since then, the Nicene Creed is the standard of whether you are orthodox of not. You need to know this. For example, Old First is orthodox. We may be considered liberal or progressive or unconventional, but strictly speaking we are orthodox. The standard is the Nicene Creed. I say this not to boast of it, or even to suggest that orthodoxy has some value in itself. But it’s a symbol of keeping our focus not on the family or on current issues or ourselves or our behaviors, but on the wonderful inviting mystery of the character of God. That’s why.

The Nicene Creed is not in the Bible. It is a summation of the Bible. The word "Trinity" is not in the Bible. It is a distillation of the Bible. The raw material of the doctrine of the Trinity comes from Our Lord himself, from what he said to his disciples, which his best friend John wrote down for us. Jesus spoke of God the Father as a person, and as a person other than himself. He spoke of God the Holy Spirit as another person, and as a person other than the Father and himself. He spoke of three persons: himself, his Father, and the Spirit. And yet the God he spoke of was the the One Lord God of Israel. Not once did Jesus ever challenge the basic Jewish creed that God is One. So it’s the Lord Jesus who got us started on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

I called the doctrine a distillation. What I mean is that the Lord Jesus is the vine who gave us the wine, and the church has taken the wine and distilled it like a spirit. There is some play within these words—the wine and the spirit. The spirit rises from the wine. The wine is the one and only Son of God in his incarnation, God unique in one man, once for all. But the Spirit of God goes out, expands, explores, experiments. The Holy Spirit loves pluriformity, multiplicity, manifold expressions and explorations, many lands and many peoples and many languages, new thought forms, new creations, new ideas, new discoveries of what God is doing in the One Lord Jesus Christ.

With the Trinity there is both an in and out. God calls you into God, in the second person, in the Son of God, who calls you to come to him, who calls you to enter into God, into the life of God, the gracious and loving life of God, which can you enter like a child right at home. And in the third person, in the Holy Spirit, God comes out to you where you are, God enters into your life, your own life, which is unique to you.

God grants you the right to your own life. God does not absorb you. As Melody said to other night: "No one else can know exactly what goes on inside my head. You can’t see into my head, you can’t read my mind. No one can. My ife is unique. No one else has ever lived my life before. No one else has ever had my combination of thoughts and experiences. Only me, I am unique, this is my life." I told her she gave me my sermon.

That’s what God wants, for you to have your own life. A free life, even a free-standing life, but not a self-standing life, that you may be a self who is not selfish. It’s more than just sharing and more than mutual interest, it’s mutual investment, it’s committing to each other, it’s bearing each other and serving each other and suffering for each other. God commits to that with us.

We go in and God comes out. We enter into the suffering and death of Jesus, for the sake of our salvation and redemption and reconciliation, in order to be able to have the fellowship with God that we are made for, but from which we are cut off by the guilt of our sin. That gives us entry into the circle of love which keeps moving between the persons of the Trinity. And that circle of love which is the greatest energy of all then generates a great love rising out of it, like a geyser, like a flame arising from the surface of the sun, and pouring into us, the energy of God’s love which is God’s self, which is God’s soul, God’s Spirit, in the person of whom the whole God enters you. God’s love has been poured into your hearts by the Holy Spirit.

God enters into your own suffering. You know that the Spirit inspires your goodness and obedience, but the Spirit dwells within your troubles and afflictions. The Spirit is inside your fruits and your graces and your good works, but God is also in your groaning and your misery, experiencing your life in you. God loves every part of you from inside you.

Which is why St. Paul can say that we boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. I have known it to go the other way, that affliction leads to bitterness and bitterness to bad character and from that to despair. The difference is God’s love, which has to sustain through your affliction all the way to hope. And that love is God’s self, in the Spirit, who lives quietly within you.

We love the Trinity because it the Trinity generates the love of God. Greatest love is not self-love but love of the other who will always be other than yourself. The persons of the Holy Trinity love each other in their eternal otherness. And this love God shares with you. That is the secret of your life, and why you exist, so that God can love you, and love you with the love God has within God’s self.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, May 20, 2013

May 19, Pentecost 2014: Why We Love Our Advocate

The great Charles Laughton in "Witness for the Prosecution"

Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104, Romans 8:14-17, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

Pentecost is a holiday for both Christians and Jews. We Christians call it “Pentecost” from the Greek word for “fifty”, because it’s fifty days after Easter, and it marks the end and the fulfillment of the Easter Season. We Christians got the holiday from the Jews, of course, who call it Shavuoth, which means “sevens”, because it comes seven-times-seven days after Passover, a week of weeks.

