I have here a photograph. You’ll be pleased to hear it’s one of my holiday snaps. As most of you won’t be able to see it I’ll describe it to you. It is a picture of Samuel. Samuel is 6. In the picture it looks like Samuel is sprinting. But in fact he’s in mid air. Beneath him is turquoise blue water. When I say beneath him the water is about 10 foot beneath him and Samuel is leaping. But to understand the significance of the picture you have to know what was happening before.
The picture is taken on the island of Sark in the Channel Islands. It’s taken at a lovely little rocky inlet called Port Gorey. It’s a hot day. A number of us are leaping off the rocks into the beautiful turquoise sea. Jumping off the rocks straight into 40 foot of water; water so clear you can see the bottom.
Now the water isn’t tropical. In fact it’s a good deal less cold than water off England. After a few strokes it’s fine. But to call it hot would be overstating the case. So there we are swimming in this beautiful water on a baking hot day. And there are Samuel and Daniel on the edge out of the water – looking longingly at us in it.
It looks beautiful. It looks so much fun to be in. But there is a problem. Surely it’s going to be cold. And there are no steps. There’s no lowering yourself in. There’s only one way in. You have to leap off a ledge ten foot above the water.
So for a long time Samuel and Daniel look longingly at us walk up and down the ledge. ‘I’m going to jump’ they say.
And several times we all count down ‘5,4,3,2,1 JUMP!’ only to find them still standing at the top.
And then suddenly and luckily someone catches it on camera there is Samuel leaping – taking the plunge. For ages standing on the outside looking in. Then finally leaping in. And after that – well Daniel wasn’t far behind and for the rest of the holiday it was all we could do to stop them leaping off rocks into water.
Standing on the outside looking in. Can you identify with that feeling?
I have a friend who regularly goes on skiing holidays but can’t ski. She says she specialises in Après Ski. But there must be moments when she wishes she wasn’t just on the outside looking on – but joining in.
On the outside looking on.
It’s an experience we can feel in Church. Maybe we come every week but for some reason we can’t quite put our finger on somehow feel we’re not fully part of what’s going on. Or maybe we don’t often come to Church at all and when we do we feel a bit like onlookers.
Today in our first reading we meet a person who feels that they are on the outside looking in. Her name is Lydia. In homegroups over the next few months and in sermons on Sundays we’re going to be studying Paul’s letter to some Christians in a city called Philippi. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And today – before we even begin looking at Philippians we’re going to look today at how there came to be Christians in Philippi in the first place.
That first reading we had from the book of Acts told us the story. We hear about someone called Lydia who is the first person in Philippi in fact the first person in Europe ever to hear the message of Jesus and to become His follower. But when we first meet her Lydia is someone standing on the outside looking in.
‘On the Sabbath day,’ it says in Acts 16, ‘we went outside the city gate to the river… We… began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from Thyatira called Lydia… a worshipper of God.’
Lydia is an outsider. She comes from Thyatira not Philippi. And literally she’s an outsider. We meet her outside the city. To practise her faith that’s where she has to go.
She is a ‘worshipper of God.’ What bible writers mean by that is something very specific. She is someone who though not born Jewish is attracted by the Jewish faith. She grew up in society and a family that worshipped many gods but at some point Lydia encountered Jewish people and came to accept their belief in one God.
And in Philippi – which is a long way from Jerusalem the home of the Jewish faith that makes her an outsider. She’s rejected the gods worshipped by nearly everyone in the city. And Philippi is a proud Roman city. One of the gods they worship is the Roman Emperor himself. And she has rejected Philippi’s gods.
There’s no room in Philippi for people like her. There’s no place in Philippi for a Jewish place of worship. So on the Jewish holy day the Sabbath people like her who worship only one God have to go outside the city.
Lydia the outsider. But Lydia isn’t just an outsider in Philippi she’s also an outsider in the Jewish community she’s adopted. She’s not actually Jewish. So she can’t fully take part in Jewish worship either.
If she ever went to the temple in Jerusalem she would not be allowed inside. She’d have to stay in the outer courts the courts of the Gentiles. Not able to take part in the prayers. Unable even to watch. Not even an onlooker - just an outsider.
Lydia is an outsider among the people of Philippi. And she’s an outsider in the Jewish community. She believes in God. She’s interested in Him. She wants to know more. But she can’t fully take part. She can only ever walk up and down on the edge never fully belong – never plunge in.
So what does God have to say to those who just feel like outsiders looking in? What does He have to say to Lydia? Well this Sabbath as she’s outside the city along comes a follower of Jesus. A man called Paul.
In the twenty years since Jesus death and resurrection Jesus’ message has swept through the countries we now call Israel, Lebanon and Syria and Turkey. Communities of Jesus’ followers – churches have sprung up in town after town after town. And today is the day Jesus’ message first arrives in Europe - first arrives in Philippi.
