A different kind of “success” story

The Sixth Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 5, 2013

Acts 16:6-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:6, John 14:23-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We have this picture in our heads of what a successful life following Jesus will look like.  We have this picture in our heads of what a faithful ministry looks like.  And it goes something like this: because we are faithful to Jesus, and Jesus blesses us, everything should go right.  All ministries undertaken in Jesus’ name should prosper, and prosper immediately, or else something is wrong.  If we are unsuccessful, either in our ministry to others, or in our ordinary life, something must be badly wrong.  If there are arguments within the congregation, something is badly wrong.  Either Jesus is not with us, or we are not being truly faithful.  And if something is that badly wrong, well, you might as well give up.  We often think that the opposite is true, too: if a church has lots of members and lots of money, then they must be truly good followers of Christ.

And then we come to today’s reading from Acts.  Now, most of Acts tells the kinds of stories one might expect: awesome preaching, crowds of thousands converted to Christianity at a time, heroic saints suffering trials and persecution for their faith and being vindicated by God.  The sort of grand, larger than life things that we don’t often see in our daily life, the kind of thing we feel should always be the result of good ministry and the preaching of the Gospel.  Today’s reading, however, tells a different story.  In the midst of all this success, in the midst of grand deeds and epic stories, Paul and Timothy have a few setbacks.

Just before today’s reading, Paul had been at Jerusalem with Barnabus, pleading with the elders of the faith to allow Gentiles to become Christians.  Up to that point, Gentiles—that is, non-Jews—had only been allowed to be followers of Christ if they converted to Judaism and adhered to the entire Jewish law in addition to the teachings of Christ.  This made sense to the first Christians; after all, Jesus and all his early followers had been Jewish, and followed those laws, so surely Jesus would want all his followers to do the same?  But those laws included a requirement that all males be circumcised, and also included stringent laws about what you could and couldn’t eat, and how your meat had to be slaughtered and how all your food had to be cooked.  For people who didn’t grow up with such laws, who lived in places where there weren’t many Jewish butchers and stores, such requirements were a burden that prevented them from following Jesus.  Paul had gone to Jerusalem to request that those who weren’t Jewish be spared such a burden, that they might find it easier to come to Christ.  The Council of Jerusalem had, with the help of the Holy Spirit, agreed to Paul’s reasoning.  So he travelled around to Gentile Christian communities to let them know the good news.

But things weren’t all rosy.  Paul had a sharp disagreement with one of his fellow missionaries, Barnabus, which resulted in the two of them parting ways.  They’d been together for some time at that point; Barnabus and Paul had been through a lot together, and had been very successful.  But they had an argument, a big enough one that the two went their separate ways.  Paul chose two other companions, Silas and Timothy, and tried to continue on with his missionary work.  But almost immediately, they faced setbacks.

They were in the Syrian region and travelled through what is now Turkey, but the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word in Asia.  We don’t know how the Spirit did that; maybe they tried and failed.  Maybe they couldn’t muster up anything to say.  Maybe they had a bad feeling about it.  We do know that prohibition from speaking the Word in Asia wasn’t permanent, because several of the churches that Paul founded and wrote to were in that region of Asia—including the Ephesians, the Colossians, the Galatians.  In fact, Paul had planted some congregations there before heading to Jerusalem for the Council meeting.  Asia had proved to be a fertile mission ground in the past, but it just wasn’t working now.  So they tried to go north to Bythinia, on the northern edge of what is now Turkey, and again God prevented them.  Having crossed Turkey from South to North, they head West, hoping that something will change and they can achieve the same successes Paul had had on previous missionary journeys.

