June 23rd, 2019 “The Power of Hospitality” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Summer Sermon Series: The Amazing Adventures of Paul
This morning we continue our summer sermon series “The Amazing Adventures of Paul”. All this month we have been reading stories of Paul from the book of Acts, some stories are familiar to us and some we may never have heard before. We have studied Paul’s call and conversion, the work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s ministry, and how Paul handles conflict and learns along the way. Today we continue our story with Paul’s amazing adventures in Philippi.
(Read Acts 16:1-10)
If you’ve been paying close attention to this sermon series you will notice we skipped a chapter. In Chapter 15 of Acts, Paul meets with church leaders in Jerusalem to discuss the issue of circumcision. At the heart of the matter is a question of religious conversion. “If we are going to welcome Gentiles into the faith, do they have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised?” The council decides that circumcision while necessary to be viewed as part of the Jewish community, is not necessary for the Gentile convert.
Also in Chapter 15 Paul has a falling out with Barnabas over John Mark and the two men go their separate ways. Where we begin our reading for today Paul is forming a new missionary team consisting of Silas and Timothy. In order for Timothy (a child of mixed marriage) to be accepted in Jewish circles Paul has him circumcised, which some will view as contradictory to his own letters. Regardless the trio now head out.
In an interesting turn of fate God blocks the path of Paul and his friends. They try to go to Asia and Bithynia but the Holy Spirit blocks their way. In a dream Paul hears the call to go to Macedonia and so the trio sets out for there.
(Read Acts 16:11-15)
The group arrives in Philippi and the narrator now numbers himself as one of the travelers as the language changes from “they” to “we”. Macedonia will be different than other places Paul has traveled and ministered. There is a much smaller Jewish population there and because of this there is a much greater influence of other religions upon the people. This truly is a mission to the Gentiles.
The Jewish community is so small in Philippi that there is no synagogue. Paul gathers with friends outside the city gates at the riverside for worship and prayer, and it is there that he meets a prominent woman in the community. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, the dress of choice for the Roman elite, and so she is someone who rubs elbows with important people.
Her heart is open to the message that Paul has to share. Upon hearing Paul’s witness, Lydia decides to join the movement and she and her entire household (which would entail family and servants) are baptized into this new faith. She decides to host Paul, and takes in him as well as his fellow travelers for the duration of their stay in Philippi.
(Read Acts 16:16-24)
Once again Paul and his traveling companions encounter violence as they attempt to minister and spread the word. A slave girl, possessed by a spirit has taken to following Paul around. Just as unholy spirits recognize Jesus in the gospels, the spirit within this girl cannot help but shout out that Paul and his friends are bringing news of salvation. One might imagine that Paul would be happy with this free advertising but in a burst of annoyance Paul casts the unholy spirit out of the girl. This is the beginning of big trouble.
The owners of the slave girl had used the spirit within her to make money. And now that the spirit is gone, the girl is essentially worthless. They have lost a source of income and Paul and his companions are to blame. They bring Paul and friends before the magistrates or judges and rulers of the community, and declare that they have been causing disruption and encouraging folks to turn from the proper ways of the city. The crowd gets in on the action as the judges convict Paul and his friends. The group is stripped of their clothing and beaten naked in the street. It is a brutal and bloody affair and only ends when the missionaries are hauled away and put in prison.
(Read Acts 16:25-34)
Where one might expect the travelers to be heartbroken, instead Paul and Silas are praying and singing as they wait for the work of God to release them from bondage. The Lord responds with an earthquake and all the prisoners are freed from their chains. When the sleeping jailer wakes to this scene he prepares to kill himself as that is the punishment for one who cannot keep criminals confined. But Paul yells out the surprising news that everyone is still here, even though they are not bound.
The jailor wonders at what Paul possess that gives him such power and Paul tells him the story of the gospel. The jailor and again, his household of family and servants, believe the good news, are baptized, and converted to the faith. Like Lydia, the jailor hosts Paul and his companions, dressing their wounds and feeding them.