Paul and his friends find this group of women outside the city on the Sabbath day and they begin speaking with them about Jesus.
‘One of those listening’ we are told, ‘was Lydia… and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.’ This outsider – who has never fully belonged she hears something in Paul’s message that makes her heart respond.
Well what was Paul’s message? What did he say to her? We can be pretty sure what Paul’s message was from reading the letter he later writes to the Philippians.
His was a message about Jesus. In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes this, ‘Jesus – although He was in very nature God made Himself nothing, being made in human likeness, taking the very nature of a servant.’
The God who Lydia had begun to encounter in her adopted Jewish faith - He was the God who had left His heaven and walked earth’s dusty roads. He was the God who had entered our world as one of us as a human being so that we human beings might come to know Him.
He was the God who came to us as the man Jesus who loved and served and welcomed those treated as outsiders.
He was the God who became our servant by dying on a cross for us so that we might know forgiveness for the wrong in our lives.
And He was the God who has defeated death. 3 days after Jesus died on a cross. He was raised from death and met again with His followers.
That was the message that Paul preached. About the God of love who wants us to know Him. The God who welcomes outsiders like Lydia. The God who in Jesus died for us and rose again. A God who says you don’t need to be on the outside any longer. Take a leap - plunge in – know Me.
And Lydia’s heart responds. Literally she plunges in. Under the water of the river to be baptised. Symbolically past mistakes washed away and a new life begun. And today - two thousand years later we’ve seen another baptism. The promises Joe made today are the same promises Lydia would have made.
“ I turn to Christ - I turn to Jesus. I repent of my sins - I turn away from all that’s wrong in my life. I believe and trust in God.”
“I believe and trust.”
Maybe for years Lydia has believed. She’s looked on from the outside and believed there was a God. Now for the first time she is able to know God and to trust Him.
Belief and trust they are slightly different.
* * *
Before I got ordained I was a teacher in a secondary school. One year I went with my tutor group of 11 year olds on a residential at an outward bound centre in Wales. We spent our week walking, caving climbing and canoeing - and one day on an abseil tower.
One at a time the children would climb all the way up the 50 foot tower where stood the instructor and me.
Knowing nothing about abseiling I saw my rôle as a kind of comforting caring presence. Watching at the top of the tower I soon had the principles of abseiling worked out.
Holding the rope you lean backwards until your body is parallel with the ground below. You’ve got a safety harness on so you can’t fall. And you simply walk down the tower holding the rope – which someone slowly feeds out.
Hold the rope tight - lean right back - walk down the tower. Simple.
‘Lean right back’ I’d say, ‘Stop trying to cling to the tower. You need to lean right back. Then you can just walk straight down.’
Well the time came when the last child made it safely to the bottom of the tower. ‘Your turn,’ says the instructor.
Harness on I step rather gingerly towards the edge and stand with my back to the 50 foot drop. I look down. Big mistake. Far below me 30 little expectant faces looking up.
‘Now lean back,’ says the instructor. And leaning back is the very last thing I want to do. When you’re standing with your back to a sheer drop just about the last thing you could possibly want to do is actually lean back over it.
No what I want to do is cling to the tower. ‘Just lean back Mr Webster.’ Shouts an encouraging child. ‘You just need to lean back.’
Well there’s nothing for it. Every one of my class has just done it so I can’t possibly bottle out. And of course slowly as I lean back gripping the rope until my knuckles are tight I realise that it’s OK. The rope holds my weight. The more I lean back the more I realise that I can trust the rope to hold me and I can walk down the tower.
Belief and trust. Just standing at the top watching my class abseiling I had some clear beliefs. I believed that if only they would leant back they would discover that rope would hold them.
That was belief. But trust. Well trust only came when I held the rope myself.
Trust only came when I stood on the edge. Trust came as I very cautiously began to lean backwards over a 50 foot sheer drop - and began to realise that the rope really did hold my weight.
“Do you believe and trust in God?” That’s what Joe was asked. That’s what 2000 years ago Lydia was asked.
Belief is one thing. Believing things about God. Trust is gradually learning that this God I believe in - actually I can trust Him. I can entrust my life to Him. I can lean on Him and He will take the weight. Some people like the like dramatic plunge approach to faith. [hold up picture] But others prefer the abseiling approach.
Gently and gradually exploring and testing faith. Cautiously leaning back and seeing if it holds weight. Gently learning to trust more and more.
If that’s you then can I recommend the Alpha course starting this Tuesday in St Peter’s?
‘Come and explore’ is Alpha’s motto, exactly the approach for those who like abseiling.
But whether it’s dramatic plunge or gradual abseil-style testing doesn’t matter.
The point for Lydia was that she was no longer outside looking in. She now knew the God who made her and loved her and could begin to learn trust Him with her life.