Re-imagining Church: Where Do We Go From Here?

April 20, 2008

Opening Prayer:
“O God, who in your loving kindness does both begin and finish all good things; grant that as we glory in the beginnings of your grace, so may we rejoice in its completion, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” [Adapted from the Leonine Sacramentary, 440 AD]

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:18-20 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.””

New Testament Reading:
Acts 16:9-15 “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.”

As we have talked of “re-imagining church” in recent weeks, we have used the image of a meandering river, headed in a certain direction, which invites us to participate in the journey. Before getting into the water, I suspect that most people would have two questions in mind:

• What’s the water like?
• Where is the river going?

We have looked at a response to the first question in terms of a description of “church” based on the flowing narrative of Scripture where we envisioned “church” as holding to certain “core values”:

• A community reaching out to all of God’s people, seeking peace and justice
• Christ-centered and Spirit-led through prayer
• Teaching, mentoring and guiding through small group interactions
• Seeking to meet the needs of individuals and the community
• Transforming individuals, the church, the community and the world
• Worship that is relevant, vibrant and alive.
• Openness, honesty and integrity in all things

To answer the second question, we need to try and grasp the vision for the church, to see where the river is going and what that destination looks like. Jesus painted pictures of this vision through his words and deeds and the vision is described by the Gospel authors using their own terminology:

• The Kingdom of God (mostly Mark and Luke)
• The Kingdom of Heaven (mostly Matthew)
• Eternal Life (mostly John)

Although the terminology differs, the vision is the same. We have summarized the vision previously by seeing the ways Jesus taught first what the vision is not (a via negativa) and also what the vision is (a via positiva). In everyday language, we can talk of the Kingdom by saying:

• You can’t get there alone
• You can’t get there at the head of the pack
• You can’t own it
• You can’t get there by violent means
• The Kingdom values “the least of these”
• The Kingdom’s motivation is love
• There is only one Kingdom

The task of decoding the vision in the days following the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus falls in large part to Peter and Paul in the Biblical narrative. Although today’s text comes from the book called, “The Acts of the Apostles” perhaps a better name for it might have been, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because it is the Holy Spirit that is the driving force behind everything that is described in this book. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the good news – the gospel – is spread from Jew to Gentile and from the Holy Land throughout the world. The two major characters in the Book of Acts – Peter and Paul – each have a vision of what they are to do.

Peter had a vision that convinced him – against his own convictions – of the need to share the gospel with Gentiles and this vision set the stage for the message to spread from the Jews of the Holy Land to the Gentiles of the greater world. Paul’s first vision – described in Acts 9 – on the road to Damascus brought about his conversion from a rabid persecutor of the early Christians into a dedicated follower of Christ.

In today’s text we read of Paul’s vision to travel to Macedonia. In chapter 18 he had another vision calling him to Corinth in Greece. Later – in chapter 22 – he had a vision of going to Jerusalem and then in chapter 23 he was called by the Holy Spirit to Rome. There seems little doubt that Peter and Paul were true visionaries – without their vision, the church would not have spread as it did. There were different visions, but one Spirit lay behind them. Without their vision, perhaps we wouldn’t be sitting here today.

Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia occurred during the second of his three great missionary journeys. His pattern on these journeys was to travel to a town and preach there, first to the Jewish population – usually in the synagogue – then to the Gentile adherents to Judaism and finally to the rest of the population. If he was successful in establishing a group of believers in a particular city then he would keep in touch with them through correspondence and return visits. On this particular trip, he had traveled north from Jerusalem to Antioch, then generally northwest through Asia Minor. His path would have led him inland to Tarsus, and through the Cilician Gates, a narrow pass on the only route through the mountains. After stopping at the churches he had founded on his first missionary journey — Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch near Pisidia – he traveled across the plain into the western quarter of modern-day Turkey to the town of Troas, a seaport – near the site of Homer’s Troy – that was the main crossing point into Greece. There he had his vision – described as occurring during the night – perhaps a dream – that he understood to be of God.

Paul’s vision was of a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now, “Macedonia” was the Roman province in northern Greece, and so Paul’s vision was to enter what we now know as Europe for the very first time, to begin spreading “the good news”. Without Paul’s vision, his mission would not have entered modern-day Europe at all. In fact, earlier in the Book of Acts we read that Paul had other plans but these were thwarted and could not be put into place.

