Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016, Year C
Acts 16.9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21.10, 22.5; John 14.23-29
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who draws us to himself, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
How many of you have vivid dreams? Or have any of you experienced something while awake or asleep that is hard to explain? Maybe there was a message you knew was important, but you weren’t sure what it meant? Or maybe there was something you had been praying about or hoping for and the vision or the dream gives you peace and clarity.
I have had crazy dreams, scary dreams, peaceful and good dreams, dreams that bring clarity or propel me in a new direction. Dreams and visions are often difficult to interpret and we don’t always know what they mean, but there are times in which we know there is a message or an invitation we are to follow.
Paul had a number of visions that changed his life forever. Our reading in Acts tells us of a vision Paul has and we will get to that, but first we need to be reminded of Paul’s first vision 7 chapters earlier in the book of Acts.
Paul’s story is incredible, so amazing in fact that his name was not originally Paul, it was Saul. Saul was a very educated Pharisaic Jew. He believed that the stories of Jesus were a bunch of hooey and he made it his life mission to kill or imprison all people who claimed Jesus as their Lord. He stood watching as a disciple of Jesus, named Stephen, was stoned to death.
Scripture shares the story:
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.
Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Saul planned to go to Damascus and round up all Christians, or “People of the Way,” as they were called back then. He planned to throw them all into prison for their faith in Jesus.
It wasn’t until Saul was on the road to Damascus that the vision came: a bright light from heaven flashed all around him and he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
“The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
At this point we could conclude that Saul is not a nice guy, that he has done really horrible things in his life to other people, and he may not ever change. But God sends a man named Ananias to Saul, and Ananias is terrified because he knows what Saul is there to do.
But he goes anyway, lays his hands on Saul and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Saul was baptized and because he became such a different person his name was changed to Paul. All the people he was trying to kill or arrest became a sister or a brother to him, forming the closest of relationships.
Paul immediately began proclaiming that Jesus was the Son of God in all the places of worship and dedicated his life to following Jesus wherever he led him.
Sometimes this kind of transformation happens to people and others can’t believe it. It is a complete change of life and Jesus does that in people, even through visions and dreams. He forgives the wrong people have done, even to the extreme of what Paul did.
So we meet Paul again today in chapter 16 in which he has another vision to go to Macedonia. He immediately goes. There he meets a woman named, Lydia. As far as we know Lydia has no dreams or visions, she simply encounters Paul, who has been transformed by Jesus.
We know Lydia overhears Paul speaking by the river. Her heart is opened to listen to him speak about Jesus and her life changes forever. Not only is she baptized, but her whole household is baptized.
And right after her baptism the first act she does is extend hospitality. Later on Paul and Silas land themselves in Jail and the first place they go when they get out is Lydia’s.
The story of the conversation of Lydia is short, but can be just as amazing as Paul’s story. Lydia becomes the first follower of Jesus in Europe. We can assume that she becomes a faith leader in her community. There is no mention of a husband, so Lydia owns her own business, supplying purple cloth to royalty. Maybe these things don’t sound like such a big deal to us, but women rarely owned anything, not even their own selves in most cases.
Perhaps the more amazing piece of Lydia becoming a person of the Way, is that she subtly overhears Paul’s prayer to Jesus. Maybe she hears a word and takes a step closer and longs to hear more. She continues to be drawn into the saving story of God’s work in Jesus, longing to know the source of all goodness and life. Jesus changes her forever through Paul.
We have two examples of God touching people’s lives in equally powerful ways: for Paul it was a vision; for Lydia it was overhearing a prayer by a river.
The Bible has many other examples including hearing Scripture read or a sermon, or the Spirit of God being present in people, or through a miraculous healing … the list can keep on going.
What is important for us to know is that there are so many ways God tries to reach us:
Some of us may have a dreams or visions – Author, Anne Lamott became sober and a Christian after vision she had of Jesus just being present with her in the room when she was on one of her binges.
Some may walk into worship for the first time and feel a part of them has been touched by love and mercy,
Some may read some of the Bible and feel it relates to them like nothing else – people who have been prisoners of war when granted one possession will ask for a Bible.
Some may hear words of forgiveness or come to know stories like Paul’s conversion and realize that transformation can happen for them too – forgiveness has completely changed people I know.
Some may be prayed for when they are sick and experience wholeness,
Still others can hear a song and hear the dance of God within the melody,
Some can feel the acceptance and welcome of God through another as hands are extended for sharing of the peace – many life-giving relationships have formed in this house of worship through sharing of the peace.
And some can feel included by God at the table of Holy Communion – Amy has a friend she said she “ate her way to the baptismal font.”
I could continue on, but I hope you get the point. Just because some or most of us haven’t heard an audible voice from God, or had a striking vision like Paul, doesn’t mean God isn’t reaching out to us in many other ways. Most often I find it is through another person and through the mystery and ever-present work of the Holy Spirit.
God often works through the every day and the ordinary people, places, and things of our lives.
Jesus comes to each of us, whether it’s through the reading of the Gospel or a hand reached out to share the peace, and says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”
Pay attention to the many ways God is reaching out to you in your life, reminding you that you are loved, you are forgiven, you are accepted. When our hearts become open to this beautiful work of God in our lives we just might be changed forever.