As our readings in Acts continue this Easter season, we have come to what’s called Paul’s Second Missionary Journey. You can probably all deduce at least one thing from that name: there must have been a First Missionary Journey. And yes, there was. On that trip Paul went a lot of places you never heard of unless you are a big fan of the book of Acts, places like Iconium, Perga and Lystra.
So we’re reading today about the start of his second journey. Intriguingly, we’re told just before this passage that Paul and his companions kicked off their trip by attempting to visit two places they thought would be strategically good choices, but that the Holy Spirit did not allow it. The writer, Luke, says they tried to go west into the province of Asia, and the Spirit stopped them. Then they tried to go north into the province of Bithynia and the Spirit stopped them again. We don’t know what that looked like, an exterior circumstance, an internal sense of wrongness, or what, but somehow the Spirit made clear that Asia and Bithynia were not on God’s wish list for the Second Missionary Journey. Twice they create what seems to be a sensible plan, but twice God somehow vetoes it. I imagine by this point they’re wondering if there’s going to be a Second Missionary Journey at all.
Then, that night, Paul has a vision. Scripture often uses the word "vision" for a dream that is understood to include communication from God, so perhaps it was a regular dream, or perhaps it was something more like what we tend to imagine when we hear about visions, or what we heard about in the Acts reading from last week. But however it happened, Paul saw one man, asking for one favor: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now the province of Macedonia is north, across the Aegean Sea; this is not in the plan. But God seems to want it, so they pack up and set the GPS for Macedonia. To get there they have to stop on the island of Samothrace, which is where the famous Winged Victory statue you may be familiar with was sculpted a century or so earlier, and then they cross over to Macedonia and go to the nearest big city, Philippi.
And in Philippi they make their first Macedonian convert, a woman named Lydia. Lydia is what the New Testament calls a “worshipper of God,” meaning that she is not Jewish but interested in learning from the Jewish spiritual tradition. It also mentions her trade; she dealt in purple cloth, and because the dyes to make the color purple were exorbitantly expensive, scholars usually assume that we are talking about a woman of means with a head for business. But she is also brave enough to admit to a spiritual thirst. Who would we be talking about today? Perhaps the owner of a high-end yoga retreat in Costa Rica, or the savvy entrepreneur who created that new work/life balance app for your iPhone. And she’s out there by the river with her women’s spirituality group, seeking the Divine, and when Paul sees her, he says: it’s great you’re interested in all this, Lydia. I have specific information you can add to your knowledge base about something new and different God has done. Would you like to hear about it?
And as she learns the facts about both what God did in Jesus, and what Jesus can do now, the text says that God opened Lydia’s heart. She didn’t just appreciate the intellectual clarity of the Christian message, but she felt that personal address that only God can pull off, and she knew this was the real thing, and she said “I’m in. And I also have a guest room. Do you need a place to stay?”
So they are off and running in Philippi. Stop one on Paul’s second missionary journey, unplanned but for this odd vision of a man saying “Come over and help us.” And in fact, as the journey continues through this area where they hadn’t intended to go, they end up visiting many of the cities that, unlike those on the first journey, we probably have heard of. Because they are the very cities to which Paul later wrote the NT epistles: Philippi as in Philippians, Thessalonica as in Thessalonians, and then as they follow the coast on down into Greece, Corinth as in 1 and 2 Corinthians. So who knows what would be in our NT, if when Paul said “I had a strange dream about a Macedonian calling to us for help,” his colleagues had rolled their eyes and told him he shouldn’t eat spicy foods before bedtime. Who knows what would be in our NT, or if we’d have the same kind of NT at all, if that little group had stuck to following its own plans.
Now following our own plans is something we do all the time as the church and as individual Christians. And, well, no wonder. Many of us are smart and competent people and the world is full of needs to be addressed. There are many good things we can plan to do. The list of worthy pursuits for Christians is endless, isn’t it? You could focus on parenting or finances or world hunger or marriage or business ethics. You could teach, train, counsel, heal, feed, clothe, visit, all in the name of Christ. Build relationships, build a Habitat house, build capacity: it’s all good. There are so many things Christians can do that are inarguably worthy of our time. How do we know? How do we choose?
I can tell you two ways people choose that aren’t usually so effective. One is the famous phrase, “We’ve always done it that way before.” Many churches rely on that principle, even though it often produces pretty mixed results. Another approach churches often use is the same method Paul and his companions started with for Asia and Bithynia: It seems like a good idea at the time, and they hope God will bless what they’re doing. That often gets some positive results, but usually not extraordinary ones. But the best thing of all is to start with the question: "What is God doing?" Where are we being called in some way? Who or what is addressing us with the plea, “Come over and help us?” Rather than decide what looks good to us and then ask God to bless it, find out where the energy of the Spirit is already calling for participation. Listen for the sense of being addressed by a need or an invitation. Because when ministry springs out of that sense of call, it has an internal energy that it could never get from just our good ideas.
“What is God doing?” is also a more interesting question on a personal level. Where is that sense of need or invitation addressing you? An address from God is always so kind, so knowing, so gently persistent, so very, very different from what it feels like when guilt or obligation start talking to you. Where is God, in some way, surfacing this voice that says “Come over and help us”? What is God doing?
Since we’re talking about what God is doing, and about how much better things go when we notice and receive it, we should probably mention the nine-day prayer initiative we in this diocese are calling a Wave Of Prayer. In the Church of England they’re calling it Thy Kingdom Come; but whatever you call it, in the time between Ascension and Pentecost, Anglicans in various places are participating in 9 days of prayer for the Kingdom to come among us. For God to act, to speak, to inspire and renew us, for there to be a move of God that we can step into and be carried along by as we serve and love in Jesus’ name. Here at Emmanuel we will be praying for that at our Ascension Eve Eucharist, in the Daily Offices, and privately. This morning we even have red bookmarks for you to take with you and use in prayer over these nine days. If you don’t like the prayer on the bookmark, you could just say to God any time you think of it between Ascension and Pentecost, "Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Kingdom Come at Emmanuel, Thy Kingdom Come in my family, Thy Kingdom Come in the streets of our city, Thy Kingdom Come in economic life, in arts, in culture, in our friendships, our businesses, our schools." Or just "Thy Kingdom Come," that’s plenty. And then look for the answer.
Because while of course God is always with us, always present, and he knows what we need before we ask, he delights in hearing us ask and using our asking to do beautiful things both small and large. While we can always voice our specific hopes for what those things might be, God has his own lights on how to answer. He may not act the way we’d prefer or the way we’d most easily understand, but he does act. He has already acted in Jesus’s death and resurrection to change what is possible in this world, and he is not done acting. That was the news Paul shared with a wealthy businesswoman by a river in Philippi at the start of his Second Missionary Journey. And it’s the news that is on offer here in this space week by week. And although good things can happen when we don’t actually behave as though that news is true, the things that happen when we do behave as though it’s true are even better.