Bible Text: Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Acts 16:11-15, Mathew 15:21-28 | Preacher: Rev. Victor Shepherd | Series: 2014 Sermons
I: — In 1939 67% of the Canadian people lived below the poverty line. Today only 17% live below the poverty line. Plainly a much larger proportion of Canada is well off materially. In addition the poverty line itself means something different now. For instance, virtually anywhere else in the world anyone who had access to Canada’s medical care and public education and criminal justice system would be considered extraordinarily privileged. The poorest people in Canada have access to carriage trade health services. Therefore even the 17% who live below the poverty line are well off, in many respects, compared to the rest of the world.
In saying this I’m not denying that some Canadians continue to live in dreadful poverty. I must say, however, that we Canadians are better off materially than our foreparents ever were. I’m aware that I am affluent. The only difference between my affluence and the superrich person’s is that the latter can buy bigger toys, and his financial statements have more zeros on the page. Right now I have more clothes than I can wear out, more food than I need. And books? If I live to be 150 years old I still won’t have read all the books I purchased inasmuch as I could afford them. I can sleep in only one bed at time, and I have a bed.
Furthermore, since wealth is measured not by what we own but by what we have access to, and since I have access to Legal Aid, Employment Insurance, public libraries and swimming pools and parks, I’m doubly affluent. I think I’m as affluent as I should ever want to be; certainly as well off as I shall ever need to be.
Lydia, the first person to respond to the gospel on Paul’s second missionary journey (she’s sometimes said to be the first European to come to faith in Jesus Christ); Lydia was affluent. She was affluent like Erastus, a Christian from Corinth. Erastus was city treasurer, and Corinth was a major financial centre in the Roman Empire. The point I am making is this: not everyone who came to faith in Jesus Christ was dirt poor and socially disadvantaged. Part of the mythology of the anti-Christian nay-sayers is that the Christian faith thrived in an era when few were affluent and the majority were poor; therefore the Christian faith thrived inasmuch as it fed and encouraged the resentment and envy and acquisitiveness of the “have-nots” in their murderous pursuit of the “haves.” The myth is just that: myth. The truth is, our Lord drew people to him from every social and economic class. Let’s not forget that Paul himself was a citizen of Rome, with all the privileges that accompanied citizenship, and this when very few people in the Roman Empire ever became citizens.
Lydia was a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, a self-employed cloth merchant. Europeans of her era valued clothing made from cloth that had been dyed an exquisitely beautiful purple. The purple dye came from a substance found in shellfish. It took thousands of shellfish to yield a usable amount of dye. As a result the purple cloth was exceedingly expensive. Lydia owned and operated a carriage-trade business that sold upper-end women’s clothing. She wouldn’t have been out of place in Toronto’s Yorkville or New York’s Fifth Avenue.
II: — The second noteworthy feature of Lydia is that she was a “God-fearer” in the vocabulary of Acts, a “worshipper of God” as some English translations have it. The Greek expression is phoboumenoi, and the phoboumenoi, in the First Century, were Gentiles who were attracted to the synagogue in their town or city but who did not become Jewish converts. They worshipped week by week with a Jewish congregation and associated with Jewish people without ever becoming Jews.
Why were they drawn to the synagogue? They were attracted to Jewish monotheism and Jewish ethics. The Gentile world of that era was riddled with assorted deities. These pagan gods and goddesses were said to squabble among themselves incessantly and to behave immorally. In other words, pagan religion was no more than a projection of the messed-up human heart. Pagan religion constantly reinforced fallen humankind’s confusion and savagery and disintegration. There was no help, then, to be found in pagan religion. The God-fearers, however, recognized in Jewish faith a throbbing conviction that God is one. God is holy. God is exalted. God blesses his people by suffering on their behalf, by delivering them from assorted bondages, and by claiming thereafter their obedience for himself. Earnest, thoughtful, sensitive Gentiles were only too glad to live on the fringe of the synagogue.
At the same time, they tended not to take the final step and become Jews. If an adult Gentile male became a Jew he had to be circumcized — and this in a day and age that had neither anaesthetic nor antiseptic. And Gentile women? They weren’t always eager to embrace all the details of the Torah, the dietary restrictions, and so on. Lydia relished the company of the Jewish world without becoming a Jew herself. Today we’d call her an adherent.
I’m convinced that today we are surrounded with God-fearers. I’m convinced that there are many people in our affluent era who are in fact very close in outlook to Lydia. They are attracted to the church in their neighbourhood, be it Presbyterian or Roman Catholic or whatever. They are attracted by its monotheism and its ethics. At the same time they are cautious, reserved, lest they appear too “religious.” They don’t feel they can honestly, unreservedly, assent to all the major doctrinal statements, and therefore they don’t become church members officially. They may even hesitate to declare themselves Christians.
