Sixth Sunday on Easter C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5
This month’s Living Lutheran magazine features a rather uplifting article about Helen Gallik Abelt, or “Aunt Helen” as everyone knows her.
Helen lives in Sarasota, FL. Both of her foster daughters moved away when they grew up, leaving her alone with no relatives nearby. Her nephew, John Galik, periodically traveled to Sarasota as part of his job and the two reconnected. Later, he began vacationing there with his family for the winter (an idea I’m sure none of us know anything about). While there, he and his family began attending New Life Lutheran Church. Aunt Helen eventually joined them, even though she never grew up in a Christian home. Her first worship service ever was on Good Friday in 2014, and her first remark was, “Wow.”
In 2015, Aunt Helen lost her sight, and the community that she had come to love at New Life Lutheran rallied around her with friendship and support. But there was more at work. On a Friday in late October, she was talking with her nephew John and mentioned the topic of baptism. He asked her, “Are you trying to tell me you’d like to be baptized?” She said, “Yes, can we do it Sunday?”
And so two days later on Sunday, November 1, 2015, Aunt Helen was baptized, welcomed as a child of God. She received a standing ovation and says she would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Oh, by the way. Aunt Helen is 100 years old.
As we learned last week, the work and movement of the Holy Spirit is unpredictable, utterly at random to our sensibilities, destructive to our prejudices, radical in execution, impatient in timing, a nuisance to the way we’ve always been taught and a menace to a quiet, ordered, unchanging faith.
I love that Holy Spirit. I need that Holy Spirit to keep me always on my toes. I need a Holy Spirit that tells me, “No, you’re wrong. I know you think you’re right and you can proof-text yourself to high heaven, but you’re still wrong.” I need a Holy Spirit that will not let me rest, will not let me be comfortable, will not let me accept enough as enough, and will always push me to where I need to go.
It’s that same Holy Spirit that is holding the reigns during Paul’s, Silas’s, and Timothy’s travels in the Acts of the Apostles. Once again, the Holy Spirit interferes in the mission and ministry of the apostles, because the Holy Spirit has other plans.
Paul and his companions have been traveling around the area that is now known as Turkey, making their way through the major cities along the roads, preaching the news of Jesus Christ everywhere they go. They already know to avoid one area that the Holy Spirit has told them to stay out of, even though it seems like it would be the next logical place for them to go. I don’t know why the Holy Spirit said they couldn’t go there, but already, the Spirit’s getting in the way.
Their next stop, then, is Bithynia, up near the Black Sea. There, they intend to continue their ministry as they always have. But again, the Holy Spirit gets in the way and stops from the going. How that happens is left up to the reader’s imagination; but whatever the reason, the author of the Acts of the Apostles interprets their inability to get to Bithynia to be an act of the Spirit. And so they go instead to the city of Troas to.. well, to sort of re-evaluate their plans and try to figure out what they’re supposed to do. They can’t go to Asia, they can’t go to Bithynia. Where can they go?
Thankfully, the Spirit provides them with a new path: Macedonia, in what is now modern-day Greece. At night, Paul has a vision of a man pleading with Paul to come and help them over there. And immediately, Paul, Silas, and Timothy do everything in their power to get to Macedonia.
Now I don’t know about you, but on the one hand, I admire Paul’s immediate and faithful response to this vision from God. Then again, Paul does have the benefit of experience: he began his ministry for Christ with a vision and experience of Christ speaking directly to him on the road to Damascus. But I still find it remarkable that with one vision, Paul drops everything and says, “We’re going to Macedonia.” Paul shows himself to be a paragon of faithfulness to God’s call, willing to drop everything he has and knows the very day God calls him to something new and something different.
And yet, on the other hand, part of me wants to slap Paul up his face and tell him, “What were you thinking?” Imagine if God told you today that you were supposed to drive down to Illinois and spread the good news there. Where would you start? What would your plans be? How would you find the person who you’re supposed to help?
When Paul receives his vision to go to Macedonia, he doesn’t know the name of the person in the vision or where he’s at. He doesn’t know what cities to look in, what roads to take, or what he’s looking for. With no plan of action, no agenda, no contingency, Paul just gets up and goes. What if he never found the person he’s looking for? What if they got lost? What if this, what if that, what if this, what if that?
I fear that the church becomes paralyzed in the face of such daunting challenges and questions. It’s bad enough that the Holy Spirit is completely indifferent to our objections over breaking down the walls we’ve specifically built to separate us. Bad enough that the Holy Spirit doesn’t wait until we think we’re ready for the tasks and challenges ahead. Bad enough that the Holy Spirit doesn’t listen to reason, doesn’t care about our objections, doesn’t take into account that “that’s the way we’ve always done it and by gosh we are NOT going to change!”.