In the morning the authorities have decided to release Paul but now Paul will have none of it. He accuses them of mistreating him, a Roman citizen, and demands that the magistrates come to the jail and apologize to him in person. They concede and follow through and Paul and company leave the city and return to the home of Lydia until the time is right to travel on.
The theme that I find running though our text today is the power of hospitality. Both Lydia and the jailor receive the word of God and enact their faith through gifts of hospitality. There seems to be a connection but I think of this as a case of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Were they hospitable because they heard the word of God, or were they open to the word of God because they were people who already practiced hospitality? I tend think it is the later, but that is only my opinion. Either way, the two successful conversions in Philippi are both accompanied by gifts of hospitality, care, and service.
The magistrates of Philippi are the opposite of hospitable. When Paul and his friends cause leaders in the community to lose money the group acts with unjust violence and cruelty. Using anti-Semitism “these men are Jews” they stir up the crowds to engage in brutal mob violence. They are not welcoming to Paul and his companions, they do not listen to Paul’s side of the story, and they violate Paul’s rights as a Roman citizen by imprisoning him without a trial.
While being the hero of our narrative, Paul is not perfect. The author does not hide Paul’s short temper and arrogance, and in an ironic twist, the one who receives the gift of hospitality in today’s reading also behaves in an inhospitable fashion. In the case of the slave girl, the text is clear that Paul casts the demon out because he is annoyed. Paul has no care for this girl and he does not cast the demon out as a form of healing. He just wants the demon gone. Now that the girl is worthless to her owners, her life will surely take a turn for the worse. While she is freed from possession, she is not freed from being possessed by another and will remain as a slave. Paul shows her no care, concern, or hospitality.
So too, Paul is rude and uppity with the magistrates. When he is free from the prison, Paul does not shake the dust off his sandals and move on as he has in other stories. Instead he demands that the authorities come and grovel before him, apologizing and begging now for his mercy. While we all agree Paul was treated unjustly, we can also see here that his behavior is rude and smug. In addition, this will be no help for the spreading of the gospel as Paul is forced to leave the city. The mission to Philippi results in only two converted houses, again a near failure in spreading the word to the Gentiles. Paul’s stubborn and arrogant behavior has not done the church any good.
As readers of this text in our modern setting I think it is good for us to consider this issue of hospitality. As our culture becomes more and more divided, it is a real challenge to bridge the gap between sides and find common ground. In our reading for today, Lydia and the jailor both listen to the voice of the outsider, welcome the word of God, and host friends and strangers in their homes. In contrast, both the magistrates of Philippi and the group of Paul and his companions are so sure of themselves that they fail to practice hospitality. When we are so certain that we have all the right answers, then we are in danger of closing the door to outsiders and in doing so, also to the word and power of God. Even when we feel like we have justice on our side, like Paul and his friends do in the prison, our actions can easily become motivated by a desire for dominance and humiliation of the other. There is no room for hospitality when we find ourselves on the moral high ground of smugness.
The message of the gospel is always one of openness and welcome. From the care of the stranger and alien in the Old Testament, to Jesus who dines with outcasts and sinners, to even Paul himself and his mission to the Gentiles; God is always open handed crossing boundaries in welcome and hospitality. When we begin to create boundaries and barriers, when we begin to choose up sides, that is when we begin to close our hearts and say “no” to the gospel. In this world of political parties, walls, factions, and social media wars the danger to sin and turn away from God, even in the name of justice, is very real. Our texts for today remind us that even Paul can fail on this front. As followers of Jesus, we should be wary of making the same mistakes ourselves.
And so we leave Paul for today. He has had a less than successful mission to Philippi and as he grows weary in his travels, his weakness and arrogance are beginning to show. Still, one cannot help but admire his deep and abiding faith in God. Like us, Paul isn’t perfect, and he will sin and make mistakes in his quest to share the good news with the world. Come back next week to find out what happens next as we continue “The Amazing Adventures of Paul”. Amen.