For Jews it marks two things: First, it’s the feast of the first-fruits, when in the new growing season you bring offerings in of the earliest fruits and vegetables. Asparagus. Fiddle-heads. The first-fruits of the Christian Church. Second, it’s the commemoration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, when God came down in fire and smoke. When God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; thou shalt have no other gods before me.” God did that fifty days after the first Passover.

Fire and smoke. “For he is like a refiner’s fire.” “And who may abide the day of his coming?” That was the prophecy of God’s coming, as repeated by John the Baptist who said, “I baptize you with water but one is coming after me who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Because when God comes down, God is so holy and righteous that God will burn you pure or burn you up. That was the prophetic expectation, so when it happened like this, little flames upon their heads, harmless little flames, it was a very new thing that God was doing, and I think for many a disappointment.

This day was full of surprises. God was doing new and unexpected things. Although every new thing that God did on Pentecost had its intimations already in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit took a new form in the world, in these little tongues of fire on their heads, and giving this multiplicity of languages. I want to stress the interplay of both newness and continuity. The old salvation in new forms. The faithfulness of God in new applications.

Which is why we do not say, as some churches do, that Pentecost is the birthday of the church. You hear that said in other traditions, but not in the Reformed tradition. Notice what we read in the catechism, that the church goes back to the beginning the world. The church began Adam and Eve, and then Noah and his family, and I would say the animals, which God gathered, protected, and preserved within the ark, and then it began to take new forms: successively the clan of Abraham, the twelve tribes of Jacob, the nation of Israel, the kingdom of David, and then the remnant of Judea, until it took new form again on Pentecost. Up to then, four thousand years of Biblical chronology, and one people of God through out, with different forms and different people, coming from different places with different backgrounds and different accents and different stories, whom the Son of God is gathering, protecting and preserving.

That’s the first thing that is typical of the Holy Spirit. That is, the old salvation in new forms. The faithfulness of God in new applications. The one truth in many languages. I will say more about this next week, on the Feast Day of the Holy Trinity, when I will preach a further sermon on the Holy Spirit, and what the Spirit shows about the character of God.

But today I want to stay with what the Spirit does within the world. And so the second thing that is typical of the Holy Spirit is multiformity and creative multiplicity. Psalm 104, “O Lord, how manifold are your works, in wisdom you have made them all.” That Psalm celebrates the great diversity of creatures in the world, creeping things innumerable, the fish in the sea, the birds in the branches lifting up their voices.

That’s why we have that reading about the Tower of Babel. Whether it’s from pride or fear or arrogance or love of power, we prefer the safety of centrality and predictability and uniformity. But that is not what God wants for us. It is a judgement that God makes them speak in different languages, but it also is a gift, so that they might go back out and fill the earth, and be creative in experience and experiment. That’s the doing of the Holy Spirit.
It’s also true in the church. You need not take it as a thorough negative that we have different denominations of the Christian church. When it comes to the different churches condemning each other and not being in communion with each other judging other, then it’s negative. But the variety of churches is a positive work of the Holy Spirit as the people of God have scattered by God like seed into the world and scattered by the Spirit into human history. Did you expect the church among the Filipinos to sound like the church among the Greeks or to look like the church among the Dutch? I wonder how many forms of the church we still may see? O Lord, how manifold are your works, in wisdom you have made them all.

And third thing of the Spirit was totally new, what Jesus told them in the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit is among us an Advocate. Advocate, from the Latin ad-vocare, translating the Greek word  παρακλητος,, which is sometimes anglicized as “The Paraclete,” a specific title for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. It means Counselor, the Holy Spirit is your Counselor who gives you advice and wisdom and good counsel, who whispers the relevant words of Jesus in your ear. It also means Counselor in the legal sense, the Holy Spirit is your attorney, your lawyer, who takes your case, who helps you make your case. You are the one who has to be the witness, you are the one who has to speak, but you have a Counselor who keeps you prepared to make your case.

Since Easter I have been saying that human history is like a great, long, public trial of the truth, the truth about the world, the truth about God. Within this trial we are witnesses, and when we give our testimony, our testimony is contested. And the verdict as to what stands and what falls will only be given at the end. We do not have the luxury of some kind of rationally conclusive “proof” of our position. The Lord Jesus is always on trial on the world, and so it is no different with our Christian faith. (Romans 8:17) But we are not left alone in this, we are given a Counselor, an Advocate, who helps with our testimony, and also counsels us to give our testimony in gentleness and humility and love.

And also for the trial that is always going on in your own mind, in the inner courtroom of your head. I mean the constant trial of your consciousness and the voices in your conscience and the trial of your own experience as you try to find the truth about yourself. “What is true about me in my life? Should I think this, should I think that?” You want to believe, you have your doubts. Can you believe in your own belief? Can you trust your trying be true? Don’t be discouraged that you doubt. Don’t judge yourself that issues keep rising within you to question your belief. Don’t think you have to hide behind the walls of your inner tower to keep protecting your belief. It is the Spirit who sends you out to life and to experience, and the Spirit is your counselor who helps you interpret all the unfamiliar sounds and the multiplicity of voices. Even in your own inner courtroom you can be at peace. Among the clamor of voices that keep echoing in your head is the voice of your Counselor who reminds you what Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The Spirit is your life-long Advocate. The Spirit creates diversity. And the Spirit is always faithful. Those three things all speak of love. Capital S, capital L. You know, it always comes down to the Love of God, the love of God for the world and all the creatures of the world, and it always comes down to the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 10, 2013

May 12, Easter 7, Why We Love the Jailer

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-26, John 17:20-26

The earthquake shaking the prison and the doors opening and the chains falling off the prisoners is an image of the resurrection, it’s a recapitulation of the resurrection of Jesus in the life of Paul and Silas. And in the life of the jailer the resurrection comes a different way, as he gets saved from the power of death by his believing in the Lord Jesus.

This is the second of my two sermons on the resurrection coming to the city of Philippi. As I said last week, Philippi was a colonia, a Roman military town. Its magistrates were military officers, its population was soldiers and their hangers-on from all over the Empire. The spirit of Rome was concentrated here, with its pride and prejudice and arrogant aggression. Caesar was worshiped here as a god, as was Mars, the god of war. Jews were not welcome, if they practiced their religion. Law and order were heavy-handed and violence was just below the surface. There was commerce and prosperity and also corruption and exploitation.

You see the exploitation with the slave girl. She had a real gift, but her owners exploited her. I gotta say that I wish St. Paul had done a little more for her; you know, after he had ended her profitability he might have dealt with her remaining slavery somehow, like having Lydia buy her or something. But there it is; the story was not dreamed up to illustrate a point or make St. Paul look good. The story is offered as historical, and not white-washed, and sometimes even St. Paul needs to be forgiven. If we dare to judge him!

You see the corruption in the unfairness of the magistrates, kowtowing to the slave owners, and you see the violence all through the story. Especially in the violence the jailer is going to do to himself. He knows this city punishes without much thought or any concern for fairness. When something goes wrong, then someone has to pay, and the penalty may be so brutal that suicide is preferable. The fear of death has power in this city, and the people are in bondage to it.

Not that life outside the Empire was better. Not that the barbarians were any less violent or less afraid of violence. There was much about Rome which the apostles valued. They paid their taxes and they prayed for the Emperor. It’s not that Rome was specially bad, but that Rome is typical, it is the Biblical type by which we measure our own societies and nations and ideologies. How are we imperial? How much violence is built into our way of life? How much does our prosperity depend on exploitation? Such questions are always relevant for every nation all the time. Yet after his conversion the jailer is not expected to stop being a jailer, and Lydia does not end her business selling purple to the upper class. The resurrection can keep you in your business, and keep you going within the moral complexity of your employments and activities.

Paul and Silas act like they are free, even in the bondage of their chains. Not free of death, but free of the fear of death. Not because they’re stoical, as you can see later when St. Paul feels very free to make use of his Roman citizenship to get some vindication and respect, but free of the fear of death because of what they believe about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Free to live within the corruption and not be angry or bitter, free to move within the moral complexity with self-respect yourself. That’s the kind of freedom the gospel offers you. It’s the special kind of freedom you get when you become a servant of the Most High God. And today that’s what salvation means. Not only rescue, but freedom — freedom from and freedom for.

Salvation. What is the salvation you desire? Eternal life? Escape from hell? Some sort of release? Some sort of relief? For those of you who are depressed, it usually means finding some meaning for your life. For those of you with anxiety, it usually means relieving your fear of pain and death. That’s what the jailer felt. He was terrified of the punishment that he would get from the prisoners having all escaped. But notice how the power of the resurrection was working to save the jailer before he knew it. St. Paul called out, "Don’t hurt yourself, we’re all still here." That first message saved his life. But his mind was still in bondage, and his fear is evident when he falls before the apostles and voices the classic question of the ages, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Even here, it’s the salvation of his neck he’s worried about.