Now, though, the Holy Spirit is not only breaking down what we know, but we’re being sent out in directions we’ve never explored with no real idea of what we’re looking for. Worse still, the directions we think we’re supposed to be going may not be the directions we’re being called at all. Paul and his companions were blocked from visiting Asia and Bithynia with no explanation of why those paths were wrong. And then they’re sent to Macedonia without any real idea of what they’re supposed to look for.
The destination may be in sight, but the journey to get there is often far less clear. Take world hunger, for example. We know that our baptismal calling from God includes “feeding the hungry”. Sounds simple enough, right? But ask anyone who’s ever worked hard in feeding the hungry and you’ll find out it’s a lot harder than you might think.
We give our support to the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry. We collect a little bit of food every month and donate it. We send a few volunteers to help staff the pantry on the two Saturdays a month it’s open. And yet, we’re always looking for where the next food will come from before the pantry runs out. We’re always looking for more volunteers, because the current ones can get overworked and burnt out.
And if the food pantry is only open two days a month, what happens on the other days when people are hungry? Do they and their families have to go without meals because there isn’t enough food?
And what about outside our community? We can try to manage the needs of our own community, but if we’re going to help those outside of it get food, it’s going to require more people, more resources, and more work. It’s going to require networking with other churches and other volunteers. It’s going to require regional coordination. On the national level it’s going to require administration and overhead to keep track of the work being done and to delegate resources appropriately.
All of a sudden, what appeared to be a minor problem in our own backyard is revealed to be a global epidemic that we, despite our best efforts can’t solve. And yet, we’re continually told to “feed the hungry.” Thanks God.
It sounds like it would be a good time to give the Holy Spirit the pink slip and send the Spirit back to the Father. If this is all the Spirit is going to do, then what’s the point?
Thankfully, as we learn today, that’s not all the Spirit is going to do. Yes, the Holy Spirit seems to delight in causing mischief to our best, well-intentioned plans, sending us off in wild directions without explaining what it is we’re supposed to be doing. And yet surprisingly, as Paul and his companions learn, maybe the Holy Spirit has some good ideas after all.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy eventually end up in Philippi, a Roman colony and major city in the region. Without much direction, Paul goes down outside the city towards the water, where he assumes that he’ll find some faithful Judeans praying. Maybe he’ll even find the man in his vision, who knows? But Paul doesn’t find the man in his vision. Instead, he finds Lydia leading other women in prayer, a Gentile woman living out her faith in God.
Lydia isn’t at all what Paul expected. She’s not the man from his vision. She’s a successful businesswoman in the sale of purple cloth. She’s the head of her household, which is extraordinary in a time when men were the head of the house. She’s a Gentile, yet a God-fearer who leads others in prayer.
In that meeting, Paul sees the face of God. And he realizes that this is why he’s here. This is why he was prevented by the Spirit from entering Asia and Bithynia. This is why his plans were thrown out, turned upside down, and why he was driven into Macedonia. It was to meet this woman and her household, meeting in an unexpected place with unexpected people giving praise to God unexpectedly. And so on that day, on that very day, Lydia and her household are baptized.
I will not be so bold to say that every time the Holy Spirit breaks down walls that a nice new road opens up. Paul and his companions were seemingly stranded in the city of Troas because their travel plans were abolished and they weren’t immediately told where they were to go. Sometimes the Holy Spirit breaks down walls and throws out plans simply because they need to go; and the Holy Spirit, being impatient and zealous, has no problem destroying those ideas and beliefs.
But it also seems clear that the Holy Spirit doesn’t act at random. The Holy Spirit has something in mind, even if it takes a bit of digging to get there. The Holy Spirit actively works God’s will in the world, which may not always conform to our understanding but is always motivated by God’s deep love for all of creation; including us.
I don’t know what will happen once the Holy Spirit breaks down the walls we’ve built and throws us out into the world, expecting us to take up God’s mission. I can’t predict what the future will hold. It will likely involve change and new things. It may involve rethinking who we are and what we are about. It will almost certainly involve a lot fear and doubt as we figure it out.
But it will also involve the movement and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Wherever we go, whatever is coming up for us, will also include our greatest Advocate. Between you and I, if I had to choose between striking out on my own or striking out with the Holy Spirit, I’d choose the Holy Spirit every time, even when it scares me to death.
I won’t say don’t be afraid of the unknown, the unexpected, the goes-against-everything-we-know. But know that the Holy Spirit is in that fear and doubt, and where the Holy Spirit is, God’s will be done.
Featured Image: “We’re so lost” by digboston is licensed under CC BY 2.0.