Easter Eruptions Continuing!
Acts 16: 16 – 40; John 17: 20 – 26
Just a few days after the level of danger had decreased regarding the Sinabung volcanoe in Sumatra (Ind.), a massive explosion was reported on Saturday, May 25th. There are a number of active volcanoes around the world. I counted 10 earlier this week. There are some 1500 volcanoes and a number of them in Australia. The vast majority are dormant.
Now you needn’t worry or have a sleepless night worrying about the volcanoes as there are watchers who have the knowledge and equipment to read the signs. But their warnings don’t always register with us. When the eruptions come we seem surprised. Sudden volcanic eruptions are deeply disturbing. In fact any kind of sudden eruption is disturbing.
You may be wondering why I have started this sermon talking about volcanoes. Why start with volcanoes? Well, I was reflecting on the texts set for this Sunday, especially the lengthy story about the Philippian jailer. (I have extended the reading to get a fuller picture of the situation.) The readings suggest that the Holy Spirit is bursting forth everywhere. I thought of Easter when Jesus rose from the dead. It was like an eruption bursting forth from the bowels of the earth. The Resurrection was an eruption of energy that empowered Jesus’ despairing followers. Jesus’ Resurrection disrupted the normal tasks and expectations around his death. Jesus was dead and dead means dead – no more earthly life. But Jesus erupts – he bursts onto the stage of life upsetting the normal process. We well know how it works! A death occurs followed by grief and mourning and then there is the slow adjustment to living. Not with Jesus. His resurrection was like an eruption. It was sudden, unexpected and life changing. In fact it changed our perspective on death itself.
Now we think that things would return to normalcy. They did in a way. The disciples gathered for worship, prayed and fellowshipped around the meal table. Then the second eruption – Pentecost! We’ll reflect on Pentecost next week. What followed Easter was this burst of energy in the life of the Church. The Church was then persecuted and it scattered throughout the known world. Little groups of Christians gathered in many towns well beyond the borders of Judaea and Galilee. Travellers, merchants and Apostles had spread the Gospel. Today we have an account of Paul and Silas travelling through the lands and towns of what we know as modern day Turkey. But the text tells us a number of things. The first thing we are told is that though the disciples of Christ made plans to work systematically through the southern towns of Asia Minor their plans were interrupted by the Holy Spirit. We read that the Spirit had prevented them from ministering in certain parts and had directed them through a vision to go to Macedonia. All we are told is that the mission of the Church was Spirit directed. We can conclude that the Spirit’s direction was more adventurous and strategic than their mission plan. So they went to Philippi and Thessalonica.
The second thing we learn is that they were open to the Spirit’s direction. In my life I have had to wrestle with my conventionalism and conservatism and the call of God. I have also found that I have let my life be dictated more by the regular chores of ministry than bold new plans. I would think that the disciples’ willingness to hear the Spirit and respond is a challenge to us all.
Thirdly, there were quite a few small eruptions in the life and witness of the Church. The Holy Spirit caused these eruptions. They went to Philippi and encountered challenge and opportunity through two women. Firstly Lydia, a Gentile and a wealthy merchant. Her wealth and independence is significant. She received the Gospel of Christ and welcomed Paul and Silas to her house. Her house becomes the home-base for the church. It became what we call a ‘house-church’. Then there was that eruption of the Holy Spirit in the incident of the slave girl, who followed Paul and company declaring that he was the ‘servant of the God Most High’ [Acts 16:17]. It was an eruption of sorts. The slave girl disrupted the mission. The slave girl’s owners falsely accused Paul and Silas. The issue was about her owner’s loss of income.
Paul and Silas were wrongfully imprisoned. However out of what seems a bad experience emerged healing and salvation. An earthquake caused Paul, Silas and other prisoners to be freed from their imprisonment. This greatly frightened the jailer. He would be held accountable. He decided to ‘fall-on-his-sword’. Paul stopped him assuring him they would not escape. The Gospel was preached and the jailer and household became Christians. Paul and Silas’ suffering became the pathway for more grace and blessing.
Now we can see the Holy Spirit’s direction of God’s mission in these stories found in the book of ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. The Holy Spirit directed Peter to go to the wealthy and powerful Roman Officer, Cornelius. The Spirit convicted and blessed Cornelius and his household. Then the Spirit directed the Apostles to Macedonia where more households became Christian. The success of the mission was due to the Holy Spirit. That is another lesson the Church must remember. And so we read that Lydia, the wealthy Gentile merchant, became a Christian. We are told that the ‘Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying’ [Acts 16:14]. Lydia was baptised with her household. We can confidently assume that the Holy Spirit blessed her and her household as the Spirit had done with Cornelius. Likewise the Philippian jailer and his household turned to Christ Jesus and were baptised. This was followed with a fellowship meal [Acts 16:33 & 34].
There are things we learn from these stories of our Faith.
Firstly, the Holy Spirit directs the work of the Church. Good examples are the stories of Cornelius the Roman Officer, Lydia the seller of purple and the Philippian Jailer. Listen to what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit according to the Gospel of John. When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for I will send the Holy Spirit to you. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [John 15: 26; 16: 7, 13]
Secondly, the Church’s success is not dependent upon our cleverness or hard work: it is dependent upon the Spirit and our obedience to the Spirit.
Thirdly, we see the importance of table fellowship. This is significant. Conversion to Christ Jesus means a restored relationship with God and with God’s people and the earth. So table fellowship became an expression of the Faith. The meal table is an intimate occasion leading to a deeper communication with others. Food and drink lighten the spirit and embolden the conversation. Here lies another lesson for us. Christianity is not about my personal salvation, but about my belonging to the community of God and the world.
Now the Christian fellowship goes far beyond our human fellowship, which is largely based on common interests and common background. Of course it is easier to meet with people like ourselves. But see what God the Holy Spirit is doing here. Lydia and the Jailer represent the margins of society. A Gentile woman merchant would have been on the margins of society in those days. The Roman ex-soldier jailer lives on the margins between the authorities of society and the prisoners. We can also assume that Lydia and the Jailer had little in common that would have brought them together.
Fourthly, the Gospel is for all – both the powerful and the wealthy and those accepted and not so accepted by the conventional society. The Gospel transcends human divisions and status roles. The Gospel declares that God accepts all and searches out both the rich and the poor.
From these stories in Acts and we see the Holy Spirit bringing together Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. That is what Jesus was doing in accepting the Pharisees, his fellow Galileans, the Samaritans, women, tax collectors and lepers into his life. He broke the conventions of his society in doing that. He broke the conventions that prohibited the unclean, such as menstruating women and lepers touching others. He broke the conventions regarding race and religion. That all happened because the love of God and the Spirit of God poured through his veins erupting into this world in life giving actions.
Finally, the eruption of the Holy Spirit in our lives turns things up-side down. The Spirit speaks the truth of God and the truth sets us free [Jn 8:32]. That is an eruption of liberation and grace in our lives. New energies burst forth and change for the better takes place.
Our challenge today is to twofold: to listen to, then follow the Spirit’s guidance.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 02/06/2019