Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29
At times, I am reminded that following Jesus is a bit strange. I’m trained in scientific methods as a community psychologist and I’m working to develop specific hypotheses for my dissertation. My research will be descriptive – describing what exists in the world – but it will also seek to answer a question with new data, empirical evidence.
I’ve followed Jesus for many years now – I was baptized in the spring of 2000—and so I’m used to talking about supernatural events of the Spirit, like miracles, or the Spirit’s leading. Yet, sometimes, it hits me with how odd it is, from an empirical and from a nonspiritual point of view. For instance, the general the notion of God, but especially the Holy Spirit acting, moving, nudging, and revealing, as we see in today’s texts. It is odd, if you are not religious, to hear someone say, “This might seem out of nowhere, but I felt this strong thought or voice remind me of a person, or give me a strong idea, or compel me to pray or talk or reach out to someone.” Yet, despite the lack of empirical support for how the Spirit moves, I’m convinced that these “oddities of the Holy Spirit” are still at work today. Our faith is not just a moral philosophy but is empowered and led by a Spirit beyond ourselves. We see this in scripture and we experience in life together as the body of Jesus.
Oddities of the Holy Spirit
Our passage in Acts 16 highlights some of these Holy Spirit oddities. We see that Paul and crew were traveling around preaching about Jesus but hit some Holy Spirit roadblocks in their journeys. Acts 16, verses 6-8 say, they “traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.” There is no indication what this “not allowing” was. Did logistics just not come together? Was someone sick? Did they encounter hostile communities or authorities on the way? Or was it in times of prayer that they kept hearing a big “no”? Whatever the case, there were Holy Spirit roadblocks.
Then, in verse 9, Paul has a dream. The author of Acts, Luke, describes it this way: “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Luke explains, “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (NIV). Paul must have woken up from his dream and said, “Good morning! Um, I don’t know how your night last night was, but I had a dream about a Macedonian guy saying that he needed our help. So… I guess we should go to Macedonia?” So, they went to Macedonia, a place which was not just the next town over. Paul and crew get in a boat, leave Troas, and embark on the Mediterranean. They sailed straight to Samothrace (which was fun to see in the text, because of the statue of the goddess Nike, or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that is at the Louvre). After Samothrace, Paul and colleagues continue on to Neapolis, then to Philippi, which was a Roman colony and the major city in that part of Macedonia.
Typically, Paul and his team would head to the local synagogue, but since there was not one, they went down to the river where they knew Jews or God-fearing gentiles might pray. They began talking with some women who had gathered, one of whom was a woman named Lydia, who is described as a dealer in purple cloth. Commentators say that her name may indicate she had a slave background, but that if she had been, she was now a freed person of means (with a household and a house). Lydia is said to be “a worshipper of God,” which is another way of saying a gentile drawn to Judaism. Primed and open to the teachings of Yahweh already, Lydia hears the message and receives it.
The gospel spreads beyond her to her household and everyone is baptized. She invites Paul and the team to her home. It requires some persuasion (she’s a single woman, maybe a widow, definitely a Gentile), but she ends up convincing Paul and crew to accept her hospitality. They stay with her and use her home as a base for their preaching in Philippi (until they leave after being thrown in jail, but that’s another story).
According to the text, Lydia is the first recorded convert in Macedonia, in the city of Philippi. The church in Philippi later becomes very important to Paul’s ministry of sharing the gospel; one of the main purposes of the Letter to the Philippians is to thank the congregation for its faithful support of Paul’s ministry (through funds, resources, and people).
Acts 16 is a story of closed doors, a weird dream, walking in faith (or rather, sailing in faith), of opportunities ripe for the harvest, crossing social boundaries to receive hospitality, the gospel spreading, ministry being supported—and all this in ways that Paul and his partners probably could not have imagined when they were in Troas at the beginning of the passage. Things weren’t working. Through the oddities of the Holy Spirit, a new opportunity opened. They followed the opportunity and it bore fruit beyond what they could have imagined.
Paul listened for the oddities of the Holy Spirit and acted decisively, walking in faith, though it could have seemed pretty ludicrous or absurd to other people. “You crossed the sea because you had a dream…?” The oddities of the Holy Spirit still happen today. Sometimes the Spirit speaks in a still small voice, sometimes in an emerging thought, sometimes in a dream (I guess!), or sometimes in an opportunity so obvious that we need to walk through the door, or have a conversation, or invite someone to our home, or any other number of things. I’m not stating an exhaustive list. We see in Scripture that the Holy Spirit nudges or reveals opportunities for ministry in ways that could be seen as odd or absurd.
Are we listening for the Holy Spirit? Are our holy senses working? Are we making the space to invite the Spirit’s nudges, pssts, or loud gongs to get our attention? Are we open to the oddities of the Holy Spirit? Are we open to the far-fetched call for a person to join our ministry? Are we open to the weird outreach plan that crossed our minds? Are we open to following the oddities of the Spirit, and then walking (or sailing) in faith to see how God might lead?