When we look at it on a map, it doesn’t look like much.  By modern standards, Turkey is not that big a country.  A few hour’s drive in a car will get you pretty much anywhere you want to go.  But they didn’t have cars, back then.  They didn’t have police to keep the roads safe.  If you wanted to get anywhere, either you rode a horse or a donkey or you walked.  And Paul would not have been able to afford a horse or a donkey, and there wasn’t really a central church body that could have bought him one.  So Paul and Timothy and Silas would have been walking with everything they owned on their backs.  What takes us hours of relative comfort would have taken them days.  And unlike modern missionaries, Paul was not a professional church leader.  He did not get paid any kind of money to spread the Gospel; he was a tent-maker, who supported himself by his work.  He’d set up shop in a town, working and talking about Jesus with his customers, and on the Sabbath he’d preach, and between the contact he made while working his day job and the people who listened to him preach, he would soon have a new congregation meeting in somebody’s house.  Then, once the congregation was going strong, he’d move on to another city.  But if the Spirit was telling him to keep moving, he wasn’t going to be doing much work.  Money would have been getting tight.

So imagine what it would have been like.  Think of how frustrating that must have been for all of them.  They’d been on the road, walking, for such a long time.  They’d been trying to do God’s will and spread God’s Word, and had been stymied at every turn.  They were a long way from home among people who didn’t speak the same language or eat the same food.  Tired, hungry, low on money, far from home.  And they had nothing to show for it.  Not one thing.  Not one person given the gift of faith in Christ Jesus.  Not one community brought together around the love of God.  Nobody saved, nobody healed, nothing at all in reward for their efforts.

And then something strange happens.  Paul had a vision that they were called to Macedonia, which is in the Northern part of Greece.  Now, Greece isn’t part of Asia, as Turkey is; it’s part of Europe.  Paul and his companions hadn’t intended to go to Europe.  They were trying to do God’s work in Asia, where God had called them before, where they’d had such great success.  But that wasn’t where God wanted them anymore, and it took some wandering around to figure out what God was calling them to do next.  Once they got there, things didn’t go according to plan, either.  Usually, Paul would set up a booth and start working in the market-place, and go preach in the synagogues or wherever people gathered in the city.  This time, something drew him and his companions someplace else: outside of the city of Phillipi, to a group of women gathered for prayer.  God was calling them there, because there was a businesswoman named Lydia there, who heard the message and was baptized, along with her household.  And she helped them in their mission, giving them a place to stay and other resources they needed for ministry.

Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in Europe was not a perfect success story.  It started out with failure: the failure of their preaching in Asia.  It started out with conflict, as Paul broke from his long-term partner in the Gospel, Barnabus.  It started out in confusion, as they wandered around trying to figure out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t an overnight success.  And I would bet you anything you please that Paul and Silas and Timothy were discouraged and disheartened as they tried to figure out what to do next.  But even in that confusion and discouragement, through failure and conflict, God was with them, calling them to where he wanted them.  It wasn’t anywhere they’d planned to go; it wasn’t anything like what they’d done before.  And if you took a look at them wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out what God was calling them to do, they would have seemed like the opposite of the success stories we associate with following Christ.  But following God through that period of wandering brought them to a new place, a good place for ministry, a place hungry for the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.

God calls people in all kinds of ways, and God calls people and communities to do all kinds of things that they wouldn’t have dreamed up on their own.  Sometimes there are failures along the way; sometimes there are periods of aimless wandering.  Something that looks barren and fruitless on the surface can lead eventually to new life in Christ—if we follow Christ through the disappointments and failures to the goodness he promises us.  That can be so difficult; it’s a lot easier just to live on past glories and continue doing the same thing we’ve always done; it’s even easier to fall into doom and gloom and spend all our time wondering what’s wrong.  But imagine what would have happened if Paul and his friends had given up and gone home.  Imagine what would have happened if they’d stayed in Asia because that was where they’d had good success in the past.  Imagine what would have happened if they’d stuck to their standard pattern of mission-work in the city center instead of going outside to meet Lydia and the women with her.  Imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been open to the Holy Spirit calling them to do something new.  May God grant us the strength to follow their example.

Amen.

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