Sermon Preached on May 26, 2019 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Moving Beyond the Gates
This morning at first glance seems to be all about location – in both Acts and the Gospel we move through a gate to be near the water.
In Acts – you get the feeling that here by the river wasn’t exactly where Paul and his fellow missionaries had planned to profess their faith and evangelize; but this is where they end up.
Things haven’t been going all that well for Paul’s second evangelism tour. He set out with Silas to visit the communities of believers in the region of Galatia, those they had met on their first missionary trip. After visiting these new Christian communities, they decide to break new ground, moving into Asia Minor, where they are unsuccessful, and then to the north east along the coast of the Black Sea, where again they have no luck. Paul’s go-to method is to approach the synagogue in town and preach to the Jews, and perhaps to find gathering places where he can speak to Gentiles. But as he moves beyond Syria and Galatia, Paul’s finding it difficult to spread the Gospel, to be an evangelist. The text says he’s being “blocked by the Spirit of Jesus,” which seems particularly unfair, doesn’t it?
Eventually Paul and company end up in Troas, a Hellenistic-Roman port city located on the Aegean Sea, where Paul has a vision which calls him to Macedonia, modern day Greece, and he goes. Actually, we all go. For some reason this is when the writer of Acts decides to include us all. The account from here is written in the first-person plural. WE go to Greece, to Philippi, Paul’s first mission to the European continent, the furthest east he’s ever been.
Not only is Philippi situated on the Aegean, but it is on the Via Egnatia, the Roman Road which connects Philippi to both the Adriatic and the Black Seas. An advantageous spot for trade, which may be why Lydia is there. This is not her home, she is from Thyatira in Asia Minor. But now she lives here, in Europe, because her business is here. She is a supplier of the finest material, purple cloth, she sells to the richest people. In our world she would be a designer to royal families and red-carpet celebrities. Even as a woman in the first century, Lydia is somebody in the world. But she’s not exactly whom Paul was expecting. Yet when Paul arrives in Philippi, going to all the places he normally goes when he enters a new city, no one’s interested in giving him an audience. So, after a few days, he heads toward the river, out the gates of the city and there Paul finds a group of women who are praying, it’s a place of prayer.
Lydia and her household receive Paul, and Lydia is open to hearing the good news he shares of Jesus. She’s a Gentile who has converted to Judaism, and is ready to be baptized to this faith Paul makes real for her. She and her whole household, because the householder makes those decisions for everyone. Lydia is the first Christian baptized in Europe, and she becomes the foundational support for Paul’s ministry in Philippi. Not only that, but she is a reputable merchant on the trade route to Europe, she deals with the wealthy and those in powerful positions. And now she’s a Christian, a follower of Jesus in the way. It’s reasonable to assume that she was instrumental in sharing the Gospel beyond Philippi – opening up the spread of Christianity into Europe.
Lydia may be one of the keys to the survival of the early Christian church. What might be different if Paul had been able to meet with the town elders, or had decided that the women were not worth the trouble? What might not have happened? But Paul goes through the gates of the city and down to the river, and meets exactly whom he was meant to meet. Lydia, who would become a partner in ministry in her own right, vital and necessary to the spread of Gospel, even if the text can’t say it outright.
In our Gospel text we are also at a gate, near the water. Just past the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, near the pool of Beth-zatha, where Jesus asks the man who has been ill for 38 years, “Do you want to be made well?” The man answers, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus tells him to stand up, take his mat and walk. Immediately the man is healed.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here – not just the ominous final comment by the narrator, “Now that day was a Sabbath.” This is an odd story, the man never asks to be healed, he never claims to be faithful, and Jesus doesn’t do anything in order to heal him, he just tells him to get up and walk, and the man is suddenly able to. The man isn’t then convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, he isn’t even grateful. Actually, the man’s testimony will be used as validation for those out to persecute Jesus. Yet Jesus keeps doing the life-giving work he is called to do, without concern for the consequences, or even the merit of the one he heals. The God whom Jesus makes known is a God who does not discriminate in giving good gifts, a God who wills that all may have life, and have it abundantly.¹
On Tuesday I went to Auburn, driving the River Road; no gate, but definitely along the water. I attended the Maine Council of Churches’ ‘Faith in Harm Reduction’ program, a response to the opioid crisis for people of faith. The program featured professionals from law enforcement and the legislature, and recovery specialists. I can’t help but consider this Gospel through the lens of our understanding and response to the drug problem overwhelming our communities.
Through this lens, the sick man’s explanation – of being by the side of the pool but unable to get anyone to help him get in to be healed – is actually the excuses hundreds of passers-by had used, so they didn’t have to help him.
His words echo the excuses we make so we don’t have to help: “Oh, he just doesn’t want to get better.” “If only he hadn’t burned bridges with his family.” “He probably likes the attention.” “Another opioid addict.” “The government should step in.” “The Church should help him.” On and on and on.² Anything so we don’t have to stop and help him ourselves. Or spend our money to fix the system which allows this pool to be surrounded by so many people in need of healing, yet only one can be healed at a time. Excuses so we don’t have to take the time to understand the depth of the problems involved, and how we might make things better for everyone.
Here’s what I learned (or had reinforced) on Tuesday: Addiction is more powerful than just about everything else. The system is designed to make it nearly impossible to get clean and stay that way, even if you want to. The issues underlying drug use are complicated and often related to significant trauma. And 80% of those addicted to drugs are suffering from some form of mental illness, or PTSD. Particularly our veterans, who make up a block of those in need of safe recovery. Yet without adequate recovery programs available, people suffer in endless cycles of addiction without the tools for long term recovery and wellness.
The statistics are consistent and unambiguous – putting people in jail doesn’t reduce drug use in this country. When we criminalize the people involved we make it even more difficult for them to get the help and healing they need. The stigma of drug use prevents people from being reconciled to their families and communities, and feeds their underlying insecurities and pain which contributed to their addiction in the first place. Which means – there’s a lot we can do to smooth the road to recovery for those in need of our care and consideration. If we’ll stop making excuses, and consider a change of hearts and minds.
Jesus threw out all the excuses and changed the rules. The man no longer had to wait by the pool, he could be healed right now.³ He didn’t have to be good enough, or faithful enough, or even grateful. Jesus came that all of us may have abundant life, and that was reason enough to heal and restore to community.
My Friends, how is God inviting us to see the world differently? To change our perspective and our systems, transforming our communities for the better – that all might have abundant life?
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been known to say,
There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.⁴
We are called to be agents of healing and restoration to beloved community, to share the love of Christ with the world. To go upstream and find out what we can do to change things for those in need of our compassion and understanding.
May we follow Jesus beyond the gates of our comfort zone. Concerned less about the moral high ground, and more about walking together, following Jesus, and reconciling the world to God’s love. Amen.
1 Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on John 5:1-9, May 01, 2016, workingpreacher.org
2 Steve Pankey, Pick up your excuses, May 20, 2019, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com
3 Steve Pankey, Pick up your excuses, May 20, 2019, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com
4 Desmond Tutu, as quoted by Hands That Shape Humanity: a social enterprise which forms part of the REAL Group, a collective of businesses that crosses retail, social enterprise and brand consultancy. Hands That Shape Humanity began in 2004 in Cape Town, South Africa, in conjunction with the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation.