Sunday, May 9, 2010

Six Easte
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Let the peoples praise thee, O God; Let all the peoples praise thee.

They say that fish will only grow as large as their habitat will allow them. A fish in a fishbowl will not get as big as that same fish in an aquarium. Many churches take this to heart when considering a building program. It is generally understood that people become uncomfortable when a sanctuary gets too crowded, so visitors do not return. ďIf we make it bigger, they will come,Ē is the battle cry. Bigger is better in our world. This isnít something new; after all, the medieval cathedrals of Europe are massive structures that reach to the sky.

But such large buildings are impractical for some communities of faith. There are those churches that canít afford to build; some canít even find enough land for a building. They find other ways to gather. Storefront churches are a practical solution to the problem. The congregation is able to use a building that already exists, pay rent that fits into their financial ability and use their energy to offer ministries that touch the lives of those who pass by on the street. House churches serve a different type of community. Some congregations share a building, though they have separate and unique ministries. Though it might be right for a congregation to building a new building to grow their congregation, it is good to remember that God blesses all those fellowships where two or more are gathered.

There is something particularly special about that group of believers that gathers despite the roadblocks they face. Do you give up worship because your numbers are small or you have no place to gather? Unfortunately this is a question some churches are asking, and for many of them the right answer is to let go. It is heartbreaking to see a congregation close, but when the resources and energy can be better used elsewhere, it is sometimes the right choice. It isnít easy closing a dying congregation, but sometimes it is easier to close it than to find a way to keep it alive. They key is discovering Godís will in the situation for He is able to both heal and bring new life out of death.

In todayís first lesson we see a fellowship of believers that is making the best of their situation. Paul was visiting Philippi, following a vision from God. Philippi was a Roman city with few Jews and Jewish believers. It was generally easy for the apostles to find the believers when they traveled to a new city because they had a place to meet. But, the Jewish community at Philippi was not large enough for a Temple or even a synagogue. On the Sabbath, Paul went searching for a place to worship.

Paul went to the river. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship. He went there on the Sabbath because he expected to find other believers. It is not surprising that they might like meeting by the river; there is something very peaceful about worshipping where there is flowing water. The sound is calming, but it is also an image that reminds the people of Godís presence among them. Moving water was considered living water, and rightly so. It is not surprising that Godís Spirit would be likened to a river because it is clean, clear and fresh. It is constantly changing and yet always the same.

At the river, Paul met a group of women who were praying. We donít know much about these women. Were they of Jewish heritage or were they proselyte? Where were the men of their community? Luke tells us that one woman, Lydia, was a worshipper of God, which likely means she had faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What do you think they thought when Paul and his companions joined them in their worship?

How did Paul come to be in Philippi? He had a vision. He saw a man calling him to Macedonia and he left immediately as if the call came from God. They were convinced this was God. They traveled for a few days, through a few cities and eventually stopped in Philippi. What made them stop then and there? We arenít told about another vision, they did not find the man in the vision. Yet, they decided to stay a few days in Philippi. It turned out to be a good choice, because they were able to meet with Lydia and her friends, share the Gospel message and establish a new point from which the Gospel would grow.

Paul wasnít concerned that this was such a small gathering. He didnít need crowded hillsides to share the story of Jesus. He simply spoke to a willing heart. We donít even know if the other women stayed to listen. This story is about Lydia, and how the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly. She heard the Lordís voice and obeyed, being baptized along with her entire household. Then she invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home. She wanted to know more.

It all began with a small gathering of women praying by the river. We know the fellowship grew from Paulís letter sometime after this visit. But in the beginning, they met in Lydiaís home. They probably continued to gather by the river, also.

One of my favorite travel memories was from a trip we took when we lived in England. We were in Cornwall, the southwestern corner of the country. On the day I like to call ďClimb a Hill, Look at a Rock Day,Ē we wandered the tiny country roads in search of ancient sites. The last place we visited was listed on the map and street signs as a Celtic Chapel. The information suggested that the place was probably built in the fourth century, as Christianity was just beginning to find its place on the island. The chapel was built in a forest that had long been a site of pilgrimage because a well there was known for its healing properties. The Christians transformed this holy place into one dedicated to the Lord Jesus.

The chapel is little more than four walls covered in vines. The roof is long gone, although the altar, font and perimeter seating is still there. A well was built into the corner, which was used for healing. There are a number of stories from the place. The building is smaller than my living room, a tiny space that is big enough for only a few dozen believers. Within a few miles of the site there are several very large churches with active congregations, including a cathedral. Yet, despite the fact that there has not been a congregation meeting at this place for a very long time, it was one of the most special, and I might even say holy, places I have ever been.

Perhaps it is special because this was where the few gathered. They were going against the religion of their time, facing the questions of what it means to be a Christian in the world. They had to figure out Godís will with little help. We have plenty of references: the Bible, the historic understanding of the scriptures, the traditions and rituals of the Church. We have stories of the mistakes, examples of the successes and the lives of the saints to give us encouragement and guidance. Though those Celtic Christians had the stories and knowledge brought by missionaries, but they were living at the end of the known world. It is unlikely that they even had copies of the letters or Gospels.