Yet they come to church and associate with its people because they are attracted by Christian monotheism and ethics. They know that the world is a perilous place; they know it’s a jumble of rival ideologies and a jungle morally. If we asked them whether they believed in God they’d say “yes” even if they had to pause a moment before answering. If we then asked them whether they believed in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of Man, the world’s sole Saviour and Lord, the Messiah of Israel and the coming Judge, they would shrink back. And if we said to them, “Since you are attending a Presbyterian church rather than a Lutheran, you must think that Calvin’s extra-Calvinisticum is preferable to Luther’s communicatio idiomata;” if we said this to them they might not appear for a week or two. But for now they intuit that Jesus is more than a good man or a fine teacher even if they can’t say what more; they intuit that there’s something unique about the cross even though they can’t articulate the atonement or explain how the cross saves anyone.
I’m convinced that there are more such people among us than we commonly admit. I’m equally convinced that a major aspect of my ministry is honouring these people in their quest; honouring them and cherishing them. (Cherishing them? Yes. After all, in some churches such “questers” are suspect, to say the least.) A major aspect of my ministry is to spare no effort, no seriousness, no persistence in helping them; helping them, that is, until that day when they are possessed by that faith and the assurance of faith which prophets and apostles and saints have found to be as rich as a goldmine, as bright as diamonds, and as resilient as springsteel.
III: — We are told that Lydia moved from being a God-fearer to being an enthusiastic disciple as “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.” What had Paul said? We aren’t told, but we may be sure that he said to her what he said to everyone else. How did Paul speak? We can only assume that he spoke with her as he spoke with everyone else. Lydia would have heard him preach since he preached wherever he went. In addition, we must note carefully, she would have profited from informal conversation with him. Luke tells us that it was as Paul sat with her — casually — and chatted with her — informally — that the truth of the Gospel dawned upon her and then lit up for her and finally engulfed her. We must never underestimate casual, informal encounters. Certainly the apostle didn’t. We tend to imagine him addressing crowds the size of the Super Bowl turnout in the Los Angeles Colosseum. Typically, however, Paul preached to small gatherings. And of course we overlook most readily the fact that he regularly conversed with individuals.
All of us have no difficulty remembering that Jesus preached to multitudes, if only because the word “multitude,” a word none of us uses in everyday English, we have come to associate particularly with our Lord’s public ministry. In turn we creatures of modernity have come to associate crowds with success and small gatherings with failure. We appear to have enormous difficulty remembering that Jesus spent hours patiently conversing with individuals. Think of Nicodemus; the unnamed woman he met at high noon in a Samaritan village; Bartimaeus, a blind man who called out to Jesus and for whom the master stopped.
Think of the Syrophoenician woman — bold, brassy, sassy — who spoke to Jesus with feminist aggressiveness. She was a Gentile. She called out to Jesus, a Jew, that her daughter was bent out of shape. Jesus, the text tells us, “…did not answer her a word.”(Matt. 15:23) When she cried out again he said to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. You don’t belong to Israel, dog.” (“Dog” was the way Jewish people commonly spoke of Gentiles.) “But even canines get to eat table scraps,” she sassed him back, “and so maybe you’d like to give this ‘dog’ your dinner plate scrapings and help my ‘shiksa’ daughter.” Whereupon our Lord did all that she asked of him. (In this unusual conversation Jesus was testing her persistence and her confidence in him.)
Think of the man whose son suffered from epilepsy. Or the deranged fellow, violent and dangerous, now restored; he wanted to join the twelve (a group), but instead Jesus told him to go home by himself and tell his family how God had had mercy on him.
We tend to think nothing important is happening unless it’s happening to many people at once in a large crowd.
John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Wesley, the leaders of the Eighteenth Century Awakening; they preached to huge crowds, often several times in the same day. Come nightfall they had to stay somewhere. Over and over I read that when these fellows settled in an inn or a home they found themselves in “earnest conversation” (as they described it.) “Earnest conversation” isn’t a public address; it isn’t a lecture; it’s not verbal aggressiveness of any sort. (If it were, these men would have been invited to find another home or inn.) It means, rather, that when earnest people brought perplexities and problems and griefs to Wesley privately he always had time for these people. He was glad to address their perplexity or problem or grief in the light of the gospel. For the gospel was in his bloodstream, and he spoke of it as naturally, unselfconsciously, as you and I speak of the weather or the latest newspaper headline. At the very least “earnest conversation” was the setting in which someone’s needy heart was met by Wesley’s overflowing heart.
