As I was preparing this week, I read a commentary that said of today’s reading from Acts (the account of Paul and Silas and Timothy’s – Paul was not alone – journey through Galatia and Phrygia and along the region of Mysia and onto the city of Troas before taking a boat to Samothrace and Neapolis and finally reaching Philippi) that, “preaching a text that reads like a travel itinerary can prove challenging, to say the least”.
I don’t know about that. And I think I’m in good company in this church. Travel itineraries are high on the agenda! For the last four weeks and for many months before that I have been very interested in this travel itinerary. (Just to briefly run through it! Aron and I did a big circle of Scotland; Edinburgh, Stirling, Oban, Mull and Iona, Fort William, Skye, Inverness, Dufftown, St Andrews and back to Edinburgh. Then we walked St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne, trained back to Edinburgh and flew home.)
And the writer of Luke (and the ancient world in general) were also very interested in travel itineraries. Perhaps because travel was incredibly uncertain and dangerous. How does Paul describe it in 2 Corinthians? I have been imprisoned and flogged. “Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked, for a night and a day I was adrift at sea…. [There has been] danger from rivers, danger from bandits…danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea…. toil and hardship…many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked…” Being overcharged by the car hire company doesn’t really equate, does it?
But there is another reason why our Acts passage is so fascinated with itinerary. As Eric Baretto, the commentator I spoke of earlier, goes on to say, “For [the writer of Acts], these geographical details are not mere window dressings or simple signposts to help the reader keep their place on the map. After all, this selection begins with the heavy hand of the Spirit directing Paul [and Silas and Timothy] in no uncertain terms.” The detail in this itinerary and the events at their destination and the language that is used in this passage indicate to us that this is not Paul’s mission! It is not even Paul, Silas and Timothy’s mission! (We need to keep remembering mission is always done in community.) No. It is God’s mission – missio dei – to use the theological term. As David Bosch puts it in his book, Transforming Mission, “Mission is…an attribute of God…. Our mission has not life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission.”
And so, we have this unusual description in verses 6 to 9 of travel plans that don’t go to plan. Firstly, the instruction from the Holy Spirit not to speak the word in Asia. Not because the Holy Spirit doesn’t like Asia, but because the word of God has already been preached there; first by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-15) and then by Paul and Silas (end of chapter 15). It was time, according to the Spirit, to go further to witness to the ends of the earth. Secondly, we’re told they tried to go to Bythinia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.
I can’t help wondering how this actually worked…? Did they have some kind of divine GPS? The Spirit’s voice saying, “Calculating route. Take a left onto Troas Road A9, then continue straight. Recalculating. When possible make a u-turn. When possible make a u-turn…” I have heard of a West Papuan woman who never having left the highlands of West Papua before navigated across Sydney like that, praying for the Holy Spirit’s direction at each intersection. And I am reminded, having just visited Iona again, of the story of St Columba who is said to have left Ireland, in the sixth century, in a rudderless boat so God could take him where he was meant to be. At once point he reached land but decided to push out again because he could still see Ireland on the horizon. The second place he landed, according to the stories, was St Columba’s Bay on Iona. It was there that he founded an abbey which became the dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries and the springboard for the conversion of Scotland to Christianity.
I don’t know that praying my way through a city or setting out in a rudderless boat would work for me. How I imagine Paul and Silas and Timothy’s journey is that they made the best decisions they could about their route, driven, as I’ve mentioned, by their desire to take the story of God’s love in Jesus further than it has been taken before. And when plans fell apart, when there no ways and means to go in one particular direction, they trusted, as we have all had to trust at times, that God’s hand was in this; that God’s hand remained on them.
And in verse nine, there is another sign, a third reminder, that this itinerary belongs to God, that this is the mission of God, the sending of God. Paul has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And so, we have the Trinity represented; the Holy Spirit telling them to get their boots on and move through Asia, the Spirit of Jesus directing them away from Bithynia and a dream from God revealing that Macedonia is their destination. But it is not Paul alone who interprets this dream. He draws on his community of faith, Silas and Timothy, and together they are convinced that this is the calling of God.
This is clearly God’s mission. What it required of them, as it does of us, is a willingness to be sent, perhaps in unexpected directions, a preparedness to use the best of our thinking and energy in the process and to discern and to do the work of God with others.
