Worshipers of God
Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 21:1-6, April 24, 2016
I want to look at being a worshiper of God in different times and places this morning. While the love of God is eternal and unchanging, the ways that love is experienced, expressed and shared takes many, many different forms. In a few weeks, for example, on Pentecost, we’re going to hear the Bible read in languages that most of us do not speak. We will not understand the words themselves, but for other people who believe as we do and follow the same Lord and Savior these words have great importance. Because people speak different languages, God needs to reveal Godself to us in different languages.
And people grow and learn and change and understand in new and different ways as we live and change. Think about celebrating the Lord’s Supper, for example. For some of you the table was closed until you completed Communicants’ Class. So your first communion was a milestone, a moment when you were admitted into the full fellowship of the Christian church.
During my lifetime the Presbyterian church switched from Communicants’ Classes to Confirmation Class. It’s a subtle, but important difference. Communicants’ Classes ready students to receive the sacrament of communion. Confirmation Classes give students a chance to confirm for themselves, in their own words, the promises someone else made on their behalf when they were baptized. Confirmation is also a milestone, but Presbyterians believe and practice that one only needs to be baptized—in any Christian church anywhere—to be admitted to the Lord’s table. In theory, this means that one can receive communion before one is eating solid food! That’s why parents need to discern what’s right for their children when it comes to participating in the sacrament. A child who is included from age 4, for example, will have a different understanding of the sacrament that she will when she’s 11, or 30, or 88. It’s the same sacrament; the same message of grace poured out to all people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it will be experienced differently. And we should celebrate that it will be experienced differently. The same words, the same sacrament, the same person—but, no, not the same person, because God is alive, the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are alive and that little girl or elderly woman grows and changes.
Today I want to look at three different sets of worshippers of God, or three different contexts in which God’s word is heard, received and understood.
The first one is at the very beginning of the Christian church. Just a short time after the first Easter and Christ’s ascension into heaven. Remember two weeks ago we heard about the huge transformation that Paul went through. He was struck blind on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus. And he was headed to Damascus with express permission to bring Christians back to Jerusalem to punish them. Only back then they were not called Christians, but “followers of The Way.”
Paul, the fiery, vocal persecutor of the first Christians, Paul who watched as Stephen, the first Christian martyr was killed by a lynch mob, became the strongest advocate, the most effective messenger of following Jesus Christ. He started visiting synagogues and sharing his experience, arguing with people at some synagogues, persuading people in other towns. He travelled a lot and found different groups in various places who received him and accepted his words in different ways.
In this morning’s lesson he’s winds up in a place called Philippi, the leading city of Macedonia. He’s crossed over from Troas in modern day Turkey, because he had had a vision of someone pleading with him to come to Macedonia. It took two days, but Paul and his group for to Neapolis, on the coast, in modern Greece, then went a tiny bit inland to Philippi where he went looking for people to tell about Jesus. On a map it’s not very far from Troas to Philippi, just a little jaunt across the Aegean Sea. But lately we’ve been hearing how perilous the Aegean Sea is, refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are hopping into boats trying to escape war and crushing poverty crossing exactly the same stretch of water that Paul passed through more than 1,950 years ago.
Paul went to a place just outside the walls of the city of Philippi on the Sabbath and found some women who were gathered there to pray. Maybe there was no synagogue in Philippi, so the worshipers of God, that is Jews in Philippi gathered in an outside, public place. Paul spoke to them. And it’s interesting to me, we do not know how many people there were, we do not know what he said. Whatever it was it got Lydia’s attention.
We don’t know much about Lydia either. She’s from Thyatira, a city in modern Turkey, so she’s probably crossed the same stretch of the Aegean Sea that Paul did, and she’s a dealer in purple cloth. That’s unusual for a woman in that time to have a position like this, and to travel so far from home. Purple cloth was a luxury item, so there’s a very good chance that Lydia was wealthy. It also appears that she no longer lives in Thyatira, because she welcomed Paul into her house. In fact it sounds like she practically imposed her hospitality on Paul.
The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to Paul’s message, and she and her whole household were baptized. There are a lot of gaps in the story, we don’t know how many people were there, we don’t know what Paul said, but we know that Lydia found it persuasive, and probably even life-giving. What would that be like to live as one of the first Christians in Philippi? Remember, this is back before anyone was using the word “Christian.”
Now let’s take a quick look at the passage from Revelation. Revelation is an odd book; it’s written in a literary genre that we don’t use anymore—it’s an apocalypse. It uses vivid imagery and is the content of a series of visions that were revealed—hence the name of the book—to John, an early Christian, probably on the island of Patmos, also in the Aegean Sea, about the year 100.
The images in Revelation are filled with judgment, but also hope. A few years ago we did a Bible study on Revelation and Hope was the repeated theme. For Christians who were suffering terribly for their faith, John’s Revelation offered hope. Reward for faithfulness and judgment for the persecutors of the faith. And also words to encourage believers to be strong in their faith, even in, especially in, the face of persecution.
We had a rich conversation about this passage around the lunch table Tuesday. These six verses are a culmination, or a fulfillment, a completion of God’s ultimate reign on earth. And as we find so often, hearing the words out loud helped us see new things. This sense of completion, I’ve even heard it called “The End of History” is completely God’s doing. The new earth and new heaven, the new Jerusalem coming down from above…it’s as though God is imposing peace and wholeness on the earth. As though the peace of Eden has left the garden and come to reside in a brand new, gleaming city.
And in this promised city of God’s future, death, mourning, crying and pain will be erased, just as the first heaven and earth had been erased. And God will dwell with all peoples. And the sea, that is the home of the Beast mentioned frequently in Revelation will be gone. That other evil power will be homeless! All of the things that God has promised, all the hope that we see in the death and resurrection of Christ, is coming and people will know and feel and live in God’s presence forever.
If you’re facing persecution for following this faith that says God’s son has lived on earth, was executed but then rose from death. This message is one of hope and vindication. And I was surprised, sitting at the lunch table, that I was singing Christmas hymns, “God with us is now residing” from “Angels from the Realms of Glory” and “O Come, O Come Immanuel” Remember: Immanuel means “God is with us.” And it’s an amazing thing to believe that God, the creator of all things came into the world as vulnerable baby. That God chose to reveal love to humanity in that way. Imagine how it would feel to someone who’s been persecuted to hear these words of promise.
But I want to leave you all with a question: what do these words mean to you? We talked about the persecution of Christians Tuesday, and there are places in today’s world where Christians suffer for their beliefs, or conceal their identity as followers of Christ.
How do we, who have never been persecuted, or even inconvenienced by following Christ, how do we appropriate and understand these words? What do they have to say to us? I don’t want you to feel guilty because you’ve never been persecuted, nor do I think you should go out and seek to be persecuted! A few years ago I had to drive two blocks out of my way and wait a couple minutes on the Sunday morning that the marathon went through town. I was irritated, mostly at myself because I’d forgotten to make other plans. But then, for some reason it occurred to me that there are Christians who can’t drive a mile and a half to church in security. There are communities where police officers are not standing at barricades to keep runners safe from motorists, but where police officers hunt for and kill or imprison people because of who they are or what they believe. Could I be a Christian in a place like that? Could I be a minister in a place like that? Would I find a place outside the city to gather for prayer with other believers?
It’s humbling to think about God’s vast love for all people, and all peoples. And how people in many different times and places have heard, responded and understood the depth of God’s love. And how that love is offered to all of us. Now, and forever. Even as we wait for the new heaven and new earth, saying, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.