After reading about Paul’s vision, the next verse, verse 10, tells us, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” Many see the inclusion of the word “we” in this passage as indicating that the author – Luke – was with Paul at this time. Others assert that Luke uses “we” in the same sense that other contemporary authors did: to emphasize that the even
ts recorded really occurred. Supporters of this latter view note that Luke only uses “we” at critical decision points in Paul’s missionary journeys. Whatever the case, Paul must have described his vision to his companions – and apparently very effectively because we read, “immediately they tried to cross over to Macedonia”. I wonder what he said to them. Paul was a skilled orator who was very familiar with Greek rhetorical practices. He had the ability to describe his vision in ways that would make others see it too. From his letters we can see that he could paint a picture with his words that made people want to stand up and join him – he could describe a vision of the future so compelling that people wanted to live into it. No wonder they set off “immediately”!

When I think of Paul describing his “vision during the night” and the response of his companions, I think of a modern-day orator who could paint pictures with his words – pictures of a future so compelling that people would stand up and say, “I want to live that future”! Do you remember these words, delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

The words of Martin Luther King Junior painted a picture of a future – they cast a vision so compelling that people rose up to live within that dream. That’s how I imagine Paul describing his vision of what it means to be the church to his companions – a vision so compelling that they rose up immediately to live within that dream. There’s a big difference between a vision and a plan. A vision paints a picture of a future that is so exciting, so wonderful, so compelling that others rise up to live within it and that future is created and becomes a reality.

And so Paul and his companions set off for Macedonia to live into the vision and make it a reality. We read that that they set sail from the seaport of Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, an island that rises some 1,500 meters above sea level and that is a clear landmark by which to navigate. On the following day they sailed to Neapolis, the seaport lying at the eastern terminus of the Via Egnetia, the Roman Road leading to the Adriatic Sea and the port that served the city of Philippi, to which they traveled and where they remained for some days.

Philippi is described in today’s text as “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” The city became a Roman colony following one of the most significant battles in all of Roman history. Two years after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the armies of his avengers did battle with the armies of his assassins at Philippi. His avengers won and his adopted son, Octavian – who became the Emperor Augustus -created a Romany colony with special privileges to commemorate his victory. In typical Roman style, the land at Philippi was given to retired Roman soldiers who settled there. About a hundred years later, Paul arrived.

And concerning Paul and his companions in Philippi, we read, “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” Now we know that Paul’s usual method was to find the synagogues in the towns he visited and preach there. Presumably there was no synagogue in Philippi because it was only when there was no synagogue that Jews would gather at a river – a convenient place for ritual purification – to pray on the Sabbath. Perhaps Paul thought that his vision was already going awry – the first stumbling block: no synagogue, the second: there were women gathered at the river and not men. In a patriarchal society, that made a difference. And yet Paul remained faithful to his vision of spreading the good news in Macedonia – he sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

We read that, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Lydia is described here as “a worshipper of God” which means that she wasn’t Jewish but was rather a Gentile convert to the worship of the God of Israel. The description of Lydia as a “dealer in purple cloth” and her name itself suggest that she was a freed slave who had entered the business world as a dealer in the purple dye and purple cloth for which the region of Thyatira was well known. Lydia and her household were Paul’s first “European converts” although Luke is careful to give credit not to Paul, but rather to God, writing, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” And so it is in the vision of the church that develops through the Book of Acts: God provides the vision, God is responsible for the success, and God’s workers are the tools through whom God’s plan unfolds.
Lydia and her household were baptized there in the river outside Philippi. That she is described as having a household — a phrase used to cover both a family and their dependents and slaves — suggests that she was probably wealthy and that her trade in purple dye and cloth had allowed her to accumulate assets. Immediately upon her baptism her reaction was to open her household to Paul and his companions – in other words her response to God’s action in her life was to offer her assets in support of the vision to bring the church to Macedonia.

