That They May Be One

Texts: Acts 16:9-15 ,  John 17:20-26

As Paul walks on the stone-paved pathway onto the threshold of Philippi, a city in Macedonia, a region in Greece, he immediately starts looking around.  He’s not really sure what he is looking for. Paul is here because he had a vision, a dream really, of a man who said to him, “C’mon over to Macedonia to help us.”

The vision occurred weeks ago and now it floats around in his mind like a fuzzy memory.

What had the man been wearing?

How would Paul find him?

What exactly did the man need help with?

Paul looks around uncertainly and is struck by the diversity of this bustling urban center.  Immediately in front of him, he can see there is someone walking around purple cloth, clearly one of the wealthy in town.  Next to Paul, a cart rumbles by on the road, pulled by a land-owning farmer hauling in food from the land to the local market.  Beside Paul walks a person with ragged clothing, hanging by threads, clearly one of the poor.[1]

Paul thinks about Jesus’ prayer for unity that we may be one …

What does that mean, to be one, when there is so much diversity in our communities?

What does it mean to be one when people come from diverse backgrounds and life experiences?

What does it mean to be one when we don’t always agree with one another?

What does it mean to be one when you from a totally different part of the Roman Empire and don’t even know who you are supposed to be helping?

Paul sighs with frustration.  Paul enters the city gates and mills around for a few days, trying to build relationships with the local community and discern how God is calling him to share the Good News in this particular place, with these particular people.

On the Sabbath, Paul ventures outside the city gate and wanders down to the river, where he finds a group of women praying on the shoreline. Perhaps Paul pauses initially on finding the women, after all, in the tradition Paul grew up in, religious teachers did not speak in public to women.[2]  Moreover, Paul’s vision had contained a man.  Yet, Paul thinks to himself: “Maybe God is calling me to do something different; maybe God is calling me to listen to the stories of those who are different from me as way to discern what God is calling me to do here in Philippi.”

philippiriver

Krenides River, Philippi

So Paul sits on the rocky shoreline and meets each of the women and in turn shares his own experiences with God.  Perhaps Paul mentions his moment of conversion, which occurred after he had been him persecuting members of the early Jesus movement.  Paul had grown up in the Hebrew tradition with a my-way-or-the-highway type of thinking and, one day, when Paul was traveling to Damascus, a bright light had flashed around him and blinded him as Jesus’ voice asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?”  However, that was not the moment of Paul’s full conversion; his conversion occurred later when someone from the very tradition that he had been persecuting, named Ananias, courageously came to help him and called him brother and, in that moment of kinship, the scales fell from Paul’s eyes and Paul could finally see.

As they sit on the rocky shoreline, perhaps Paul talks about how that moment of kinship broke open his heart to God’s vision of peace and compassion which flowed to all people – to people who had been raise in the Hebrew tradition like Paul, to people who hadn’t, to people who were enslaved by the economy, to people who were free, to vegetarians, meat-eaters, and people of varying gender identities.

Perhaps Paul talks about the Hebrew word for peace – shalom – which can be defined, according to scholar Cornelius Plantinga, as “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.”  Plantinga notes that, “We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind of a cease-fire between enemies.  In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom [God] delights.”[3]

This is the dream – the vision – that had taken ahold of Ananias heart and emboldened him to say to Paul, his enemy: you are my kin.

It is this Divine vision that takes ahold of Paul’s heart as he sits down with strangers from a strange land and views them as kin in the kin-dom.

As Paul and the ladies talk, Lydia, an independent businesswoman, finds herself being drawn in by this holy vision of equality, dignity, flourishing, and delight.

So often, in her experience, relationships had been defined by fear – fear of the barbarians, or the foreigners, or the lepers – what would it be like, she wonders, to delight in one another rather than live in fear?

“Yes!” Lydia finds herself saying.  “I want this Holy Vision to guide my life!  I want to follow Jesus!!”

