Easter 6 – “Man proposes, but God disposes”

Sunday 1 May 2016

 Easter 6

Readings Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29

Heavenly Father, dwell with us richly this morning we pray, and as we reach out to you in Word and Sacrament help us always to know that you first reached out for us and will never let us go. Amen.

Woody Allen once said: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

In a similar vein my training incumbent often said: “Man proposes, but God disposes.

Whilst these thoughts may sound a little harsh, especially if we have become too used to the idea of God giving us whatever we want, they are a reminder perhaps of last week’s theme when we thought about God being so much more than a simple projection of our own wants and desires.

When we start to take the idea of God seriously, when we start to live out that line from the Lord’s prayer about his will, not our will, being done on Earth, when we start to shrink ourselves in the face of God and to listen for his desire rather than constantly telling him our desire, then we stand a chance of actually doing what God wants us to do.

But perhaps I have started this sermon at the end. Let’s go back to the beginning.

For the last couple of weeks we have been journeying with St Peter to Joppa and back to Jerusalem, and hearing about the growing realisation within the church that this new faith was not just intended to reform Judaism but rather it was intended as a way of salvation for all nations and peoples. Today we change horses slightly and start to travel with the missionary and evangelist par excellence, St Paul.   In today’s reading from Acts, Paul is in the middle of what is called his second missionary journey which took place in approximately 49 – 52 AD. So, about 16 – 19 years after the first Easter. On the maps you have the second missionary journey is marked with a green line and goes in an anti-clockwise direction, starting in Jerusalem, going up through Judea, Syria, Cilicia, Galatia and to the edge of Bithynia.

A lot of this action takes place in the countries we now know as Turkey and Greece but you will see here a lot of names you should recognise from the bible. Galatia is the home to the Galatians, to whom Paul wrote a letter of that name, you may see Ephesus which, of course, is the home of Ephesians, Laodicea was the church mentioned in the book of Revelation as being too lukewarm, Colossae, of course the Colossians, and Philipi, where we are heading with Paul in a minute, became the home of the Philippians. If you own a bible with a map like this in the back then I would urge you to look at it when you read these passages because they do make the journeys come alive.

We join Paul today as the green line comes up through the bit marked Asia and towards Bithynia.   Now Paul knew exactly what he wanted to do – he wanted to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone and everywhere he went but, interestingly, God had other, much more specific, plans for the journey. Although our official reading this morning started at verse 9 it is worth going back to verse 6:

Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the region of Asia.”

We don’t know exactly how the Holy Spirit stopped Paul from preaching in Asia, whether it was through a vision or a word or whether he made the people there particularly unreceptive, and as for why we can only surmise that God wanted to keep Paul moving towards his real goal. But it continues in verse 7:

When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”

Luke, the writer of Acts, is possibly using Holy Spirit and Sprit of Jesus interchangeably here, or he may mean that different things happened entirely, but either way the result seems to be the same – God is saying to Paul that you cannot preach here and you cannot go there.

You would think that this must have been incredibly frustrating for Paul – he wanted to create churches, he wanted to see people changed for Jesus and yet, for this period, he seemed hemmed in on two sides – he couldn’t preach in Asia and he couldn’t even enter Bithynia.

If you have ever spent any time in your life seeking to discern God’s will, perhaps for a vocation, a new job or for a sense of direction in where to go next in life, then you may recognise this sense of frustration. You keep wanting God to say Yes to something but all you keep hearing is No. But it is important to recognise that God’s Noes are just as meaningful as His Yeses and, interestingly we have no record of Paul fighting against those noes – rather he turns West and heads towards Troas on the Aegean sea – this was an important port town and what we would now recognise as being a stepping stone between Asia to the East and Europe to the West.

And when he does so, then, at last he gets a positive message from God – a yes rather than a no. Paul has a vision during the night of a man of Macedonia begging him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now there is currently a small country to the north of Greece called Macedonia – that is not what is meant here – in those days Macedonia meant most of northern Greece.