Peace I Leave with You, My Peace I Give You
Our 2nd passage flashes backward to Jesus’ ministry, the night before his crucifixion. Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples, trying to prepare them for his death, resurrection, and ascension, giving them what they need to know (even if they won’t remember until later) and praying for them. Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
If we love God and follow the way of Jesus, God will make a home with us. There’s kind of a strange, saccharine phrasing here, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” Though it sounds trite or cutesy translated into English, I think there is profound meaning when we unpack it.
Homes are where we find solace and rest, homes are where we are nourished, where we feed ourselves, and where we are the most relaxed and most authentic. Jesus promises that God will make a home with us: give us rest and solace, nourish us, feed us, and enable us to be our most authentic and true selves. When I am closely walking with Jesus, this is exactly what I feel: at home with God. When I become distant from God, when I drift from the way of Jesus, the rest, the solace, the nourishment, and the authenticity start to drift away too.
Jesus continues, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be sent by the Father in my name, will come to you. The Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all these things. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus teaches that the promised Holy Spirit—remember, Pentecost has not yet happened—will teach, remind, and cover the disciples with peace. Since Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, the peace he is referring to is the concept of shalom, which is wholeness, completeness, right relationships. With the Holy Spirit, the wholeness and completeness that God intends can be made manifest amongst these ragtag followers of Jesus. The disciples were about to be very afraid and deal with great loss. Jesus says, “do not be afraid. I am sending you what you need. My peace I give you, I leave with you.”
These are words that I needed to hear in my life both personally—as I’m dealing with numerous relational transitions or loss—and in terms of my role in this community. I’ve served as a leader here in times of great scarcity, then moved to what seemed like times of relative abundance and growth, and now back to what seems like a fallow period with scarcity—and, if I’m being honest, also some loss. I feel loss in the departure of core members who moved away. I feel loss in the disappearances of other seemingly somewhat committed persons. I feel loss, and I’m sad, and I’m probably afraid.
But Jesus says, I am giving you what you need. Really, while celebrating Pentecost is in 2 weeks, we are already in the era of the Holy Spirit—WE’VE BEEN GIVEN WHAT WE NEED. (I wrote that in all caps, because I need to hear it for myself.) Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, sometimes things really kind of suck. Yes, there is pain and loss. But you know what, Jesus did not leave us alone. Jesus did not leave us alone. The Advocate
(someone who pleads on our behalf!) is with us. God makes a home with us. The peace and wholeness and presence of God is with us, through the pain, through the loss, through the times that really suck.
Jesus said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be sent by the Father in my name, will come to you. The Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all these things. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
Act on the Nudges and Do Not Be Afraid
I find it very intriguing that these passages came up this week, after some Holy Spirit nudges had occurred. While I certainly preach for the whole body, I often find that the biblical interpretation and the preaching I do is exactly for me, is somehow what I need right now. I’ve been trying to pay attention to these holy nudges, holy opportunities, both in terms of my personal life and my ministry with Washington City Church of the Brethren. Instead of just grieving some personal relationships ending or changing (but believe me, I’m still grieving), I’ve been saying yes to new opportunities for friendship. It’s hard to make new friends, but I’m trying to follow up with a text or a playdate or a walk, or whatever. I don’t think Jesus just wants me to sit around feeling sorry for myself, but to take opportunities placed around me, like new acquaintances or new neighbors.
In terms of the church, I think I had a holy nudge this week and I’ll tell you the story: I typically read books while nursing Ayuba to sleep but, for some reason, I started browsing facebook. Which is also strange, because I’ve been avoiding facebook for a while, only periodically getting the app back on a device and catching up with folks or posting on the church page or reading my birthday greetings. While there, I saw some news about a Church of the Brethren acquaintance, who had recently graduated with a degree.
All of a sudden, this small thought came across: maybe she can come to Washington City. It sounds crazy, but her degree and training could really fit with some of our interests in outreach and arts here at Washington City. After Ayuba fell asleep, I sat in silence—and got the sense that, to be faithful, I should act on this crazy thought and send her a message. So I did. I’m not sure what will come of it, if anything—but I want to be open to the oddities of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Nate and I got here. That’s how Jacob got here. A random conversation, an invitation, and walking in faith after the way of Jesus.
Are we open to hearing the oddities of the Holy Spirit? Personally and as a congregation, are we listening to holy nudges or paying attention to opportunities for new connections, new relationships, new ministry? While things are painful and we’re feeling loss, we are not alone. WE ARE NOT ALONE! We have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose oddities still occur today. We have the peace of Jesus, and God has made a home with us. AMEN.
Benediction, from Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:16-21: I pray that out of God’s glorious riches God may strengthen us with power through the Spirit in our inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power that is at work within us, 21 to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.