In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Few us of nowadays agree with Robert Louis Stevenson, who wandered the mountains of France on a donkey and wrote a book about it, and thought that ‘it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’ . We mostly just want to arrive, to do whatever it is we want to do at the end of our journey. If we get stuck in snow on the A9 we probably won’t enjoy the scenery very much. The shops, amusement arcades and cafes of an airport terminal quickly lose their charm if we have to wait for hours for a plane. For we are usually in a hurry nowadays.
I suppose one of the most important journeys of my life was when I attended the selection school for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I arrived late, because a train broke down. I ended up taking a circuitous route which took me across the Forth Bridge, which I’d never done on a train before. It was one of those old-fashioned diesel multiple units, with a big plate-glass window into the driver’s cab, so you could sit at the front and get a wonderful driver’s-eye view through the great cantilevers across the Forth. And at the other end of Fife, we crossed the Tay Bridge, with the city ahead of us as we cross the water, and the stumps of the old, ill-fated, first Tay Bridge, in the water beside us. It was an unplanned, but actually a very enjoyable diversion. And I passed the Selection School, despite it all, so here I am today!
St Paul had plans. He was an energetic ambassador for Christ. He didn’t travel to enjoy himself- he travelled with a purpose- to take the good news about Christ around the Roman world. But his travel plans did not always go to plan. Mind you, this was in ancient times. Despite those wonderful straight Roman roads, I’m sure it wasn’t always easy to travel in those days. Journeys which today would take a few hours by plane would take days or even weeks, and be done by walking, or, if Paul was lucky, perhaps by horse or in a wagon.
Paul’s journeys were disrupted by shipwreck, riots, imprisonment and no doubt lots of other problems we don’t have, like bandits. In the passage we read, he’s travelling on his second great missionary journey, in the region of modern Turkey. We hear that he tried to get to the provinces of Asia and Bythnia, but being unable to do so, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit of the Spirit of Jesus. We don’t know how the Spirit spoke to him- perhaps a prophet from a local church or a vision. Maybe he was unwell or some other circumstance stopped Paul (and his travel companion, Timothy). But for some reason, they did not get to the Province of Asia, as they had planned.
But then, in Troas, on the coast of the Aegean Sea, Paul has a dream of a Macedonian, asking him to cross the sea and come to Greece to help them. Right away, convinced that that is what he should do, Paul, Timothy, and Luke (who is probably the ‘we’ who speaks in this passage) set sail. Paul may well have been frustrated at the delays and diversion he’d experienced. But a few days later he’s in Philippi. His diversions have brought the Gospel to Europe for the first time. If it hadn’t been for those diversions and delays, perhaps we wouldn’t be here today, for Christianity might have remained an obscure sect in the Middle East, and none of us would be here today!
We find delays and diversions on our journeys maddening. That’s true of our journey through life as well. Most of us, surely, have not had lives which went entirely to plan. We have all done things we didn’t intend to do, pursued careers or relationships which, it turned out, were dead ends. The journey of life is rarely a straight road.
We had a holiday by car in Italy a few years ago. Driving in a foreign country is rarely simple, if you come off the motorways. We were driving on small roads, in rural Tuscany, and often the road signs were not very helpful, for they always seemed to point to places too small for our map. Roundabouts were particularly good fun, for they didn’t have big signs beforehand with a diagram showing you where each turnoff went to. Instead, there would be a separate sign at each turn off, with lots of places mentioned, so that often we had to go round two or three times before we decided on the correct road, causing much hilarity to our children.
The final straw came when we followed a road on the map which went straight down a valley to where we needed to go. There were various roads to the right and left, and as we went along, my wife Katharina (who was driving) would ask me, ‘Left or right?’ And I would usually answer ‘Straight on’. Finally we came to one point where she asked ‘Left or right’, and I replied, ‘According to the map, straight on, but I can see that that would take us straight into that field!’ For this was not, as the map suggested, a crossroads, but a ‘Y’ junction. We had to go left or right- straight on was not an option, though the map showed a road going straight on. Perhaps it was a planned road which had never been built, yet it was on the map. So we took a chance, and ended up on a much smaller road, which got us to where we wanted to go, but by way of hill towns, rather than straight through the valley. It was rather a lovely detour, and gave us a great family story about the road that wasn’t there.
