Jesus Calls Us – message delivered May 22, 2022, at Paola United Methodist Church, from Acts 16: 9-15.
In our Bibles, the book of Acts is formally titled “The Acts of the Apostles.” Many commentators think it might better be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because the Spirit is the real power driving the story.
We see that clearly in today’s episode focused on the calling of Lydia.
This episode raises several important questions for each of us about our own calling, how we experience that calling, and how we respond to it.
Let’s place this episode in the broader story of Acts.
The Apostle Paul is ready to set off on his second missionary journey. He’s recruited three new helpers: the study and experienced Silas; the young and inexperienced Timothy; and a fellow named Luke.
Luke doesn’t contribute much to the story itself, but when he later records it in the book of Acts, he signals his presence by mentioning the things that “we” did, or happened to “us.”
These four know where they want to go. But God keeps telling them no.
They want to go north into Asia, but Luke says the Holy Spirit forbids it. How the Spirit forbids it, he doesn’t say. So they decide they’ll go to Bithynia; that’s closer anyway. But the Spirit won’t allow that either. Again, we’re not told how the Spirit makes this known.
What we are told is that one night Paul has a vision. It may come in a dream, but Paul is perfectly capable of having visions outside dreams. Paul is a mystic. He is aware of spiritual forces that most of us are only vaguely familiar with. In his vision, he sees a man from Macedonia who pleads with him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
The four are immediately convinced that God is calling them to proclaim the good news in Macedonia. So that’s where they go. Traveling by sea, they head for northern Greece, and they land in the Roman colony of Philippi.
It is Paul’s practice to go first to the synagogue to tell local Jews about the content of his preaching. He knows he’ll likely get thrown out of the synagogue, but he always starts there before he turns to Gentiles, to whom he feels especially called.
It takes at least 10 men to form a proper synagogue, but apparently there aren’t that many Jewish men in Philippi, so Paul looks for someplace else believers might gather for prayer on the Sabbath. Gathered by the river outside of town, he finds a group of women – and the one who responds most strongly to his message isn’t even Jewish.
Luke describes her as a God-fearer. That means she’s a Gentile, a non-Jew, who is moved by the Jewish message about God but is not ready to convert.
In fact, Paul always finds some of his best converts among God-fearers. Leaders of the synagogues resent this. They think he’s targeting God-fearers and essentially stealing sheep from their pasture.
This particular sheep would be a good one to rustle. Her name is Lydia, and she is a wealthy and independent woman. Luke says she’s a dealer in purple cloth. In those days, purple cloth was difficult to dye, and therefore both rare and expensive, essentially reserved for royalty and the upper class.
Whether she’s a widow or an especially good businesswoman, or both, Lydia has done well for herself. She has her own home in Philippi and a household that may include slaves or free domestic staff as well as children.
According to Luke, the Lord opens Lydia’s heart to respond positively to Paul’s message about Jesus. She makes a confession of faith right then and there, and Paul responds by baptizing her and all her household in the river.
She invites Paul and his friends to stay at her home, and it becomes the center of Christian worship in Philippi.
Lydia is the first Christian convert in Europe, and her home is the first Christian church in Europe. Today, she is widely considered a saint, and many Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate her feast day on May 20.
The church that Paul founds in her home at Philippi will be one of his favorite churches. The letter that he writes to the Philippians some years later is one of his warmest and most charming letters.
Lydia also is notable for being the first of several women whom the New Testament lifts up as heroes of the faith. Paul is often derided as a misogynist, a woman hater, but he encourages and celebrates the leadership of women in the church, including Rhoda, Tabitha, Eunice, Lois, Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche.
Lydia, though she now lives in Philippi in Greece, hails from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor – what we today call Turkey. Forty or fifty years later, Thyatira is one of the seven churches that John of Patmos writes to in the book of Revelation. It’s a strong enough church that it survives for 1,800 years. We might wonder if Lydia wasn’t at least partly responsible for founding it.