Lydia’s whole world is turned upside down by the call of Jesus.  With Paul, she wades into the waters of baptism and, as Paul immerses Lydia, all the labels that society has put on her fall away, all the voices that have told her she was not good enough or smart enough wash away to reveal the truth that has been there all along: that Lydia is named and claimed, called and beckoned by the Holy Spirit herself.  Suddenly, Lydia can see the truth of her eternal identity as be-loved, as one who carries the Divine spark, and the truth of the sacred worth of all those around her.

Following her example, Lydia’s whole household or network is baptized: friends and extended family, employees and servants.

Person after person is named and claimed, immersed and soaked by the waters of Love.  As they rise from their baptism, water droplets trickle down their face as the truth of baptism floods over their life.  Each person hears the words meant for all of us: You are God’s beloved child, with whom God is well-pleased.

Grounded in this truth, Lydia responding by offering Paul a place to stay, food to eat and a place of connection within the local community.  As the first disciple of the Philippian church, Lydia offers hospitality not only to Paul but later on to the nascent Jesus movement, welcoming in people from all different classes and ethnicities, from the poor to the wealthy, from the farm owner to the merchant.  Together, they worship and seek to embody God’s vision of dignity and shalom.  Together, they look at one another, and the world, and dare to call each other kin.  Together, they embody Jesus’ prayer for unity that: “they may be one.”

Strikingly, hours after Jesus prays this, while Jesus is dying on the cross and his mother and the beloved disciple stand nearby, Jesus says to his mother, “Here is your son” and to the beloved disciples, “Here is your mother.”  Even in that moment of immense pain, Jesus says to us: unity is about take care of one another, unity is about the fundamental truth that we belong to one another.

What Jesus, Lydia, and Paul teach us is that unity isn’t just about being nice to one another but rather about actively working toward one another’s well-being.

How do we do that?

How do listen, nurture and take care of each other in the midst of our diversity?

How do we create space for people to flourish?

This is a question with which Julia Ward Howe – a poet, activist and Jesus follower – wrestled one hundred and forty-six year ago.  Following the Civil War, many mothers grieved the loss of their sons to the violence of the civil war.  In response, Ward Howe harkens to God’s expansive vision which yearns for a healing and flourishing of all people.  In a declaration that birthed our current American Mother’s Day celebration, Ward Howe writes:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Let us meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let us then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, [human] as the [kin] of [human], each bearing after [their] own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God!”

Like Lydia, Ward Howe felt the tugging of God’s call to embody Shalom by honoring the diversity of each person’s experience.  Sometimes that means mourning with our fellow human siblings when they are grieving the loss of a child or a parent, and sometimes that means celebrating with those who have joyous relationships with their family.  Embodying God’s Shalom means recognizing the complexity of motherhood,  parenthood and life, and opening our hearts to the truth that not everyone has a healthy relationship with their family of origin, that mothering takes many different forms, and it is hard and exhausting, and can evoke many different feelings in us.  And in the midst of all these realities, we remember that we are kin.

“Mother, here is your son; son, here is your mother.”

We remember that we are called to take care of one another, journeying side by side, listening to those who are different from us, whether politically, racially, or economically.

Like Lydia, Ward Howe felt the tugging of Jesus’ call in her life and it led her to open up her heart and see our call not just to share God’s love with those we know or are biologically related to, but with all of God’s children.

Like Lydia, we find ourselves sitting on a rocky seashore, drawn in the by image of God’s Shalom, which is calling us forth to a realm of justice, peace and well-being for all people.  We find a hunger tugging at our souls as God invites us to step off of the shoreline, into the water, to get wet, to get soaked by the waters of Love, to respond like Lydia in opening our hearts, in discovering kinship with people we never expected, in saying yes once again to life made new …

[1] The Philippi church likely had 75-100 members who mirrored the general population.  Philippi was composed of: elite (3%), landowning farmers and pensioned colonist (25%), skilled workers, merchants and service providers (45%) and the poor (27%).  Source: Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation..

[2] Jewish rabbis did not speak in public with women.  See John 4:27. Source: Lapsley, Jacqueline; Newsom, Carol; Ringe, Sharon (2012-12-01). Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition. Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] Plantinga Jr., Cornelius (2010-05-13). Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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