May 1, 2016

Just prior to the beginning of our reading from Acts, Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy seem to be at a loss for where to go next. They stumble around the region, running into one barrier after another. Barred by the Spirit from going into Asia or from going north into Bythinia, Paul appears backed into a coastal corner at Troas. The verses not included in this lectionary reading remind us that we often search for God’s calling in mistaken directions and that God’s Spirit often speaks through frustrating and difficult discernment.

Paul receives his vision in the night and you might think that getting a vision from God would make everything clear, but even a vision requires interpretation; more to the point, it requires the community of faith. Famously, this is the first point in Acts where the narrator seems to join the characters as a part of the story. Arguments continue over whether the “we” that enters the text at this point indicates an author who was an eyewitness and participant in the events, or whether this “we” reflects the use of some else’s diary woven into the story, or whether the use of “we” is simply a narrative technique.

We can let those questions go, and instead focus attention on the communal claim carried by this “we.” Paul received the vision, but verse 10 says that “we” concluded what it meant and what to do about it. The vision must be interpreted, and that task does not fall to Paul alone. The small community contained in “we” is involved in discerning that this is God’s call not just to an individual, but to “us”; that the “help” which is needed is the preaching of the gospel and that the call was for immediate action.

The mission doesn’t belong to Paul alone, even though at this point in Acts the other apostles are almost completely left behind. The mission, of course, doesn’t even belong to the church; it is God’s mission. Yet the church is called into the discernment of God’s mission at every turn. Where is the Spirit calling us, and doing so through those whom we might otherwise think are outside our circle of responsibility? What visions call us beyond the boundaries into ministry where we had not considered it before?

It is worth noticing that Paul and his entourage do not stop in the lovely seaside town of Neapolis, but immediately head for Philippi, a Roman colony. This is where the Empire was powerful and popular. This was the heart of the Empire’s project in this corner of the world, a place that was an extension of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offers to the world. Perhaps God leads Paul and his group there because a place like Philippi is where the good news of what God has done in Christ is needed most.

And so, unlike the unsuccessful wandering that characterized the verses before the vision, here there is no hesitation and no meandering -- it is straight to Philippi. In places like that God plants the church to be the people of God that say “no” to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise. This is what the church is still called to be and to offer in the face of evil systems of power and oppression.

Though the team apparently wastes no time in getting to the city, the mission still requires patience. Not much happens for a while. They were there for “some days” the text says. The appeal in the vision is urgent, and the response to it is immediate; but the results are not seen right away.

When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east. Any simple expectations about God’s mission are clearly going to be wrong. How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira, in Asia where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi and hears the gospel.

Lydia listens, but God must open the heart. At this crucial point, Paul practically disappears from the story. It is not the charismatic personality of the apostle that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this text stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.

Lydia is baptized along with her whole household. Social and cultural barriers crumble, and this corner of the empire begins to be changed by God’s grace. Acts says that Lydia “prevailed upon” Paul and his companions to stay with her and accept her hospitality. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used: in Emmaus on Easter evening, as the two traveling disciples urged the risen Jesus to stay with them that night.

Perhaps the verbal echo is not accidental; by lives transformed and opened up in faithful discipleship, the fellowship of the risen Lord continues to extend into the world. Here near the end of the Easter season, we continue to experience and to live out that fellowship, “prevailing upon” the world to hear, and see, and know the mercy of God in the risen Christ.

After the late service today we will have a Lydia moment as we baptize three members of the Lein family and will give to Elise a set of Godparents. John and Miriam and their family came to us from a difficult experience on the mission field in Europe and in the space of a little less than two years have discerned with us at Grace Church and the diocese of Arkansas for John to become a priest in God’s Holy Church. They leave in less than a month for John to continue his formation at Virginia Theological Seminary. Please pray for them as they follow the Spirit’s call on their lives just as Paul and Silas did. And may we all continue to discern the Spirit’s leading among us.