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.
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.
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.