Year C, Easter 6
I like lists, plans and schedules. I like things to be as efficient as possible. When they closed my grocery store, I was devastated, not because I particularly liked the grocery store, but because I was able to create my list in such a way that it went in order of the way I walked through the store. Every week I would time myself, trying to shave off just a few minutes. Had I been one of Paul’s travelling companions, I would have gone completely crazy. In reading the portion of Acts where our reading comes from, I looked at maps of Paul’s three main missionary journeys. It is amazing how far he traveled, much of it by foot. Our reading for today comes in the middle of his second journey and it might just be one of the more inefficient portions of his journey. Our reading begins at verse 8, but I want to share the verses that come right before.
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”
What is interesting about these verses, is that the Holy Spirit basically caused holy detours in Paul’s missionary journey. It doesn’t say how the Holy Spirit got this message across, it just did. Perhaps this rerouting wasn’t a big problem for Paul, but I think he was using a strategy and if he was this messed that all up. He had a plan for where he was going. I am sure it was frustrating to him when he kept being turned around, but he still persevered and kept an open heart and mind.
We know his heart and mind were open, because he responded to a night vision where a man from Macedonia pleaded with him to come and help them. That was the only direction he had…a man from Macedonia. Macedonia wasn’t a small town where it would be easy to find a man who someone saw in a vision. It was a region. Yet this did not deter Paul. If this is where his holy GPS was guiding him—then that is where he would go. The text says that as soon as he saw the vision, his small group immediately crossed over into Macedonia. They eventually landed in Philippi which was a leading city of Macedonia.
Why Philippi? The vision didn’t mention that particular city. But here is where Paul’s strategy becomes apparent. Philippi sat on the Egnatian Way, which linked the East to the West. It was a town on the crossroads and it was full of retired Roman soldiers who were free to travel through the whole Roman Empire. It was the perfect launching point for a mission to Europe. Landing here was a result of holy detours, visions and planning.
Typically, when Paul ended up in a city, he would find a synagogue to preach in. That was his comfort zone as a rabbi. It was also a good place to meet like-minded people, people who might be particularly receptive to the message of Jesus Christ. But for some reason, Paul did not go to a synagogue. On the Sabbath, he went outside the gate of the city to a place by the river as he had heard that this was a place of prayer. There he found a group of women and sat down and talked with them. That in itself is pretty amazing– Paul, a Jewish Pharisee sat down with a group of women and talked about faith.
In that group, was a woman named Lydia. The text says that, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” As a result, she and her whole household were baptized. We do not know much about Lydia except that she was a dealer of purple cloth, a worshipper of God, and was from Thyatira. What is interesting about Thyatira is that it was one of the places where the Holy Spirit had forbidden them to go earlier in the chapter. In introducing Paul to Lydia, God was bringing this region to Paul. It kind of reminds me of that saying, “When life closes a door, God opens a window.” But here, God didn’t merely open a window of opportunity, God opened Lydia’s heart.
This was possible, because Paul responded to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul, despite the fact that he had a strategy and a plan, still listened to God. In doing so, he opened himself up to a new opportunity, a new mission field. He left the confines of the synagogue. He left his safe place and in doing so, brought the word of God to an entirely different community than he had previously planned. Philippi wasn’t just the crossroads of the East and West, it was the crossroads of the Christian faith.
Today, in a culture that many are calling post-Christian, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can do what we have always done and stay in our comfort zone, or we can open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, so that we can meet people like Lydia, people who may already be worshippers of God, but are yearning for something deeper. Paul didn’t merely preach at Lydia and that group of women, he received their hospitality and support. He became part of their community for a short time so that they could be a part of the body of Christ.
So what does that look like for you or for St. John’s? It’s a hard question to answer, because it could look like anything (which is exciting and daunting). That said, let’s consider one opportunity on the horizon. Next Sunday, we will have a special presentation during our adult forum on our neighbors—the Hampton City Jail. One of our members who works as a deputy in the jail will speak about his experiences there as well as the needs as he sees them. We will also have our pastoral associate Jane Price talk about her ministry leading a Bible study every week at the jail. Then Victoria Mitchell will talk about an opportunity for us to bring joy and kindness to our neighbors by delivering books—not just donating them, but walking by the cells and delivering them.
Paul left the city gates of Philippi and in doing so discovered a group of people who were not only ready to hear the word of the Lord, but willing to provide hospitality to those who delivered that word. This will be our opportunity not to leave the gates of the city, but to enter another gated city, a city of people desperately in need of God’s message of love and forgiveness. This might not be something you do, but let’s use this as an opportunity to think beyond our walls and gates. We are at the crossroads of the Christian faith. We can either follow our own plan doing things as we have always done them or we can open our hearts to the nudging and direction of the Holy Spirit.