The Acts of the Apostles
THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Saintliness with a Small ‘s'” Click here for audio
All Saints’ Worship
Pastor Marty Raths
Luke 8:1-3, Acts 16:6-15
It is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. One notable historian and proponent of this theory stated that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” And to some extent this theory has made its way into the church’s understanding of its own history. When we think of biblical history, we tend to think of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and others. When we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, which is the biblical history of the early church movement, we are also told mostly about men, and two men in particular. Peter and Paul dominate the chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, giving the impression at least that the two of them all but established the church in those early years.
But we know otherwise. When Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans for instance, neither Paul nor Peter had ever been to Rome, yet there was already a community of faith there. So someone who does not get even a single verse of mention in the Acts of the Apostles, they did the faithful work of bringing the good news to Rome. I could go on and on with such instances.
So then and now we know otherwise. The church always has its more prominent members, the Peters and Pauls, but a lot of the work of the church has always been done behind the scenes by countless other members. In one of my previous churches Deb, our church secretary at the time, had a little sign hanging up on the wall behind her that read, “Do you want to speak with the pastor in charge or the secretary who knows what is going on around here.”
Now that was a helpful reminder for me early on in my own ministry, but it really does not take much pastoral insight to know that a pastor may in some way be the face of a congregation, but the hands and feet, and the eyes and ears, and the heart and soul of a congregation is the people.
That was true then and now. When it comes to the history of the church, the great man theory just does not hold up. Sure the church has its Saints with a capital “S”, the Peters and Pauls, and their contributions to the church are significant. But trust me on this, take away all the saints in the church with a small “s”, and you no longer have a church.
This is where the real experiment in saintliness happens in the church: with each one of us doing our faithful part, each one of us being faithful to the covenant that we have made with God and with one another to be faithful to the ministries of the church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.
And this has always been so, from the very beginning, all the way back to the beginnings of Jesus’ own ministry. In some ways it is an insignificant passage of scripture. My guess is that very few of us have ever even heard it read before in worship. But the passage from the Gospel of Luke shines a little light on what was happening behind the scenes of the out front ministry of Jesus and the twelve. It is as if Luke took a few photos of the counters after worship, and the Martha Group on Tuesday morning, and the kitchen crew on Wednesday afternoon, and the newsletter crew at the end of the month, and any number of other people, studies, choirs, committees, and ministry teams doing all that they do behind the scenes around here to make possible all of the out front ministries of our church that we all expect to have happen here week after week after week.
Luke mentions it almost in passing, in the midst of all that he is telling us about the ministry of Jesus and the twelve. By the way, he writes, there were some women too, Mary, Joanna, Susanna, and others, who provided for Jesus and the twelve, who made it possible for them to do all that they were doing. Again, so much for the great man theory. Without these women there would not have been much of a ministry. Maybe Jesus could have made some things happen by himself. But the twelve. Without the women. Not a chance. I mean, after some 30 plus years as a pastor, I know how the church works. The church has always been, and continues to be, an experiment in saintliness with a small “s”.
The story of Lydia is much the same kind of experiment. She gets all of two verses of mention here. She gets mentioned in the last verse of the chapter as well. So all in all she gets three verses, while Paul gets chapter after chapter, even though Paul’s ministry like the ministry of Jesus and the twelve was dependent upon the hospitality and generosity of people like Lydia. You see, after her encounter with Paul, Lydia opened her home to him, and the early church movement grew with the establishment of one after another house church just like the one that Paul established in Lydia’s home that day, with Lydia’s help.
To his credit Paul did acknowledge in his letters many of the people who helped to support his ministry, and he rightly called them saints with a small “s”. Now there are many qualities that contribute to this character of saintliness with a small “s”, and in just the two verses that Luke gives us about her, we see a few of these qualities in Lydia.
First there is the quality of availability. This may not seem like much of a quality, but it is actually of first importance, and many of the other qualities of saintliness are dependent upon this one. Woody Allen once wrote, “80% of success is showing up.” Now we may quibble a little about the actual percentages, but this is true in the life of faith as well. Much of it is dependent first of all upon our showing up.