The second message offers him a salvation greater than he asked for, and gave him more than he expected. He has no guarantee that there might not still be retribution, but his mind is free. And look what happens to him. The prisoners are still within his care, but he who was a jailer now becomes a host. And he washes clean the wounds from their flogging which had been left to fester. He is recapitulating Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, and he anticipates the baptism which his whole family now receives.

The jailer is empowered here, he is the master who becomes a servant to his guests. He brings them from the dungeon to his house, and he serves them food, again like Jesus in the Upper Room. Here is healing and communion, here is the proper hospitality that the city of Philippi really should have given them. The city is dark outside, but from the windows of this little house there shines a light the darkness can neither overcome or comprehend.

What is it about this new life which the city is afraid of? Why do they find it so disturbing? Aren’t the slave owners right, that this gospel upsets the social order of the city? Isn’t it because the peace and healing if offers is a condition of the Lordship of Jesus, because the salvation it offers is the sovereignty of God? The sovereignty of God calls into question every other sovereignty and every other system which we work out in order to protect our interests and to keep our fears at bay? We are more afraid of the sovereignty of God than of the other hurts and dangers of the world. And often we’ll accept only when we have no other choice, like the jailer, from desperation. Well, some of us are like Lydia, last week, accepting it with calmness and freedom. Most of us are in between. It’s a long continuum, and there’s lots of room for all of us.

You have your own motivations. The desperation of the jailer, the confidence of Lydia, the faith of your fathers like Paul, the faith of your mother, like Silas, maybe you came here attracted by what you saw, maybe you came here driven by your need, maybe you were looking for community, maybe you were looking for nothing but God. Whatever you came here for, you get more back than what had expected—it is related, yes, but different, with implications and extensions that give you pause and second thought. You find that it both comforts you and challenges you, that in giving you what you wanted it transforms you into desiring what you did not want before. This community has more than you bargained for, but God keeps calling you, and you keep taking yet another step further into the sovereignty of God which is salvation.

I’m telling you that God is calling you. God keeps saying, "Come. The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’" And let all of you today who hear this tell each other, "Come." You have freely chosen to come here, but I’m telling you that God was calling you before you knew it. What God is calling you toward is your own resurrection. What God is calling you toward is your own share in the life of God. This is what you were made for, though you are afraid of it. The life is fearful and powerful because it does not belong to you. It belongs to God, who has its sovereignty, but you may desire it when you believe that is it love. The love that calls you is the love which comes out from inside God. And your fear of it is exactly what tells you how true it is. This is the love you may believe in. It is the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

May 5, Easter 6, Why We Love Lydia

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29

This is the first of two sermons on the resurrection coming to the city of Philippi. Today, the resurrection comes to Lydia, and next week, the resurrection comes to the jailer. So this week let me introduce you to the city of Philippi. The city was the site of a history-changing battle just a century before, when Caesar Augustus defeated the army of the Roman Senate and Brutus and Cassius, and the family of Caesar secured the personal control of all the vast power of the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus made the town a colonia, a military town, full of officers and infantry and all their hangers on, and its inhabitants came from all over the Empire. The spirit of Rome was concentrated here, in its pride and prejudice and arrogant aggression. The city worshiped Caesar as a god along with Mars, the Roman god of war. As we will see next week, law and order were heavy-handed and violence was just beneath the surface. There was corruption and exploitation, but also commerce and prosperity.

The woman Lydia shares in this prosperity. She’s an importer of purple cloth, the expensive fabric reserved for the upper class as a sign of rank. She has access to cash and capital, she seems to own a house and property, she’s got enterprise and initiative, and she is not identified by any husband’s name. She is an independent character, and she does not buy the established religion of the empire, even though she depends on its defenders to be her customers.

Caesar was honored in Philippi specifically as "Lord and God," so, in this city, no synagogue was tolerated. Any Jews had to say their public prayers outside the city gates, and apparently only women dared to risk it. But why is Lydia with them? Why should this prosperous Gentile be praying to this strange god of the Jews who in the last hundred years had proven incapable of defending his chosen people against the gods of Rome? Well, the reason for her belief in this God is something the Bible never bothers to explain. But who can ever adequately explain the reasons for anyone’s belief? I have told you that your belief is a mystery even to yourself.

