A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
When my brother Ed was here recently we went canoeing on the James River. I was in the front of the canoe—the bow—and he was in the stern. Ed is an experienced canoeist. He’s been on lots of whitewater trips. I trust him completely. But there was a moment, as we were getting ready to enter a set of rapids, that I felt the canoe rock violently from side to side. I reached out for the sides instinctively, and gripped the gunwales till my knuckles turned white. I looked back to see my brother standing up in the back of the canoe, holding his paddle. I said, “Sit down, Ed! You’re not supposed to stand up in a canoe! It’s too unstable!” But he said, “I’m just looking for a way to get through this set of rapids.”
I think that’s how some of you felt during last Sunday’s sermon. I was talking about that time God told Peter not to think of anyone as profane or unclean and asking who we might consider unclean in our time. At one point I mentioned the “G” word and that’s when it happened. I rocked the boat. I could almost see some of you reaching for the sides, and gripping the gunwales till your knuckles turned white. But honestly, it must have been like that for the early church every day. In these first few chapters of the Book of Acts we hear how the spirit filled the believers on the Day of Pentecost, how Peter and John healed a crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate, how they and the other apostles were locked up in prison, how the Spirit let them out so they could continue to preach the word, how Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy, how the church was scattered across the region, how the Samaritans became believers, how an Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized, how Saul was converted to Christianity, how Peter raised the dead, and then, last week, how he went to the home of an uncircumcised Gentile. To be in the church in those days would have felt like being in the front of a canoe going through a set of raging rapids, with everybody holding on to the gunwales with white knuckles as the Holy Spirit stood in the back of the boat, steering. It would have been both thrilling and terrifying, words we rarely use to describe our experience of church today.
When I hear that young people in this country are leaving the church in droves I sometimes wonder if it’s not because they’re bored. Those of us who are a little older don’t really care for that white-knuckled experience. We bind the Holy Spirit, stuff it into a burlap bag, and throw it under a seat in the bow so that we can steer the church into the safe, stagnant backwaters of the river. And it’s not just us; it’s been going on forever. Movements that begin with a burst of prophetic energy quickly become institutionalized. Look at the church in those early days, as it is described in the opening chapters of Acts, and then look at it in the Pastoral Epistles—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—written just a few decades later. In that brief period of time the church changes from one in which people are literally carried away by the Spirit (remember Philip?), to one with structure, and governance, and elected officials, where whole paragraphs are written about the qualifications of deacons and elders.
It seems that we don’t want the Spirit to be in charge; we want to be in charge, but the Spirit may know better than we do what we really need. In those parts of the world where the church is thriving these days—places like China, Africa, and Central America—the Spirit seems to be almost completely in charge, whereas in other places, perhaps those places where we are in charge, the church is struggling. I’m not saying we need to become Pentecostal—the Pentecostals have as many problems as any other denomination—but perhaps we could learn to discern the leading of the Spirit in a more faithful way than we usually do. Maybe we could learn to lift our heads, and look around, and “sniff the wind for the scent of the Spirit” as I said in a recent sermon. I’m grateful that here, at First Baptist, we are already taking steps to do that. We’ve never had a constitution and bylaws, but these days we seem to be even more willing to enter into a process of discernment when it comes to big decisions, and not simply settle for a majority vote. Sometimes those votes make things worse, and not better.
But let’s look at our reading for today, from Acts 16:9-15, and let’s listen for the word of the Lord:
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us (NIV).
This story comes from a time when the Spirit was still in charge of the church. It was certainly still in charge of Paul. In the verses that precede today’s reading we learn that Paul and Silas and Timothy traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
Now, this is not in the Bible, but when I get to this part of the story I picture Paul and Silas and Timothy coming into the region of Troas and somehow ending up at the home of Luke, a doctor. Maybe Paul needed to see someone about that infamous thorn in his flesh, and as he did he got to talking. You know how preachers are. “Yep,” he said, wincing, “I’ve asked the Lord to take this thing away from me three times, but so far, no go.” And that’s how he and Luke ended up talking about the Lord for the next three hours until Luke finally invited them to stay over. It was sometime during the night that Paul had his vision. Not a dream, mind you—a vision. That means he would have been wide awake for it, sitting up in bed hardly able to believe his eyes. A man from Macedonia begging him, “Come over and help us!” And as I picture it there was something so urgent in his appeal that Paul got up then and there and started packing, making so much noise that Luke eventually came down the hall in his nightshirt, knocked on the door and said, “Is everything all right in there?” And then Paul told him everything and when he was finished Luke said, “I’m coming with you.”
