I’ve just preached my third sermon, at South Aston United Reformed Church. I wasn’t particularly happy with the sermon’s end, but as a whole it was kindly received. One of the problems with Christians is that generally they’re terribly nice and don’t want to hurt your feelings. Anyway, I’m posting it here for posterity. Constructive criticism is appreciated.
When 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. Acts 16:10
The story we heard in our second reading is the story of the first missionary journey to Europe, resulting in the first recorded Christian conversion here. Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke were in Troas on the western coast of modern Turkey. They had travelled through what’s now central Turkey. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (not the whole of the continent; Asia was a roman province), and not permitted by the Spirit of Jesus to preach in Bithynia, another Roman province just south of Asia. However a vision appeared to Paul in Troas beseeching the help of the evangelists in Macedonia. Having set sail they made a straight course to Samothrace and ended up in Philippi, where the bible tells us that Lydia became a Christian, the first convert in continental Europe. She was baptised with her household, and invited the evangelists to stay in her house.
The bible doesn’t specifically mention the evangelists praying, but it’s impossible not to imagine them not doing so. Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke were undoubtedly seeking the Lord’s will in their endeavour and presumably praying that God would guide them in all they did. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit had forbidden them to speak the word in Asia, and that the Spirit of Jesus had prohibited them from preaching in Bithynia. How did they know this? It’s possible that it was simply too difficult to preach the word there through force of circumstance. For example It was the habit of Paul and the evangelists to seek out the local synagogues where they would meet local Jews and God fearing gentiles; non Jews who had come to share the Jews belief in one, all powerful God. But this practice could be very dangerous as Paul knew more than most. There was often great hostility to the new Christians sharing the good news about Jesus. As an unconverted man in Jerusalem Paul had witnessed the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and had approved. It might have been hostility such as this that had closed the door to their preaching in Asia and Bithynia. There might also have been a shared sense that preaching there was wrong; that they sensed God just didn’t want them to do so.
I wonder if the evangelists were baffled or disconcerted by this lack of opportunity to preach the gospel; after all they were sacrificing and risking much to do what they thought was God’s will, not just their personal safety, but their opportunity for earning their own living and having a settled family life. I wonder if we have all been here in some way, wanting to do something for God, and finding we just don’t have the opportunity, or that doors which we thought would be open to us seemed firmly closed.
And yet in Troas the Lord took matters into his own hands. Paul had a vision, a clear sign that God had a plan for him and his companions. The door was opened, a ship chartered, the bible uses the lovely phrase they “ran a straight course” to Samothrace, and then to Neapolis and then to Philippi, in Macedonia. Not only was the door to where they should travel opened, but the opportunity to share the good news was presented too. Within a short time they were meeting with Jewish worshipers and God fearing gentiles. This wasn’t a hostile congregation they approached, though probably very small. Shortly Lydia had come to faith; the first of many converts in Europe.
Can we identify with this at all? Admittedly we aren’t St Paul, and most of us don’t feel called to be evangelists, but as a church we are aware that we are called to tell people about the love of Jesus and to proclaim the kingdom of God and as individuals we often feel we should do more to achieve this. Is there anything we can learn from this passage?
Lets look more closely at verse 10, which I think is the key verse in this passage. “When Paul 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.” [repeat] “When Paul 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.”
When Paul had seen the vision we immediately, we immediately The evangelists had been waiting on God to reply to their prayers. Now the bible doesn’t specifically say that they were praying, but I don’t think it needs to. It doesn’t say that they ate either, but I’m sure they did. There are lots of biblical references to Paul’s commitment to prayer, but perhaps the most appropriate is “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” It’s appropriate because it’s the opening to the letter he wrote to the Philippians themselves a few years later. If he prayed with such devotion after they were converted, do we not think he prayed with equal devotion about where he might go before he was sent to them?
So Paul and the others were praying and Paul had a vision, and when he had that vision, we immediately. You see they were waiting expectantly for their prayers to be answered and when they were, they acted. Do we pray expectantly for God to answer our prayers? It depends really. If we are praying for a critically ill loved one then we can pray pretty intently. If we are praying for someone we haven’t even met, then it’s much harder so. But evangelism begins with prayer and a willingness to hear God’s answers.
