May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-15

“Come and Stay at My Home”

This morning’s passage from the Book of Acts is a story about faith-sharing and a story about church-planting. In the early days of Christian Church, apostles like Paul were intentional about going out, sharing the good news about Jesus, and helping new worshipping communities to get started.

They followed the Spirit’s leading, and paid attention to dreams and visions and ideas that came to them in the middle of the night. And the church grew, and lives were blessed, and love was shared, and hope soared.

I heard a statistic the other day from our Synod’s Congregational Development Coordinator, Jo Szostak, that in the last 20 years, 53 new congregations have been formed in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. 20 of those were Korean congregations, 18 were other ethnic congregations, and only 15 were non-ethnic Presbyterian congregations. I don’t know the numbers on how many congregations have closed in that time, but I’m sure that it’s quite a bit higher.

Jo attended a conference a couple of weeks ago for people in our Presbyterian Church who would like to work on starting up new worshipping communities. That would include new churches, but also other creative new ministries that don’t look quite like traditional churches. And one of the pieces of advice that she shared for the discernment process about where, and how, and when to start up a new ministry was this:

The leader said it was like people deciding where to place a new sidewalk. When asked where was the best place for the sidewalk, one person said the north side was ideal, while another thought the south side would be better. But the third person said, give me some time. I need to look for the bent grass. I’ll put the sidewalk where the people walk.

Like Paul and his co-workers who looked for the place where the people liked to gather, new church-planting models suggest that we go to meet people where they are today rather than trying to build something and try to attract them to us.

Most of us here today are not likely to become church-planters. I don’t think it’s something I’d be particularly good at. But who knows? God has surprised me in the past with what I’ve been called and equipped to do that I never imagined.

But even if we may not be called to start a new church today or tomorrow, I know that we are called to share our faith, to spread the good news about Jesus, and to grow our own church’s ministry and outreach right in this community.

And I could be wrong, but I think the biggest challenge for most of us is to figure out what to say to our friends, and our neighbours, and the people we encounter whose hearts, like Lydia’s, may be open to hearing some good news.

Not long ago, I asked the children to get you adults to tell them your stories of faith during the coffee hour after worship. I don’t know how many of them asked, or how many of you shared. But I know that it’s difficult to get started – to put into words what we believe, and why it matters to us, and why it could change someone else’s life for the better too.

This morning’s story from the Book of Acts doesn’t tell us what Paul said to Lydia and the other women that were gathered there by the river. We know that he sat down and spoke with them. We know that Lydia opened her heart and listened eagerly to what he said.

Maybe it was something like this…

You worship God, as we do also. But have you met God? Do you know that God to whom you offer your prayers today?

We believe that God has come to us in a man called Jesus from Nazareth. He showed God to us in the way we he lived, and what he taught, and how he loved. Those who met Jesus came to believe that they had met God himself.

Jesus welcomed outsiders – people who were foreigners, disreputable women, little children, and even tax collectors.

Jesus forgave people who made mistakes and did wrong things. He didn’t condemn them, but invited them into new and loving and just ways of living.

Jesus showed love for everyone, but especially those who were least and left out. Jesus fed hungry people and healed those who were sick, and told about a time to come when everyone will live together in perfect love and peace.

Jesus didn’t always follow the religious rules set up by people, but he lived by the spirit of love, and called others to follow his way.

Although many people were amazed by his teaching and his example, those in authority were threatened by his movement. They called him a blasphemer and conspired to have him arrested. Then his followers dropped away, people rejected him, and they put him to death.

Those who had become his followers were devastated, believing not only that he was dead, but that they had been wrong.

But then God raised him from death, and many of them saw him alive. In his death and resurrection, he showed us that the least and the lost and the downtrodden and the rejected ones are not forgotten by God.

Jesus showed us that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death.

We believe that even though Jesus died, he has been raised to live forever with God. And we believe that no power of evil, hatred, darkness, or death can overpower us either when we live as followers of Jesus and children of the God of love and light.

Jesus calls us still today to follow his way, to share his teachings, to love as he loved, and to keep on doing the things that he did.

Although he didn’t stay with us in bodily form, he sent us the Holy Spirit of God to live in us, and comfort us, and remind us of all that he said, and to empower us to do his works.

And even now he is alive. As we live, he lives in us. And in our bodies, his body is present in the world today – loving outsiders and serving those in need.

Would you like to meet this Jesus? He already knows and loves you deeply, and he is inviting you to let him into your heart. He is inviting you to trust him and follow his way.

I don’t know if that’s the gist of what Paul said to Lydia that day, or if that’s just the way a 21st century preacher like me would say it. But her heart was open to hear what was said, and she wanted to be baptized (to turn away from sin, to turn towards Jesus, to be washed clean and be forgiven, to die and be raised to new life in Christ, to be ingrafted into the Body of Christ that is the church, and to receive the Holy Spirit).

And that wasn’t the end of the story for Lydia. Baptism wasn’t the last step (a kind of graduation from a Christian education program) but it was the beginning of her life of faith and service and following Jesus.

Do you remember what she did next? She invited the apostles to stay at her home. It wasn’t just her thoughts or her beliefs that changed. It wasn’t just an internal theological framework or a spiritual system that she adopted. Her new life of faith in Jesus was not a personal decision about a private matter, but it was something that was about to change her whole life.

Can you imagine Lydia’s friends, neighbours, and customers asking? Who are those strangers staying at your house, Lydia? What are they doing in our town? Why are you hosting them and taking care of their needs?

Lydia allowed Jesus and his followers not only into her heart, but also into her home. She let that faith decision not only be a choice about how to spend a few hours each week in worship, prayer, or study, but to affect the whole of who she was – all her networks and connections.

And I can only imagine that once Jesus and the church had been welcomed into Lydia’s life, opportunities would begin to spring up all around in which she also would be called upon to share her faith with others.

Lydia, who are those strangers staying at your house? Well, they’re the ones who first told me about Jesus. About who?

The implications for us are pretty obvious, right? How can we welcome Jesus and the church into every part of our lives?

The answer is not necessarily that you must invite the minister over for dinner. But how will you let your faith and your commitment to following Jesus permeate every aspect of your life?

It could be something as simple as whether there are signs of your faith in your home when you welcome friends, family, or neighbours to visit. Is there a cross, a Bible on the desk, a church choir schedule on the fridge, a copy of the Presbyterian Connection newspaper on the coffee table?

Or do you ever mention things that are happening in your church life to others who are outside of it? You might even get so bold as to invite someone to attend a church event. Try something easy like the Chancel Singers concert this afternoon. But start with things like just mentioning in passing… I need to get out of work by 5:30 today so I can grab something to eat before “Wondering Wednesday” tonight. “Wondering Wednesday?” your colleague might ask. And that’s your opportunity to share.

But this isn’t necessarily about promoting our particular congregation either. I’m not sending you out to recruit people for First Church membership, though I certainly won’t complain if you bring a few friends. But you might also think about how you allow your faith perspectives to flow into the conversations you have about life, and politics, and the struggles of the world. And don’t be afraid to name the reason why you believe what you do.

If you want some practice with these kinds of conversations, have them with each other, and have them with me. Come to “Wondering Wednesdays” when they start up again in the Fall, where those are just the kinds of conversations that we have.

As Lydia welcomed Jesus into her heart and the apostles into her home, let us open the fullness of our lives to Jesus also. And once he has found his way there, let us be willing and ready to share our faith so that others, whose hearts are open, can eagerly listen to what we will say, in Jesus’ name. Amen.