“A Vision, a Journey, and a Conversion”
We know the apostle Paul through the book of Acts as well as the letters that he wrote which are preserved in the New Testament. It’s enough to conclude that Paul was a busy man between his travels and his writing. There are probably other letters that are lost to us, but aside from the time that Paul spent in prison, I doubt that his life had many dull moments. This story in Acts seems a typical episode in his life: he has a vision, he takes off on a journey and the end of the story has a conversion that leads to the establishment of a church community.
I put a map in the narthex of the journey that Paul took in the first 16 verses of Acts- the second half of which we read this morning. That was my art project for the week: if you look at it, you’ll get a sense of how far Paul and his companions traveled. You’ll also get a sense of how far he was from Tarsus, his home.
Paul and his companions went from Troas to Samothrace to Neapolis to Philippi- all in modern day Turkey and Greece. You could probably book a tour or pilgrimage of this journey if you wanted to- those types of things are big business nowadays and in each case a modern day city sits at or near the original sites.
Paul and his companions weren’t traveling by air and luxury boat- he was on foot, or possibly animal transport, and sailboat. I knew a man who did some mission work in Turkey, and they got there by plane of course, but then he and his companions relied on buses and public transport or even accepted rides from the people they met there. They had just one or two contacts already in Turkey, but the itinerary was mostly unplanned and they were relying on the hospitality of strangers. That’s the flavor of what Paul and his companions were doing on this trip.
Paul’s journey started because of a vision. One thing to know is that in the Bible, visions are common. Actually, visions are probably more common today than we suspect- because I imagine most of us, if we had one would be reluctant to talk about it for various reasons. It’s like Lily Tomlin says- when you talk to God, it’s called praying, but when God talks to you, it’s called a delusion. I’ve had three people tell me about a vision they’ve had in just under 8 years of ministry, to give you a frame of reference- I’d bet there have been more though.
We never find out what happened to the man asking for help in Paul’s vision- if he meets him then it isn’t recorded. They do meet some women though, and in particular they encounter Lydia, a Gentile who winds up being Paul’s first European convert. The text gives us a few details about Lydia that we might not notice at first. We’re told that she’s a dealer in purple cloth, and when she’s baptized the talk is of ‘her household.’ In a day and age where women are considered property and afforded few if any rights, Lydia is not only the head of her household, she’s a business woman. In Roman colonies only the elite classes could wear purple cloth- it was literally the royal color- and so it was a very expensive textile. Lydia is dealing with the elite in society and dealing with a very pricey commodity- it isn’t a stretch to assume that she wasn’t just ekeing out a living, but that she was thriving. Maybe she even ranks on the Roman Colony’s top businessman’s list.
It’s hard to imagine how remarkable this was, but consider this as a point of comparison- on May 7, 2012- Bianca Bosker wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled: “Fortune 500 List Boasts More Female CEOs Than Ever Before.” That number was just 18 out of 500. Today the number is 21, or just over 4%. Even now business is kind of a man’s world, and Paul and Lydia were working 2000 years ago. Apparently Lydia didn’t get the memo about learning her proper place in society.
So I wonder, what is this text inviting you to do?
Is it inviting you to take a journey?
Up to now, Paul’s travels had been through the middle East and Asia Minor. Macedonia- modern day Greece- is his first venture into Europe so he’s crossing into different and unknown territory. It reminds me of a scene in the Fellowship of the Ring, where one of the characters is leaving on a journey, and he’s standing on the border of his home region and says ‘if I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest from home I’ve ever been.’
Is there a new frontier waiting for you? Have you been saying to yourself that one of these days you’re going to go on a Mission trip, but you’re just waiting for everything to line up? Or maybe the journey is a figurative one- something related to your relationship with God? Is that frontier committing to a Bible Study, going to SSJE, doing a service project? Do you know deep down that you need to see a counselor, or confront an addiction- is that the journey you’re meant to take and the frontier you’re meant to cross?
Or maybe you’ve received a vision that you want to explore further? And it doesn’t have to be one like Paul had- it could be something that’s come from your hearts desires- a dream job or an avocation that you want to pursue. God puts those desires there for a purpose! What can you do this week to start making that vision a reality?
Remember though- be open to new things happening once you start following that vision. If Paul had insisted on finding the man Macedonia, he might not have met Lydia and there might not have been a church at Philippi. And who knows maybe the church wouldn’t have spread beyond Asia Minor?
And whatever you do, don’t let others or even your own plans define what is possible for you. Be like Lydia- we don’t know her backstory but by all of society’s prescribed roles she should have either been at home with her family, or a poor and destitute widow. When presented with her options, Lydia decided to make a new way- she used her God given talents not just to survive but to thrive and one assumes that she trusted enough not only in herself, but in God to sustain her.
If nothing else, allow God to love you and surprise you. That alone is enough for today- even enough for a lifetime.