Whenever a Door Closes…

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C]

Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29

In my office I have a small blanket—more like a throw for a sofa or chair—that was given to me by a member of the first congregation I served. Woven into its pattern is a picture of a big window surrounded by a bunch of rose blossoms and at the bottom is a quote that you have probably heard before: “Whenever God closes a door he always opens a window.” Confirmands each year are asked to pick a Scripture verse that means something to them and their faith, but I notice that no one ever picks that one: “Whenever God closes a door he always opens a window.”

Well, that’s because—you probably guessed it—it never appears in Scripture! Plenty of people think it does, and we do find several examples of that sentiment in Scripture, I suppose, but those exact words are never found anywhere. In fact, I think more correct version of this beloved quote on the blanket would be, “Whenever a door closes, God opens a tomb.” Because the life of faith is not so much about new possibilities as it is about new life. God’s relationship with us is not just about opening windows but rolling away stones. It is not just about turning corners and trying harder but about God raising up new life where we least expect it. As the confirmands stand up to profess their faith today, I hope they can hang on to that idea—that God brings new life—always—even when life hands us a Good Friday.

The reason why I bring this up is that this morning’s lesson from Acts is a prime example of God creating new life and opening windows when a door closes. The church in this story is still young. We find some of the earliest apostles, Paul and his comrades Timothy and Silas, working their way through cities and regions in present-day Turkey. They’ve traveled through several places there, preaching the message of Jesus, but they’ve kind of reached a dead end. We find out just before our episode today that the apostles want to go into a place called Bithynia, but they are prevented by the Spirit of Jesus. It’s unclear to us what exactly that means, but suffice it to say they feel that a door has been closed to them. They are kind of stuck, re-routed back to a place called Troas, and they may even be wondering if this is the end of the road or whether they’ll have to backtrack somehow.

But then something interesting happens. Paul has a vision during the night that tells him to leave and go into Macedonia.

Some basic geography is helpful here. Macedonia is across the Aegean Sea from where they are. That means it is in Europe, a completely different continent. Up until now the Christian movement had been something happening in Asia, in the areas around Jerusalem and Israel and modern-day Syria and Turkey. It would be like sitting in Henrico County, having plans to head north to pick some tomatoes in Hanover County or Caroline County and then someone saying, “Pick up your things and go to Venezuela.” For Paul to hear a vision tell him to go to Europe must have been a shock. That’s a whole new culture and new geography, a different part of the Roman Empire with different customs and languages. It was going to involve getting in a boat and learning the lay of a new land.

And then when we hear that Paul arrives in Philippi, a city bustling with commerce and politics, there are more surprises. Nothing happens right away, but eventually they begin conversations with a group of women who were gathered just outside of the town. A particular woman named Lydia starts to listen to Paul and his companions. As it turns out, Lydia is kind of an influential and well-connected person. Furthermore, she is probably not Jewish. She is likely Gentile, a Greek by culture, who is involved in the trade of purple cloth. The purple cloth trade in ancient times was only for the wealthy. Purple dye, the most difficult of all colors to procure, was obtained by crushing the shells of a particular species of mollusk found in a certain area of the Mediterranean Sea. Those who controlled the trade of those mollusks were the ones who could dye fabric and sell it to the royal courts who needed it for robes and cloaks. After listening to Paul and his companions, Lydia ends up becoming a Christ-follower and getting her whole household baptized.

So, see?  Whenever a door is closed, God opens a tomb. The message of hope and new life in Jesus comes to Europe and the first person who receives it  is a person with power and influence. Here, in a new foreign culture, God first trusts a woman to hear a message and make a choice with what to do with it. As the story of Acts continues, Lydia is seen as one of the most giving and generous of believers. In fact, she lets her house be used for worship services and as a wayfaring station for missionaries and we can be pretty certain that the congregation in Philippi was built on her conversion and from her resources. Two of our confirmands, J.T. and Ryan Mertz, selected Scripture verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We can thank Lydia and her household, in some way, for that.

