5th Sunday after Easter
St Barbara’s; 01.05.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
A couple of months ago my wife and I had dropped the children off with grandparents and were heading for a couple of days walking in the Yorkshire Dales. We were driving a route we knew well, we had our plans set for the day, and we were looking forward to making the most of a beautiful crisp February morning.
But then the road we were on was shut, and we had to follow the diversion signs. The diversions took us a long way off our route, down narrow country lanes, up and over vales, sometimes seemingly taking us in the opposite direction from the way we had originally wanted to head. After about 20 minutes we finally ended up back on the road we wanted to be on, a mere 2 minutes further up the road from where our original road had been blocked. It was a slightly frustrating start to the day.
In our reading from the Book of Acts we join Paul, Silas and Timothy after a similarly frustrating journey, though their journey would have taken them weeks, not minutes.
Over the last three weeks we have followed the story of the early church, following on from Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. We have thought about Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the conversion of Cornelius, the first non-Jewish Christian, and we have also thought about Saul, that great persecutor of the Christian faith, who, against all-the-odds encounters Christ and commits the rest of his life to serving Him, travelling around the known world to spread the message of the Gospel.
Well today we join him at the outset of his second great journey. But like I found on our trip to the Yorkshire Dales, the route he had planned upon keeps getting blocked.
Paul heads out from what is now modern-day Syria to walk round the coast into Turkey, and head for the west coast of Turkey, the part that looks out onto the mediterranean, the part that is now full of holiday resorts and beach hotels. Back then, it was the thriving heart of the Roman Province of Asia, full of wealthy towns and cities, a place where news and new ideas could spread like wildfire to the rest of the Empire. It was the obvious place to head, especially as Paul and Timothy were both from Turkey.
But they don’t get there. We read that they were “Kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province in Asia”. Their way is blocked, not by a physical road block, but by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
So, rather than heading west, they head north. Maybe if God doesn’t want them to go to the west Turkey cities, he wants them to go to the northern cities bordering on the Black Sea (known as Bithynia), also rich and highly populated. Its a long way, but there is some logic to it. But once again their way is blocked by the Holy Spirit. Paul and his friends get a strong sense that this is not the way either.
The only option is to turn left and take the high mountainous route for a couple of hundred miles more and end up in the port of Troas. This would have been like coming off the motorway with 200 miles of your journey still to go, and doing the rest by minor B roads, most of which were single lanes, with the occasional passing spot.
Hugely frustrating, especially for a man of action like Paul, who wanted to be telling the world about Jesus, and here he was in a remote mountainous region with no good roads or populated areas. Its today’s equivalent of an area with no mobile phone connection or internet access.
How does he end up in this situation? Because of listening to the Holy Spirit. During their walking, Paul, Silas and Timothy would have spent much time in prayer, asking God for guidance and blessing on their work. And through that, they clearly had a sense of where God was leading them, even if they didn’t know why.
You may be able to identify with that. When you pray, you may sometimes have a sense of being nudged in a certain direction, or a sense not to do something. You may find it difficult to explain, as undoubtedly Paul and Silas did, but you may have those moments when you just sense God’s leading. Those senses need to be tested through further prayer and reflection, through conversation with others who you trust and are also praying for you, but neither should they be ignored. We need to be responsive to God’s leading, even when at times it takes us away from the obvious path.
You may have had the experience of going for a job interview, praying about it, and for some reason just not feeling it to be right. You couldn’t put your finger on it, but you had a lack of peace about it. Or it may have been about a decision to move house, or about how to care for a loved one. At the time, you couldn’t quite articulate why, but just a sense of God’s leading. And then as you look back a few months later you begin to see why that was a right decision.
The results of Paul and his friends following God’s leading turn out to be extraordinary and beyond anything they could have imagined. Having arrived in Troas, they meet Luke – did you notice how the account changes from “they” to “we” for the rest of the journey? Luke, who will end up writing almost a third of the New Testament through his Gospel and the book of Acts, whose writings will inspire countless generations of Christians, becomes part of the church, because Paul, Silas and Timothy, prompted by the Holy Spirit, end up in this relative backwater where Luke happens to be.
Not only that, if that is not enough, it is in Troas, the Asian gateway to Greece, our equivalent of Dover to France, that Paul receives the momentous call to take the gospel to Europe. It is a crucial step in Christianity turning from a middle-eastern to a worldwide faith.
We too, as we pray, as we seek God’s guidance and direction, can be led by the Holy Spirit. Be sensitive to those nudges. It may not take us the obvious path, but it may amaze us as to what God may do as a result. Let’s use the Prayer Week which begins on Sunday next week to give ourselves more time to listen to God, to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
A mark of the early church was that they were led by the Holy Spirit. Two other marks, briefly, from which we can learn were their enthusiasm for their faith and their willingness to share hospitality.
When Paul and his companions arrive in the city of Philippi in northern Greece they spend a few days trying to find out where the local Jews met for worship, and when they discover that, they wander down to the riverside outside the city to chat with them. There are no grand speeches. Just a relaxed and informal conversation. And through it, God’s Spirit touches the heart of Lydia, a businesswoman, a trader in purple cloth, and she becomes a Christian.
Talking about faith was just a natural part of Paul, Silas and Timothy’s life. They did it with each other, and so it became easier to do it with others too.
Each of us has a story to tell of what faith means to us, of times when we have been guided by the Spirit, of times when our faith in God has given us strength in difficult times. I wonder, have we shared that with others here in this church? As we do so, we may find it becomes easier to share our faith with others too,
Another mark of the early church was their willingness to share hospitality. Lydia, having become a Christian, throws her home open-wide. She invites Paul and his companions to stay in her house. It became the centre for the gathering of this new church.
Offering hospitality is something we can all do too. We can start with our time in church. We can welcome people into our church on Sundays as we would welcome them into our homes. Offering generous hospitality – a warm welcome, chatting to new people after the service and over coffee, looking after the building so it is a place that feels well cared for and welcoming to come into.
And hospitality can spread to our homes as well. I was once part of a church where people from the church ate together in each other’s homes at least once a week. It created a community of love and support that saw us through some very tough times.
Let us be a generous, loving people; a people willing to talk about our faith; and a people who are open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
May He lead us as individuals and as a church that great things may be done through us.