Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15 Commentary
This first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter continues to trace the progress of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, as it focuses on an abridged section of Paul’s Second Missionary Journey. I say “abridged” because the Lectionary starts our reading in mid-paragraph leaving out some crucial historical and theological details found in verses 6-8.
There are three aspects of this text to consider. Any one of them would make a good sermon or they could be three “points” in one sermon. There is the historical. Simply showing how the Gospel got to Europe will be inspirational and instructive for struggling churches today. There is the theological. Wrestling with the role of the Holy Spirit in the spread of the early church will help us think about the role of the Spirit in our lives today. And there is the personal. The way God closed and opened doors for these early missionaries can throw light on our own experience of God’s “yes” and “no” on our journey.
To understand the history being told here, we must back up to Acts 15:36. At the Jerusalem Conference, the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, had decided what to do with the question of Gentile inclusion in the church. “Some time later, Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’” That’s how the Second Missionary Journey began, as a pastoral visit to fledging churches. No new missionary ventures were planned, just a friendly check back. God had other ideas, much bigger ideas.
The whole journey is a marvelous mixture of human strategizing and divine intervention, a perfect illustration of Thomas a’ Kempis’ aphorism, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Paul and his new partner, Silas, start off on the route they had planned, but God had a nice surprise for them in southeastern Asia Minor.
In the town of Lystra, they met a fine young man named Timothy, who became part of their traveling band. And though the Jerusalem Conference had decided not to insist on circumcision for Gentile converts, Paul circumcised the Jewish/Greek Timothy to avoid trouble with strict Jews as they did their missionary work. It was a missionary compromise for the sake of the Gospel. Timothy would become an important figure in the early church.
When this little band reached the end of their planned trip, they decided to break new ground by moving west into the province of Asia along the eastern coast of the Aegean. But the Holy Spirit would not let them preach the Gospel there. So, they kept travelling north and west until they arrived in the region of Mysia, where they decided to enter Bythinia, which is north and east along the coast of the Black Sea. But the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to do that either. What a mystery that must have been to them. Why would God say, “No,” to a good idea? Why would the Spirit close doors to the Gospel?
If you follow their journey on a map, you will see that they have been shepherded along a path that led to the north and west. They ended up in the coastal town of Troas (close to the famous Troy), which was the jumping off point for trips to Macedonia, the nearest part of the European continent. It was as though God was using closed doors to open a brand new one.
Sure enough, on their first night in Troas, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia asking them to “come over… and help us.” Immediately, Paul’s little group of missionaries got ready for their trip to Europe. There’s a curious little note in verse 10. For the first time the writer of this history includes himself in the story; “we got ready at once to leave, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Apparently, Dr. Luke joined the band in Troas, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When they arrive in Macedonia, Paul makes a strategic decision. Rather than staying in their port of arrival, they immediately move to Philippi, because it “was a Roman colony and the (a) leading city of that district of Macedonia.” Paul picked an important city sitting on the famous Egnatian Way that linked east and west. This crossroads town was full of retired Roman soldiers, who were free to travel the Empire. It was a perfect launching point for the mission to Europe.
Paul made another important strategic choice when on the Sabbath he went outside the city gate to the bank of the river, where he found a group of women praying. The Macedonian call had come by way of a man, and it wasn’t considered appropriate to socialize with woman, but Paul and his friends immediately sat down and began to talk with these women about Jesus. We know he talked about Jesus, because in a very short time one of them has become “a believer in the Lord.”
Her story is not about Paul’s eloquent presentation of the Gospel; it is about the intervention of the Lord Jesus. Lydia was not a Jew; her name is Greek. She had immigrated from her home in Thyatira, which is, ironically, in the region of Asia where Paul had just been prohibited from preaching. Somewhere along the line, she had encountered the Jewish faith and had become “a worshiper of God,” a proselyte to the Jewish faith. An independent businesswoman, she apparently had some wealth, as she owned a home and had “a household,” which may have included relatives, children, servants, and assorted friends.