In our story Lydia was at a place of prayer outside the city gate. It is there that Paul came to her, it is there that the Lord opened her heart, it is there that she was baptized, and it is was because she was there that all the other opportunities for service to the early church movement began to open up to her.
As disciples of Jesus, we need to do like Lydia, we need to put ourselves into places of availability. We may not be inspired every time we read the scriptures, but if we never read them, or never study them with others, we are guaranteed never to be inspired. We may not make a difference in some else’s life every time we enter into ministry with them, but if we never enter into ministry, never serve in some way, we are guaranteed to never make a difference.
Years ago I heard a speaker say something about participating in worship that forever changed my understanding of why we worship. Too often we are passive in our approach to worship, this speaker said. Our model for understanding worship tends to be shaped by an entertainment model, and our mentality by a consumer mentality that asks what is in it for me. But what if, this speaker asked, what if the main reason we need to be in worship some Sunday is because God needs us to be here for someone else? And what if we are not here? Then what?
Then we have made ourselves unavailable to God, and not even God can do much with our unavailability, which is another way of saying I suppose that 80% of being faithful is just showing up, and maybe another 10% is being attentive to the needs of the situation, and maybe the last 10% is being willing to respond to those needs as best we can.
Lydia showed up. So she was there at that place of prayer when Paul came, and she was responsive to the needs of the situation too. She invited them to stay with her. She prevailed upon them, Luke tells us. I love that expression, and I love it when this happens in the church, when people have heart enough for something to make it happen. It has happened with our Martha Group, our Little Free Library initiative, our growing connection with Lily Lake . . . There were those who wanted to see these happen, and they prevailed upon us. It happened with our recent remodeling of the choir loft. There were those who wanted to see that happen too, and they prevailed upon us. “They would not take no for an answer,” is how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, and now we have redecorated rooms around the church, little free libraries outside, a team of volunteers helping at one of our elementary schools, and a choir loft that has been transformed.
So one of the qualities of saintliness with a small “s” is the quality of availability, of being willing to show up, and what is especially wonderful about this quality is that we are all capable of it. It is the most universal of the qualities of saintliness. We just need to show up first of all, and then, and only then, will other opportunities for service begin to present themselves to us if we are open to the Spirit./
Lydia also understood that in being baptized she was becoming a part of something much larger than herself, but not so large that it did not need what she could contribute. She understood that in being baptized God and the community of faith now had a claim upon her life, and upon her time, her commitments, her choices, her gifts, and her resources. I have a home, she said to Paul, so stay with me. In this sense saintliness means living into our baptismal covenant, and keeping faith with the promises that we make in baptism, promises we make to God and to one another.
I am not sure if there is one word to describe this quality, but it has to do with being able to say “we” with grace, being willing to contribute what we can to the work of the church and the kingdom while recognizing and honoring the contributions of everyone else. Sometimes we do this well, sometimes not so well, and sometimes we need to be reminded of its importance.
Many years ago an accomplished organist was giving a concert, and in those days people were needed backstage to help pump the large bellows that provided the air for the pipes to sound. And after each piece, the organist received the thunderous applause of a delighted audience. Now when the organist came to the final piece of the concert, he stood and said, “I shall now play . . . “ and he announced the title of a very famous piece. Then, sitting at the console, he adjusted his music, checked all the stops, took a deep breath, and with feet poised over the pedals and hands over the keys, he began with a mighty chord. But the organ was silent. Not a sound came from it. There was this collective gasp from the audience, and a stricken look came over the face of the organist, and then there was heard a chorus of voices, from backstage, back by the bellows, saying to the organist, “Say, ‘we.’”
Saintliness knows what it means to say, “we,” with grace. There is really no other way to do church well, and on this All Saints’ Day we are reminded again of this, and of how the church has been sustained through all the years by countless people learning the art of saying “we” well and with grace, by countless people whom we rightly remember this day as saints with a small “s”. Amen.