Paul and Lydia meet in Philippi

It is my hunch that Paul and Silas would never have initially guessed that they would so soon be called to a new continent. And that they’d have such success! But that’s how the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit pulls together a community of people that otherwise would have no cause to be together doing things they, by themselves, could not do.

We hear Jesus tell his own disciples these kinds of things the night before he is handed over to the authorities and put on trial and crucified. They are gathered in a room together and he has celebrated the Passover meal with them and washed their feet. I can imagine that their anxiety would be through the roof. Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Jesus. Things don’t seem to be going well at all. They probably can’t explain all the details, but it certainly seems like a huge door is about to be slammed shut—slammed shut on their mission as disciples, slammed shut on their hope for a new regime in Jerusalem, slammed shut on their fledgling community.

But Jesus explains in very loving and calming words that the Father in heaven will be sending them the Holy Spirit to lead them and teach them. They don’t know what’s coming next, and they never really will.

At some point or another, most of us find that is one of the most frustrating aspects of life. We just don’t know what is going to happen in the future. It can be exhilarating, but it can also produce anxiety. It is tempting to believe that there is a specific precise plan out there that God has charted out for us that we just have to figure out. The Christian writer Donald Miller says that when a lot of people think about God’s plan for their lives they tend to think of a road map that has clear signs showing them where to turn left or turn right. Which major in college should I choose? Which career am I made for?

But even in Scripture are people’s lives and missions rarely laid out in such a detailed way. Donald Miller says that it’s better to think of God’s plan not like a map but more like a blank coloring book where God gives us certain crayons and says, “Start drawing.” The different crayons are our gifts and skills, and we may mess up, but there’s always more room to draw and experiment, and things may go any which way at any given time.

And into the midst of the anxiety that closed doors and unknown futures gives us, just like on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises God will still be with us.

Jesus promises the Advocate

The Spirit of God will be guiding and leading as we explore the possibilities of life and faith, coloring as we go. Jesus uses an interesting word for God’s Spirit. He calls the Spirit the Advocate. An advocate is someone who can speak for you and knows what your best interests really are. Jesus promises that even though we’ll occasionally feel alone or frustrated, God will be coming along to open windows or open tombs in order to bring our best interests forward. And so Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. There is no reason to fear when God has your best interests at heart.

He also tells his disciples that we don’t know everything yet. As time moves on, as life moves on, they will learn more about faith and about God’s grace. It is a journey, a relationship, and the Spirit comes to reveal more and more to us about who Jesus is and why he matters to us. We don’t ever have it “all figured out,” so to speak—not even about our own faith.

As he departs Jesus also reminds his followers that he doesn’t give as the world gives. The world, we learn, will always give us what we’ve essentially deserved, and a lot of times less than what we’ve deserved. The world works on giving people what they earn, or by what they’ve got on their resume, or what comes to you by virtue of our skin color or where we were born. Jesus does not give like that. Jesus will give his grace and his mercy simply because Jesus loves you. Jesus gives his encouragement and his attention just because that is what he came to do. That’s what he’s here for.

The other evening the confirmands were all here and we were running through the worship service and where they would be standing and the parts they would be responsible for speaking. I explained to them that they’d be speaking the Apostles’ Creed all together, but they would have one line to say by themselves out loud. That line is “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” They all went around the line and practiced saying the line. But one of them—I won’t tell you who it was—messed up that one line. Instead that one said, “I do, and I ask God to help and find me.”

As you might imagine, there was some snickering and some ribbing of this young person. And he blushed and wanted a re-do. But I got to thinking later that, in way, his mistake was a better response, especially as we prepare to send them all out into the world at some point. An Advocate doesn’t just speak for people, and advocate is someone looking out for you. An Advocate is someone who can find you when you’re looking for the next open window. Jesus himself compares himself often to a shepherd who seeks after every sheep.

So, yes, may God help and find you. That’s the peace Jesus leaves with you today. May God the Spirit always find you.  Like he found Lydia in Philippi and Paul in Troas. Wherever you are. All of you.  And all of us. Over and over again,

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr. 

