We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:11-15

One of the greatest needs we human beings have is the need for community. Without community, we are alone and in isolation. Without community, we have no connections outside ourselves. Without community, we have no one else we can depend or rely upon. Without community, we become lonely and depressed. Our need for community has been accentuated these past few months with the physical distancing we have had to practice during the Covid-19 pandemic. While the virtual opportunities provided by the internet through conference calls and streaming have been helpful, they are no substitute for community. This is particularly true when we are in times of need or are hurting. There is no substitute for a warm touch, a fond embrace or a kind hug. 

In the passage of scripture above we see the importance of community in a young lady’s life by the name of Lydia. Lydia was what we today would call a spiritual seeker. She heard Paul’s message and was converted and baptized by him. Lydia immediately became a part of the community of faith. She didn’t have to play a seniority game, gradually working her way into a position of being trusted and accepted. Immediately, she was integrated as a part of the community of followers of Jesus Christ. Once Lydia was baptized, her household was baptized as well. From that point on, her life was changed. She became a part of a new community. As such she wanted to give of herself to that community. Perhaps Lydia felt that she had received so much from Paul and his group that she wanted to give back to them in some small way. Or perhaps she saw the needs of Paul and the others. They had been traveling. They had ministered to so many people. Lydia may have seen the need to help Paul’s group gain renewal so that the growth of Christianity could continue. For whatever reasons, Lydia invited Paul and the others to her home. She did more than invite them. She persisted in inviting them. She insisted. In the words of Luke, “She prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:15). In essence, she said to Paul’s group, “Unless you find me unworthy, you must come and stay in my house.” Such hospitality is always a noticeable and a gracious thing. In Lydia’s case, though, it is even more significant. A more fearful person would have been very hesitant to extend such an invitation to outsiders. There were certain to be criticisms of a woman in Lydia’s position in the community for such a bold invitation to a band of travelers. Yet, undaunted, Lydia prevailed on Paul’s group to join her. To offer such hospitality was both an act of graciousness and an act of courageous witness. Life in the community of faith often undergirds our faith because of the surprising ways that people transcend our expectations and minister to us. We are buoyed by the strength and the affirmation we receive from others within the community. This is one of the reasons we need community and flourish in community. Acts of graciousness and kindness can serve to spark a sense of hope within each of us as we struggle to live lives of faithful witness. There may be times that we get discouraged in the community of faith as we have in the past year. 

Yet the fellowship of other believers can sustain us and inspire us as we strive to live faithfully. I read of a family that went through a difficult experience in their church. The father was a minister and things were not going well at his church. The church was experiencing conflict and he was being unfairly criticized. He had never seen Christians treat one another with so much contempt. Then something happened in his family life that helped him to be able to recognize the value of community despite its limitations and shortcomings. 