So, how do you know what to do? How did Paul know that his vision meant he should go to Philippi? Is God as clear for us as He seemed to be for those early Christians? Do we miss His voice? I canít tell you how many times Iíve wished God would be clearer about His will in my life. Perhaps if He was, we wouldnít be so divided over the issues that threaten the Church today.

We have been blessed for a purpose. God sent Paul to Lydia so that the Church might take hold in Philippi. God sent someone to Cornwall so that the Church might take hold there. And God continues to send believers out into the world so that everyone will hear the Gospel message and join in the fellowship. We are among those sent out to speak Godís word to those whose hearts have been opened to eagerly listen. There are issues that need our attention, just as there were for all the early Christian churches. We are just like them: we need to hear Godís word and obey.

It begins with praise. The psalmist calls the believers to be glad and sing for joy at the just and merciful works of God. Whether we are just two or three or hundreds gathered, our ministry begins with worship. This psalm is not limited to just those who are in our fellowship today. It is for all people. Will they praise God if they do not know Him? This is the very reason we are sent: so that they will know Him and join in the song.

When asked why we believe, our thoughts generally turn to eternal life. We believe so that we can go to heaven. We are baptized so that weíll be welcome in heaven. We attend worship so that there wonít be reason for God to keep us out of heaven. The passage from Revelation is a vision of what will be. We will return to the Garden, but in that day it will be a city with a river running through it. The Tree of Life is available so that all can eat of the fruit that gives life. The people who live in this city, whose names are found in the Lambís book of life, will share in the glory of God for eternity and live in His presence. It is as God intended His creation to be, in fellowship with Him and each other for all time, worshipping God with praise and thanksgiving.

While heaven is part of the promise, Godís grace brings us into a relationship with God that is now and forever. We can live in hope and expectation for what we hear in Revelation, but we are given today for a reason. We are given Godís power to continue the work of healing and reconciliation that Jesus began so long ago. Yet, we often find it difficult to know what it is we are supposed to do. We second-guess ourselves.

We donít even know what we expect from God! We donít want to seem demanding or ask too much. Take, for example, the man in todayís lesson from John 5. Jesus asked, ďDo you want to be made well?Ē The man has been disappointed for such a long time, unable to get into the healing waters at just the right time, left in the wake of those who could get into the water more quickly. He answered Jesus by telling him that he has no way of getting well. Jesus answered with a command to get up and go. He believed Jesus and rose.

He was looking for healing in the wrong place. He knew the stories of the pool and tried for a very long time to receive the blessing. When he was face to face with God, he didnít know what to do. He didnít know what to ask. He complained that life is unfair. Jesus showed him that there is a way to be healed. We donít have to rely on luck, or others. We will be healed if we rely on God.

It is hard, though. They had Jesus living in their midst. They heard His voice and saw His actions. They were there when people were healed and changed. But, He wasnít going to be with the disciples forever, and He spent so much time teaching them to do Godís work in the world. In John 14, Jesus told the disciples that the day would come when He would have to leave them, but they would not be left alone. He would send an advocate to continue to teach and reveal God to them. The Paraclete, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit would speak on behalf of Jesus to and through the disciples to give them power and peace. He even suggested that they should rejoice that He was leaving. If Jesus stayed, they would never be given the gift of the Holy Spirit by which they have the assurance of Godís promises dwelling in their hearts. Jesus had to go so that they could go on to do His work in this world.

Could Lydia have believed so easily without the Holy Spirit? Would Paul have followed that vision with such immediacy or joined the women at the river if the Holy Spirit had not been guiding Him? I can honestly say that I donít always trust the voices I hear. I am never convinced that I hear God as clearly as Paul and the others. When dealing with those issues of our time, I can see the value of other points of view. I know that people with opposing opinions believe theyíve heard Godís voice. How do we know which one is right? How do we know that we are really doing Godís will?

The key to our living in this world is to keep God in front of us at all times. He will do what He intends. Living faithfully means trusting that even when we make errors in the way we do things that God and His Spirit will ensure that all is well. The Philippians did not do Church perfectly. Paul had to write to correct their errors and encourage their successes. The Celtic Christians surely made their own mistakes. We, too, make mistakes daily in the way we go about doing what God has called us to do.

And so we obey as best we can, knowing that Godís Spirit accompanies us on our journey. We might wish that Jesus were still dwelling among us, but the reality is that He couldnít be everywhere at all times. The Spirit can. And so we gather together, by the river or in a cathedral, praising God and praying for His guidance. Wherever we are and whatever we do in faith, God will be with us. We might have to change the way we think about the things of faith, answering the questions God asks instead of speaking the complaints of our hearts. As we keep our eyes on Him, weíll see and hear His voice more clearly and act with assurance and peace.

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