The 'What-If' World

© Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, May 26, 2019 2:31 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

“During the night Paul had a vision.” We’re used to hearing this from the Bible—people having visions. But do you live your life this way? Do you interpret dreams as visions and make your next day’s plans based on them? I’m lucky if I can remember my dreams long enough to write them in a journal—and when I do, I can sometimes come to an understanding of what ideas my brain has been working overtime on. But most of the time I don’t wonder, “What if this is a call to do something specific?”

Perhaps you have had a vision from God, though. It’s not uncommon for people to interpret an unusual experience in this way. Sometimes it might be mere superstition, but I can’t judge your visions. I’ve had visions myself—few and far between, to be sure, but powerful enough to continue exerting an influence on me decades later.

In today’s story, Paul’s vision leads him and his companions to set sail across the Mediterranean, from Asia Minor to the Greek peninsula. In the major trading city of Philippi, they meet Lydia. And in the latest consequence of resurrection, the Good News spreads to Europe for the first time and takes root there.

When Paul went to a new town, his first destination was usually the synagogue, because there he could find his people—the people with whom he had the most in common. The Jews would know the story that Jesus came out of and might embrace Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. But the synagogue could also be a difficult place to make converts, because an established theology is not easily open to change. The notion that God became human sounded more like Greek myth than Jewish theology. And that’s why Paul sometimes found that Gentiles were more open to his message.

So Paul went down by the riverside and met with a group of women there. It was highly unusual for a man to sit down in the role of a teacher with women gathered around. Women were not normally treated as students. But Jesus did the same with Mary and Martha. And Paul knew that often when men won’t listen, women will.

Early on, Christianity was a movement largely led and promulgated by women, because here at last was a religion that not only sought to include women but, at its best, welcomed them as equal partners. Christianity spread quickly as women shared the Good News with each other, and since the children were under their care, the children were also baptized. For many centuries Christianity lost its egalitarianism. But now, in our own century, I think we’re finally starting to get it back.

Lydia chose to be baptized, and as was typical in the early church, her whole household was baptized with her. From context, we think Lydia was probably a widow, but a wealthy one with a house full of servants. As a dealer in purple cloth, Lydia ran an expensive business that served an elite clientele. With her ample resources, Lydia was well positioned to become a leader in the Jesus movement. Very likely she could provide funding and a meeting place for new converts as the community in Philippi grew.

And we know from Paul’s joyful letter to the Philippians, probably composed just a few years later, that this community did grow and thrive. In that letter Paul greets “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” He names two other women, Euodia and Syntyche, as leaders there. Paul comments that the church in Philippi is a shining success story that has funded some of his more difficult church plants. So it seems that the seed planted with Lydia sprouted and yielded a hundredfold. And all this because Paul had a vision telling him that he should go to Macedonia. He brought with him a vision of a “what-if” world—a vision given to him by Jesus.

When we get into matters of faith, we never know where we’ll wind up. We heard the Rev. Sarah Monroe preach during Lent: she started her ministry five years ago with a backpack, a few dollars in her pocket, and some sandwiches to hand out to the hungry. She wondered, “What if there were a religious movement advocating for the poor in and around Aberdeen?” Now Chaplains on the Harbor has an annual budget of half a million dollars. Most of our churches have more traditional inceptions, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less visionary. Good Shepherd was a church plant under the direction of Bishop Lewis in 1961 and initially met at the vicar’s home. Within months when that got to be too small, Good Shepherd worshiped at Lakota Junior High School. Who knows what a vision today might lead to tomorrow?

But anxiety can prevent us from striking out in bold new ways. Fear of uncertainty, fear of the future can block us from making life-changing decisions. What if we understood, though, that God was with us in all things? What if we could see even our failures as steps on the road to whatever good things God has in store for us? What if we surrendered control and just allowed God to guide us? To do so would be to welcome into our hearts the “peace” that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel reading. This peace comes to us when we are well practiced in the art of loving, because love is a matter of letting people be and become.

When we love in a letting-go kind of way, instead of clinging to our own presuppositions and agendas, God makes the divine home with us. The Holy Spirit becomes our teacher as we sit down by the riverside and listen eagerly to this new word of hope. And peace can then descend on us—but not the kind of peace we usually think of, an absence of conflict. This peace is deeper than that.

This is Memorial Day weekend, when we honor those who died fighting for the vision of a nation based on freedom. They died fighting for peace. What a human oxymoron, though: to fight for peace. Usually we humans fight out of greed or fear. It is far better to defend the lives and the freedoms of others. But even this is a sad compromise, because in the Christian playbook there is no page on violence. We’re free creatures and God doesn’t prevent our violence, but we always need to remember that it comes from some other playbook. And whatever peace we can provide through violence is not yet the real deal.

The peace that Jesus gives begins when he sacrifices his life, not violently, but peacefully and with dignity. Even as he is beaten and doesn’t fight back, Jesus doesn’t become a doormat, because he has purpose. We often refer to Jesus as the divine victim, and that’s true, but it’s a victimhood to be honored and not pitied. It is freely chosen.

This crucified Messiah, the one who would not lift a finger to defend himself and who ordered others to put their swords away, is the one we understand to be God. So when we honor those who “more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life,” we must never forget that human violence can only delay a problem—it cannot solve it. Only true peace can do that—peace that comes through hard work and patient dignity and even suffering, peace that comes through the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus is right when he says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.”

To establish his “what-if” world, Jesus plants neverending stories in our hearts and sends the Holy Spirit to inspire us to live these stories to whatever degree we can. Central to these stories is the bare fact that we humans are unable to build a utopia. It’s not our work to do. But when we open our eyes to God’s love for the world and all its creatures, we see clearly that the only way even to approximate it is to live not for ourselves alone, but for everybody. That includes those who are inconvenient to us. That includes our wartime enemies.

At its best America is a taste of something much bigger, better, and deeper than itself. This is the America worth giving one’s life for. This weekend we do honor those who have lain down their lives for a “what-if” nation that we have yet to become and can never fully become. But Christian love is still bigger. It has no borders, no outsiders, and no enemies—only those who have not yet opened their hearts to love.

When Paul sat down by the riverside with Lydia and the other women, he told them about this bigger “what-if,” a world that gathers all the nations, into which God comes to be with us on our own terms and even allows himself to be killed by the evil forces at work in us. Over the ages, many people have died for the sake of God’s “what-if” world. And whether you’re a missionary, a soldier, an activist, a teacher, a politician, a priest, a doctor … whatever you do with your one wild, precious life, you can choose to live your life in the “what-if” world Jesus offers us, a world we don’t see clearly today but can imagine and approximate. In that world, we lay our lives down for one another and watch with awe as our lives are then given back to us in surprising new forms.

The Holy Spirit is coming, friends—she’s always coming, and she’s already here. She wants things for us so good that they surpass our understanding. She is God always emerging in new ways, in new situations, to unsettle us and lead us somewhere new—toward a “what-if” world where a river runs through the holy city and waters the tree of life, a tree with fruit for everyone and with leaves that heal the grief and despair of the nations that we could never perfect. When we lay down our lives as Jesus did, we are given the power to take them up again and live in this “what-if” world, restored and made more whole than ever before. Amen.

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