By mtaylor | Thursday, May 26, 2016 | 11:34 AM
Acts 16: 6-15; Rev. 21:10 and 21:22—22:5
May 1, 2016
“To Boldly Go!”
Rev. Rosemary McMahan
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” If you are over the age of 40, you know these are the opening lines to the TV show and movie Star Trek. As a former English instructor, I am compelled to point out that while “to boldly go” is not grammatically correct—it contains a split infinitive and should properly read “To go boldly”—that phrase continues to pop into my head as I reflect on this morning’s passage from Acts. In fact, the mission statement of the starship Enterprise could be the mission statement of the Church: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before. That’s exactly what the first followers of Jesus Christ did.
We are two weeks away from Pentecost, and in our readings the air is already beginning to stir. We are two weeks away from the Holy Spirit anointing the eleven apostles with a boldness, energy, and fire that changed the history of the world by changing them and then transforming a man named Saul and through him a woman named Lydia. The Spirit is moving and directing, sweeping Paul and Silas into strange new worlds and new civilizations to which they boldly go, even though it wasn’t in their initial plans.
During these fifty days of Easter season, our lectionary texts have been focusing on the work of the Holy Spirit as these stories give us glimpses of the “conditions on the ground” of the first post-Resurrection followers. The Spirit moves these ordinary people from the religious center of Jerusalem, to the cultural center of Greece, and eventually to the political center of Rome. It’s important to note that as one commentator states, “the movement of the church is directed not by disciple-strategists intent on enlarging their territory but by the blow-where-it-will Spirit working in and through (and sometimes apart from) an improbable lot, the ekklesia of God” (The Ekklesia Project Posts, April 26, 2016). The “ekklesia of God,” the church. That is us.
Most of us can probably relate to being blown where we don’t necessarily want to be or didn’t intend to be, both in our personal and in our congregational lives. So often we map out the steps of our lives and make long range plans for our church, get comfortable with our expectations, start off with our charted directions and our diplomas, our mission studies and vision statements, and then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we, like Paul and Silas, are “forbidden to proceed.” Sometimes it’s enough to make us want to throw in the towel. But changes, detours, and dead-ends are as much a part of the life of any faith community as they are a part of life.
I remember in 2005 when our son, Joseph, was called to apply to the Peace Corps. As he waited to hear about his acceptance, he began to study Spanish because he had listed South America as his continent of choice. Just about the time he had enough Spanish under his belt to get by, he received his acceptance letter with his assigned country: Kenya. Spanish and Swahili don’t have a lot in common, but the Spirit of Jesus blew Joseph to the people it wanted him to serve. A year ago, I didn’t expect to be swept into First Presbyterian Church and to be standing in your pulpit. I know you didn’t plan on that, either. But the Spirit of Jesus started to blow, and is still blowing. What may appear to be obstacles or challenges to us are simply turnabouts for the Spirit.
Yet we “believers” often come unglued when something changes in the church, such as the departure of a beloved pastor, the decline of a longtime program, a change in ministry focus or worship style, while all around us in our everyday secular lives changes happen constantly. Children grow up. Suddenly we walk into that empty nest. Our partner dies. Our parent dies. We are stricken with disease. We lose a job. We make a move. We downsize or upsize. Change just IS, whether out there, or in these four walls. So our two stories this morning, from Acts and from Revelation, reveal what can happen when we are open to change and open to being directed by the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Acts records the mission of God moving forward through the unexpected and the unorthodox: surprise encounters, spirited debates, strange visions and dreams, suspect spokespersons, and unconventional conversions. As Emma Stowe pointed out last Sunday, followers like Peter find themselves in places they never expected to go and acquiring new attitudes they never expected to make. Last week, Peter had to let go of the numerous dietary laws that he, as a Jew, had always observed in order to extend grace to a Gentile. This week, Paul has to let go of the Pharisaic law that forbade teaching women that he, a Pharisee himself, had always upheld, in order to extend grace to both a Gentile and a woman. We have grown so accustomed to these stories that we tend to miss the astonishing significance of what has just happened, of how significantly these men have been transformed.
Think about it! Peter and Paul have abandoned life-long, deeply-engraved recordings of what is right and wrong, black and white, in order to be apostles sent by Christ to share his good news of inclusion and grace. Surely each of us has at least one of those deeply-engraved recordings that has been challenged. It cannot have been any easier for those two men to change their beliefs than it is for us to change ours, for those two to learn to adjust than for us to learn to adjust. But the command of the Spirit is clear: to boldly go to new civilizations and to take the good news to new lands (which may be right in our backyards) and new people which often requires loosening our well-crafted rules and regulations, letting go of what is safe and familiar, and embracing different attitudes and behaviors. Jesus never said it would be easy to enlarge our circle of believers and expand our family. He only said, “Go.”
But we can’t be bold all on our own strength, so let’s look a bit more closely at Paul. He is on his second missionary journey, and instead of giving up when the Spirit thwarts two previous attempts to spread the gospel, he jumps a ship and crosses the Aegean Sea to reach Macedonia. Hoping, perhaps, to find a group of men or a synagogue along the river, he and his companions take a walk and stumble upon a gathering of women. Women, remember, weren’t teachable; they were commodities and property. But notice what happens. Paul, Silas, Luke, and the other men sit down and speak to these women. It is significant that Paul sits down to speak because sitting was the typical posture for the rabbi to assume when he was teaching. Further, these aren’t Paul’s own people. They are Gentile women, and one of them is apparently independently wealthy. Yet Paul lets go of his prejudices and his reluctance and his opinions of who is worthy to be approached, demonstrating his newly scripted, revised theology: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul doesn’t come to this place of incredible transformation on his own; that change would be impossible for anyone. But he is open to the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that blows on Lydia so that her heart is “opened” to God and her home is opened to Jewish men. Barriers are broken when the Spirit of Christ empowers Paul to boldly go to Philippi where the first house-church opens under the authority of the first female leader, Lydia. What an amazing story and what a hopeful story about partnering with the Spirit! When we don’t know where to go or what to do, the Spirit does.
So how does this story of meeting women on a river bank relate to us? This story of Paul and Lydia was countercultural two thousand years ago, no doubt shocking then, and it remains countercultural today. All we have to do is listen to our politicians (or maybe even our friends or family) telling us who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is not, who is right and who is not, to understand the obstacles and challenges that arise when we try to extend grace to the places and to the people who need it most. But like Paul, we can’t let the challenges stop us. As Revelation reminds us, a new heaven and a new earth are coming into existence, a place where all shall see the face of Christ, if we are willing to follow.
This particular body of Christ now finds itself in a time of transition. It isn’t what you wanted or expected, but here it is. So the question is: what are you going to do now? Yes, there has been pruning, some painful pruning, but pruning is necessary before fruit can be born. This in-between time for your church is filled with opportunities to listen in new ways to where the Spirit may be calling and what it may be asking you to do, and to be. This in-between time can be a time of assessment, like it was for Peter, to ask yourselves what rigid lines you might need to release, what obstacles to grace you might need to remove, what personal agendas you may need to let go off so that you can model Paul who, Luke tells us, was “convinced that God had called us to proclaim good news” (16:10). You are called to proclaim the good news, too. You have places to boldly go, and you will get there because Jesus promised his apostles, and thus us, that “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14: 26). That Holy Spirit is among you now, molding and shaping, preparing and directing for the vision of a new heaven and a new earth to happen here as you, too, boldly go, and continue to write your amazing story.