The key part of her story is told in few words. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Even as the work of God led to the first non-Jewish convert in Judea (Cornelius), so the work of God led to the first non-Jewish convert in Europe, and she was a woman. And just like that, there was a toehold for the Gospel in Europe, in the home of a Gentile woman. The combination of shrewd strategizing, bold preaching by Paul, the Spirit’s direction and the Lord’s intervention has moved the church into new, fertile ground for the Gospel. That will preach today as we wonder how to spread the Gospel in the foreign land our countries have become.
There is a theological dimension in this story that should be explored. If the spread of the Gospel depended on the work of the Spirit, how are we to understand the role of the Spirit today? The Spirit worked in two ways: directing the progress of the mission (with dreams and visions and perhaps voices and presumably circumstances), and changing people’s hearts. Or to put it simply, the Spirit opened doors and opened hearts. We see both of those activities in this pericope and we’ve seen them in previous stories, like the conversion Cornelius.
We should surely expect that the Spirit still functions in changing hearts. No one comes to Christ in her own power. The story of Lydia is not a fluke, a one-off historical event. It is the way God works in converting lives. The Gospel is preached, the Spirit works in a dead heart giving new life, and the hearer responds with faith and becomes a disciple. The work of God precedes and prompts and opens and convicts and gives the gift of repentance and faith (Acts 11:18 and 13:48).
It isn’t always easy to parse out the interaction of the Spirit’s work and the human response. John 1:12,13 says, “Yet to all who received him (the Word made flesh), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” However we understand the interplay of human and divine, it is clear that the Holy Spirit’s work is essential in opening the doors of the heart.
But how are we to think about the Spirit’s work in directing our path through the world. Does the Spirit still speak in visions and dreams? Does the Spirit still speak in an audible or internal voice? How do we discern the directions of the Spirit in the circumstances of our lives?
Some are absolutely certain that the Spirit still works exactly as he did in this story. Some are Pentecostals who hear God talk all the time, like Pat Robertson who knew exactly what God is doing in a hurricane. Others are Mormons who believe in continued direct revelation, which allows changes in long held doctrine and practice.
Others believe the day of the Apostles is done. Some of the later are deists like Thomas Jefferson who thought that God created the world with its own laws and then left it alone to take care of itself, never intervening. Others who doubt that the Spirit speaks directly to us today are orthodox Christians who say that a closed canon makes it unnecessary for the Spirit to say anything else today. “What more can he say than to you he has said,” goes an old hymn. If you want to hear the Spirit, read the Spirit inspired Bible.
Daniel Clendenin puts it sharply. “How do you experience the fullness of the Spirit but avoid the crazy claims of a Pat Robertson and the colorless deism of a Thomas Jefferson?” That is a big question which this story of Lydia gives the daring preacher a wide-open door to explore. But we must heed the warning of I Thess. 5:19-22. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”
Speaking of open doors, that’s the third thing your sermon on this text might consider. Without ignoring the historical context and the theological message of this text, you could help people think about the often-puzzling way in which God leads us. Why in the world would God say no to people who were only trying to do God’s will as expressed so clearly by Jesus?
You can draw two lessons from this text. First, God closes some doors in order to open others. We often won’t understand why at the time, but we can be sure that God is leading us somewhere better than we had planned. God doesn’t just say “no” to his children. There is always a “yes” to follow. But we may have to wait a while to find out what the “yes” is.
Second, the door God will open in the future won’t necessarily lead to health and wealth. Remember that this is a mission story. So are our lives. If we are looking for guidance only on questions of location or vocation (where to live and how to earn a living), we may miss God’s open doors. God has sent all of us into all the world to make disciples. Of course, that doesn’t mean we must stop being accountants and athletes. It means that as we live out our callings, we must be alert to open doors for the Gospel. When God’s leading makes no economic sense, when it takes us to strange places, when it results in suffering, we should be looking for the mission opportunities in our circumstances. Preaching this story will help your people think about their lives in a very different, very exciting way.
An old hymn by George Croly asks the Spirit to help us navigate the mystery of the Spirit’s work in us and for us.
Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart,
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as you are,
And make me love you as I ought to love.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.
Did you not bid us love you, God and King,
Love you with all our heart and strength and mind?
I see the cross—there teach my heart to cling.
O let me seek you and O let me find.
Teach me to love you as your angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The fullness of the heaven-descended dove;
My heart an altar, and your love the flame.
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