A Sermon of three cities: Madison, Philippi, the New Jerusalem (6 Easter, 2019)

We’ve all seen the headlines and read the stories pronouncing Madison one of the best places to live in the country. Most of us love it here—the restaurants, the entertainment possibilities, the lakes, UW. That Madison is a popular place to live is evidenced by the ongoing construction boom. I was on the near east side, what is now called the Capitol East neighborhood this week. I hadn’t really noticed everything that’s happened there recently. There’s the Sylvee, a new hotel, more apartment complexes. The difference driving down E. Washington today from ten years ago is remarkable.

Of course, we also know that there’s a flip side of all that money and development and growth. Madison is home to deep racial and economic inequality; African-Americans struggle to make a living, to receive adequate education, etc. We know about the ongoing crisis of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. We also know that there are plans for another major downtown development, and $250 million expansion to the County Jail that will preserve and like deepen the divisions and inequalities in our community and increase the numbers of the incarcerated.

Vibrant cities also witness to the growing divide between urban and rural communities. An article in the New York Times on Wednesday detailed the “hollowing out” of rural America. Among the results of that hollowing out are the opioid epidemic, the growth of white supremacy, and the deep political divisions.

In 21stcentury America, cities represent the best and the worst of us—the greatest opportunities but also the enormous divides, the possibilities of human creativity and human community, but also the immense challenges that we face as communities and as the human race. In our readings today, we catch glimpses of two cities that show some of those same divisions and challenges.

Our reading from Acts comes at a pivotal moment in the text. Paul has been traveling through Asia Minor, what is now Turkey, visiting Hellenistic cities and the Jewish communities that live in them. He has preached the good news of Jesus Christ, met with success, and faced some challenges. Now, he has a vision and decides to go to Macedonia. Macedonia lies north of Greece. It was the home of Alexander the Great who created the huge empire that stretched from Greece and Egypt to the Indus River and Central Asia. It is on the continent of Europe but the divide between Europe and Asia may seem larger today than it did in the first century. Both were part of the Roman Empire and both were part of the same large cultural constellation of the Hellenistic age. So whether Paul understood himself to be breaking new ground as he passed into Macedonia, whether Luke meant to stress that transition, is not certain.

Philippi was a Roman colony, settled by retired Roman soldiers whose service was rewarded with grants of property. Its citizens were accorded the full rights of citizenship, and it was a sort of model of Roman culture, political, and religious life in the region. Lydia the seller of purple, is not a native of Philippi but of a city in Asia Minor. Whether she traveled as part of her business or settled in Philippi is unknowable. But she trades in expensive items, purple is a color reserved for the aristocracy, so it’s likely she herself is a woman of means.

Luke tells us that on the Sabbath, Paul and his companions go outside the city to a place of prayer by the river. What’s meant is a gathering place for Philippi’s Jews, perhaps even a synagogue. Lydia is there because she, like Cornelius before her, is a  God-Fearer, someone who is attracted to Judaism but hasn’t converted. Paul and his companions sit down with the women who are gathered there and speak with them. Lydia is moved by God; Paul baptizes her and her household, and stays with her several days. From later references, it’s likely that Lydia’s home became a gathering place for followers of Jesus, and a house church.

I’m fascinated by the contrast between this little story in Acts and the vision of the New Jerusalem we heard from Revelation: The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”

Presumably, there were many temples in Philippi—the usual array of temples to the Roman deities but likely also temples to various local deities and some for cults imported from Asia Minor or Egypt, like Isis. We don’t know whether the place of prayer mentioned in Acts was a formal synagogue. Whether it was or not, it was outside the city walls. Paul met faithful Jews there as well as God-Fearers like Lydia. That encounter led to the beginning of a Christian community in Philippi, one to which Paul would later write a letter in which he expressed his deep affection for it.

Paul preached, but it was God who opened Lydia’s heart, and Lydia who opened her home to this new community. She offered Paul and his companions hospitality now and a few days later as well. It took all of that, Paul’s courage and preaching, God’s work, and Lydia’s leadership to create this new community in Philippi.

All of the geographical allusions are suggestive of larger significance. As I said, I don’t think we should make too much of the shift from Asia Minor to Europe. Lydia may be Paul’s first convert on the continent of Europe, but she’s a native of a town in Asia Minor, so she’s a foreigner of sorts in Philippi, a marginal figure. She’s a marginal figure in the Jewish community as well, as a God-Fearer and not a full member. Her conversion itself takes place on the margins, outside the city gates. How welcome was she in any of those spaces—in Philippi, at the place of prayer, in the Jewish community?

But when God opened her heart, she also welcomed the Good News of Jesus Christ and would welcome Paul into her home—both now and later when he left prison. And through her hospitality her household became the household of God in Philippi, welcoming all those who heard the Good News and embraced the gospel.

The New Jerusalem, the heavenly city that comes down in John the Divine’s vision. Like Philippi, it was surrounded by walls. Unlike Philippi, its gates were never shut. It is a holy city, the whole of it God’s dwelling place.

That vision seems far from reality in our world today. A city in which all are safe and thrive, a city where the worship of God is at its very heart, a city that doesn’t fear those who come to it, a city where all are welcome. None of that seems possible today, or even plausible.

But think of that little group of people who gathered in Lydia’s home in Philippi—filled with the Holy Spirit, energized to share the good news, to be the community that God had called them to be through Jesus Christ, welcoming strangers, offering hospitality. In their small way, they were bringing into being the vision John saw. In their small way, the food and drink they offered was for the healing of the nations.

May that vision of the New Jerusalem, may the vision of Lydia’s little house-church become our vision, and our reality. May we, through our common life, our hospitality, our sharing of the good news, may we offer healing to the nations, and healing to this city.

 

 

 

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