Easter 6           May 1, 2016

Acts 16:6-15

You know the saying: God never closes a door without opening another. The interesting thing is, that new door is often in the most unexpected direction imaginable.

That’s why I have always loved this story of Lydia from the book of Acts, which we heard as our first reading today. At first glance it is a simple enough story of a journey, perhaps not even particularly interesting. But it is a story of a closing and opening door that is actually quite momentous. Not quite as momentous, perhaps, as the story we heard last week, about how God showed Peter in a vision that he was calling not only Jews, but people of all nations into his church. That story is in fact the central miracle of the book of Acts; today’s story follows it up in the same vein.

Paul and Silas have embarked on a missionary journey. You may remember those maps of the four missionary journeys of Paul, each one marked in a different colour, from the walls of Sunday School or the back of a Bible. Well, I would suggest they are a bit misleading. Because they seem to imply that Paul’s journeys were an organized undertaking that set out from a home base, probably supported by a missionary society back home, just like some nineteenth century European missionary setting out for the wilds of Africa. Well, that may have been the case for Paul’s first journey, but as today’s story shows, this journey is very different. He is not setting off as a representative of the church in Antioch. He has quarreled with his colleague Barnabas, and is leaving his home of many years in Antioch for good. The church in Antioch “commended him to the grace of the Lord” – there is an ominous finality in that blessing!

So he sets off alone with Silas, having broken with his home church. And finds nothing but frustration and failure. It is clear that things are not going well. They move from place to place, “having been forbidden by the Spirit to preach in Asia”. They try to move on to the next region, “but the Spirit of Jesus prevented them.” Now you have to wonder what experience lies behind that pious sounding phrase: impassible roads, bad weather, illness, hostile crowds, missed trains, messed up plans. We have all experienced days (or weeks!) like that, times when nothing works out for us, when one door is closed after another. Paul, out on his own, is experiencing nothing but failure. As the last door clangs shut, suddenly a new one was opened in an unexpected direction: a vision of an angel, calling him to leave his native Asia altogether, and venture across to a new place.

They take ship, and land up in the city of Philippi. An unlikely enough place for them to bring the gospel. It is, we are told, a Roman colony – settled some 60 years previously by veterans of the Roman army, a Latin-speaking outpost in a Greek-speaking world, very different from the other places Paul has visited. When Paul comes to a city, the first place he goes is to the synagogue. Here they don’t even have a synagogue – apparently there are no Jews who live here. There are, he hears, a group of women who meet down by the river to pray, and so that is where they go on the Sabbath. A small and unlikely beginning. But what began that day was in fact the core of Paul’s life work. Though he probably feels as though he has hit rock bottom, Paul is about to begin the most productive and important phase in his life. Philippi is the first; from there he will journey to Thessalonica, then Corinth, then Ephesus – all the congregations we know from his letters, all the great churches he is about to found. It all starts that morning down by the river.

The leader of the group meeting by the river is Lydia. She is a “worshiper of God”, which actually has a precise and technical meaning in the New Testament world: that is, she is a Gentile who is attracted to the Jewish faith, who worships the God of Israel. There were actually quite a few people like that in the ancient world, people attracted to a foreign religious tradition that seemed to offer a moral seriousness they did not find in the Greek and Roman gods. Something like the way many Westerners today are interested in Buddhism. They would form the core of the growing church – a group of people already interested in God, who were looking for a form of Judaism that could include them as non-Jews.

Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. That detail says a lot. First of all, she was an independent woman, a woman with her own business, in a world where that may not have been all that common. The purple cloth that she dealt in was the most expensive and prestigious fabric in the ancient world. The dye was derived from shellfish through a very labour intensive process. Purple clothes were reserved for the aristocracy. So Lydia was a business woman who worked in the fashion industry; high-end fashion, haute couture.

Now I f ind this more than a little funny. Remember where Paul is coming from: a traditional and very religious upbringing as a Pharisee, with very conservative values. Paul certainly has a reputation for not being the most welcoming of women – though I think this is somewhat exaggerated, having to do more with where he was coming from than where he ended up. And now, at the very low point of his career, having broken with the friends who had supported him up until now, he meets someone who would be a partner in building the first of the churches for which he would become known. And I can’t help thinking that a business woman in the fashion industry is the very last person he would have expected to partner with. The door God opens is in a very surprising place.

