Responding to the invitation

RCL Year C, 6 Easter

I’ve mentioned before one definition of stewardship I found compelling: ‘Stewardship is… everything I do after I say, “I believe.”’ In other words, stewardship, what we do with what God gives us, is all about our response to God. It’s how we live out our faith. Today in the readings we have a great story about just that – following God’s lead and all the people and places it might take you to.

In the church calendar story line, at this point in the Easter season, Jesus is getting ready to leave. This Thursday is Ascension, 40 days after Easter, the feast of Jesus being taken up to heaven and disappearing for good after the resurrection. Two weeks from today is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the gathered disciples and turns them into the church. So after all the stories of Jesus’ passion and death and resurrection, and all of those resurrection appearances, this is the part of the story where the disciples again ask, what do we do now? This time, Jesus really is gone, and the Spirit is alive – and they’re wondering just what will happen next.

Good thing Jesus gave them his peace, because they need it now more than ever. Do not let your hearts be troubled – but hold on.

One set of answers for those early disciples to ‘what do we do now’ is all the stories in the book of Acts. First there was a lot of debate and argument about who was part of this new community, and some pretty amazing visions and spiritual epiphanies that showed everyone it was bigger than they’d thought – not just Jews, but Gentiles too. And then the missionary work really got underway, and Paul, the new and zealous convert, took off on his voyages to the Gentiles. Which brings us to that curious little story we heard today, an unexpected twist to Paul’s second trip abroad.

The lectionary doesn’t include the three verses before this passage, so I’ll read them to you now:

They [that is, Paul and Silas] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.

(If you’ve ever had an experience of really wanting to do something and it just not working out, where every door seems to shut in your face even though you were convinced it was the right way to go, then you’ll feel for Paul and Silas.)

While they’re in Troas, Paul has a vision of the man from Macedonia calling for their help, so off they go to Macedonia. You might need to stop for a moment and visualize a map of the Mediterranean here (assuming you’ve got one in your head), but what’s happening is that instead of going to Asia, they’re redirected into Europe. As one commentator noted, for us, descended from the European church, this is our origin story. So Paul and Silas come to Philippi, the main city of the area, presuming that that’s the most likely place to start. And then several days go by, and they don’t seem to do anything. God brought them to Macedonia and now here they are, and they have no idea why or what to do. So they go to worship, and there they do not meet a man from Macedonia like in Paul’s vision. Instead they meet a wealthy woman from Thyatira, which is where? Asia, where they wanted to go in the first place.  And this woman, Lydia, hears their teaching, and God opens her heart to listen. She is baptized along with her whole household. And the first thing Lydia does upon being baptized is to invite Paul and Silas over to stay.

So here are two things we learn about ‘what do we do now’ – God’s Spirit will guide us, although it won’t always be clear where we’re going and what we’re doing. And when our heart is opened, we give of our selves to welcome others.

One great thing about these stories from Acts is that there’s such an immediacy and intensity to them. Just as in the gospels when Jesus comes around, people give their whole selves to this mission. Nothing else seems to matter to these followers, not even fear of pain and persecution. Paul is dogged and determined in answering God’s call to evangelism, and he goes wherever and whenever he has to to accomplish that. There’s a radical trusting to Paul’s missionary voyages, even when he is thrown in prison and shipwrecked and put on trial or simply blocked by the Holy Spirit. And there’s a radical trusting in the response he gets from others like Lydia, people who are ready to hear God’s message of love and welcome.

That’s where the stewardship part comes in. Those early followers of Jesus responded with their whole lives to the love they experienced from God in Jesus. Perhaps because the culture around them was so at odds with the Christian message, or because these were people ready to do something very different, this love of God changed everything for them. Even for those who never knew Jesus in the flesh, the message of God loving them meant everything. Whether they were poor and outcast and enslaved, or wealthy and well-positioned in society, it meant freedom and knowing that they were of value in God’s eyes. They couldn’t help but respond to this with their whole lives: knowing themselves to be so loved, they were free to follow where the Spirit might lead, and free to open their hearts to others who were also ready to respond.

Maybe we fail to realize just how at odds with our culture this message is today. Or maybe after generations of Christian faith we’re used to a more comfortable, less swimming-against-the-tide way of life. Sometimes we forget to make the connections between our faith and what we do. But that’s what stewardship is – responding to God’s love with our own willingness to follow the Spirit’s lead, and to welcome others into this same love. So what do we do now? How do we move forward with faith in our lives?

Kristal picked a wonderful hymn as our closing today, and I want to read some of the words of it now so we really hear them:

As saints of old their first fruits brought…

so we today first fruits would bring:

the wealth of this good land,

of farm and market, shop and home,

of mind, and heart, and hand…

A world in need now summons us

to labor, love, and give;

to make our life an offering

that others too may live…

O God, who gave yourself to us

in Jesus Christ your Son,

teach us to give ourselves each day

until life’s work is done.