A family went down to the animal shelter to adopt a dog. They intentionally selected what looked to be the littlest and skinniest dog in the world. They named him Cocoa but more often than not the father referred to him as their “wimp-dog.” They had wanted a dog that would be gentle with the children but secretly Dad had hoped for a “man’s dog” (whatever that is). It was a little embarrassing to have a dog that was afraid of its own shadow. Cocoa was afraid of other dogs. He was afraid of other people. He was afraid of cars. He was even afraid of cats. It took a great deal of coaxing just to get Cocoa to come into the house. Once inside, he was struck with fear and trembling and he certainly wouldn’t go anywhere in the house but the front room. The family wondered if Cocoa had been beaten by his first owner and if that was what caused his fearfulness. No matter. Cocoa was the most loving dog they had ever seen. He hungered for the affection of the children. He loved to have someone pet him. And if you stopped petting before he was ready for you to stop, he would simply put both of his paws in your lap until you resumed your petting and he got his fill. Cocoa wasn’t really a very smart dog. He couldn’t do any tricks. In fact, his intelligence was a bit suspect even by dog standards. The family had a makeshift fence in their backyard. It wasn’t much of a fence but it kept Cocoa from running off. Somehow the other dogs in the neighborhood could figure out how to get in the backyard but Cocoa could never figure out how to get out. The family would look out back and see that every dog in the neighborhood was in their backyard. The dogs would come to play with Cocoa. Or what more likely happened is they would come into the backyard and they would all be eating Cocoa’s food. The children would run outside and chase the dogs off. Cocoa would sit and watch them leave and still he could never figure out how to get out of the fence. Or maybe it’s just that there was no place else that he would rather be. In time Cocoa grew to be quite large and much more courageous than the family had ever dreamed possible. The wife used to push their little girl in her stroller when she did her walking. On numerous occasions a neighborhood dog would race up to the stroller barking furiously, only to be backed down by Cocoa, who would position himself between the little girl and the other dog. He would growl menacingly. If that wasn’t sufficient to send the appropriate message, Cocoa would nip at the other dog in a way that always showed he meant business. It got to the point that when they headed out for their walks the girl would say, “Cocoa protect me, Mommy? Cocoa protect me?” The dad now referred to Cocoa as their pet lion and not their “wimp-dog.” Then Cocoa got sick. He got heartworm disease. At that time a dog was treated for heartworms with chemotherapy. I don’t know if they still do that but for four weeks the dog had to be chained up and not allowed to be very active. There were no guarantees Cocoa would make it. Sometimes the chemo kills the dog. Sometimes it just takes the zest for life out of them. The kids especially hated having to keep Cocoa chained up. It was painful to watch him lie there, not feeling well and with very little energy. They took to keeping Cocoa in the house more. The chemo had not touched his heart or his yearning for affection. And the kids gave him more love than any dog deserved, any dog except Cocoa. There is something about sharing a difficult time with loved ones that draws you close. When the family went to bed at night Cocoa would sneak into the children’s rooms. He seemed to want to be close to the children. The front room was no longer good enough for him. Eventually Cocoa got well. The old zip never did fully return. But he had survived the heartworms and the chemo. Several months later Cocoa began to act lethargic again. The family thought it was more the after effects of chemo than anything else. They watched him for a couple of days. They were concerned that he was not eating. When he showed signs of bleeding, they knew something was wrong. They rushed him to the veterinarian. The vet ran some tests and discovered that Cocoa had been poisoned. It may have been an accident. It may have been intentional. The vet could not say for sure. But once again Cocoa was fighting for his life. The family was told that if they had waited another day, it would have been too late. The vet kept him overnight. The next day they got a call and were told it looked like Cocoa would make it. Another night in the hospital and he could go home. The next day, they were so anxious to see Cocoa that the children and their mom left to pick him up before the vet’s office even opened. That was unfortunate, for they missed a call from the vet’s office. When the vet came out to speak with them, he was carrying Cocoa’s collar and tags but Cocoa was not in sight. They knew immediately. Unexpectedly, Cocoa had died during the night. Perhaps the poison had been stronger than originally thought. Perhaps Cocoa did not have any more fight left in his tired body. Perhaps his time had just run out. They had been prepared to love him for longer than two years, but it wasn’t meant to be. That night as their oldest son prepared to go to bed, he had tears rolling down his cheeks and he offered this prayer: “Dear God, please tell Cocoa he was the best dog in the world. And please tell him that I miss him. And please tell him that I will always love him. Amen.” And then they all cried and they held each other for the longest time. And the dad wondered to himself, “Couldn’t there be a way to teach a child about love without him having to experience the hurt? No, I guess not, because to love means to be vulnerable, to being hurt. There is no other way.” Community can provide us with the love and support that we desperately need in an often hostile and lonely world. But being a part of a community, even the community of faith means we must become vulnerable. Making ourselves vulnerable by loving others can open us up to being hurt.

Jesus knew what it meant to be hurt by love. He was hurt by a member of the inner circle, his most trusted group. Judas betrayed the community of faith’s trust in him when he betrayed Christ. We too may have times of disappointment and hurt and maybe even betrayal in the community of faith, but the community remains an integral part of the life of a Christian. Like Cocoa, we need the warmth and love of family to grow and nurture us in the faith. 

Lydia responded to the call of God. She became a follower of Christ and a member of his community. As such she played a pivotal role in the establishment of the church at Philippi. We too can be blessed by our response to God’s leadership in our lives. That blessing often comes through our experience within the community. It is through the community that we are best able to reflect the love of Christ to others. Even after Jesus was betrayed, he taught the way of love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). May we know the church as the community where we can begin to practice, exercise and mature in the love of Christ so that we may practice and exercise the love of Christ in all of our relationships in the world.

Jesus, Great Shepherd of the sheep, we thank you for Your Church, which is the community of faith in which we can be cultivated, loved and nurtured into spiritual maturity. Help us like Lydia to practice gracious hospitality to others as You have shown gracious hospitality to us. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why do people have such a great need for community? How specifically, has Trinity UMC provided community for you since you first begin attending?
  2. To become part of a community is to risk being hurt, for to love is to become vulnerable. Yet it is in such vulnerability, despite the hurt, that we can learn the richest lessons and experience the most growth in maturity. What are some of the painful moments here at Trinity that later became catalysts for your spiritual growth in Christ? 
  3. Each of us is a beneficiary of God’s gracious hospitality through Jesus Christ. What are some ways in which we can respond to God’s hospitality by showing gracious hospitality to others in our congregation? To others in the Ruston community? To the world?