The Acts of an Easter People: Willing Response
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
May 5, 2013
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
When my brother Ed was here recently we went canoeing on the
River. I was in the front of the
canoe—the bow—and he was in the stern.
Ed is an experienced canoeist.
He’s been on lots of whitewater trips.
I trust him completely. But
there was a moment, as we were getting ready to enter a set of rapids, that I
felt the canoe rock violently from side to side.
I reached out for the sides instinctively, and gripped the gunwales till
my knuckles turned white. I looked
back to see my brother standing up in the back of the canoe, holding his paddle.
I said, “Sit down, Ed! You’re
not supposed to stand up in a canoe!
It’s too unstable!” But he said,
“I’m just looking for a way to get through this set of rapids.”
I think that’s how some of you felt during last Sunday’s sermon.
I was talking about that time God told Peter not to think of anyone as
profane or unclean and asking who we might consider unclean in our time.
At one point I mentioned the “G” word and that’s when it happened.
I rocked the boat. I could
almost see some of you reaching for the sides, and gripping the gunwales till
your knuckles turned white. But
honestly, it must have been like that for the early church every day.
In these first few chapters of the Book of Acts we hear how the spirit
filled the believers on the Day of Pentecost, how Peter and John healed a
crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate, how they and the other apostles were
locked up in prison, how the Spirit let them out so they could continue to
preach the word, how Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy, how the church
was scattered across the region, how the Samaritans became believers, how an
Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized, how Saul was converted to Christianity, how Peter
raised the dead, and then, last week, how he went to the home of an
uncircumcised Gentile. To be in the
church in those days would have felt like being in the front of a canoe going
through a set of raging rapids, with everybody holding on to the gunwales with
white knuckles as the Holy Spirit stood in the back of the boat, steering.
It would have been both thrilling and terrifying, words we rarely use to
describe our experience of church today.
When I hear that young people in this country are leaving the church in
droves I sometimes wonder if it’s not because they’re bored.
Those of us who are a little older don’t really care for that
white-knuckled experience. We bind
the Holy Spirit, stuff it into a burlap bag, and throw it under a seat in the
bow so that we can steer the church into the safe, stagnant backwaters of the
river. And it’s not just us; it’s
been going on forever. Movements
that begin with a burst of prophetic energy quickly become institutionalized.
Look at the church in those early days, as it is described in the opening
chapters of Acts, and then look at it in the Pastoral Epistles—1 and 2 Timothy
and Titus—written just a few decades later.
In that brief period of time the church changes from one in which people
are literally carried away by the Spirit (remember Philip?), to one with
structure, and governance, and elected officials, where whole paragraphs are
written about the qualifications of deacons and elders.
It seems that we don’t want the Spirit to be in charge; we want to be in charge,
but the Spirit may know better than we do what we really need.
In those parts of the world where the church is thriving these
days—places like China, Africa, and Central America—the Spirit seems to be
almost completely in charge, whereas in other places, perhaps those places where
we are in charge, the church is struggling.
I’m not saying we need to become Pentecostal—the Pentecostals have as
many problems as any other denomination—but perhaps we could learn to discern
the leading of the Spirit in a more faithful way than we usually do.
Maybe we could learn to lift our heads, and look around, and “sniff the
wind for the scent of the Spirit” as I said in a recent sermon.
I’m grateful that here, at First Baptist, we are already taking steps to
do that. We’ve never had a
constitution and bylaws, but these days we seem to be even more willing to enter
into a process of discernment when it comes to big decisions, and not simply
settle for a majority vote.
Sometimes those votes make things worse, and not better.
But let’s look at our reading for today, from Acts 16:9-15, and let’s listen for
the word of the Lord:
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 we went 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
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 from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a
dealer in purple cloth. She 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 (NIV).
This story comes from a time when the Spirit was still in charge of the church.
It was certainly still in charge of Paul. In the verses that precede
today’s reading we learn that Paul and Silas and Timothy traveled throughout the
region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from
preaching the word in the province of Asia.
When they came to Mysia they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of
Jesus would not allow them to. So
they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
Now, this is not in the Bible, but when I get to this part of the story I
picture Paul and Silas and Timothy coming into the region of Troas and somehow
ending up at the home of Luke, a doctor.
Maybe Paul needed to see someone about that infamous thorn in his flesh,
and as he did he got to talking. You
know how preachers are. “Yep,” he
said, wincing, “I’ve asked the Lord to take this thing away from me three times,
but so far, no go.” And that’s how
he and Luke ended up talking about the Lord for the next three hours until Luke
finally invited them to stay over.
It was sometime during the night that Paul had his vision.
Not a dream, mind you—a vision.
That means he would have been wide awake for it, sitting up in bed hardly
able to believe his eyes. A man from
Macedonia begging him, “Come over and help us!”
And as I picture it there was something so urgent in his appeal that Paul
got up then and there and started packing, making so much noise that Luke
eventually came down the hall in his nightshirt, knocked on the door and said,
“Is everything all right in there?”
And then Paul told him everything and when he was finished Luke said, “I’m
coming with you.”