It was no doubt only the first of many surprising meetings Paul would have as he ventured into this new part of the world. The meeting with Lydia no doubt stretched him, challenged him to see God at work in people very different from himself, and he would continue to have that experience with other new people. Some would be rich landowners, some would be tradespeople, some would be slaves. Some would be independent women like Lydia, some would be married couples, some would be grandmothers, some young men. In the melting-pot of the Greek cities, some would be Jews, others would be from all over the world.

These experiences of all kinds of different people touched by the Spirit would lead him not only to new partners in ministry, but to a new vision of the church as a place where all the old divisions of race and class and gender no longer separate and control us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” When we hear this, and similar verses in Paul’s letters, we should hear them with an abiding sense of astonishment for the odd people that God calls together into his church.

For Paul, this odd mixture, this community of astounding diversity, is essential to the nature of the church, because it is the evidence that the Spirit is at work. Think of it this way: when we get together with people who are similar to us, similar in background and experience and interests, then that is a good thing, sure, but there is nothing remarkable about it. We already do that in dozens of ways in the different organizations and clubs we may belong to. We do not need the Spirit to get together with people like that. But when we come here, we should expect at least the possibility of meeting people who are different than we are, different background, different experiences, different interests. Because what brings us here is not the same thing that brings us to join other organisations. What brings us here is the love of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus that sparks in our hearts, and helps us to recognize the same spark in other people, often the most unexpected people.

That is the theory, at least, the ideal that was born in the riotous menagerie of those early Pauline churches. The practice it is often different. The very human tendency of seeking out like-minded people has shaped our churches. Some of the mega-churches succeed by very consciously targeting a specific age demographic, on the theory that people like to be with people just like them.  It used to be said that Sunday morning was the most racially segregated hour of the week in America – I wonder if that is still the case. Socio-economic background still divides churches, even in this community. And of course here in the Valley we may not be that terribly diverse to begin with.

And yet, when the opportunity arises, the diversity of the church can still be a powerful experience. Perhaps you experience this while traveling, when you enter a church in a very foreign place and recognize, amidst all the cultural difference, that a shared faith unites us. I always find it very moving being in a church where I don’t understand the language.

And here as well, in our own community, God sometimes gives us the grace of sending someone different among us, someone whose age, or background, or experiences are very different than ours. If he really wants to bless us, maybe he will send us, I don’t know, a Nigerian grandmother, with her memories of her village church; or a young lesbian woman with spikey blue hair and a face full of metal. Or maybe the differences won’t be so obvious: every person who walks through our doors brings their own differences, perhaps greater than we notice. And this is, I suggest, where we are really challenged to rise to the occasion. Can we recognize in that person, in their very difference and strangeness, a particular gift of God, an opportunity to experience the wonder that the Spirit calls all kinds of people into God’s family? Can we rise to the occasion, as Paul did with Lydia, get over our initial surprise, make them welcome – not just to the extent that they are willing to try to fit in, but welcome their difference as something we can learn from?

This is not optional. Because that fundamental diversity, that capacity to welcome the strangeness of others, and to recognise the Spirit at work in overcoming the divisions of prejudice and difference, is part of the fundamental definition of what the church is. We confess it in the creed, as one of the fundamental marks of the church, which keeps us from being just another social club. We do? Yes, every Sunday. The word we use for it is “catholic” – we believe in the catholic church. And by catholic we don’t mean Roman Catholic, and we don’t mean a high church style, and we don’t mean the opposite of Protestant. What the word means in its original sense is “of the whole” – the catholic church is the church that spans the whole world, and contains not one kind of people, but every kind imaginable. Sometimes you hear the expression that someone has “catholic tastes”, meaning they are interested in all kinds of things. Well, God has catholic tastes, at least as far as people are concerned. That’s why he opens doors in such unexpected places. May we be ready to step through those doors in faith and wonder!