This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on May 1, 2016.
The Lectionary continues to push us in the light of Easter, to see the world imaginatively, which is not an easy thing for many in our congregations. We have such confined assumptions and this is true for folks across the theological spectrum, for both the biblical literalist and the biblical cynic. They are children of the same limiting formation.
In chapter 16, we are reminded that the missionary movement is not being shaped primarily by a strategic plan. It’s much more organic where (v.6) the Spirit keeps them from preaching in certain places. We do not get an explanation as to what that (being constrained by the Spirit) is like, and sermons acknowledging this could be helpful for both of followers mentioned above.
How might one know if he or she is being “kept” from something by the Holy Spirit? A feeling isn’t necessarily the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives… but it might be a part of that very thing. Our experience of the Divine within us is not easy to interpret and we should be taught humility as we seek to interpret it. Spiritual maturity is needed to learn how to read our inner prompting and this text gives is an opportunity to explore this formational need.
It’s worth noting that the Apostle Paul and his company seem to know how to discern in this way. It’s assumed in the stories of Acts to be a part of the ecclesial context. In contemporary culture we are too often on either end of this revelation continuum, either assuming every thought and feeling is the Holy Spirit (and announcing this to everyone) or cynically not trusting anything that is not received from rationale faculties (and rolling the eyes at those who do trust). What is needed are trained “inner faculties” of spiritual awareness, which these apostles had.
They also, as was apparent in the last lectionary text, were comfortable chaining things together as a way of perceiving the will of God. This happens again in Chapter 16 with the often-cited vision that Paul has. Because it is received at night, we have typically described it and imagined it as a dream… The Macedonian Dream. Visions and dreams are both are modes of Divine revelation where a person is in a different state of consciousness, but they seem to be understood as unique experiences. “Your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” Certainly this is sermonic poetry from Joel that Peter highlights as a sign of this new day (Acts 2), but there is also a distinction made that is reinforced throughout our spiritual history. We all have dreams, not too many of us seem to receive visions, a strange manifestation received while we’re still awake.
Paul has a vision where a Macedonian man is begging him to come and help them. Had this been a dream, Paul would have likely awakened later and wondered aloud over breakfast with his group what to make of it. “You won’t believe what I dreamed last night.” In our text, the author says that they got ready to leave “at once for Macedonia, concluding that God had called” them to preach the gospel there.
Again, our two primary themes from Acts are in play in chapter 16. There is no set script in Acts but rather it seems more like improvisational theatre with God in the wings shouting ideas and even often coming on stage to change the direction of things entirely (an image borrowed from Frederick Buechner). As has been the case throughout this post-Easter season, opportunities abound for sermons to explore and to re-imagine God’s activity, how it evolves in very particular ways and how it is made known. Some preaching might take the form of teaching about these things explicitly; some might simply echo these stories from Acts with narratives of knowing from a preacher’s own life.
It has become common in pietistic jargon to reference something as being “a God thing.” Often this is the explanation if something worked out well for us or perhaps seemed unusually coincidental. As always, this “god-talk” can cheapen our message and our theology of providence, as well as turn thoughtful seekers away. “So, God got you a place in the sorority, but allowed Syrian children to be driven from their homes?” Surely this flippancy is “taking God’s name in vain.” This needs to be addressed in our pulpits. Again, we need to be taught humility.
Paul and Timothy and Silas have developed mature instincts for following the Spirit’s lead. They know this is the way that things are working in the Church’s expansion. So, when Paul has a vision, they get ready to leave “at once.” The Macedonian man was “begging” for help after all. This vision highlights two additional themes that are present throughout the book of Acts.
The story does move by spiritual instinct, mystical moments, and even some strategic planning, but it also is moved along by the needs of and openness from the world. Where people are open and people are hurting, the gospel movement goes. These two themes “pop up” again and again. In chapter two, the Church is selling possessions to take care of “anyone in need.” In chapter three there’s a lame beggar in need of healing that creates the next bit of drama. In chapter five the sick were being brought out into the streets to see if a healing shadow might fall upon them. In chapter six, the structure of the Church is shaped by the needs of Hellenistic widows.
And on it goes, this narrative, sometimes in response to great need and sometimes in response to great openness. Both of these themes should (and do) shape our missional lives together. Where is there an opening? Where is there suffering? These are the questions the followers of Jesus ask and we answer them collectively, to be sure. But too… aren’t we hopeful that everyone who sits in a sanctuary during Eastertide would be asking, “who needs me?” “Where is the opening for me?”
Dr. Burt Burleson
University Chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Life
Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Tags: sovereignty, synchronicity, mystical knowing, visions, suffering