Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 1, 2016
Acts 16:9-15 Commentary
Occasionally the Lectionary’s choice of where to begin and end a text boggles preachers’ and teachers’ minds. This Sunday’s text is a good case in point. It’s not just that it begins in the middle of a paragraph in most English translations. It’s also that this text begins in the middle of what we often call Paul’s second missionary journey. So Acts 16’s preachers and teachers may be wise to begin with perhaps verse 6 and end, as the Lectionary suggests, with verse 15.
This text’s broader context is Paul and Barnabas’ decision to take a trip to visit the churches they’ve planted. However, since Barnabas wishes to take John Mark with them, Paul and he go their separate ways. As a result, Silas accompanies Paul on their extended missions trip.
However, while the missionaries seem to have an itinerary for it, God has God’s own plans for the second missionary journey. Earlier God had shown Peter God had plans for smashing the barriers that kept Jews from doing mission work among gentiles. Now, however, God erects a barrier to mission work. In verses 6 and 7 we read Paul and his companions “were kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”
My colleague John Rottman suggests this leaves Paul and his companions “stalled out in Troas” and in need of some direction. God provides that direction through a vision. In it, according to verse 9 a Macedonian man stands and begs Paul to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
This offers Acts 16’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore how God erects barriers and opens doors to mission in the 21st century. Why did the Spirit keep the apostles from preaching in Asia? Preachers and teachers might also explore just how the Spirit kept Paul and his companions from preaching where they wanted to. Does the Holy Spirit still do something similar today? How can we know to where God is calling (and stopping) us?
Even the text itself presents a kind of natural opening to such exploration. With verse 10, after all, Acts’ narrator makes a startling shift in the way he relates its story. Throughout long stretches of the rest of Acts, the missionaries are no longer Paul and his companions. They’re “we.” So it’s almost as if Acts’ narrator invites Christians in all times and places, including our own, to join the apostles on their mission trip.
“Our” first stop is in the Macedonian city of Philippi. There the missionaries’ stay stretches over the Sabbath. However, it Paul and his companions don’t seem to worship with other Jews in a synagogue on that day. Instead they find a place by the river where they can pray and talk with the women who have gathered there.
There “we” meet Lydia. She’s a woman whose business has made her wealthy. That, in a sense, creates two strikes against her. Women were, after all, very low on the social scale in the first century A.D. However, Lydia is also wealthy. In the gospels Jesus repeatedly warns against the dangers of wealth. His pregnant mother even warned rich people about their fate in God’s coming kingdom.
This offers those who preach and teach Acts 16 an opportunity to ask about whom Christians sometimes think of as having “strikes against them” today. About whom do we have prejudices like Paul’s contemporaries had towards women? Whose endangered eternal status, like Lydia’s, makes us reluctant to approach them?
Of course, Acts’ Holy Spirit goes ahead of us, busily breaking down all sorts of barriers. So we’re not surprised Lydia’s gender, social and even, apparently, racial — she seems to be a gentile — status present no real obstacle to the Spirit’s convicting work. In fact, we might argue the Spirit has been working on Lydia even before she met Paul. After all, verse 14 calls her, after all, a “worshiper of God.”
However, the Holy Spirit graciously turns Lydia’s perhaps unrefined ideas about God into faith in Jesus Christ. The Spirit opens her heart to faithfully respond to Paul’s message. The Spirit transforms this rich businesswoman into what she calls in verse 15 “a believer in the Lord.” Because she desires God’s forgiveness for herself through a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ, Lydia is baptized, along with any servants and children she may have.
Yet the Spirit doesn’t just transform Lydia’s faith. The Spirit also graciously grants her the gift of hospitality. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she tells “us” in verse 15, “come and stay at my house.” Earlier Acts reports Peter was so reluctant to enter a gentile’s home that the Spirit had to figuratively shove him through the door. Is it fair to wonder if Paul doesn’t also figuratively “stumble” just a bit over Lydia’s threshold as well? After all, she’s a gentile. She’s a woman. She’s rich. Yet Lydia “persuades” us. We accept her hospitality.
Lydia’s hospitality reminds Christians that Easter doesn’t just signal our dead bodies’ coming resurrection in preparation for life in the new earth and heaven. Easter also signals the resurrection that already occurs in us as God raises God’s adopted sons and daughters to a new life of obedience. The kind of hospitality Lydia shows Paul and his companions is part of that obedience. In Romans 12:13 the apostle invites us to “Practice hospitality.” In I Peter 4:9 that apostle also challenges his readers to “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
On this sixth Sunday in Easter the Lectionary appoints John 14:23-29 as the gospel lesson. It’s the account of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. That Spirit will be “another Counselor” who will come alongside Jesus’ followers to both remind us of what Jesus said and teach us all things. That Spirit is clearly very active in Acts 16’s account of Lydia’s conversion and hospitality.
The Lectionary appoints Psalm 67 for this Sunday. Its poet prays, “May all the nations praise you [O God]. May the nations be glad and sing for joy … May all the peoples praise you” (3-5). Acts 16 describes one of God’s gracious “yes’s” to those prayers. All kinds of people, including rich, gentile women like Lydia, are offering God their praise.
The Lectionary also appoints passages from Revelation 21 and 22 as this Sunday’s New Testament lesson. Among other things, they anticipate the time when “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into” the New Jerusalem (21:24). Is it too much of a stretch to think not just of the hospitality Lydia brings Paul and his companions, but likely also part of her wealth she eventually brings to the church, as some of that “splendor”?
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
Their son David describes how Rev. and Mrs. Edwin Van Baak went to China to serve as Christian Reformed missionaries there in 1948. However, while they were learning the Chinese language in Beijing, the Communist revolution gained momentum. As a result, the Van Baaks were evacuated, first to Shanghai and then, eventually, back to the United States. So while it was the Chinese rather than the Holy Spirit who “kept them from preaching the word” in China, they, like Paul and his companions, had to change their mission plans.
But in the early 1950’s the Lord opened another door for mission work in Asia, this time in Japan. There the US occupation authorities decided to open the country to foreign missionaries. God sent the Van Baaks to their own kind of Macedonia. The Van Baaks served as missionaries to Japan from the early 1950’s until 1969.
Perhaps ironically, Rev. Van Baak later assumed responsibility for caring for the Christian Reformed Church’s teachers who taught English in China. Part of his work involved touring China to visit those teachers in their places of work. So Van Baak’s missionary work that began in China ended, in some ways, in China. What’s more, while Chinese authorities had done everything they could to destroy the Christian church, Van Baak found that even in the face of persecution and the absence of foreign missionaries, the Chinese church had actually grown between 1949 and 1989.
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