Eighteenth-century deists like Thomas Jefferson believed in a supreme being who created the world, ordered it with the predictable laws of nature and morality, and then abandoned it like an absentee landlord. Deists, who judge everything by reason alone, reject the faintest whiff of a miracle. The god of a deist is remote, safe and silent. He won’t bother you, he won’t intervene in human history or answer your prayers, and he certainly won’t speak to you. Most of us may not be thoroughly deists but a good part of the time we live, we think, and we act like one. We are sort of “functional deists. So what this story tells you may stretch our capacity to comprehend because it tells us that God spoke to Paul in a “vision.” Here is a narrative in which a vision leads to a new practical beginning.
9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
10When 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. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and 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.
13On 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.
14A 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.
15When 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 16:9-15
In the decades after the apostles there was a noticeable decline in manifestations of the Spirit. One voice in the second century church, Montanus, claimed the Holy Spirit spoke to him as it had the prophets and others had a similar experience. His followers became a movement called Montanism. It was characterized by fanatical zeal, rigorous asceticism, and an excessive pre-occupation with supernatural manifestations of the Spirit. The movement was so enthusiastic that Church authorities reacted to it in two ways—derision and denial. Hippolytus, who was martyred in Rome in 235, went so far as to teach that miraculous visions ended with the Revelation of John, and, in effect, that the Spirit worked differently in his day than in the apostolic days. Eusebius scorned those who “rave in a kind of ecstatic trance” and dismissed their ” utterances” as the “demented, absurd and irresponsible sayings” of a “presumptuous spirit.” According to church tradition God speaks clearly, sufficiently, and reliably through three means—the canon of Scripture, the creeds of the councils, and the clergy of the church. Early Quakers, some 14 hundred years later, while questioning the adequacy of the canon, rejecting the creeds of the councils, labeling the clergy ‘apostate’, claimed to have experienced immediate and continuing revelation quite similar to that of the Montanists.
Recently, the historian Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale wrote that “there is no indication here or elsewhere in the book of Acts that there would ever come a point in the history of the church when such visions and special revelations would cease. And in fact they did not cease.” Grant Wacker in his Heaven Below explores how a zealous, anti-intellectual, counter cultural and divisive movement called Pentecostalism has not only survived but flourished. He concludes that people who have tenaciously held to the belief that the Holy Spirit can and does speak directly to the church have done two things extremely well. They nourished rather than discouraged the primitive impulse of a deeply felt experience of God, and then they created institutional means to channel the energy. Today Pentecostalism constitutes the largest distinct group of Christians. Whether you realize it our not, Quakerism is a quiet form of pentecostalism. Actually, given that Barclay’s view of inward and unmediated revelation provided the major foundation for the work of the Holy Spirit as understood in Wesleyan Holiness, a fore runner of nineteenth century pentecostalism, it might be more accurate to say that contemporary Pentecostalism is a noisy form of Quakerism. There are a couple of big distinctions however. Quakerism in its truer form has sought to balance the ethical imperatives of the faith with the mystical. And for us it is both a matter of personal faith and corporate spirituality.
Paul’s missionary efforts in what is present day Turkey, as reported in Acts, had not been successful. He had faced significant opposition from a group that Luke simply calls “the Jews”. Twice he tried to go to other locations in Asia Minor. I in the sixth verse of Acts 16, we are told that the “Holy Spirit” prevented him from preaching in Asia. Then in the seventh verse we are told that the “Spirit of Jesus” prohibited him from entering Bithynia. He was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit”. Stymied in Troas. He was stymied in what he wanted to do. What do you do when you are stymied? The general advice we receive from our culture is to press forward with determination. After all, we can’t let little obstacles get in our path, can we? We know that those who achieve most are often the most determined and focused, and so the “lesson” seems to be that when obstacles arise, keep going. Make those stumbling blocks into stepping stones. But the message we get from this passage is that, at least in terms of ministry, when stymied, stop. It is an opportunity to stop and listen. Spend more time listening than trying to be an “over-comer.” It is rather difficult to listen to the Spirit because the new message of what we ought to be doing or how we should be living comes to us by inspiration, when we probably aren’t really wanting it and especially if it conflicts with where we’ve exposed ourselves to prideful predictions.
From Paul’s preaching recorded in Acts and the Epistles we know the substance of his message. The good news Paul had to deliver was that in Jesus of Nazareth, the world has become open to God’s generosity; Paul’s listeners are invited to partake of the divine beneficence based on God’s limitless grace. Paul did not need a new vision to construct “the message” he was to share with the Greek speaking world. What he needed was a vision for a ministry that was not hostage to old thought categories or paralyzed by its traditions. Paul was ready for a vision that challenged all old patterns and that invited those whom he reached to new life in Christ. What he needed was a vision of the correct place for his ministry.
In Paul’s case the answer came through a vision in which he saw a Macedonian standing on the sea shore, imploring him to come to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” God spoke to Paul through that vision. Immediately they set sail for Greece. A few days later they are in the chief Macedonian city, Philippi. No trumpets, no flower strewn parades yet in this moment the church took its first step into Europe. I can’t begin to comprehend the importance of this moment for the expansion of the church. The Jerusalem Council had only recently approved a mission to the Gentiles and now, in chapter 16, the Agean is crossed and the message goes from Asia to Greece, to the cradle of Classical Civilization. It all starts in the middle of Paul’s failure and frustration when he stops and listens to a night vision while stymied in Troas.
The venue that Paul finds for his message wasn’t in the big city of Philippi and in a Jewish synagogue like he thought. He had to go outside the city gates to a place already known as a place for prayer along a body of water to allow for rites of purification. It was on the Sabbath when routines of were suspended and where there was an established pattern of receptivity. And it is in this quiet and worshipful place that Paul’s “good news” reaches a woman called Lydia. There are a couple of things we shouldn’t miss about Lydia. First, she is an immigrant, herself. An Asian. Her home is Thyatira, near Troas from which Paul and company had just sailed. She listened eagerly to what was new to her…even though she was already “a worshiper of God.” What was it, do you imagine, that Lydia was looking for when, on the Sabbath, she made her way out along a river to a place of worship? Paul himself didn’t know that he would be there so his presence and the message he had to share would have come as a delightful surprise. And she listened and, consequently scripture says “the Lord opened her heart”. I like the implications for sight in the word vision. It occurs twelve times in the New Testament, once in Matthew 17:9, then eleven times in the book of Acts. Apparently Paul’s message met what Lydia was looking for. And the Lord opened her heart. And I like that too. Paul didn’t open her heart. She didn’t open her heart. The Lord did. And she responded with hospitality. But what hospitality! She opened her home and ultimately provided Paul a place of residence which freed him from the need for employment while ministering in Philippi. To my way of thinking Lydia became the mother of the church in Europe. Happy Mother’s Day.
In times when we are frazzled and frustrated or when we are looking for something to enhance our lives what keeps us from attending to our visions, stopping to listen to the Spirit. Of what are we afraid? Fears come in all shapes and sizes. If I really took some time to listen to where Christ is leading me, could I possibly lose my job, and be humiliated. If I rebelliously followed my own leading instead of following a path laid out for me by others might I be disenfranchised and rejected? If I really took some time to listen to what Christ is calling me too instead of persisting in doing what I’ve told others that I am going to do would I be embarrassed. These are the kinds of tricks our mind plays on us, but the effect is the same: we become people who have not taken the time to listen to Christ’s Spirit.
Paul’s trip from present day Turkey to Greece wasn’t all that exciting. Lydia’s Sabbath outing wasn’t all that spectacular. Our taking time to listen for the spirit to speak to us and our condition seems pretty bland. But God used their willingness to listen to the Spirit’s leading and the whole of Europe was opened to the Gospel. Does the Lord still open people’s hearts? Are God’s people still visited by visions? Can God make great things come from our seemingly insignificant moments of response? Paul and Lydia responded to the Spirit’s moving in their lives – what about you?