I was tempted this week to focus only on the story in Acts. There are so many things here. The decision to move the mission from Asia Minor across the sea to Macedonia, northern Greece, opens a new chapter in the history of the church. The church goes into heavily Gentile territory. The vision is what makes it happen. We all need a vision when we open a new chapter of life.
And did you notice that the author of Acts needs to explain where Philippi is? That means that the reader may not know this city. Why? Because it is too small. Philippi is a departure from the overall blueprint used by first Christians to expand the church. The plan was to get something going in all the major cities of the Roman Empire. It was an urban strategy. And by the close of the first century there was a Christian group in every major Roman city. Quite an accomplishment.
But Philippi was not large. It was a small town. Actually from what we can tell it was sort of a sleepy retirement community. You had to tell people where it was. And the description puts a positive spin on Philippi’s importance: even though it is not large, it’s important. We all need major blueprints for how things should go, but once in awhile we need to do something out of the box. Just like Paul.
And then there is the missional organization. It’s not Paul alone who goes. No, there is a “we” in this mission organization. This mission to Roman cities was actually financed out of Antioch and involved teams of people moving back and forth. We all need to remember the importance of the “we,” as we go through life and get things going.
And there is the founding presence of women. Men did not found this church in Philippi. It was a women’s group, led by a strong entrepreneur, Lydia. In the empire, men were in charge of the public things. Women ran Roman households. And so Lydia’s entire household followed her lead. Actually her household, like many in the empire, was a small factory. She dealt in purple cloth. Perhaps most of the first and founding Christians were women. Some churches were founded in Jewish synagogues. They would feature men in leadership positions. Others were founded in households. They featured women in charge. Others were founded in cemeteries as memorial societies by which Roman’s honored the dead. The funerary societies founded in the name of Jesus remembered the last days of his life each year in the spring with a special feast. Roman funerary societies were women’s organizations and men were not part of these groups.
Here we have a church founded in a household, run by women, led by Lydia. We all need to remember that the Christian church was led by all sorts of people, and took different shapes in not only the urban centers but also the small towns. We all need to remember the women in our lives who founded the faith in our hearts.
And on a day when we are lifting up mental health, the importance of finding one’s vision, of the support of the group, of the need to wander off the plan now and then, and of the roles of founding women are all important in finding our way in healthy life and relationships.
But I did want to say something about the gospel reading today. It is from John, a remembrance of the words of Jesus. This readings comes from Asia Minor, probably near Ephesus, and is written later than the story from Acts, probably much later. Jesus’ remembered words remind us of the Trinity, but his Trinity sounds and feels different from the doctrine of the Trinity.
That’s because the doctrine of the Trinity comes much later than the New Testament. But here we can sense how the Trinity was beginning to be assembled. Jesus is somehow united with what is called the Father and what is called the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit.
Now it may be the case that this threefold construction is the oldest religious political compromise in our Christian history. Early Christian churches involved not only both genders in leadership, but also bridged the broad cultural gap between Jew and Gentile. Jews would embrace the concept of God, Father, and Creator, the source of all being. Gentiles, in their religious perspective, were really focused on the spirit and expressions of the spirit. Here John embraces both traditions as Father and Spirit come together in the life of Jesus. This may be an old negotiated common ground between opposite points of view. This Trinity may stand as a tribute to the capacity of early Christians to forge common ground.
But also, there is some ancient philosophy going on. There are not three gods here. But in John’s mind, with the divine enterprise, whatever that is, there is an origin, a foundation, a grounding, a source. That is God as Father here. But with the same divine enterprise there is also an embodiment, an engagement, an incarnation, a reality. That is Jesus. But with the same divine enterprise, whatever that is, there is also sustenance, a sustaining force, an intangible will to continue. An origin, an embodiment, and sustenance describe together the nature of God’s intention.
Now I know this is abstract. John is abstract. But think about a great love story. A love story between two people that is deep and long and filled with turns and growing affection through struggle, until there is some sense of a happily ever after. That love story will involve a powerful origin, a full and rich embodiment of the affection, and a sustaining spirit as the plot unfolds.
Think about the Trinity as God’s love story. A love story for humanity that is deep and long and filled with turns and growing affection through struggle, until there is some sense of a happily ever after. God’s love story involves a powerful creation or origin, embodiment of the divine affection in the life of Jesus, and a sustaining spirit as the plot continues. Father. Jesus. Paraclete in John.
There is an origin, an embodiment, a sustaining spirit. In John. In Macadonia. In our congregation. In your heart, on your way to that happiness you intend. The origin, embodiment, and spirit of love is with us: whatever needs to be negotiated, regardless of changes in plans, no matter who is in charge, as the “we” continues to open new possibilities.