Let us pause to give thanks for the gift of Christian community and for the life and ministry of Jesus in whose footsteps we follow:
God of community,
who calls us to be in relationship with one another
and who has promised to dwell
wherever two or three are gathered,
hear us as we pray:
…Open our eyes, Holy One, to perceive the gifts
you have placed within us
and to honour the differing gifts
which our sisters and brothers offer.
Bless our hands, our hearts, our vision
>as we work together for the realization of your commonwealth
that in our differences, we may find blessing;
in our outreach we may promote justice;
in our challenges we may find hope;
in our embracing, love;
and in our risking, transformation.
By these acts may we be faithful
in our ministry together
as members of the body of Christ.
May this be true in our words and actions
this day and in the days to come. Amen
(Sacred Journeys, Jan L. Richardson, pgs. 191-2, adapted)
The scripture readings that we heard today speak about places of prayer and God’s presence among the people gathered to worship God.
Psalm 84 reveals the belief of the Jewish people of the time that God’s dwelling place was in the Temple of Jerusalem where the Ark of the Covenant resided. The psalmist extols the beauty of God’s dwelling place and proclaims that all are happy who dwell in God’s house.
The brief passage from the Acts of the Apostles is set not in Jerusalem but just outside the city gates of Philippi in Macedonia. The apostle, Paul, had been travelling with companions Silas and Timothy when he had a vision that he was being called to travel to Philippi. Paul was a person of strong convictions and was dedicated to spreading the “Good News of Jesus Christ” wherever God’s Spirit led him. We know from the story that it was the sabbath day. We don’t know if there was a synagogue in Philippi at that time but we do know that women, who were Jewish or were adherents of the Jewish faith, had to worship separately from Jewish men. That Paul refers to Lydia as a “worshiper of God” indicates that she is a believer in the God of the Jewish people. Her name, Lydia, and where she is from, Thyatira, tells us that she is a gentile by birth. That she is a “dealer of purple cloth” and that she is responsible for a household suggests that she is a single woman who has wealth and status. The fact that she invites Paul and his companions to stay in her home would have been shocking and unusual for a woman who lived in the Mediterranean world at that time. It is significant that this invitation was extended after Lydia and her household were baptized into the Christian faith. We can assume that Paul’s testimony about Jesus would have revealed the absolute belief of the equality of all brothers and sisters in Christ no matter their gender or socio-economic background.
Now to get back to the location of the “place of prayer” in which Paul found the women. The location, “outside the [city] gate by the river” may have afforded some privacy and quiet seclusion away from the populous hill section of the city of Philippi. (All of The Women of the Bible, pg. 223, Edith Deen) The fact that Lydia and her companions were engaged in worship and prayer indicates they assumed God’s presence with them wherever they happened to gather. Biblical scholars speculate, with good foundation, that Lydia’s household became the basis for the Early Christian Church in Philippi. In fact, Lydia is hailed as the first convert to Christianity in that part of the world. It is also recorded, in Acts 16:40, that when Paul and Silas were later imprisoned in Philippi that they escaped and stayed at Lydia’s home. And sometime later, in Paul’s letter to the Early Christian Church in Philippi, Paul says, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. …It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:1-5, 7)
Early Christian communities, like the one Lydia belonged to in Philippi, met as “house churches” when it was safe to do so and in secret when Christians were persecuted. Today, there are still places where Christians must gather and worship in secret but in most of the world Christians enjoy the freedom to gather wherever and whenever we please. This freedom brings with it responsibility and challenge. It is easy to become complacent and simply worship privately within the walls of a church sanctuary. Churches within the United Church of Canada are encouraged to embrace an incarnational theology which reveals the living Christ at work within our lives and our communities through the words and actions of our lives. In the words of one of the hymns in Voices United, “worship and work must be one” (Voices United # 401)
In the twenty-first century Christians around the world seek to live their faith in the actions of their lives, travelling with marginalized persons as Jesus did, embodying the values of love and justice, acting in ways that are informed by faith and by Christ’s example.
In 2001 the Church of Scotland presented a report to their membership entitled, “Church Without Walls”. This report states that, the Core Calling of the Church is to follow Jesus. Quoting Jesus when he says to his disciples, “Follow me”, the report says that, these two words of Jesus Christ offer us the purpose, shape and process of continuous reform of the Church at the beginning of a new Millennium and at any other time. …that calling is relational rather than institutional. Jesus leads us into love for God and love for our neighbour, expressed in communities of worship and mission. …Those who are learning the Way will accompany contemporary searchers in the Way. We are to be communities of the Way. …The church shaped by the Coming Kingdom will live less by historical precedent and more by the future expectation of becoming part of God’s new creation. …It is not that the church ‘has’ a mission, but the very reverse: the mission of Christ creates his own church.” The “Church Without Walls” concept of church focusses on the recognition of religious and cultural diversity and the encouragement of partnerships in the work of social justice with neighbours locally and globally. It also suggests moving worship and community beyond the traditional walls of the local church building. The Church of Scotland website says, “the church has left the building: cafe church, youth church, nursing home church, bikers church – God’s spirit is firing our imagination and preparing people to serve as pioneer ministers in a variety of contexts and situations.”
A few years ago at the Epiphany Explorations symposium in Victoria, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada, Lois Wilson, talked about a variety of models of church. One model that was shockingly memorable to me is the “Fortress Church” – a place that is inward-looking and cares for their own members but doesn’t venture outside their comfortable community of believers. Another model, is a combination of two styles of church: the Gathered Community and the Scattered Community. The Gathered Community, as the name implies, gathers to work and worship together and builds a sense of community that learns and grows together. The Scattered Community is the result of a strong gathered community that is strengthened and encouraged to live their faith outside the walls of the church building in the wider community and world. This is a good combination: come in and be nurtured – go out and nurture others.
As people of faith we know that following Christ causes us to take risks and face challenges that take us out of our comfortable pews. Lois Wilson says that we need to identify what’s happening in the community in which we live and ask ourselves, “How does our faith inspire and inform our actions in response to what is happening in the community?” I’ll close with a story that I heard from Lois Wilson that exemplifies that faith in action requires risk and trust:
Imagine there is a man crossing the Niagara Falls on a guy wire. If he asks you, ‘Do you think I can make it across?’ and you respond, ‘Yes, I believe you can’, that’s belief. If he says to you, ‘Jump on my shoulders and go across with me’ and you do, that’s faith.
May our faith in Christ, who inspires our actions,
make us bold and daring
as we face the challenges of this world that God so loves.