“During the night, Paul had a vision.”
Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Throughout this season of Easter, we spend a considerable amount of time reading through the Acts of the Apostles. We are looking at the early community of Christians, and witnessing just what it means to live a life shaped by faith in Jesus Christ, once crucified, now risen from the grave.
In Acts, we see how the Church lived together — breaking bread in one another’s homes, praying together, maintaining fellowship with the early apostles, reading the Scriptures, doing good deeds. And we also see them preaching, telling the good news of Jesus to those around them. They began in Jerusalem, but they were eventually driven out from there, to become witnesses of Christ in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Like a great fountain, bubbling up and spilling out, the message spread.
We find Paul and his traveling companions in the midst of this movement outwards in our readings from Acts today, and they are in an interesting predicament. What do they do now? At the end of chapter 15 and the beginning of chapter 16, they had just finished visiting a series of churches founded a little earlier. Now they are ready to set out for new territories. Acts 16:6 says,
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.’
I’m sure for many of us that passage is doubly-puzzling, filled on the one hand with a series of place and town names that sound…vaguely biblical (though most of us have no clear idea where they are); then, on the other hand, we hear perplexing words.
- “Forbidden by the Holy Spirit”
- “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”
- And “During the night, Paul had a vision”
These words present problems to us. Why would God forbid his people to go preach the good news somewhere?
And how did they know they were forbidden? Did they feel it in their hearts? Did they see it in a dream? Did someone in one of the churches speak some kind of prophetic utterance?
Then of course there are the usual modern materialist problems: visions, prophecies, dreams? We’re not going to talk about these sorts of things. We are stuffy Anglicans, after all, here for an ordered liturgy where everything is set out on the page, and we know just what to expect. Leave the dreams at home!
So we might say we have a welter of concerns.
Now, what is interesting here is that we could say the text of Acts does not care about these our questions. It doesn’t answer them. Instead, the narrative tends elsewhere. It leads us to see the end result of this particular journey, when Paul arrives in Philippi.
“We remained in this city for some days,” says the narrator, St. Luke.
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 worshipper of God, was listening to us… 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.
We have here a little story, that resolves itself nicely. Paul, Luke, and the others meet, almost by happenstance, a group of women at prayer by the river, and one named Lydia converts and her whole household is baptized, and she hosts the apostles.
This is the story of faith and how the Church was founded first in Philippi of Macedonia, through the conversion of a woman who was in the right place at the right time, as the Lord opened her heart to hear the good news.
This story is all the more remarkable because it is the first time the Acts of the Apostles tells us that a church was started in the home of a woman. Many other episodes of conversion in Acts begin in synagogues among men, or among the debating male philosophers of the Areopagus in Athens, or in the home of Cornelius the Roman centurion, a man’s man, for goodness’s sake — with, I don’t know, a great shining breastplate, a red cape, a great beard, and a sword!
But not this story. It’s different. And the events in it might never have taken place, had the Spirit not forbade Paul to go to Asia and Bythnia, had Paul not “During the night…had a vision.” God led Paul and his companions there. Why?
One reason might be the role that church in Philippi played in Paul’s later life. We read in his letter to the Philippians that the people there were among his strongest supporters: by going to Philippi, everything he did later was made possible: the founding of countless churches; the gospel of Jesus going out further and further, even to Rome; the support of Paul’s life when he was in prison, writing those beautiful letters that encourage us so often week-by-week. In the unfolding of time, Philippi played an important role.
Another reason, I’d suggest: to demonstrate something important about the faithfulness of women, in a church that was already becoming dominated by the experiences and activities of men. In the Christian Church women have almost always been the most devoted and most active, even as their contributions have been made less visible by centuries of male leadership.
Well, here is a story not to be forgotten, of how one of the most important and effective churches in the NT began with a woman’s faith and in a woman’s house.
Finally, there is something here that we must learn about being led by the Spirit of God, about being open to things happening differently than we expect. You can just imagine St Paul on this journey. Extended travel is almost always stressful, even in this age of smartphones, and how much more if you’re an apostle trying to go along your divinely appointed mission, but the Holy Spirit of God is shouting in your ear, like a great annoying heavenly SatNav: “Take a right in 200 yards. Not in Asia, Not in Bithynia. Turn around, turn around.”
My point is that this journey just didn’t make any sense. Even the vision Paul received was of a man of Macedonia, saying, “Come, help us.” But then he meets a woman, who converts and becomes a pillar of the church in Philippi.
We might forgive if St Paul went to bed that night, saying C’mon God, give me a clear signal here! If you’re going to send a vision, make it accurate. Help me out!
(Perhaps this is why Paul would later write in his First Letter to the Corinthians that we need to be careful about setting too much store in visions or dreams.)
God works in mysterious ways. We need to remember that. Even the apostles didn’t know what was going on all the time. They stumbled, as if in the dark at times. Or they were led to the truth, but as if by accident.
Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, handed over to suffering and death, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” He says the same to us now, whatever our endeavors. He calls us to be faithful and keep his commands, promises to be with us forever, and to guide us by the Holy Spirit.
He doesn’t say, “It’ll all make sense all the time.” Or: “You’ll always know what you’re doing.” Not even “You’ll always feel like you’re doing the right thing.” Those are different kinds of promises than the ones Jesus gives us. We’re not called to a life of certainty. Instead, we’re called to faith.
Be led by the Spirit of God, my friends, even into the surprising and the unexpected future, even to the City of God, — whose gates are never shut, where there is no darkness, nor tears, nor crying, nor pain anymore — where all is light, for there we shall see the face of God and his saints, and we shall reign with him for ever and ever.
(Illustration of Lydia by Sarah Beth Baca in “She Is: Biblical Reflections on Vocation“)