So God has denied Paul a foothold in Asia and Bithynia but is now summoning him expressly West into Greece and Europe. I could, of course, seek to make all sorts of hay out of the fact that Paul has travelled from Syria, across Turkey and into Greece largely by foot and rickety boat and how today he would end up in a refugee camp or worse, but I shall resist that temptation, I shall let you write your own sermons on that parallel, and, like the other Paul, push on towards the main goal.

So if you follow the green line from Troas Paul called next at the island of Samothrace, then to the town of Neapolis and finally to the town of Philippi. This town is described as a Roman colony and a leading town of that district of Macedonia.

Paul has been faithful both to the Sprit of God telling him not to go East and to the vision of the Man of Macedonia calling for him to come to that country.

Then what happens? Are there fireworks, is there a big brass band, is there a sign saying “Well done Paul you good and faithful servant”?

No, the next line is the rather anti-climatic – “And we stayed there for several days.”

You can’t help thinking what was going through the minds of Paul and his companions for those several days. They have been travelling for weeks across land and sea listening to both the noes and the yesses of God, they get to the land to which he has called them and…nothing happens for several days.

But then on the Sabbath Paul and his companions went looking for a place of prayer. Interestingly because this was a Roman city with a small Jewish population they didn’t expect to find this place of prayer within the city walls, but rather they went through the city gate and down to the river.

When they got there they didn’t find a big synagogue, nor did they find a Man of Macedonia thanking them for coming. Instead they found a group of woman gathered there.

It seems that Paul began to speak to this group of woman, and although we are not given his words, we can only assume from his other sermons that he told them about how Jesus had been sent from God to save all those who believe in his name, and possibly he told them about his own conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. We don’t know how many women were gathered by the river on that Sabbath morning but we are only told about the response of one: Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth, which was an expensive luxury, so she was probably a wealthy woman and it seems she had a big house. But more importantly we are told that she was a worshiper of God already – which means she was either fully Jewish or was at least a gentile-Jewish sympathiser. But the most important thing we are told about Lydia is this: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

As someone myself whose desire it is to see people come into relationship with God, and as someone who is charged with preaching on the message of God, it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of thinking that conversion and belief comes from exactly what we say and how we say it. Surely we can persuade people into the kingdom of God if only we find the right words.

But it doesn’t say that Lydia was persuaded by Paul to accept his words. It was not Lydia who opened her heart, and it was not Paul who opened her heart, it was God who opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

And how did that response manifest itself? Through Baptism – and it seems that this baptism was immediate. Straight after the Lord opened her heart we are told that Lydia and the members of her household were baptised. Presumably this happened in the river by which they had gathered. We don’t know how many of the other women gathered there were members of Lydia’s household, and we don’t know what they actually thought about the idea of baptism, but it reinforces the importance of Lydia because it was common for both children and servants to adopt the faith of the head of the household. So Lydia and her household were baptised by Paul that Sabbath morning and she then invited Paul and his companions to come and stay with her.

And so the church at Philippi was born – this was the first Church in what we would now call Europe and Lydia was the first European to convert to Christianity. Let me just say that again – the story we have just heard is the beginning of the conversion of Europe to Christianity and Lydia was the first European Christian. She is called St Lydia Purpuraria.

Paul and his companions could have simply followed the devices and desires of their own hearts. It is actually easy to ignore the promptings of the Spirit of God if your own agenda is loud enough and it is certainly easy to blame visions on too much blue cheese. We don’t know what would have happened had Paul gone into Asia and Bithynia, and I suspect that God would still have used them to good effect in some way. But, by listening attentively to the call of God and following his prompting we heard today how Christianity arrived in Europe, a move which doubtless had an impact not only on our faith but on the history of our continent.   And let us not forget the delicious irony that Paul was summoned to Macedonia by the vision of a man but his first convert was a women because even when we follow the call of God he still has endless surprises in store for us and we can never tell whose heart he will open next.