The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”. In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith. On May 18, we visited Philippi, and talked about the ways that Paul and the others took a risk on preaching to those on the margins of that society. You can read about it in Acts 16
In 1996, a group of people got together and wondered if we could create a reality wherein the poor of the world could be served by giving them a market for their unique handcrafts. We incorporated a little non-profit, called KingdomCome, and began to sell these goods at church bazaars, craft shows, and so on. As the word spread, and as sales grew, it became apparent that schlepping our inventory back and forth from the 3rd floor of the Crafton Heights church wasn’t the best way to accomplish our goal of allowing people to support themselves and their families. We needed to open a storefront.
So we checked out locations all around the city – from Edgewood to Fox Chapel to Southside to Downtown, and eventually settled on a piece of property ten feet wide and a hundred feet deep on the south side of Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We chose that location because it had these features:
– A strong retail history with a flair for independent and so-called “destination” shops
– A lot of foot traffic
– An upscale neighborhood filled with people who not only shop, but BUY.
It has worked out very well for everyone concerned as that little experiment has become one of the most successful Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. When a business is looking to expand, it’s all about location, location, location, right?
Now, let’s rewind and back up time a couple of thousand years. The faith movement spawned by the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is growing by leaps and bounds. From its roots in Jerusalem and Galilee, it has spread through the Middle East and up into Asia Minor. While certainly not a traditional business, it is expanding rapidly. One of the leading Apostles, Paul of Tarsus, feels led to explore the as-yet-untapped European market, and makes plans to sail to Greece. Greece – the cradle of Western civilization. Home to Athens, the Parthenon, democracy, and a really good pita, lamb, and cucumber sandwich. Excellent choice, Paul!
Except he doesn’t go to Athens – not right away. The first Christian foray into the continent of Europe takes place in the town of Philippi. OK, Paul, that’s not a bad choice. It’s a Roman Colony, a city founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon. There are gold mines nearby; there’s some legacy wealth – a lot of “old money” – around. You could do worse, I suppose.
One thing, though, that makes this choice curious is that Paul, who usually preached first to the Jews, chose to go to a town that didn’t even have enough Jewish men to open its own synagogue. Up to this point, although they had begun to admit Gentile believers, the Jewish population made up the largest percentage of the early church.
As a result of that, this particular Sabbath day finds the pre-eminent apostle of the Way of Jesus preaching the Good News for the very first time on European soil…to a small group of women, including some foreigners, who were down at the river doing their laundry.
It is, I believe, a curious way to launch a movement.
One of those present, a woman named Lydia who was apparently a foreign convert to Judaism, is so moved by what she hears and by the power of the Spirit within her that she asks for, and receives, the sacrament of baptism. In fact, not only Lydia herself, but her entire household, including what we believe to be a number of other women as well as slaves and children, is baptized and enters into the Jesus Way. She is bold enough to invite Paul, Luke, and Timothy to stay in her home so that she and her household might be further instructed in living as Jesus would have them live.
Unfortunately, her hospitality is not emblematic of the entire city, however, and Paul and his companions are treated “shamefully” (I Thessalonians 2:2) in Philippi. They are arrested, beaten, and run out of town.
But the church remained. And it appears to have been one of Paul’s favorite congregations. Whenever he speaks of that place, and in his letter to that congregation, he speaks with great warmth and affection. He commends the church that began on the day of Lydia’s baptism for their willingness to participate and share with Paul in the life to which he was called. In fact, this is one of the only churches from which the stubborn and prideful old Apostle was willing to accept financial support – because in some way, they “get” Paul and what he’s about.
We are spending the time between Easter and Pentecost looking at how the early church grew from a disorganized, dispirited group of doubting, betraying, and hesitant followers of Jesus into a movement of apostles and churches that changed the world. Philippi gives us a good example of the apostolic conviction that the church is called to risk itself on “nobodies” every single day – seemingly insignificant people like Lydia and the women of Philippi.
Faithful friends of Jesus, of course, would not be surprised by this. In Luke 4, when Jesus sets out the road map for his own life and ministry, he says that he’s been sent to preach Good News to the poor, to release the captive, and proclaim God’s favor to all. The first disciples themselves were not exactly the “cream of the crop” and so they evidently followed Jesus’ own model of ministry and preached about him to whoever was willing to listen. Which is why, I suppose, they found themselves on the outskirts of town preaching to a group of women and receiving hospitality from people who were clearly on the margins of acceptability.
