Saturday, April 30, 2016


In this morning’s first reading ( for Saturday), Paul and his companions have been travelling all around Asia Minor preaching the Good News, but it’s clear that recently something beyond their control has been going on. They had been “prevented by the Holy Spirit” from preaching in the province of Asia, and then when they wanted to turn back eastward into familiar territory to continue preaching, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” If you look at the map you can see a pattern: They’ve been nudged by circumstances westward all the way to Troas.  

Troas is on the red line near the center top
Troas was a port at the western- most reaches of Asia Minor, only about one nautical mile from Europe, which lay just across the straits of Dardanelles. So far Christianity had been confined to the world of Judea and Asia Minor -- it had never reached the shores of Greece and the rest of Europe that lies beyond. Keep that picture in mind as you read this excerpt from today’s passage from Acts.  

They traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory because they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia. 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. (Acts 16:6-8)

Paul and Timothy going the wrong way
St. Luke, the author of Acts, has set up a contrast: on one side is human planning, as Paul, Silas and Timothy decide to turn to preach the familiar areas of “Asia” and then Bithynia. On the other side we have God’s plan, which requires divine intervention and guidance, but which frustrates the mission plans of the apostles. Of course the Spirit has been involved all along in the spreading of Christianity, but there’s a sense of extra urgency and importance in this passage. Having been cornered, as it were, up against the Straits of Dardanelles, the apostles still aren't sure what to do,

So Luke has God resort to a method that has already been used in Acts: Paul has a vision that makes God’s plan clear. “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.” (Macedonia is, of course, on the other side of the Straits, in Greece.) So, they left the next morning for the land of the Macedonians, “concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

Just like Paul, Silas and Timothy, you and I sometimes get nudged by the Lord to go in a direction the we have not planned to go in. And like them, we sometimes find it hard to figure out God’s plan for us.  “Is this what the Lord is asking us to do?” is the question, but the answer is often unclear. I can picture Silas saying to Paul, “I know we’re having an impossible time trying to go to Bithynia, but maybe that’s just the Lord testing us to see how strong our faith is; maybe we should keep pushing toward Bithynia despite the problems.” Good point, Silas. So how do we know what to do?

Luke resorts to what might seems to be an easy way out: God provides Paul a clear and unambiguous answer via a vision. The final sentence seems sort of naive: “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.”

The notion that they “concluded” what God had “called” to do seems odd. They didn’t need to conclude anything, because the message could not have been clearer.

To be fair, though, that they still had to “conclude” that Paul’s reported vision was genuine and not some figment of his imagination. Timothy might have asked Silas, “Paul’s been under a lot of stress lately. Maybe he’s starting to hallucinate.” But with the guidance of the Spirit they discerned as best they could, and concluded that they were indeed being called in the direction of Macedonia.

One thing I can learn from reflecting on this passage is that sometimes when I’m faced with an important decision, and I want complete certainty that I’m making the choice, I’m forced to rely instead on God’s goodness, and trust that the Spirit will guide me to fulfil God’s plan for me.

Not even a vision from heaven would provide a slam-dunk certain answer -- I, like Paul, Silas and Timothy, would still have to draw a conclusion from it.

That’s why we celebrate Pentecost, right? (Get ready -- it’s coming on May 15.)


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