That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there. We boarded a boat at Troas and sailed straight across to the island of Samothrace, and the next day we landed at Neapolis. From there we reached Philippi, a major city of that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. And we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God. As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying. She and her household were baptized, and she asked us to be her guests. “If you agree that I am a true believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my home.” And she urged us until we agreed.
Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. Anyone who doesn’t love me will not obey me. And remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me. I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe.
Our first reading today is a wonderful model of how to share the good news of Jesus with others. It begins with dreams – dreams that God gives to those who long to be God’s servant. The dream God gives Paul, and which Paul will spend the rest of his earthly life fulfilling, is the dream of taking the good news of Jesus out of Asia and into a new continent – Europe. Inspired by this dream, Paul goes. Our missions, our adventures with God, often begin with God-given dreams.
But on arrival at Philippi, where should he start? Normally, Paul begins at the synagogue, but it may be that there is not one in Philippi. You need ten male adult Jews to have a synagogue and it may be that the Jewish community in the town is small. In the absence of a synagogue, it was the custom for Jews to gather in a peaceful place, read scriptures, pray and talk together. Perhaps in the several days Paul and his friends were in Philippi they were finding out the lie of the land. Where could they have conversations with the people who would be most open to the good news of Jesus? He found them on the riverbank.
In sharing the good news of Jesus, we too would do well to follow Paul’s example and take time to learn the lie of the land. We are no longer in a world where the church – both as a building and as an institution – sits at the heart of its community. The traditional ways of telling people about Jesus are no longer readily available to us. A bit like Paul who suddenly finds himself without a synagogue from which to launch his ministry, and who looks in new places for the people who are open to faith, we need to look at our community with fresh eyes, find new people to partner with in God’s work and imagine new ways to share God’s love.
Paul finds a partner in the Gospel in Lydia. From what we can discern, she is a wealthy independent businesswoman and a natural leader in her community. She welcomes Jesus into her life and invites Paul and his friends into her home, instantly putting all she has at the service of the early church. The early Christian community that will gather in Philippi becomes one very dear to Paul’s heart for the rest of his ministry. Sometimes, as Christians, we feel like we always have to be the ones who do things for others, but accepting other’s kindness and hospitality is a powerful thing. It builds loving relationship. The church isn’t a service provider and those in our community service users. Our relationship with our neighbours is not a transaction. We are instead a community, messy and muddled, yet centred around Jesus Christ, and sharing the love of God in giving and receiving kindness, justice, mercy and joy.
Our Gospel reading builds on this. It comes from the section of John’s Gospel called the Farewell Discourses – basically, Jesus’ final teaching before he is taken at Gethsemane. It begins with that beautiful passage, so often a comfort at funerals, where Jesus tells his friends not to be troubled. He is merely going ahead to prepare a place in his Father’s house where there is plenty of room for all. One day, we will all go home to the God who love us. What a promise that is!
However, later in this same conversation, Jesus says that he and his Father will come and make their home with us, echoing that language from before. This will happen when we love Jesus and – by that love – live as loving community. The Christian hope is not for heaven, but begins with us, here, now. When we love and live in loving community, God will be in the midst of us. That – more than the most eloquent sermon, the most fantastic bible study, the most organised community project – will enable people to meet Jesus. The Holy Spirit, God with us and in us and between us, will both make this possible and keep us learning and growing in God’s truth and love.
So, what does this mean for us as a church. Well, a few things, actually. It is a huge encouragement. So often we can look at other churches doing fancy pants stuff and think that we are second best, but really it is the quality of relationships we share – enabled by the Holy Spirit, because God is at home with us – that are the most powerful way of showing people Jesus. It is also a huge responsibility. Building and maintaining a loving culture is something we all share. It is not the Vicar’s job, or the churchwardens or the PCCs or the pastoral care team, much as they should all try to help. It is something we do together, supported and inspired by God, and we all have a part to play. But as we do it – imperfectly, messily, undoubtedly with a few hiccoughs along the way because we are human beings – God makes God’s home among us.
This week I was at a conference in my role as Dean of Women’s Ministry. I met with the national network of representatives from across the Church of England and we had inspiring speakers, fruitful conversations and we encouraged and built each other up in the work we were doing. It was truly brilliant. However, because of Long Covid, I missed 7.45am Morning Prayer both days I was away and at one despondent moment wondered if I had missed God completely. As this crossed my mind, another picture filled it – only for a lightning flash moment – but I saw an image of God, as a beautiful black woman, standing in the midst of those queuing at the coffee machines we used in our breaks, head thrown back in laughter. God was delighting in what we were doing. God was present in the loving faithfulness, the hopefulness and the struggles for justice these women embodied. In the community we shared those days, God made her home among us.
So, as the hymn I chose for my installation service here reminds us “Let us build a house where love can dwell” and in that house dream dreams, find new ways of connecting with those who might share our dreams and grow a commmunity centred on and infused with God’s love.
God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us
to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.