Well, you might chalk this episode up to a string of happy coincidences. But instead don’t you see the slender but strong thread that the Holy Spirit weaves through lives and events to bind them together?
Paul is warned away from Asia and Bithynia and led to Macedonia. There, in the pagan city of Philippi, he is led to a gathering by a river, and he meets a spirited and influential woman who will help spread the good news of Jesus to everyone she encounters.
Coincidence? No, no – not at all.
Allow me to jump in time and space. In 1738, in the city of London, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, are in spiritual despair. They have just returned from a disastrous missionary journey to Georgia in the American colonies, and they are discouraged and distraught. They both preach salvation, but they cannot feel assurance of it personally. And they so much want such assurance!
In early May, Charles falls seriously ill. Everyone is convinced he is going to die. Instead, on May 21, he senses what he calls “a strange palpitation of heart,” and he suddenly feels at peace with God. He shouts, “I believe! I believe!”
Three days later, on May 24, John ends a long and tiring day by reluctantly attending a meeting of a religious society on Aldersgate Street.
The class leader is reading from Luther’s writings on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. John describes what happens next: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.
“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
This episode is frequently called a “conversion experience,” as if somehow he was not a Christian before it. It is not a conversion. It is an awakening and a deepening of a faith that was already there but had been pounded flat by events in his life and needed to be revived and fanned into flame.
And so it was. For the next 50 years, John and Charles lead a revival that blazes across England, into Ireland and Scotland and to America as well.
Their awakenings by the Holy Spirit do not come out of the blue. John and Charles had prayed and studied and prepared for such a thing – alone, together and with others.
Just as Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke prayed and studied and prepared to receive guidance from the Holy Spirit, and received it;
- just as Lydia was led to gather by the river that day, and rejoiced in the message she heard;
- just as John and Charles Wesley rejoiced in the blessed assurance they received in May of 1738;
- so today we also pray and study and prepare to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit calling us – calling us to new adventures in faith, new encounters with others, new direction from above.
To the Romans, Paul says that the Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are beloved children of God (Romans 8:14-17).
To the Corinthians, Paul says: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We never walk blindly, though, for we are assured that God walks with us every step of the way – behind us, beside us and before us, every step of the way.
The great contemplative Henri Nouwen once said that 10 years earlier, “I didn’t have the faintest idea that I would end up where I am now.” I was so busy running my own life, “that I became oblivious to the gentle movements of the Spirit of God within me, pointing me in directions quite different from my own.”
And were the directions you set for yourself so superior to those in which you were led by God? Haven’t you felt the tug of the Holy Spirit at key moments, nudging you toward paths you never considered before?
It is sometimes thought that Jesus calls only those who pursue vocations within the church. That is simply not so. Jesus calls each of us and all of us. Through the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, through the experiences of our lives and the encouragement of loved ones, Jesus calls each of us to follow him in ways that are both common to all and unique to each of us.
You may never have had what you thought was a vision from God. You may never have encountered a man from Macedonia or anywhere else saying, “Come over here.” But surely you have heard Jesus calling you.
You may be afraid because you’ve heard about the violent fantasies of killers who claim they obey the voice of God. You can be assured that any voice they hear is not the voice of God, for God never calls anyone to harm anyone.
You also may be afraid because you imagine, “Oh, I just know God will send me to Africa.” More likely, God will send you to an even scarier place – right next door.
You can’t just sit and wait for it to happen while you watch TV or scan social media. The Wesley brothers called this “quietism,” and they condemned it as spiritual laziness. Like the Wesleys and Paul and others, you have to want to hear the call, and you have to pray and study and prepare so that when it comes hear it and when you hear it you’ll know how to respond.
Will you do it? Are you ready to hear it? Are you prepared for an Aldersgate experience? Are you primed, like Lydia, for the next chapter of your life?
Jesus calls us, the old hymn says.
Day by day his voice calls us, saying, “Christian, follow me.”
Can’t you hear the call?