Once again visions and dreams play an important part in the readings for the Sunday. Where last week Peters vision led to the inclusion of a Roman officer and his family in the young Church, this week Paul receives a vision that leads him out of his comfort zone to the first founding of a Church on the European mainland led by a woman.
With the dreams and visions about a new heaven and a new earth from Revelations figuring in the background in both cases.
But before we come to this Sundays vision from the Acts of the apostles we find Paul and Silas going round in circles. Before they receive the vision we are told that the Spirit forbids them to speak in Asia, and will not let them go into Bithynia, so the only thing left to them is to turn in the direction of Troas and see if any opportunities will arise for them there.
Have you ever, by the way, realised that Troas echoes with reference to the Trojan wars and if looking at the story from that angle Pauls subsequent wanderings at sea could be said to bear some semblance to the travels of another famous hero of antiquity, Aeneas, who also departed from these coasts to find his way to Rome?
But that is only a fascinating bit of by the by
Paul and Silas arrive in Troas, frustrated and clearly not sure where they should direct their efforts. I imagine them at a point in their ministry that I and probably many of us will be familiar with: Brilliant plans keep coming to nothing, projections, opportunities and possibilities we perceive and try to translate into fruit bearing realities somehow wont work and after a considerable amount of trying we decide that it may all be just too hard and we might as well give in and surrender to wherever the flow of what is happening anyway takes us. To suddenly and unexpectedly then find doors opening every way we turn.
"Let go, let God" a friend of mine said once, "I am sure God has enough patience to wait until you are finished, but it might be easier if you just let him get on with it and fit in wherever he has allocated you a place in his plans anyway "
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is where Paul and Silas found themselves in as they wound their way through Asia Minor. To their mind it probably seemed they had lots more work to do in that region before they should venture further, and going East may have looked a lot easier and more sensible than heading west into the heart of the Roman empire. I am sure they had their reasons to want to preach in Asia and head into Bithynia, and some well laid out plans to support them, but somehow nothing of all of that wants to work out.
It made me think of the last 4 years where I have been convinced that a café in Kinross was the way to go and have come up with all sorts of plans and ideas to make it happen. None of which would work. Until suddenly everything falls into place and we will be opening in mid June. Finally God must have decided he agrees with me on this and that it is time!
And this has sort of thing has happened many times before in this congregation. Last week as I was leafing through the Presbyterians of Toorak looking for God knows what I came across the Rev. Lewis whose well laid out and enthusiastic plans came to nothing in because he had to retire early due to his wifes ill health. Some of those plans came to fruition later, under another minister, some never came to fruition at all, but somehow God kept working in Toorak and here we are today, once again with a host of well laid out (I hope) and enthusiastic plans for the future .
And then there was the Reverend Ewing who succumbed to typhoid long before he could work out his plans, and others who had to abandon their dreams because God had laid out other plans for them, or for this congregation.
As we make our plans I think we should be well aware that only God will decide if any of those will come to fruition and that we should also be prepared to move in a completely different direction if the Spirit so directs us.
I can feel the resistance rise in me while I say this and I hope you can too. It is hard to let go of plans and dreams you have invested in, and it is even harder to abandon them for something that is totally outside your comfort zone. And yet that is exactly what Paul and Silas are asked to do and what we should understand at gut level before we can understand the rest of the story.
They had other plans! They wanted to go in a completely direction! And had probably thought and prayed about it too.
They spend months travelling around in circles with the Spirit blocking them at every turn and then they have this dream that calls them to leave their home ground, the area they are familiar with, the area Paul grew up in, for the dangers and challenges of one of the big city centres of the Roman Empire. Come over and help us!
It is only after a good bit of frustration most of us will act on a dream like that I think, and Luke shows quite a bit of insight in the our psychology when he writes about this leap of faith in this way. And perhaps that is something that can be a comfort to us whenever we feel we are going round in circles and not getting anywhere: God may simply be raising our frustration levels to prepare us for receiving his vision!
After going round in circles for quite a while, Paul wakes up with an alarmingly clear vision as to what to do next and the next day they are on their way ..
That, again, may be something at least some of us will recognise. The mind finally clicking into the place God had intended it to go from the start anyway, leading to an undeniable conviction that this is the right way to go and that there is just no other way about it.
So Paul and Silas go. On a hunch, a dream born out of frustration convinced that somehow God has a hand in what is happening. Out of their comfort zone, out of a part of the world they were at least familiar with, to a city they dont know in an area they have never been before.
They take a couple of days to find their feet but then they once again move out of their comfort zone. Whereas before they would make first contact with the locals through the synagogues they now head out of town to the river where they believe might be a place of prayer. To find a group of women interested in talking religion.
They should have turned around immediately at that stage. No two men, Jew, Greek or otherwise, in their right mind, would sit down with a group of women they did not know to talk. Let alone talk religion. Especially in a city that was seething with prostitutes, crime and all sorts of other doubtful practices and characters. They should have kept to the synagogue routine if they had been sensible, and used the existing networks available to them to expand their outreach.
But no, they plunge straight into what could have become a prickly situation at the best of times. They take reckless risks to share the gospel with what at first sight would not appear to anybody a promising venue for mission anyway.
A group of women on a riverbank is hardly the place to start marketing if you seek to convert the world to what you have on offer.
Within hours we have a baptism happening and a new Church being planted and a house vibrating with enthusiasm and warmth from where the good news of the gospel is spilling over into the streets of Philippi, with Paul and Silas teaching and Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, leading a growing group of new Christians.
I wondered what this would mean in our situation.
I realised, with some despair that we would never be able to act as swiftly and freely as Paul and Silas did. Many committee meetings and discussions about priorities, rules and regulations later Lydia and her friends would probably have long returned home to their purple cloth before we were ready to go ahead with baptism and the planting of a new Church. The institutionalisation of the Church is a great thing and protects us from many possible evils, but it doesnt help if you want to act on a dream and get on with it!
I also wondered about the vision, the dream that propels Paul and Silas into their audacious venturing into unfamiliar territory. Have we been going round in circles long enough to be able to open ourselves to something radical like that or will God need to be patient with us just a little bit longer? Or are we, with the plans we are making at the moment and the unorthodox thoughts that lay at the root of some of them, crossing boundaries and genuinely exploring new territory? And is the vision already manifesting itself in our plans and the work we have already done? And if we have ventured outside and crossed over to new and promising territory, are we, as a congregation, ready to meet with the risks we will be asked to take and the challenges that are inevitably going to confront us? Like leaving the safety of the city and sitting down on the river bank with people who are not within the boundaries common sense, tradition and propriety have put up around us?
I dont know. I can only hope God will take us there and give us the courage and wisdom to deal with it when we get there.
Comfort and support I derive from the river that flows through the story of Lydia as well as through the vision of the heavenly city in Revelations. No temple, no Church, no committees and structures, but the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God is central to the growth and nurturing of the Kingdom and on its banks the tree of life bears fruit in abundance. And we all know water will flow where it will and wear down any barrier in the end, cleansing, nurturing and moving with it anything it finds on its way.
Paul and Silas meet Lydia at the banks of that river and baptise her in it. Immerse her in its life giving qualities and potential. And that same river flows here, through this Church, through us, through all our hard work and fervent trying, our frustrations and our dreams to bring about the Kingdom, with life giving water and unsettling and inspiring visions to lead us where God wants us to go.