Many years ago, in the month of May, my seminary classmates and I were preparing to graduate. One of them, a dear friend, was looking forward to returning home to Michigan. She had let her denomination know that she felt called to serve a church in inner-city Detroit, hopefully one with both a Spanish-speaking congregation as well as an English-speaking one, as she was fluent in Spanish. She was excited to minister within the roughest neighborhoods, amongst people whose many challenges included entrenched urban poverty. She was passionate about ministering in such a setting, and I thought her denomination very lucky, because not many people are.
In its wisdom, her denomination assigned her to serve a church in a small, rural hog-farming community down near the Ohio border. It was the antithesis of all she had felt called to. She was the first woman ever to pastor her church, and the first woman minister that any church in town ever had. The members of the town’s clergy association were passively hostile to her. They would call meetings of the group, hoping she wouldn’t hear about it, so they could badmouth her for not coming. They joked that she could be the one in the kitchen making the monthly prayer breakfast. Ha ha. But her church loved her, and she loved them. She pastored them beautifully, and really turned the congregation around, setting it on a new and exciting course. They were very sad but understanding, too, when after several years she was assigned to another location. That rural church had not been what my friend wanted or needed, but she was what they badly needed.
In our passage from the Book of Acts, we see the Apostles Paul, Silas, and Timothy setting out together for a place they had not wanted to go. They knew where they felt called to go next, from their base in Troas. They had wanted to go north to Bithynia. They wanted to go south and west into Asia. They knew where they were called to take the Gospel next, but the Holy Spirit kept saying no, kept vetoing their strategic plan. So they stumbled around the region for a while, spinning their wheels. That’s a frustrating stage to be in. They – and we – have lots of great ideas, we’ve got a great plan, we’ve responsibly prepared for it all, we know we could be successful, but forces greater than ourselves mean that we just keep running in place.
Then Paul gets a vision; it comes to him in a dream. An unknown man from Macedonia tells him to “come…and help us.” There is no doubt in the apostles’ minds that this is holy direction at last, although for a destination to which they had never been interested. Perhaps some of you would be grateful for a divine vision, a new roadmap, holy advice for what to do next. Maybe our graduating seniors in particular are feeling this acutely? A Gallup poll some 20 years ago of Presbyterians found that more than half of them reported experiencing a vision. Many of their clergy said the same. Without a firm definition, I imagine that many of those polled then and us today could think of a dream, a dawning thought, a light bulb moment, something that occurred before our very eyes, and agree that we have had a vision. Whatever we call them, however they happen, thank God for those moments - of clarity, inspiration, understanding, guidance, assurance, motivation, novelty - that send us on the roads we were meant to be on!
Perhaps you noticed in reading and hearing our text that it is written in the first person – it is written by someone who was there. The text makes this extraordinary unique jump - from the third person to the first - and it makes the story so much more immediate. These men are disciples together – Paul has the vision, but together they interpret and implement it, together they are convinced to go to Macedonia straightaway, together they decide not to evangelize on the way to their destination (in the past they had made good use of travel time preaching all along the route). The author tells us that he and his friends skipped over lovely Neapolis, passed through Samothrace, headed without delay to Philippi. They were, in everything, disciples together responding to a vision.
Together they arrive in Philippi, which our author tells us is a leading city and a Roman colony. It was a very important place, a seat of political, cultural, and economic power for the empire, with many senior statesmen as residents, active and retired. It was a capital for one of the Roman Empire’s two major regions. Philippi may not have been a place where any of the disciples wanted to go, but it turned out to be a place where they were indeed needed. The Gospel of Jesus Christ needed to be proclaimed, heard, received, embedded, in this central outpost of imperial power.
Start-ups, as many today can testify, are rarely easy. Paul, Timothy, and Silas, disciples together, know no one, and bide their time in the city for a while. On the Sabbath, they leave the walls of the city for a place where they think it likely that they will find a place people go to pray. It was a “man of Macedonia” who summoned Paul in a vision, but the disciples together encounter no man. The person who warms to them, listens to them, whose heart is opened to Christ, is a woman named Lydia. She is the first Christian convert in Europe, the foremother of all of us whose ancestors were converted to Christianity in Europe, or by Europeans. But she hails from Asia – Thyatira. She does business (and apparently a good business) in Macedonia. She sells expensive purple cloth to the upper class, the only people permitted to wear it. Paul, Silas, and Timothy wanted to go into Asia to convert people; they are sent to Europe to convert… a woman of Asia. How often do we achieve an objective, realize a plan, but literally had to go in the opposite direction to do it? How often do we say farewell to an old dream, an old hope, only to achieve it in another form having taken a very different road. The budding author, who only ever wanted to set hearts on fire through the power of the written word, takes a teaching job to pay the bills… and transforms the lives of his students by introducing them to the beauty, majesty, and power of the written word. The engineer downsized out of a job volunteers her time designing wells for communities in developing countries, helping them discover new life in a way she had once hoped to do for the aerospace industry. The minister who had hoped to testify to Christ’s love and mercy amongst urban immigrants did so exceptionally… in a hog farming community. We set out boldly in one direction, but get diverted to another, and by the grace of God, sometimes come to realize that we have actually accomplished what we set out so long ago to do – or even more. The kids transformed by literature, the communities transformed by potable water, the community transformed by a simple witness to the Gospel, turn that transformation outward, pay it back, pay it forward, and the ripples of grace cascade wider and wider and wider. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Lydia – disciples together – have all their worthy plans changed, but thanks to them Christianity comes to Europe, and some 300 years later, the Emperor – the Emperor! – is baptized and the ripples continue outward from there.
In large and small ways, we are all always seeking direction. Let us be “disciples together” with our friends in the Book of Acts, and learn from them not to tell God what we feel called to do, so much as to listen to God about where we are needed. Perhaps where you are now is not where you want to be – spiritually, geographically, professionally? Is where you are now perhaps where you are needed? Is that why you are there? Or if you are content where you are, is there a way that you have yet to explore in which you can meet a need? Or perhaps you are not yet in Philippi – in the place where Christ needs you. Perhaps you are in Troas, as were Paul, Timothy, and Silas, waiting with waning patience, in the midst of your many great ideas, for some vision of what ought really to be your next step.
Wherever we are, let us learn from our friends in Acts to listen well for a holy word about where we are needed. If our stated vocation is true, it can be fulfilled there. Let us be “disciples together” – sharing the visions that come to us, working together whenever we can, testifying to God’s love and mercy wherever we find ourselves.
Brian Peterson, “Commentary on Acts 16: 9-15”, www.working-preacher.com
Feasting on the Word , Year C, Vol. 2, pp. 474 – 479, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor.