When I lived in Toronto I lived close to Kensington Market, a bohemianesque part of the downtown butted right next to Chinatown. In Kensington Market there was a little corner shop that was a combination candy store and cafe. Nearly every Saturday I would walk to this shop and order a tea and then sit in the sun porch and people watch. I always ordered the same tea, a fruit tea of dried pineapple, apple and hibiscus. To this day, if you put that tea in front of me I am transported to warm spring Saturdays in Toronto. However, it was the name of the tea that pulled me into a completely different direction. The tea was called Bella Coola. It was not until I graduated from Knox College and I was looking into the various provinces to see if I felt called somewhere that I discovered Bella Coola was a place on the central coast of BC. Immediately I wanted to go there- but seeing as there was no Presbyterian church there it didn’t seem like the right place to settle. My dream of visiting Bella Coola took 16 years but it was realized this past summer- and it was everything I had hoped for and more, beautiful landscapes, rich history and wonderful people. The 10 hour ferry journey was well worth it, despite the rough sea start. I even managed to pick up some Bella Coola tea while there. It’s funny to think of the things that inspire us to go on a journey, for me in this case, it started with tea but one could argue that the tea inspired a vision. I’m not quite comparing my desire to travel to Bella Coola with Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia but it is the tenuous link. All sorts of things can inspire us to go on a trip- but a journey of faith and mission usually does require something more than a cup of tea.
Paul’s journey to Macedonia begins with a call through a vision, while visions were often seen as a part of how God communicated, it is particularly true for Paul. After all, Paul would not have transitioned to Paul had it not been for a vision. Paul was acutely in tune with his visions and they inspired a lot of ministry. The perhaps unfortunate thing is that visions these days are treated with suspicion or some argue that they have disappeared from our spiritual experiences all together. I cannot claim to have had a full on road to Damascus style vision or a dream that is so vivid it inspires me to pick up everything and travel across the sea, but I did move across the country for a calling and I think inspiration is indeed a vision of sorts and I know many of you have been inspired in all kinds of ways. I don’t think we need to have focused visions in order to hear a calling by God. Truly, what inspired you to be here today? Or watch this service? Could it be called a vision?The metaphor of a journey is a perfect one for faith but the story in Acts turns metaphor into plain speech, at least metaphorically.
Our passage begins with Paul’s vision- it sets up why Paul ends up by a river in Philippi. What we don’t hear in our reading is the preceding text that describes a bunch of false starts in Asia minor. Yet, I think it is important for us to realize that Paul had a few failed missions too, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his calling, eventually he is drawn to Macedonia. Yet it is intriguing that this small band of missionaries Paul, Silas and Timothy, despite not having any successful missions yet, travel across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. Sometimes we think that our callings and missions need a lot of growth or finances or resources to be called a success but that does not appear to be the case for Paul- at least not yet.
I do want to pause for a moment so that we acknowledge something very special that happens in this section of the Book of Acts. If we were to read the beginning of this section at verse six it begins, “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia”. Like all of the book up until now it is written in the third person. But something very special happens following Paul’s vision because verse ten says, “being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the goodness”. The author, who we know as Luke, switches to first person. He becomes one of these missionaries. I could spend a whole sermon on that transition alone but just briefly I think it is one of the most beautiful aspects of the story. Luke, started researching Jesus soon after stories of his resurrection began to spread. He writes of his research to a person or group named Theophilus, Lover of God, and in the process of writing down his sequel to the Gospel he becomes part of the story- he becomes a missionary and we are privy to that moment in this slight change in language. Perhaps our own journeys in faith are just as subtle as that change in language- it does not have to be some incredible vision, it can be, but sometimes it is just something that grows over time and suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the story.
They, Paul, Silas, Timothy and the author, end up in Phillipi, in part because it was the leading city in the region. It was also a Roman colony, a settlement established for veteran Roman soldiers. Normally Paul would have gone straight to the local synagogue to meet with like minded people. However, remember, this is a Roman Colony. A synagogue is only allowed to be established if there are a minimum of 10 Jewish men- and there are clearly not 10 in this town. But after being in Philippi a few days, on the sabbath it is important for these missionaries to find a place of prayer. Clearly there is a place, outside the gate by the river where women gather to pray. These men begin to talk with the women that have gathered and Lydia is quite attentive in her listening. I think it is very important for us to hear the following line, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Lydia’s conversion happened first and foremost as a divine act which then inspired her human response. She probably didn’t know the kind of inspiration she would receive when she went down to the river to pray that day. She probably had not envisioned that she would be inspired to invite a a bunch of male travellers who would be stay with her for a day or two or many. Yet, she was inspired to be baptized right there and then and to prevail upon them that they stay with her.
We never know what is going to inspire us or give us a vision or motivate us on a journey, particularly the journey of faith. Marion Soards has this great line in her commentary about this passage, she writes, “Paul’s vision to cross over the Aegean Sea into Macedonia was hardly a stained-glass experience that came to him fresh and clean on Sunday morning. Instead, it was a vision painted through a long sequence of failures that took him to the geographical edge of what he had first intended. Had he not stayed with his failures there would have been no vision.” Perhaps we feel as though our success as a congregation hinges on growing our numbers but maybe it is our small failures that will help us to grow. I would also argue that we have no idea how one inspiration will journey toward another.
In Jesus’ final night with his disciples he promised them the gift of the Spirit, an advocate to speak for and through them when they hit failures. The gulf between God and people, Creator and created is bridged and we have the abiding presence of the Spirit to guide us. The role of the Spirit is to inspire, affirm, and challenge so that we take the gospel with us wherever we go. Having just come back from a little road trip that was inspired by an article I read once in a local magazine. And preceding that, having taken a course of transitional ministry, I am thinking hard about our journey towards this congregation’s future. There is no doubt in my mind that the Spirit is with us- but we need to tap into what God is calling us to be and do in this time and place. We need to be inspired to act. Sometimes this means we are inspired to go on a literal journey, sometimes this means that we find ourselves wrapped up in the midst of a story, sometimes that means the Lord opens up our hearts, and sometimes it means that we have to fail a few times to find success but it always includes the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What inspires you, and your journey of faith today? Amen