There is a sense that Paul was reluctant to accept her offer of hospitality – we read that Lydia “urged” the travelers to stay and Luke writes, “she prevailed upon us”. The offer that Lydia extended was a real test for Paul. He was raised as a Pharisee, trained in the law – the Torah – and he was brought up to be fully committed to every aspect of it. The thought of a Pharisaic Jew going to the house of Gentile women – perhaps a freed slave but certainly a women unknown to him, unrelated and likely unfamiliar with Jewish dietary laws and rituals – this was a thought no Jewish male would entertain! And yet, there was the vision – the vision of spreading the good news to all of the people – Jews and Gentiles – in Macedonia. Which would win out – the old traditional way of doing things or the new vision? Luke writes, “And she prevailed upon us.” The vision – the vision so compelling that Paul and his followers chose to live into it – won out.

Recall Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul wrote those words just a year or two before he encountered Lydia – and found that he needed to live them out or deny them. When there is a compelling vision, barriers crumble and new people – perhaps unexpected people like Lydia, join the group.

Our text for the day doesn’t tell of the rest of the story – but we know that the churches founded by Paul in Macedonia were legendary – the churches at Thessalonica and Philippi, to whom Paul wrote the letters we now know as First and Second Thessalonians and Philippians, were instrumental in rooting the faith in Europe. His vision was transformational. He responded to a need, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” were the words of his vision and look what happened
when Paul responded in faith. Paul’s vision did not focus on where he, himself, wanted to help – in fact, his plans had been quite different – but rather called for a response where his help was most needed. The vision wasn’t about Paul, the vision of the church was much bigger than that.

Paul’s mission to Macedonia illustrates the components of his compelling vision: it was the work of God, it called for him to do a new thing, to embrace new people, to respond to the needs of others, to carry the gospel beyond the walls of the synagogues and cities, to break free of cultural traditions that separate and divide. Paul’s vision of his mission to Macedonia sounds a lot like the vision that Jesus painted so effectively with his words and his actions: his vision that he described as “the Kingdom of God”.

Vision matters. Our vision is what we see before us, it is the future we seek to create and strive to embrace. At The University Church, we envision an authentic Christian community that holds to the core values of the church and that strives towards a future in which we are:

• Reaching out
• Finding meaning in life
• Improving the community
• Re-envisioning the church
• Transforming the world

The United Methodist Church has been working to rethink its vision and its dreams and has an initiative called the “Shared Mission Focus on Young People”. And so the folks at the Shared Mission Focus asked young people to “dream a church”. There is web site where people have posted their dreams – their visions – and there are now, literally, hundreds of these visions posted there. Here are few of the dreams – the visions – that these young people cast:

• I dream a church where God’s love, grace and redemption are always found and shared.

• I dream a church that knows the Word of God.

• I dream a church where geographical boundaries don’t limit the vision and ministry.

• I dream a church that is full of people and growing again.

• I dream a church that is filled with people who are tired of the same old trash and want to make church the most important aspect of their lives.

• I dream a church where young people in Africa will have the same opportunities as young people in the United States.

• I dream a church that will save my life.

• I dream a church that has the courage to move beyond its walls with the transformative power of the gospel to bring the light of Christ into the world of young people.

• And I especially dream a church that does not stop with a dream.

These are the dreams – the visions – of the young people of the church and they sound, to me, a lot like the vision of Paul as he was called to Macedonia, and the vision of Jesus – the vision of the Kingdom of God.

Vision matters: without Paul’s vision, the gospel would not have come to Europe when it did. Without Martin Luther King Junior’s vision, the civil rights movement might never have become a powerful reality.

So, how do we “dream a church”? What is that dream? What is the vision so compelling that others will want to live into it and create a new reality? Can we really be part of creating the Kingdom of God? Of course we can – we are the church – let’s dream a church together!

Do you remember how Martin Luther King Junior ended that famous speech of his back in 1963? Did he lay out a plan? No. Did he lay out a timetable? No. Did he lay out a budget? No. He put the finishing brush strokes to that picture he was painting of his vision – of his dream:

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Now that’s a dream – that’s a vision. That’s a future worth living into. That’s a reality worth creating. Let’s all add an ending to the words, “I dream a church…”, let’s paint a picture of a future worth living into, a reality worth creating. And let’s “especially dream a church that doesn’t stop with a dream.” Amen.

Thanks for visiting!