Imagine you have a vision. A voice from outside yourself, pulling you towards an adventure, a mission.
That’s what happens to Paul and his companions. They get a dream sign, a vision, in the voice of a man calling them into Macedonia.
Paul has been guided along roads for a long time already now—a journey with remarkable horizons but still, in an understood world—an eastern, provincial world at the edge of the Roman empire.
Now, they go traveling through Phrygia and Galatia, but the Holy Spirit keeps them from going into Asia; they had an idea about what they could do in a place called Bythnia, but the Spirit of Jesus, gives some hard, definitive closure of that way. They allowing themselves to drift in a strong steering current, and thats part of what Luke is trying to get across in this narrative: God is actively shaping their path toward something as yet unseen.
Parker Palmer writes about a time in the middle of his life when, frustrated by the sense that his opportunity to seize life and claim calling was running through his fingers, went to stay with a community of Quakers to pray and seek what Quaker Christians speak of as “way”—the patient, confident openness to the experience of God revealing the path God would have you walk. Nothing but frustration. Nothing happens. Eventually he pours out all his angst to a woman of many years. This is how he relates what she said: “‘I’m a birthright Friend,’…’in sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’”†
Ways are closed for Paul, and they’re helped by those closed possibilities to the coast in Troas. And here, in the vision, the man says “come over and held us” calling them across the Aegean—into Macedonia. That’s Greece.
That’s another place altogether. Its a dramatic step further from the known. Its a step onto a different stage. They’ve traveled into the land of epic myth—the vision comes to them in Troas: Troy—the scene of the Trojan War—the foundational epic of Greek and Roman imagination. And they’re being called across Homer’s wine-dark sea to the land of Alexander the Great, who stormed out of Macedonia once upon a time to conquerer of the whole world they knew. Now they’re set to sail the other way, carrying word of the kingdom of God.‡
What strikes me particularly about how this journey is described to us in Acts is this: we’ve heard about visions before in Acts: Ananias literally gets a street address in the vision that sends him to Paul; Cornelius doesn’t quite get an address, but he knows he’s to reach a man called Simon and Peter, staying a man named Simon, in a house by the sea; Phillip is guided to an Ethiopian courtier in a chariot. Pretty specific.
But in the dream this time, Paul gets….a province, a direction. Only that.
They catch a ship and hop their way across, and eventually to the coastal city of Philippi. Philippi: not the provincial capital, not the biggest city. Just a place. This is where they decide it seems right to begin. And they are very much strangers in a place they just don’t know much about it. Up to this point we’ve seen Paul preach in synagogues first. Nothing like that here, at least not they they can find. The known way, the tried way isn’t on the menu. So, here is beginning of the proclamation of the good news in Greece: “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.”
They have a hunch about where people might go looking for holy space, in a city without a synagogue. They went to a place where it looked like maybe somebody would show up—maybe, on the Sabbath, somebody who knew the God of Israel. They go outside the walls of the city, by the water. And they waited. And when it turned out to be a place where women gathered,
that’s who they talked with. That’s who they meet, and so that’s who they tell the story of the their journey there, and the remarkable why of it. That’s who they tell the story of Jesus.
And God was at work in this person Lydia, opening her heart. It was a man in the vision calling them to Macedonia, but it was Lydia who first heard them. And they aren’t like—we had this dream about a man, and we have an important mission, and we were wondering if you could take us to, maybe, some men. They speak to the women as if they are the whole point of this journey—to Lydia, who isn’t even from Macedonia.
And she was baptized and insisted that Paul and his companions stay in her household. And because they had a place to stay, they could keep going back to the place by the water to talk to more people. And because they could keep coming back, they met and shared their story with others who became a community. And going back and forth to that place they eventually tangled with a young woman consumed by something that gave her clear eyes for secret realities—for who Paul was, and who he served. She served as a slave, and when Paul healed her of her possession, her masters were angry because now she was worth less to them without her clairvoyance. And because they got upset, and whipped up a court against Paul, Paul ended up in prison. Because Paul ended up in prison, he was there when an earthquake shattered the building and Paul could sit tight, and reassure a despondent prison guard and give him a vision of a whole new kind of life. And because he was still sitting in jail when word came that the generals wanted to shuffle him quietly out of the city, Paul could insist on a a face-to-face reckoning with the Roman colonial authorities. And free, they made their way back to Lydia’s house—which now seems to be the home of the church in Philippi.
Our Bishop Doyle writes about this passage in Acts that“The church must send, and empower people to go out, without plans! People should go and discover in the world what is up there and not overly plan their work. Certainly, there will be time enough to figure things out… but the beginning of mission is a Person attentive to the Holy Spirit and a Place and dependance upon God.”§
And there’s something else too. Everything that happens in Philippi, in Macedonia, begins with disciples showing up and talking with the people given to them as if they had been given to them.
† Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 38.
‡ This is probably how the original Greek-speaking audience would have heard this passage in acts, as resonant with the Homeric epics and the memory of Alexander. See: Robert Sorensen, “Paul’s vision of ‘a certain Macedonian’ in Troas: how might Luke’s original audience have heard the narration of Acts 16:9?”, Logia 21 no. 2 2012.
§ This comes from Bishop Doyle’s weekly commentary on the lectionary texts