Preached at South Salem Friends, Feb. 26, 2012
This chapter is about the first journey of Paul after the Council of Jerusalem where the headquarters of the church embrace Gentile believers as co-heirs of the Gospel without requiring them also to become followers of Moses. Then Paul and Barnabas disagree sharply on whether to take John Mark with them, and they end up parting ways. Paul and Silas journey through Asia Minor (now Turkey), while Barnabas and John Mark sail to Cyprus. Paul and Silas pick up Timothy along the way. So today, we’re going to talk about how Paul got to Philippi and what happened there and what we can learn from these events. This is Paul’s first preaching visit to Europe.
Background on Philippi—in the Balkans area of Macedonia; grew up around a gold mining area, prosperous beyond its size; then a place where Roman veterans went to retire and later Roman colonists—mixed bunch of ethnic identities, but enthusiastically Roman.
As Paul and Silas traveled through Asia, the Bible says they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” When they attempted to take a right turn into Bithynia, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” So they took the left to Troas. In the night, Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man pleading with him to “come to Macedonia and help us.” Paul’s response was to set sail immediately to Macedonia, and one of the leading cities there, Philippi.
What is interesting about this is the open-endedness of Paul’s trip planning. Suppose you and I were on a road trip, and we thought we would stop and visit people along the way, and Jesus told us not to. And then when we got to a coastline, we planned to turn right and Jesus told us not to. This seems easily a parable for the journey of our lives as well. When do we preach? “When Jesus tells us to.” Where do we turn our attention to next? “Wherever Jesus calls us.” What do we say when we get there? “Whatever Jesus tells us to say.”
So it is obvious that the most obvious characteristic of anyone who wants to be God’s agent in the world is listening to and obeying the Spirit of Jesus.
That’s one of the central messages of George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement: Jesus Christ is present to teach us himself (George Fox’s Journal, ch. 1, and elsewhere). Behind that statement is acceptance of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in history, and within it is faith that the Spirit Jesus promised to send is in fact here and in conversation with us.
What is Jesus saying to you personally today? Or to your congregation? How can we make space for Jesus to tell us whom to reach out to, what area to focus on, what to say to those folks?
Then in the story, Paul and his companions sought out a spot the local Jewish people might gather to pray. They found a group of women, and they spoke to them. At a slight distance, apparently, was Lydia, a worshiper of God. She came originally from Thyatira, over in Asia, so was perhaps something of an outsider. She was also a prosperous merchant. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what Paul said, and shortly she and her household were baptized and she brought Paul and company home to stay at her house.
What is interesting here is that Paul thought he should start with the Jews in the proudly Roman town of Philippi, and he tried, but his first convert was a Gentile, and judging from the names in the book of Philippians, most of the others were non-Jewish also. Another interesting thing is that Paul did not insist on speaking with the men; he spoke to those who had gathered to pray, and it appears not to have mattered to him that they were all women. Another interesting thing is that a socially powerful woman was his sponsor in Philippi.
So we can infer that when we obey Jesus, go where Jesus says to go, there will be someone ready to hear us. That work is God’s work—getting the audience ready to hear. Lydia was spiritually ready to hear the Gospel—and the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly and accept the good news.
Another central vision of the Quaker founder George Fox was that God showed him “a great people to be gathered…a great people in white raiment by a river’s side coming to the Lord.” On a First-day shortly after, Fox went to a meeting of Seekers, recognized them as the people in white raiment, and “gathered them in the name of Jesus” (GF Journal, ch. 5).
Who are the people we know who are ready to hear us? Who has God been preparing to hear the Gospel? What if those who are ready to hear aren’t the same as the ones we anticipated talking to? Can we be open to accept those God is calling?
In the next part of the story, Paul and Silas were harassed by a slave girl who shouted over and over, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She followed them, shouting, for many days. Paul got annoyed, and he ordered her spirit of divination out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. This got him into a heap of trouble, as we will see.
But what is interesting is that she is telling the truth about them. She is free advertising for them, pointing them out in every crowd, shouting like a barker at a carnival. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, come see one of the WONDERS OF THE WORLD. And Paul hates this. Why? Perhaps her shouting makes it impossible for him to actually preach. Perhaps she gathers people’s attention to him, rather than to the gospel. Perhaps he pities her compulsion to shout and is angry at her owners who use it to get rich.
What we can learn from this is that it is ok for the gospel to be preached quietly without a lot of fanfare. Further, getting a lot of attention can actually interfere in our ability to share the good news. We can’t be motivated by the desire to be the center of attention; we have to be motivated by the spirit of Jesus to share what Jesus wants us to share. And it did no one any good to know Paul had good news to share if he couldn’t be heard over the advertising.
How can we clear a space for the gospel to be heard? How can we not be distracted by praise for our efforts or other kinds of advertising? How can we keep our own and every one else’s attention on the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose again, and is present with us to teach us himself?
In Paul’s story, the next events look like disaster; Paul and Silas were falsely accused of Jewish proselytizing in a Roman town, mobbed, stripped, beaten, thrown in jail and into stocks. He and Silas prayed and sang hymns through the night. An earthquake shook the foundations of the prison, opened the doors, and unfastened everyone’s chains.
This is such a great picture of the freeing force of the Gospel; literally, it is an earthquake and a jail, but symbolically, it is Paul’s and Silas’s obedience to God and rejoicing in hard circumstances breaking open the whole system of imprisonment. This is a small picture of what is happening in Philippi in the spiritual realm. Even the jailor becomes a believer.
How can we see that as we obey Jesus, adversity is opportunity for a great shaking that will break open our imprisonment? Charles Wesley wrote, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I rose, my dungeon streamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee” ("And Can It Be"). As George Fox wrote, “I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness, and in that also I saw the infinite love of God” (GF Journal, ch. 1).
As we take time to listen for God in order to follow God’s leading, let’s ask these questions:
What is Jesus saying to us today? How can we make space for Jesus to tell us whom to reach out to, what places to focus on, what to say to those folks?
Who are the people we know who are ready to hear us? Who has God been preparing to hear the Gospel? What if those who are ready to hear aren’t the same as the ones we anticipated talking to? How can we be open to accept those God is calling?
How can we clear a space for the gospel to be heard? How can we not be distracted by praise for our efforts or by other kinds of advertising or press coverage? How can we keep our own and everyone else’s attention on the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose again, and is present with us to teach us himself?
How can we see that as we obey Jesus, adversity is opportunity for a great shaking that will break open our imprisonment?