Because in the very next verse (and this
is in the Bible) Luke says, “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.” So, as soon as they
could, they got on board a ship heading to Samothrace, a big island out in the
middle of the Aegean Sea. And from
there they sailed on to Neapolis on the coast of Macedonia.
From there they traveled on the Via Egnatia to Philippi—about ten miles
inland—a Roman colony and, as Luke tells us, the leading city of that district
of Macedonia. And on the Sabbath
they went outside the city gate to the river, where they had heard there was a
regular prayer meeting. They sat down and began to talk to the women who had
One of them was a woman from the city of Thyatira
named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a Gentile who worshiped the God
of the Jews. The Lord opened her
heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she
and the members of her household were baptized, she invited Paul and his
companions to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said,
“come and stay at my house.” And that’s what they did.
And so, in the beginning at least, it wasn’t a man from Macedonia but a
woman from Thyatira who was helped by Paul and his companions.
And the church that was started in Lydia’s home became Paul’s favorite
among all the churches he founded.
In Philippians 1 he says, “I thank my God every time I remember you.
In all my prayers for you I always pray with joy because of your
partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”
You could almost imagine that he was writing those words to Lydia
herself. But I want to go back to
that night when Paul had his vision, because I think there is something about
the way he responded that should characterize our own response when we hear a
cry for help.
Paul responded “at once” Luke says, and it reminded me of the way firefighters
respond when the alarm sounds at the fire station.
They leap out of bed in the middle of the night.
They slide down the fire pole and put on their pants.
Before you know it the truck is pulling out of the station and there they
are, clinging to the outside of it, still tucking in their shirts.
Secondly, they respond without concern for their own safety.
They are so focused on the people they are on their way to help they
don’t think about themselves. Maybe
you saw the excerpt on the front of today’s bulletin about the firefighters
climbing the steps of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
One of them called to his friend, “Don’t go up there, Paddy!” but his
friend yelled back, “Are you nuts?
We’ve got a job to do!”
And finally, they don’t quit until the job is done, or until they simply can’t
go on. I’m fairly sure that brave
firefighter who climbed the steps of the World Trade Center on September 11th
didn’t come back down. There were
343 firefighters and paramedics who died that day, all of them rushing to the
scene as quickly as they could get there, and all of them focused on everybody
I think that’s how Christians, and not just firefighters, should respond to
cries for help, and in today’s reading Paul sets a good example.
He has a vision of a man from Macedonia begging, “Come over and help us,”
and immediately he goes. He doesn’t
seem to have any regard for his personal safety.
Ocean voyages in those days were dangerous.
Passengers didn’t always make it to the other side.
But Paul went, that cry for help still ringing in his ears, and Luke, and
Silas, and Timothy went with him.
When they got there they did everything they could.
They shared the gospel as if they were carrying people out of a burning
building. And it made a difference.
Lydia was saved. A church was
started in her home. Who knows how
many others were saved because of her?
In this series I’ve been talking about “the Acts of an Easter People,” and this
seems to be one of them: this willing response to a cry for help.
When I was thinking about the sermon last week I thought about some of
those early Baptist missionaries who risked everything to share the gospel,
people like William Carey of England.
At a ministers' meeting
in 1786, Carey raised the question of whether it was the duty of all Christians
to spread the Gospel throughout the world. An older minister is said to have
retorted: "Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will
do it without your aid and mine."
But Carey persisted, and in 1793—just as Paul had sailed for Macedonia—he sailed
for India. His son, Peter, died
there of dysentery. His wife,
Dorothy, suffered a nervous breakdown.
It took him years to make the first Christian convert.
Still, he stayed with it.
In 1812 he was joined by an American congregational missionary named Adoniram
Judson. On the voyage to India he
and his wife Ann studied the New Testament teachings on baptism and were
persuaded to become Baptists. Judson
didn’t stay long in India. He moved
on to Burma where he ended up serving for nearly 40 years under circumstances
that were almost unimaginable. But
he didn’t give up. He and his wife
Ann weren’t thinking of themselves.
They were thinking of these Burmese people.
I think about others who risked it all: Henrietta Hall Shuck, and Lottie
Moon, and some of the retired missionaries here in church, and others who are
still out there on the field. In
every case they have heard a cry for help and gone.
Do you know that about half the congregation at Tabernacle Baptist Church these
days, a mile away from here, is made up of Burmese Christians?
“Come over and help us,” their ancestors said, and the Judsons came.
And now the Burmese have come over here.
There are hundreds of them in our city.
And our church, and Tabernacle, and others, have been involved in helping
them get settled here, helping them find both a physical and spiritual home.
We’ve had a chance to answer their cries for help without leaving the
city. And as I was thinking about
that I thought about all those other cries for help that we’ve answered in the
last few months—from Essex Village Apartments, and Glen Lea Elementary School,
and the housing projects in the East End where I was yesterday afternoon, along
with about thirty volunteers from First Baptist.
This is what Easter people do: when they hear a cry for help they respond,
immediately. They don’t think of
themselves, they think of others.
And they don’t quit until the job is done or they just can’t go on.
They do it when people are crying for spiritual help.
They do it when people are crying for physical help.
They do it because that’s what Jesus did for them.
When they cried for help, he came, and because he came,
—Jim Somerville © 2013