One Sabbath, at the riverside, a stranger shows up. He has a message. She hears the stranger out, and she believes him. Once again, the Bible doesn’t explain why—why her, why not the other women praying there? But she signs up, she gets baptized, and her household too. Just like that. But it’s not that simple, really. Think of the implications for her. When she says that "Jesus is Lord," she means that Caesar isn’t. She is putting her household under the sovereignty of a foreign power, within a city of the gods of Rome. What does she hear in the message, that she should choose to be identified with the followers of a dead man, executed by the very soldiers and officials who would be her customers? What in her self-interest was anything Paul could offer her? We don’t find her miserable and enthralled in sin. She seems to be on top of things.

She must have believed the message that Jesus really had risen from the dead, and that behind this Jesus was the one God of the universe, and that his kingdom of justice and righteousness was spreading in the world, and that she could join up with it. She believed the message and trusted the messenger. I mean she must have known how to size up her customers and when to trust her suppliers. She was used to taking calculated risks, she lived by investing her current capital in long-term gains, and she trusted this stranger and she believed what he told her. Self-interest? Faith is that which looks beyond self-interest, isn’t it. Faith is what brings you out of yourself.

And then she challenges Paul to have faith in her. She says, "If you can judge me to be loyal to this lord, then why not stay at my house." Go Lydia. So direct. So open. This is the kind of lady you’d like to build a church around. And so after this, to find the church in Philippi, you go to her house. That’s where the disciples gather. Not just to listen to St. Paul’s teaching and to enjoy his fellowship, but also to sit at Lydia’s table and break the bread and pray. The Spirit of Jesus is among them. God has moved into her house. She is the host of the church. Her open hospitality will define that church for years to come, as you can read in the Epistle to the Philippians. Her church was always one of St. Paul’s favorite churches.

So, St. Paul. He had come to Macedonia because of his dream, and I’m guessing the whole first week in Philippi he’s looking for the guy in his dream. "Is it him? Is it him?" He never finds the guy. It’s this woman that God has brought him here to meet. You wonder why it wasn’t Lydia in his dream, that would be the normal thing in mystic literature. The Bible offers no explanation. Explaining is just not very big in the Bible. The ways of God are always reported as both sovereign and mysterious, obvious and inscrutable. Which is not to stop you from taking initiative, never to hinder your free will, but the opposite. St. Paul planned for "a" and God did "b", but St. Paul would not have been there for "b" if he hadn’t tried for "a". Which means you can be active and take initiative and exercise your free will, which God will make use of for God’s own sovereign purposes; and if things end up quite other than what you intended, you can be grateful in retrospect. The take-home is that you are free to choose and let God use. You can exercise your free will in the service of God’s superior and gracious sovereignty. Take initiative, God’s purpose welcomes your free initiative, and you must welcome God’s surprise with your initiative.

Now, Lydia. I love Lydia, the businesswoman who is the president of the first Christian church in what is now Europe. You can delight in her, she is an image of the power of the resurrection in your life. This is what it looks like and what it leads to, that little church within her house. How strange that the mighty God of the universe should work this way, compared to the gods of Rome. That this God should contest the other gods, the triumphant gods, the victorious gods, the gods of pride and prejudice, by means of a small group meeting in a businesswoman’s house. How strange, but then how typical, if the power of resurrection always takes its form in grace and love. It never takes form in anything that is not absolutely love.

How lovely, that what Jesus promised to his disciples in John 14 came true so quickly with this Gentile businesswoman and her staff and her Jewish friends, that as Jesus said, "My father will love them, and we will come to them, and we will make our home with them." The Holy Trinity had moved in to Philippi, and was at home in Lydia’s house, in her community of Jesus.

The city had temples for its gods and for Julius Caesar, where you could go to contact them. But if you wanted to make contact with the One God who made the universe, you would go to Lydia’s house, the temple of God in Philippi. To her house would come people from every nation who happened to be in Philippi: Jews, Italians, Gauls, Germans, Dalmatians, veterans, their wives, their slaves, their suppliers, their sales people. Her house is a pledge and foretaste of the city of God in Revelation. A bit of the city of God in the middle of a city of Caesar. And the food on her table was for healing. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Lydia’s house is a vision for Old First. Why do you keep coming here? What are you looking for? We do offer something real, real contact with God. Not the totality, not the finality, but the pledge, the foretaste, the first-fruit, the witness, never enough to satisfy but just enough to quicken your desire. There are real signs of love here, signs of the love that you may invest in your own world this week. And no matter what your profits and your losses in love this week, those signs will be here again next week, and although they are small and passing, they are real, because they express the love for you of the God who has called you here.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.