Sunday, May 1, 2016

Open and closed doors

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

Today, we have another great story from Acts. Paul has been in Jerusalem in a council meeting with the disciples, some elders, and some delegates from the church in Antioch. The topic was if new believers need to be circumcised and to obey all the Jewish food laws.
After some very passionate speeches on all sides of these issues, it was determined that a letter to new believers was sufficient. The letter urged new believers to avoid food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality. Keeping fully Kosher food laws and circumcision were not essential to becoming Christians. Paul and some companions would take the letter and share it with the believers as they traveled.
After the council in Jerusalem, Paul and Silas head west, to touch base with the congregations he had already established. They go to Derbe and Lystra and Iconium, then into Galatia and Phrygia.
They are prevented from going into Asia, a region of modern day western Turkey. Somehow, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus given first in the upper room and later to the huge crowd in the streets, is guiding Paul’s travels by closing some doors and opening others. They share the good news where the Spirit has allowed them to be and the number of believers increases, and the faith of existing believers is strengthened.
Eventually, Paul has a vision of a man urging him to come to Macedonia, which we know today as Greece. So, they head west and across the bay to Philippi. They stay and explore the city, presumably talking with people, looking for an opening, waiting for the Spirit to guide them further, to make something happen.
Philippi is a very Roman city, intentionally colonized by Roman soldiers released from active duty. It’s a hostile place for Jews, as we will see next week, so it’s likely that they choose to gather for worship outside the city, near the river.  
On the Sabbath, Paul and his companions head to the river, looking for a Jewish community assembled for worship. The text doesn’t mention if Paul did discover a worshiping community, but does describe an encounter with Lydia and some other women. Lydia is a seller of purple cloth, an expensive commodity in that time, which only the very wealthy can afford. As a result, Lydia has some money and the larger home and other nice things that money can buy her.
She is a Gentile believer in the Jewish God, known as a God-fearer or God-worshipper, attracted to Israel’s God and the religion’s moral teachings without becoming a convert to Judaism.  I find it interesting that Paul does not turn away from this group of women, looking instead for a group of men, but chooses to engage the women in conversation.
One of them in particular takes notice and listens. The Spirit opens her heart and she and her household are baptized. She then issues an invitation, pressing on them her fervent wish that Paul and his companions come to her house to stay.  Lydia’s home becomes the base for their operations whenever they are in that region.  
All along, Paul and his companions have been guided by the Holy Spirit. Doors have been opened and closed for them as they seek in prayer the direction in which they should travel next.
Today, it’s important for us to remember that the Holy Spirit was already waiting for them, opening doors, wherever they were sent. The Spirit had been in the cities and towns where they first introduced Jesus. The Spirit was in Joppa and Lydda, and Jerusalem, and Antioch. The Spirit was in Macedonia, ready to move in Lydia’s heart as soon as she heard the good news. 
The Spirit also closed some doors. Paul was prevented from traveling to Bithynia, for example. Many people refused to believe, the doors of their hearts closed to the good news that Paul and Peter and the others offered.  Next week, we will read that the Spirit closed jail cell doors on Paul and Silas, but opened a door in the heart of the jailer.
Open doors and closed doors both provide opportunities for ministry. They offer guidance about the next steps for churches and missions. The challenge for us is to determine which doors are open, and which are closed to us. It makes no sense to keep trying to open doors that are firmly closed, when another door is wide open.

When I was in seminary, I voiced a preference for a particular congregation for a year of field work. I liked the pastor who would train me. I liked the people who made up the congregation, black and white people working together as if it had always been that way. Since I had been born in the hospital very near that congregation, it seemed like God was calling me home.
But that door was closed to me. Instead, I was assigned to a different congregation, where the pastor seemed rather depressed. The people were just then trying to figure out how to be a multiracial congregation on the edge of the city.
I was not pleased at first with the assignment, and I spent some time grieving the loss of Zion. But, I soon learned to love St Paul’s and found it hard to leave when my time there was over. The Spirit knew which doors to open, and which doors to close in my life.
When in your life have you experienced closed doors? For how long did you beat at that door, and pull at the handle, trying to get it to open?  What happened when you noticed an open door? How cautious were you in approaching it and going through it? What did you discover after you went through the door? I hope it was a blessing such as I received from St Paul’s Church.

Please pray with me. Spirit of God, move us, move within us, move in front of us. Lead us in the ways you would have us go, to meet the people you would have us meet. Put words in our mouths, and acceptance of your word in the hearts of others. Help us to see which doors are open and which doors are closed, and to walk through open doors knowing you walk ahead of us to show us the way. Amen