Saturday, May 1, 2010


At Vigils this morning we read a section of Acts (15:37 – 16:15). I was astounded at how much controversy and how many broken plans were piled together in that brief passage.

Vatican II acquainted us with the concepts of "a church of sinners" and a "pilgrim people" on their way through the wilderness. But it still seems worthwhile to reflect now and then on the difficulties and suffering that our fathers and mothers in the faith went through in those very first days of the church. If nothing else, their hard times might make some of the internal struggles and squabbles of today’s church seem less shocking.


The passage begins with Paul and Barnabas making plans to return and visit all the recently established Christian communities in Asia Minor. A problem arose right away, however, because “Barnabas wanted to take with them also John, who was called Mark, but Paul insisted that they should not take with them someone who had deserted them at Pamphylia and who had not continued with them in their work” (15:37-38). Paul was not about to take on a partner who had already proven himself unreliable. The two important missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, simply could not agree on a solution. And so finally they had to go their separate ways. “Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39).
I dare say that most of us would be scandalized by such open squabbles among our own church leaders. I also suspect that the secular press would take the opportunity to do some more church-bashing.


Then Paul chose Silas and started traveling through Syria and Cilicia. When he came to Lystra he met a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek father. Paul wanted to take Timothy along with him, but he saw big trouble ahead: the Jewish converts, knowing that Timothy’s father was Greek, would insist that Timothy undergo the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Paul almost certainly disapproved of the idea in principle, but he decided to do a balancing act in order to keep the peace. And so in an early example of church politics, Paul had Timothy circumcised (16:3).


Then, once Paul and Timothy were on the road their plans kept getting frustrated; Luke tells us that “they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia” (16:6). We don’t know what the impediment was, but it was serious enough to force them to abandon their plan and go elsewhere. In the very next verse we’re told of yet another frustrating setback: “When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them, so they crossed through Mysia and came down to Troas” (16:7-8).

The constant revision and abandonment of their missionary plans must have tried the faith and the patience of Paul and Timothy. Such setbacks in our church would be the occasion of all sorts of hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Bishops’ committees would write up reports, and the ever-vigilant press would gleefully announce the breakdown of the church’s whole mission.


But Luke ends the section with what appeared in hindsight to be the reason why their plans had failed: God had a different plan. “During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we sought passage to Macedonia at once, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them” (16:9-10). With that trip across the Bosporus Straits Christianity had now arrived in Europe. Sounds like a plan to me.

The missionaries’ plans to visit various parts of Asia Minor kept falling through. But God’s plan would work out just fine. The next time we lament the fact that our plans and aspirations for the church keep getting thwarted, it might be helpful to remember the frustrating days of trial and error that Paul and Timothy spent stuck in Troas trying to discover what God wanted of them.



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