A meeting of Deniers Anonymous

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]

“After he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.”

And so begins one of the few accounts we have of Jesus after his resurrection. We don’t have a whole lot of these particular stories, which has often been a bit of a downer. Mark, with its original ending, doesn’t really have any stories of the risen Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus gives a very short message to his disciples, and then it ends. Luke and John both have a bit more with the resurrected Jesus, including this story today, but even their stories paint a picture of Jesus that is constantly appearing and reappearing to them out of nowhere, almost like most of the time he’s off doing something somewhere else on his own. You would think that if someone rose from the dead for the first time ever, we might get more stories of what that person was like and what he did. But, as it happens, Jesus was only around for 40 days after his resurrection, according to Luke, and so I guess we should be grateful for the half of dozen or so that we do have.

And based on this one that John includes, we come to learn that the stories we have are plenty. Like the fish that the disciples don’t expect to catch that just keep coming up out of the sea and into the boat, the messages about Jesus and who he is for us seem skimpy at first but end up becoming a load that will feed us from now until he returns. Like the meager meal that once ended up feeding five thousand by the lake, these few stories will miraculously provide more than enough for us as we continue as his disciples.

The first thing we learn about Jesus after the resurrection is, simply enough, that he eats. The other day there was a crane fly in our bathroom and our son wanted to catch it and keep it as a pet. So we managed to get it into a bug keeper and then we figured we’d better find something for it to eat. Melinda and I thought crane flies preyed on mosquitos, and I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to catch mosquitoes, but when we asked the authority in our house—Alexa—what crane flies ate we learned, to our surprise, that adult crane flies actually don’t eat anything. They emerge from their pupa form without mouth parts. They have enough energy stored up in their bodies to continue their life for a few days, lay eggs, and then die. So as it turned out we ended up finding one of the easiest pets to keep ever. No cost to keep a crane fly!

crane fly

Jesus, however, is different, and his community is too. He emerges from the tomb hungry. In fact, about half of the stories that include the risen Jesus, he has a meal with his disciples. In this one that John tells us about, Jesus is on the shore of the lake and there is a campfire there. He apparently has already been preparing this meal because when the disciples get off the boat from fishing and walk ashore, there are already some fish and bread on the fire. Jesus asks them to bring more from what they’ve caught and he invites them to breakfast. And taking the bread from the fire, and then the fish, he shares it with his hungry disciples who are still trying to understand how to live into this new reality of a risen Jesus.

Eating together will be central to the life of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection. It seems so ordinary and un-mysterious—you know, sitting down for a bite to eat—but as it turns out gathering regularly for a meal will help Jesus’ friends understand how to make Jesus’ presence real in the world.  I think this is an aspect to our faith that we can take for granted, because it’s easy to make faith into a head-trip. I think we can easily turn worship into little more than a seminar with music, if we’re not careful. We come so often to worship to be moved by the things we hear and sing and read that we can forget that Jesus’ risen life for us is about community and sharing. A meal gets us to do that, perhaps more than anything else.

In Jesus’ time, of course, sharing a table with someone else was one of the most intimate things you could do with them. Eating together put people on the same level and almost made them family. In a time of drive-thru service and Door Dash we probably don’t think a whole lot about the power of eating together. That said, studies done recently on international diplomacy have shown that summits and meetings between national leaders that include a meal are more successful in accomplishing their goals of peace and understanding than meetings that do not have the principal players gathered around common food.

Jesus knows this, so when the risen Jesus gathers his disciples for a simple breakfast that morning, he is not just starting the day right. It’s starting their new life right. He is showing his followers that taking time to share his meal of bread and wine will help keep them united to him and to each other.

