Roadblocks or Opportunities?
May 22, 2022
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
It is difficult to believe that it is still the Easter season, but it is even though there are no chocolate bunnies or sugary peeps in sight. So, our focus on the Book of Acts continues, after a week off for 20th anniversary celebrating. We have been considering roadblocks to spreading the Good News of Easter, which is: “He is risen!” (“He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”)
Let’s do a quick review of the three roadblocks that existed soon after Jesus’ resurrection that we’ve talked about thus far. The first was the Sanhedrin, the Council which led the Jewish faith in the first century, and which commanded the followers of Jesus to stop preaching and healing in “that (Jesus’) name.” The second roadblock was a man name Saul, a Pharisee, who believed the “Jesus movement” was a threat to the Jewish faith that should be eradicated. The third roadblock was the death of a woman disciple named Dorcas who was an important model of serving others in the new body of believers. Each of those roadblocks was removed by the power of God.
The first one was removed when, amazingly, a member of the Sanhedrin advised the Council not to raise the level of importance of the Christian movement by executing its leaders. Just allow it to fade away, he advised, which is what happened when these heretical sects lost their primary leaders, he said. Of course, he was wrong because this movement was of Divine, not human, origin. The roadblock who is Saul was removed when he encountered the risen Lord while on his way to persecute Christians and he ended up becoming Jesus’ champion. And, the disciple Dorcas may have died, but she did not stay dead; Peter raised her from death to life, a reminder that for followers of Jesus death does not have the final word.
In today’s reading, the Apostle Paul (who we met earlier as Saul) is about to begin his second missionary journey. The original plan was for Paul and Barnabas to visit, and offer support, to all the churches they had founded on their initial journey. But, due to a disagreement between them, they go their separate ways. Silas accompanies Paul and they are later joined by a young man named Timothy. That’s the first, but not the last change of plans.
Paul is not even thinking about going where he ends up. It is as if God put up a roadblock! The plan was to go west into Asia (Turkey), but they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia”. (16:6) So, plan “B” was to go north, but the text says that “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (to do so).
As a side comment here, I wonder how those “do not go” messages were communicated to Paul? Was it as if they walked into an invisible wall? I’ve always joked that I wish if God wants me to do, or not do, something, I’d be sent a note by parachute with step-by-step instructions.
What we do know is how Paul received the message concerning what to do next; when he is completely in the dark (during the night) about which way to go, he has a vision (a dream) of a man of Macedonia pleading that the missionaries would come and help them. As commentator N.T. Wright notes, all their weeks of walking, waiting, wondering and praying had led to this; they set sail for Greece – where there is a wholly other ethnic group, a thousand miles away, in Europe.
The travelers end up in Philippi, about which Paul later writes: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:3-6)
It’s important to note that Paul’s arrival in Philippi is a convergence of human faithfulness and divine guidance. As Pastor Robert Dunham writes, “Paul would not have been guided to this place in this moment, were he not first … at God’s disposal, open to being guided, sensitively attuned to being steered in one direction and way from others. (And) Lydia would not have arrived in this place and time, had she not first … been a worshipper of God, a seeker already on her way.” (1)
We are introduced to Lydia in an odd account of a Sabbath when Paul and company did not worship with other Jews in a synagogue but at a site near the river which was known as a place of prayer. The initial question, then, is: a place of prayer for whom? Scholars presume that it was a meeting place for Jews; likely there was no synagogue in Philippi. It was to the women gathered there that Paul spoke, which was, no doubt, improper behavior. (He is doing a good job of following the example set by Jesus.)
They made Lydia’s acquaintance; she was a unique person – a seller of a luxury item of that time, purple goods (textiles and dyes). Therefore, she was likely wealthy. Lydia was a gentile – a non-Jew – who evidently was drawn to the Jewish faith, as is indicated by the description “worshipper of God.” The Spirit’s presence was evident that day because Lydia’s heart opened to listen to Paul’s message and she was transformed into a believer in the Lord, baptized along with her household. The Spirit also granted her the gift of hospitality, and she invites Paul and his companions to stay at her home.
While it may seem that the last detail of the story, about Lydia providing a place for Paul and his companions to stay, is not all that important, it actually is the most significant detail of the account. Think about it … the missionaries are directed by Jesus to a far away, foreign place; they know no one there, and there is not even a synagogue to use as a center for their activity. One of the first people they meet is someone who is the opposite of what usually was true of the followers of Jesus – a woman, who was a gentile, and wealthy – and she provides a launching point for the proclamation of the Good News in Europe. It’s an amazing story; what seemed to be roadblocks are open doors. In this story we see the Holy Spirit working to direct the progress of the mission and change people’s hearts.
There are two lessons for us, according to commentator Stan Mast. The first is, using simple language, God closes some doors to open others. We often will not understand why at the time, but God leads us somewhere other than where we had planned and works in and through us in unexpected ways.
The second lesson requires us to remember that today’s story is a mission story, and that also is true of our lives. “When God’s leading makes no economic sense, when it takes us to strange places, when it results in suffering, we should be looking for the mission opportunities in our circumstances.” (2) That’s why, when I pray with people who are in challenging circumstances, perhaps in the hospital, or a nursing home, or facing a difficulty, I, of course, pray that God would strengthen, guide and comfort them. But, I also pray that God would help them to find a way to share God’s love in the midst of what they are facing.
What seems like roadblocks may actually be opportunities to proclaim, in a variety of ways, that Jesus is alive and a work among us: “He is risen!” (He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!) AMEN
- “What Lydia Can Teach Us” by Robert E. Dunham, May 26, 2019, www.fpcnyc.org
- “Acts 16:9-15 Commentary” by Stan Mast, May 26, 2019, www.cepreaching.org