It’s sometimes tempting in the church to think that if only we follow the right steps, do all the right things, and generally keep on doing it over and over again until we get it right, the church can’t help but be a huge success. Of course, life–and church life, in particular–doesn’t quite work that way.
In Acts chapter 16 we find Paul, along with his companion Timothy, engaged in missionary work. But they keep running into one dead end after another. Let’s pick up the action about three verses before this week’s lectionary passage:
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 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. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, 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. –Acts 16:6-15 NRSV
Paul tried to go to several places–Phyrgia and Galatia (where the Holy Spirit forbid them to preach) as well as Mysia and Bithynia (where the Spirit of Jesus “did not allow them”)–before ending up in Troas. There Paul had a vision at night in which a Macedonian man pleaded with him to cross over to Macedonia. They traveled through a couple more towns before ending up in Philippi.
Before proceeding any further, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of this place. Philippi was not just a leading city in the district of Macedonia; it was a Roman colony. There the trappings of the mighty Roman Empire were evident on practically every corner. No doubt those other towns and cities included people who could have greatly benefited by hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed. But it appears that God wanted Paul and Timothy to engage in their missionary work in one of the empire’s strongholds.
Now, it doesn’t make sense if the gospel is confined to personal morality and salvation. But just as Jesus himself went out of his way to confront the Roman authorities, so too should two of the risen Christ’s leading emissaries. There in a place where the common (and critically important) statement, “Caesar is lord!” is required by law to be uttered by all residents, Paul aimed his message: “Christ is Lord!”
Oh yes, and that Macedonian man in the dream who had pleaded with Paul to come and preach the gospel? It turned out that their most important convert was a woman. Yet this was no ordinary woman. Lydia was a businesswoman engaged in the trade of dying cloth purple. Because only the most important and wealthy patrons could have access to purple cloth, it can reasonably be assumed Lydia was probably quite well off financially. From Paul’s perspective, Lydia was an ideal “first convert” in Philippi. That city became the site of one of Paul’s most important church plants.
According to the lectionary, we’re still in the season of Easter, even if this year’s joyous Easter Sunday celebrations already seem like a distant memory. But the “spirit of Easter” permeates the missionary work of Paul and Timothy in Philippi where they, too, confront Roman authorities. And as the risen Jesus encountered individuals on the road to Emmaus and gave them new hope and encouragement, so too does Paul give new hope and encouragement to a woman who would become a cornerstone of the missionary work in Macedonia.
*Adapted from 2013 ForeWords archives