Not all detours are a bad thing. Quite often, we feel frustrated with the Church, whether it’s the national church or own local congregation. Church life often seems beset with delays and diversions. Yet perhaps the Spirit of Christ is at work, even in our frustrations. I’m quite certain that God does have great plans for Old High St Stephen’s for our onward journey as a congregation. But sometimes in our life together, we might well take wrong turnings- or what we think are wrong turnings! Maybe sometimes the Spirit of Christ will block our way. And our ears should be open to hearing a cry from an unexpected quarter. Maybe there are folks saying to us, as the Macedonian said to Paul in his dream, ‘Come over and help us!’
On the basis of that dream, Paul took Timothy and Luke on a two day sea journey to a new city and a new continent. Philippi was a Roman colony- a place where they were proud of their status as Romans. It would feel like a miniature copy of Rome, with the inhabitants even wearing Roman clothing. This much would be familiar to Paul, who was himself a Roman citizen. But there was one thing a bit different here.
It was often Paul’s custom to begin his mission at the local synagogue, among his fellow-Jews on the Sabbath. But it appears there was no synagogue in Philippi, so he and Timothy head to the riverside, where Jews in a city without a synagogue often gathered. So there was no religious building where Paul could preach, teach and discuss as he normally did- a bit outside his comfort zone, perhaps? However, Luke says that ‘we sat down and talked to the women gathered here’. (I wonder if they went to the river to wash clothes, as the women of Inverness once did, resting their washing tubs on the way to the river on the Clachnacuddin stone).
It was a cross-section of the Jewish community of Phillipi they met that day. One woman who was open to Paul’s message was Lydia, became, as far as we know, the first European Christian. Luke tells us she was ‘a dealer in purple cloth’. Purple, as you might know, was the symbol of royalty, nobility, prestige: Roman senators had purple stripes on their togas. The only way to make purple back then was to squeeze it, drop by drop, from a certain rare shellfish. So Lydia was a rich, self-employed business woman, who supplied the most expensive cloth money could buy to the luxury market.
It’s interesting how Lydia reacts to Paul’s speaking about Christ. She is baptised (perhaps there and then in the river!). And then she invites the men to come and stay with her. In ancient times, you couldn’t book ahead. You arrived and you had to find somewhere to stay. I’m sure Paul and his companions were only too happy to stay at Lydia’s, in what was probably one of the better houses in town.
Perhaps it was his experiences of travel which led Paul to tell the Christians of Rome that one of their most important Christian duties was to ‘open your homes to strangers’ (Romans 12.13). As individuals, and as a Church, we should always be read to practice hospitality, just as Lydia did. A church where people do not feel welcome is clearly failing! We open the buildings of our congregations to a wide range of people. We hope that all are welcome in our buildings. Maybe there are folks out there who are saying to us ‘Come and help us!’ and what they need is a welcome from us, some hospitality? Lydia offered hospitality in a strange city to Paul and his friends. To whom can we offer hospitality in our city today?
It has been rightly said that the Bible begins in a garden (the Garden of Eden in Genesis) and ends in a city. Our second reading, from the Book of Revelation, is another vision- the vision of John of Patmos, who dreams that he sees a perfect city- a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. It’s a city where people walk in the light of God. John’s vision is of a city where people of all nations- and their wealth- are welcome. Like Philippi, like Inverness, it’s a city with a river running through it, watering fruit which brings healing and well-being to all. This is the city to which we, and all history, is ultimately journeying.
For John’s Holy City is a vision of a world where all is well, where evil and death and despair is defeated, where wealth is shared and healing happens. We are not there yet. And it might be some time before we get there. There will be detours and delays, and sometimes on the journey there God’s Spirit will need to say ‘no’ to some of our plans for getting there, and send us off on another route. But when people cross the sea for the sake of a foreigner, or when someone gives hospitality to strangers in their city, or when even a few of us in our earthly cities try to live by the light of Jesus Christ, are not these a hint of what is to come when the Holy City appears? And might the Holy Spirit’s promptings be most fully heard in the cry of those who say to us, ‘Come and help us’?
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo