Grace Presbyterian Church
May 1, 2016, Easter 6C
“Macedonia” is the name applied generally to a region of southeastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. That more general region includes two current political entities with the same name: a region in northern Greece, and an independent nation once a part of Yugoslavia. Historically, Macedonia was perhaps most famous as the home and kingdom of Alexander the Great, from whence he set out to conquer the world. In later years the region was a significant province in the Roman Empire.
One of the important cities in that Roman district was Philippi. First founded by one of Alexander’s successors, the city was re-established during the Roman Empire. It was the site of the climactic battle of Marc Anthony and Octavian, successors of Julius Caesar, against his assassins Cassius and Brutus. Under Octavian (later known as Augustus) Philippi became a city for retired soldiers, and was slightly modified by the addition of a Roman-style forum and the division of land among the soldier-colonists, becoming in effect a “miniature Rome.”
It was into this territory and this city that Paul and his fellow travelers were more or less forced by the Holy Spirit in today’s reading, and event which marked the first known foray of early Christian proclaimers of the Gospel into what we now define as “Europe” – a fact much more interesting to us today than to Paul and his co-workers. For us, a church like most Presbyterian churches made up of mostly white European stock, it’s an origin story. To them it was all Roman Empire, but Philippi, due to its unique origins, might have been just a little more Roman than other places on their journey.
To say that Paul and his company were “forced” into Macedonia isn’t really a stretch. When the party had sought to move towards Asia (not the continent we know today, but another Roman province occupying what we would call western Turkey), Paul had been “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” from proclaiming the Gospel there. They tried to go to another region “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”
What does that even mean? Luke doesn’t give us any details here, but don’t you wish he had?? Whatever form these divine roadblocks took, Paul and Silas and the whole traveling group were stuck in a place called Troas, wondering what to do next.
Think about this. They were prevented from moving forward. They were “forbidden,” they were “not allowed” to go. Those are very strong words. We modern Christians have this perhaps overly catchy phrase about how “when God closes a door, God opens a window” – maybe you’ve heard it? We tend to forget about the door-closing part of that phrase in our eagerness to get to the open window, but we do need to pay attention. If Paul and Silas – the great missionary team of the book of Acts, and most prolific proclaimers of the good news – had doors divinely slammed in their faces, we need not think we can just make up our minds and charge off in whatever direction looks good to us. Whatever path this church or any church seeks to discern for itself and for its future, that particular church needs to be ready for some doors being shut in our faces.
At this point comes the dream, or if you prefer, the open window. A “man of Macedonia” (you know how in a dream you just know who someone is, even if you have no reason to?) appears calling the group to come to that region and “help us.” It’s a fairly meager dream as Luke describes it, but given all the preventing and forbidding that has been going on so far it sounds like a great positive, and Paul and his party undertake the voyage, the first time Paul takes to the sea in Acts since the relatively short jaunt to Cyprus and back in chapter 13. Unlike that trip this was no short journey. The trip involved several ports of call and a couple of days’ sailing, before a short overland journey to Philippi, that leading city and old soldiers’ home.
And once they got there … “we remained in the city some days.”
Again with the delay. Really, one might be excused for wondering if God is really with these folks or just messing with them.
Up to this point Paul’s usual practice had been to seek out a synagogue when arriving in a town to speak first to the members of that synagogue. Frequently many would be receptive to their word, but others would reject it, and sometimes violently. In Philippi, though, it doesn’t appear that Paul and Silas and company found one, hence they “remained in the city” for those several days. Finally, somehow, they got wind of a gathering, outside of the city gate and down by a river, that might be what they were looking for.
Well, sort of. What they found was a group of women led by Lydia, a wealthy woman (a dealer of purple cloth was inevitably wealthy) described as a “worshipper of God,” a term sometimes used to describe persons who were not part of the synagogue of the time but took an interest and directed their worship towards the God represented in the synagogue. So where was the man of Macedonia from the vision? Anyway, Lydia (who ironically was originally from the region they had just left behind) received the gospel with her whole household, and then pretty much took over, prevailing upon Paul and Silas and the whole party to stay in her home for the duration of their stay in Philippi. You know the folks who can do that kind of thing? They won’t take any of that nonsense about you staying in a hotel, we’re going to put you right up in the guest rooms and let’s make sure you’ve got everything you need while we’re at it? That was Lydia.
So Paul and his party intended to go into Asia, perhaps cover some familiar territory, with the familiar base of the synagogue, in doing the work of the gospel. Instead, they ended up in an entirely new place, much more in the heart of the Roman Empire, working without their usual safety net, and in the care of an independent woman of means. So much for best-laid plans.
And yet, if we truly want to seek God’s vision for the church – this one or the church universal – we’d better be ready for something similar to happen.
That hymn we just heard the choir sing, “Be Thou My Vision,” is rather dangerous if you actually pay attention to it. If we’re truly going to give ourselves, our prayers, our time, our gifts, our energies, our very being to God’s vision, we run the risk of ending up in unfamiliar places, among people who are unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable for us, doing a work we could not have possibly have planned.
If we’re truly going to be about God’s vision, we have no idea where we will end up. And really, that’s as it has to be. We follow Christ, after all. Christ doesn’t follow us.
The Spirit gives us absolutely no assurance that our church in five or fifteen or fifty years will look anything like it did five or fifteen or fifty years ago. That’s not the point. The point is to be faithful, and to follow. The church doesn’t get to “go back to” anything. Our call is to be faithful and to follow, even if we end up in places we couldn’t have possibly imagined. We end up at tables with God’s children we’ve never met or never imagined, not necessarily comfortable for us but absolutely who God calls us to serve and love.
For the vision that drives us forward, even when we have no idea where we are going, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#375 Shall We Gather at the River
#733 We All Are One in Mission
#506 Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!
#765 May the God of Hope Go with Us
Yeah, Lydia had things together...