Because in the very next verse (and this is in the Bible) Luke says, “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” So, as soon as they could, they got on board a ship heading to Samothrace, a big island out in the middle of the Aegean Sea. And from there they sailed on to Neapolis on the coast of Macedonia. From there they traveled on the Via Egnatia to Philippi—about ten miles inland—a Roman colony and, as Luke tells us, the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And on the Sabbath they went outside the city gate to the river, where they had heard there was a regular prayer meeting. They sat down and began to talk to the women who had gathered there. One of them was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a Gentile who worshiped the God of the Jews. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited Paul and his companions to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And that’s what they did.
And so, in the beginning at least, it wasn’t a man from Macedonia but a woman from Thyatira who was helped by Paul and his companions. And the church that was started in Lydia’s home became Paul’s favorite among all the churches he founded. In Philippians 1 he says, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for you I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” You could almost imagine that he was writing those words to Lydia herself. But I want to go back to that night when Paul had his vision, because I think there is something about the way he responded that should characterize our own response when we hear a cry for help.
Paul responded “at once” Luke says, and it reminded me of the way firefighters respond when the alarm sounds at the fire station. They leap out of bed in the middle of the night. They slide down the fire pole and put on their pants. Before you know it the truck is pulling out of the station and there they are, clinging to the outside of it, still tucking in their shirts.
Secondly, they respond without concern for their own safety. They are so focused on the people they are on their way to help they don’t think about themselves. Maybe you saw the excerpt on the front of today’s bulletin about the firefighters climbing the steps of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. One of them called to his friend, “Don’t go up there, Paddy!” but his friend yelled back, “Are you nuts? We’ve got a job to do!”
And finally, they don’t quit until the job is done, or until they simply can’t go on. I’m fairly sure that brave firefighter who climbed the steps of the World Trade Center on September 11th didn’t come back down. There were 343 firefighters and paramedics who died that day, all of them rushing to the scene as quickly as they could get there, and all of them focused on everybody but themselves.
I think that’s how Christians, and not just firefighters, should respond to cries for help, and in today’s reading Paul sets a good example. He has a vision of a man from Macedonia begging, “Come over and help us,” and immediately he goes. He doesn’t seem to have any regard for his personal safety. Ocean voyages in those days were dangerous. Passengers didn’t always make it to the other side. But Paul went, that cry for help still ringing in his ears, and Luke, and Silas, and Timothy went with him. When they got there they did everything they could. They shared the gospel as if they were carrying people out of a burning building. And it made a difference. Lydia was saved. A church was started in her home. Who knows how many others were saved because of her?
In this series I’ve been talking about “the Acts of an Easter People,” and this seems to be one of them: this willing response to a cry for help. When I was thinking about the sermon last week I thought about some of those early Baptist missionaries who risked everything to share the gospel, people like William Carey of England. At a ministers’ meeting in 1786, Carey raised the question of whether it was the duty of all Christians to spread the Gospel throughout the world. An older minister is said to have retorted: “Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.” But Carey persisted, and in 1793—just as Paul had sailed for Macedonia—he sailed for India. His son, Peter, died there of dysentery. His wife, Dorothy, suffered a nervous breakdown. It took him years to make the first Christian convert. Still, he stayed with it.
In 1812 he was joined by an American congregational missionary named Adoniram Judson. On the voyage to India he and his wife Ann studied the New Testament teachings on baptism and were persuaded to become Baptists. Judson didn’t stay long in India. He moved on to Burma where he ended up serving for nearly 40 years under circumstances that were almost unimaginable. But he didn’t give up. He and his wife Ann weren’t thinking of themselves. They were thinking of these Burmese people. I think about others who risked it all: Henrietta Hall Shuck, and Lottie Moon, and some of the retired missionaries here in church, and others who are still out there on the field. In every case they have heard a cry for help and gone.
Do you know that about half the congregation at Tabernacle Baptist Church these days, a mile away from here, is made up of Burmese Christians? “Come over and help us,” their ancestors said, and the Judsons came. And now the Burmese have come over here. There are hundreds of them in our city. And our church, and Tabernacle, and others, have been involved in helping them get settled here, helping them find both a physical and spiritual home. We’ve had a chance to answer their cries for help without leaving the city. And as I was thinking about that I thought about all those other cries for help that we’ve answered in the last few months—from Essex Village Apartments, and Glen Lea Elementary School, and the housing projects in the East End where I was yesterday afternoon, along with about thirty volunteers from First Baptist.
This is what Easter people do: when they hear a cry for help they respond, immediately. They don’t think of themselves, they think of others. And they don’t quit until the job is done or they just can’t go on. They do it when people are crying for spiritual help. They do it when people are crying for physical help. They do it because that’s what Jesus did for them. When they cried for help, he came, and because he came,
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.