Secondly, on arrival in Philippi, they are reminded again that it is not just God’s directing, but God’s destination; God has gone ahead of them. Perhaps they are learning to be more open to the Spirit for rather than go to the synagogue, as was Paul’s usual mission practice, they go outside the city gate to the river, supposing, the text says, there might be a place of prayer there. Hoping perhaps, they would meet the man of Paul’s dreams! But who do they meet instead? A group of women! Perhaps this is a caution to us about taking too much specific detail from dreams. God continues to surprise us.
And they make a specific connection with one woman, Lydia, a worshiper of God, we’re told, a native of Thyatira, and a dealer in purple cloth. And again, the writer of Acts emphasises that this is God’s mission, for the text says, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul,” and she and her household are subsequently baptised. Now not only does she love and worship God, but she knows that God loves her in return.
As part of our trip we drove from Skye to Inverness, stopping briefly at Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness. There I heard another story about St Columba that I love because it speaks of a much gentler model of mission, one that again acknowledges that the mission is not ours, but God’s; and that, as 2 Chronicles 28:9 says, “The Lord searches every mind, and understands every plan and thought. [And] if you seek him, he will be found by you.”
The story goes that while Columba was travelling near the lake of the river Nesa (Loch Ness) the Holy Spirit told him that a Pictish chieftain, Emchath, who is thought to have had his residence on the site of Urquhart Castle, was dying. The saint went to Emchath and told him that God knew that Emchath had, “preserved his natural goodness though all his life, even to extreme old age” and God desired that he would now, in death, find a place in God’s Hall. “On hearing the word of God preached by the saint, [the story continues, Emchath] believed and was baptized, and immediately after, full of joy, and safe from evil, and accompanied by the angels who came to meet him, passed to the Lord. His son Virolec also believed and was baptized with all his house.”
Columba is a towering figure in the Christian story of Scotland, as Paul is a towering figure in the New Testament, but there are a host of other characters as well; Lydia, a woman, who becomes one of the first leaders of a Christian community, and Emchath, too, six centuries later, and yet what these stories illustrate is that these people are participants in a work of mission that is clearly God’s, that, as David Bosch says is, “A movement from God to the world….to participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love towards people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”
Thirdly and finally there is something in the language in this passage that reminds us that the mission of God that directs us and goes ahead of us to our destination, continues to work through us and throughout the history of our world.
It’s here in verse 15, “When Lydia and her household were baptised, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us.” There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used; when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus urge the risen Christ strongly to stay with them (Luke 24:29). As commentator Brian Peterson says. “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.” Missio dei goes on.
Towards the end of St Cuthbert’s Way, we stayed in a bed and breakfast, The Old Mill in Wooler. The hosts there didn’t exactly prevail upon us to stay longer, but because I’d made an error and booked our next night’s accommodation for the wrong month (or – who knows – perhaps it was the Spirit of Jesus blocking the way to Bithynia or in this case, Beal!) we ended up staying two nights in Wooler with a pick-up at the end of day four and a drop off at that point on day five. It was a lovely bed and breakfast, like many we stayed in, but it was the first place where they’d made provision for recycling, and where the hospitality of Patrick and Paulette seemed to be natural, as natural as breathing. Perhaps the third clue that we were enjoying the fellowship of our risen Lord that continues to extend into the world was the soundtrack of 10,000 Reasons playing at breakfast. And as we took our final leave, Paulette blessed us with these words.
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders He has shown you.
May he bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like the outlook for the church is rather bleak. The tragic legacy revealed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the ongoing theological and political wrangling about LGBTI people, ageing congregations, falling attendance, dwindling energies and financial resources… but what we are reminded of in this passage is that our mission was not to build a great and glorious institution, a church that would tower over the earth, as the great Scottish cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteen centuries must have towered over the landscape. Our mission was and is to be part of God’s mission; to follow God’s direction, despite how unexpected it might be, to arrive at God’s destination, regardless of who we will find there; to be part of the mission of God that continues to go on in our world.
Three weeks ago I stood at the top of one of those ruined cathedrals, in Elgin, and I discovered something I didn’t know, that the nave of the church, the place where the people gather to worship, where they come to be the community of God, comes from the same word as naval – as in ships! That the bodies of cathedrals are like the bodies of great ships, carrying us, the participants in God’s mission, whether it is on a journey from Troas to Samothrace and Neapolis, or on a journey from Ireland to Iona, or on a journey from this period in the life of the church, where we are right now, to what God has in store for us in the future. It is God’s mission and we are invited to come aboard and join the movement of God’s love.