The second thing we learn about life with the risen Lord is that it revolves around second chances. The first lesson this morning, the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as told in the book of Acts, may be the most dramatic example of that. It’s the story of how a man goes from a life of persecuting the church and happily watching Christians killed to founding and nurturing Christian churches throughout the known world.  The man we know as Paul, the one who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament and helped train numerous disciples for Jesus, started as Saul, a man who had an intense hatred for Jesus. As cruel as Saul was, Jesus turned his life around toward good.

And the life of the risen Jesus is about giving people second chances even before Paul. That day by the lake as the disciples share a meal together Jesus approaches Peter and asks him three times if he loves him. Just as Peter had denied even knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ death, now Peter has three chances to profess his love for Jesus.

The Conversion of Paul (Caravaggio)

God is full of grace. Jesus rises from the dead and immediately wants his life of new beginnings to resurrect Peter’s faith. Jesus doesn’t rub Peter’s nose in what he’s done. Jesus doesn’t toss Peter to the curb and move on to the next disciple instead. Jesus invites Peter back into a relationship of love and trust. Since we’ve been embraced by this relationship too, we must watch and tend how it then creates new beginnings in our relationships. This is the power of God’s forgiveness—to wipe away past wrongs and move forward with new possibilities.

Church can so easily become a type of society or club, with all its committees and its business features, but we do well to remember that at our core we are a just a weekly meeting of D.A.: Deniers Anonymous. Peter’s denial did not cause him to lose his spot in Jesus’ disciples. Jesus immediately found a way to bring him back in. People show up for worship and other ministry activities each week in the shoes of Peter, wishing for a new start, a new crack at God’s grace. And that is good, because Christ’s risen life revolves around infinite second chances.

The third thing we learn from these post-resurrection stories, and particularly this one this morning, is that we receive tasks. Faith in Christ is not just going to be something we reflect on intended to make our lives better. We feed Jesus’ lambs. We tend his sheep. Jesus calls Peter to nurture the life of his flock and, through them, the lives of the sheep in the whole world around him.

When I look back on the past two years of ministry in our congregation, and especially 2020, the first year of the pandemic, I realize that this aspect of Jesus’ risen life was especially important to this congregation. It was probably true for many congregations. For obvious reasons, it was difficult for us to gather and share Jesus’ meal, since physical presence is required for that. And although virtual ministry allowed us to continue to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, living together as a reconciled second-chance people and sharing our stories was tricky too. But the congregation really felt called to feed and tend the needs of those around us. The serving ministries of this congregation never faltered, and, in fact, in 2020, they set records in many areas. In a time of stress and disorientation, you heard Jesus calling us to continue feeding his lambs through support of our food pantries and to tend the Christ’s flock at St. Joseph’s Villa and Encircle through special drives at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year’s Lenten Wednesday offerings raised over $6000, which will be split between our denomination’s assistance to people fleeing disaster and war and Safe Harbor, a local program that provides assistance to people experiencing domestic violence and human trafficking.

A meeting of the Micah Ministry Team at Epiphany

One day this week I happened across the members of our Micah Ministry meeting in our parlor. Micah Ministry is our outreach to Southampton Elementary School, a Richmond City Public School just south of the river. The team was planning activities for Teacher Appreciation Week there, tending to the needs of educating sheep who have certainly had a challenging last two years.

Sharing Jesus’ meal periodically in a life of endless new beginnings as we work to tend to the needs of the world: all of this crammed so lovingly into just a handful of experiences after Jesus rises from the grave. Jesus knows it will be enough for us to go on, keep us busy for a long time. It’s as if he knows—it’s as if he knows he will be somehow present with us as we continue, in our forgiveness of one another, in his Words, through the Holy Spirit.

The thing is: we never know exactly where this path will wind, where it will take us— the joys, the pains, the tragedies, the triumphs…the weeping that spends the night and the joy that comes in the morning. That can be the scary part. But Jesus knows we can do it. He believes deep down we can walk this journey of faith. He says to us, as he says to Peter: Follow me.

And so we do. With God’s help and guidance, we follow, knowing that through all the twists and turns the path eventually leads to the place where “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them—even the crane flies without their mouth parts—will be singing to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb. To him be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.