I myself am a preacher who will never undervalue the preaching event. Throughout my ministry I have given it the attention and diligence that the public declaration of the Word of God demands. I am dismayed when I hear sermons that were plainly scratched out on the back of a used envelope between periods of Saturday night’s hockey game. At the same time I know the value of informal conversation. People approach me anywhere at all: in the food store, at the arena, on the street, by the gasoline pump. They casually mention the difficulty or discouragement they don’t raise with me on Sunday, for who knows what reason and who cares. To be sure, I have never doubted that the sermon is a means of grace. But I am convinced that casual conversation is no less a means of grace too.
I’m not the first to come to this conclusion. Anyone who reads scripture could scarcely doubt it. But if reminders are needed then one of the more pointed reminders is heard in the Seventeenth Century, when the English Puritans insisted that “Christian conversation,” as they put it, is a means of grace. Having read the Seventeenth Century Puritans, Eighteenth Century Methodists insisted that conversation was an instituted, divinely instituted means of grace (along with and on the same level as Scripture, Holy Communion, prayer and fasting.)
There are lines from informal, casual conversations that I at least shall never forget. They aren’t lines that someone laboured over in order to turn a “catchy” phrase; they are lines, rather, that someone spoke as unselfconsciously as you or I would speak of the weather or sports scores.
My father, for instance. Throughout his life my father inculcated in me a passion for excellence and an awareness that non-excellence born of indifference, unnecessary mediocrity, anywhere life, is nothing less than sin. One evening when I was sixteen my father said to me, “Last Sunday in church we sang a hymn with the words ‘utter, consummate skill’. Now today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt, as you know.” (I didn’t know, but for some reason he expected me to know.) “Utter, consummate skill,” my father continued, “is Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin playing a piano duet.” That is an image of God-honouring excellence I shall take to my grave.
And then there’s my off-hand conversation with a prison chaplain who said, quite in passing, not thinking he was saying anything memorable, “Violence is what happens when we reduce any individual or any group to powerlessness.” There’s immense wisdom here.
The aged Anglican clergyman and professor who schooled me in the subtleties of Greek syntax and whose spiritual depth was fathomless; in the course of afternoon tea and casual chit-chat in his living room he said, as though everyone knew already, “Well, Victor, the worst consequence of sin is more sin.” (His line has moved me away from the abyss more than once.)
When I was crumpled in an automobile accident that killed three people I was hospitalized for 45 consecutive days. A nurse, considerably older than I, used to steal into my room and talk awhile whenever she was working the night shift. Her husband had left her; then she had lost everything in a house fire; and now one of her children was in difficulty at school and in trouble with the law. Despite the fact that my spine was fractured, several friends were dead, my father had died four months earlier and I was 250 kilometres from anyone who knew me, she sought me out because she found in our late-night conversation comfort and encouragement and hope — truth.
I can’t tell you how often people who conversed with me informally have been a vehicle of grace. Some were educated, some were not — like the New Brunswick lumberjacks who told me they had never had a clergyman visit them in their backwoods shanty in the dead of winter. The woodstove in the plywood shanty kept the indoor temperature only slightly above the outdoor temperature.
And of course I shall never forget the fellow, mentally ill for 30 years and furious with a minister who had told him that mentally ill people couldn’t be Christians since they couldn’t grasp the gospel. In his fury he shouted to me, “Do you have to be sane to be a Christian?” “On the contrary, Eric,” I said, “on the contrary….” Let us never forget that our Lord’s family thought him deranged and came to take him home before he embarrassed the family any more.
Let me repeat: I am the last person to belittle the preaching office. Necessary as preaching is, however, it isn’t sufficient. Conversation (among other activities) must always accompany it.
There are many kinds of conversation in this regard. There is the institutionalized conversation of pastor and counselee; the semi-institutionalized conversation around a church meeting; and of course the uninstitutionalized encounters at the ballpark, on the street, in the dentist’s waiting room.
I am convinced that there are God-fearers in any congregation. They have been attracted; they are intrigued; they find themselves wistful. They are tentative about their nascent faith and would feel pressured and awkward if they were asked to endorse right now, sign ‘on the dotted line,’ a creed or confession of faith or denominational statement. Nevertheless they are moving in the right direction and will be helped to a Lydia-like standpoint through countless conversations on the church premises and elsewhere in the community.
Between Lydia and us there stands a Christian thinker dear to me, Martin Luther. In 1537 Luther wrote a document called “The Schmalkald Articles.” The Schmalkald Articles mention five means of grace: the sermon, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, absolution or the pronouncement of forgiveness, and mutual discussion and comforting of the brethren.
The day came when Lydia was possessed of such resilient faith that she asked to be baptized; that is, she now wanted to confess her faith in Jesus Christ before the world. She did so. Then she opened her home to Paul and Silas. Opened her home: that means hospitality, more neighbours, more conversation, greater faith, wider outreach, other God-fearers helped along the road to faith.
And so the people of God grow in grace, in godliness, and in numbers.