“When Paul had the vision we immediately”. We can fall into the trap of seeing ourselves alone trying to do God’s work. Sometimes it’s because we are embarrassed, because we think we will look stupid, or mad. We look at ourselves and say I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t talk to people at work about my faith. They have seen how mean I can be. This issue is too big for me to do anything about. But it isn’t I and me. Even Paul, great missionary evangelist of the early church, worked as part of a group and a pretty equal group at that. “We immediately”, “we, being convinced”, “God had called us”. We are called as a church to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, not as individuals. We do it as a group, and we meet here in church, and outside, as a group because as a group we are stronger than we are as individuals. Jesus tells us; “when two or three people are gathered together in my name I will be with you”. We need each other.
Thirdly; “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia”. So far the early church had been largely confined to the very eastern Mediterranean, centred on Jerusalem. Paul and his companions had been trying to preach, unsuccessfully, in the area around western Turkey. Instead God tells them to travel further west, to Macedonia, and they recognised that. Now the evangelists could have decided that their lack of success in Asia and Bithynia was a result of their own lack of faith, that if only they prayed harder, or were braver or trusted God more then they’d make the breakthrough there. But that wasn’t where God wanted them. It’s at least possible that Asia and Bithynia were closed to the evangelists due to hostility and hardness of heart there. Instead Paul and his companions travelled where people were hungry for God, and where, on this occasion, there was little or no hostility. God has his own plans and we need to be open to them. Paul and the other evangelists were close enough to God to appreciate this.
Fourthly, “..being convinced that God had called us”. Elsewhere Paul was to say, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our lord.” Paul and his companions trusted in God, they were not working for themselves. God had called them to proclaim the good news to the Macedonians, and Paul and his companions were confident of that fact. Not only are we not alone as individuals, but are part of a group, so also are we not alone as humans, but are with God. God calls us to proclaim the good news just as later it was God, rather than Paul, who opened Lydia’s heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. Be confident that if God has called us to evangelise he will equip us to do his work for him.
Finally, “God called us to proclaim the good news to them”. Brothers and sisters; it’s good news we’re called to proclaim not bad news. I’m a nurse. It’s a long time since I worked on the wards but when I did I would sit with doctors as they, as gently as possible, broke bad news about the death of loved ones to their relatives. Its been many years but I will always remember what it is to see the light of hope go out in someones eyes. That’s bad news. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. It’s the story of a a god who loves the human race, a God who sent Jesus into the world to save sinners, who, through love, died a miserable lonely death on the cross to do so, who offers forgiveness for wrongs done, reconciliation between God and mankind, and between neighbours, who values and seeks justice and who has proclaimed a new kingdom. A saviour who hung on the cross and said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” and told a dying criminal hanging next to him, “Tonight you will be with me in paradise”, and meant it. This is the good news that we are called to proclaim.
I’m not sure how to finish this sermon, except by saying that I’m the same as most people and find the thought of being involved in doing evangelism very hard. It’s almost as scary as doing children’s talks, which for me s the gold standard of scariness. It has helped me to work through what Paul and the evangelists experienced, and it’s worth recapping this; expectant prayer, supporting each other as a group, being prepared for something slightly unexpected, being confident that God had called them to what they were doing, and being joyful in the goodness of the news they were proclaiming, but there is one final observation. It’s not us who bring people to faith and into the new kingdom. Paul spoke words, but it was the Holy Spirit who convicted Lydia.
Many years ago when I became a Christian, my best friend Phil and I struggled to maintain our friendship. Phil wasn’t a Christian. It was probably largely my fault, I was young, fiery and probably more than a little judgemental, but our friendship was important to both of us and we got through it. I remember praying very vigorously that Phil might come to see what I had come to see about Jesus, but after a while we stopped talking about God because it was divisive, and I stopped praying for Phil because, well, because I did. Probably because Phil seemed so far from faith that I thought it wasn’t worth it. Last year out of the blue Phil phoned me that he had started going to church. His daughter, Hannah, had a school friend who had invited her to go and Phil had gone with Hannah. He had done an alpha course, and over a period of several months had become a Christian. You see it’s God who convicts people of their need for him, and he’s capable of doing without our help.