In fact, that became a common refrain amongst those who were critical of the Jesus movement. A 2nd-century writer named Celsus has the distinction of being the first author to publicly condemn and criticize Christians. In his work The True Word, he rails against this new religion that appealed to “the foolish…slaves, women, and little children” who could be found at “the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s, or washerwoman’s” place. Celsus is especially indignant that various social classes could come together in Christianity, and is in general appalled at the church’s willingness to extend forgiveness to those who had fallen into sin. In short, Celsus and much of the ancient world believed, Christianity is a religion for pathetic losers – people who ought not to be accepted in refined society.
I’m sad to say that there are many in the church today who have lost touch with the call to live a faith that is so radically inclusive and welcoming of “the other”. A lifetime ago, when I was being trained for youth ministry, I was taught to build my youth group by looking for the popular, successful students and trying to engage them first. If I could get the quarterback and the head cheerleader to come to my youth group, I was told, then the group would grow like crazy. Why? Because if “the cool kids” are doing it, then everyone will want to.
Isn’t that, to some degree, how the church in the USA continues to operate? Isn’t that why we get all excited when a rock star or a pro athlete or a movie star shares the fact that she or he is a Christian? “Oh, yeah, Tom Hanks? Donna Summer? Tim Tebow? Johnny Cash? Bow Wow? Yep. They’re all believers…”
Our adult mission team used a little book called Coffee With Jesus as a part of our devotional reading. One of my favorite comic strips in that volume pokes fun at our fascination with celebrity believers:
You see, that’s one of the reasons that I tend to be a fan of baptizing babies and children before we know who they are going to be. Is little Sam going to grow up to play High School baseball and slam them out of the park like his dad? Or is he going to be a weak-hitting right-center fielder with a mysterious overconfidence in his own baserunning abilities like a certain pastor we know?
God doesn’t care.
Neither should we. In baptizing him today, we claim that Sam is already surrounded by God’s grace. There are no “cool kids” in the Kingdom of God, because the call is for all who will listen!
If we are going to grow from being disciples into being apostles, we have got to be willing to invest ourselves in those who are seen as insignificant. As individuals, as a congregation, and as The Church, we’ve got to claim the fact that the things that unite us in Jesus are more powerful than those that would divide us by race, income, geography, gender, or anything else. We all belong to God every bit as much as little Sam – no more, no less.
That means that where we can, as individuals, we’ve got to support the kinds of one-on-one ministry that exist here. Will we do what we can do to empower the people who volunteer or work at the preschool, the Open Door, or the Youth Group? If we can’t personally volunteer with those vulnerable neighbors, can we create a climate that encourages them?
That means that we’ve got to pledge ourselves to refuse to see people as belonging to a category: when you look at someone, do you think, “Oh, that’s the black kid…the white guy…the drunk…the user…the loser…the stuck-up rich person…”? That kind of labeling has no place in the Christian world.
That means that we’ve got to find ways to celebrate the real love of Jesus with real people. We commit to sharing meals together. To listening to stories. To sharing moments of laughter and friendship on the bus or in the check-out line. We’ve got to risk engagement with the people around us, even when they seem to be “other” than we are.
Do we have to be cautious? You bet we do. But we can’t, in the name of safety or fear, reject other people just because they appear to be different.
And how do we get there?
By remembering, deep within our own sense of self, that we are, well, nobodies ourselves.
I’m not saying that we are all losers and none of us are the cool kids and that Christianity is, as Celsus claimed, a religion for ignorant, weak, uneducated people.
I am saying that we are all people who have been bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft at one time or another. And, it seems to me, the only way that we can move forward is to pray like bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, and bereft people for others who are bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft.
In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell points to this truth. He writes,
I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on…
If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches….And eve though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him. And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long…
Paul’s trip to preach to Lydia and a handful of other women by the river in Philippi was not a stroke of genius that was applauded by the head honchos in the church marketing department. In fact, it’s a good thing we didn’t have a marketing department then, because maybe the nobodies in Philippi would never have heard the good news about Jesus. And maybe the nobodies in my neighborhood wouldn’t have, either. But thanks be to God, he gives us a model to follow. We’re not here to celebrate the fact that God loves the rock stars or the celebrities or the athletes. He does, of course, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because he cares for us, and expects that we will show our neighbors his care in our daily lives.
Listen: choosing you and me to live out his love every day may not be the smartest thing God’s ever done, but he didn’t ask us for advice. He’s asking us to do it. Thanks be to God, he’s asking us to do it. Amen.
 Quoted in Will Willimon’s Interpretation Commentary On The Book of Acts (Atlanta, John Knox, 1988), p. 138.
 The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images (New York: Seabury Press, 1968), pp. 91-92