The Gospel Happens Offstage

I'm being too critical lately, and not preaching gospel enough. It's wrecking me. There are stupid ways to be intelligent, and I'm engaging in them. So let's see if we can't shift the path I'm on just a little.

In this week's reading from Acts 16, God has maneuvered Paul and company into a corner of sorts. And when they get there, there's a message. Kind of a "Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope" kind of thing. So, straight away, and as directly as possible, they cross the Aegean from Asia Minor to Macedonia, and wind up at Philippi.

This is a key Roman city, a colony founded anew by Octavian on the site founded by Phillip II of Macedon. And it served the same functions for both states: control of trade on a main route, and access to vital resources in nearby mines. A place directly under the thumb of Roman governance, as only a flower in the emperor's lapel could be. A place with a lot of trade going on, since it's on the main road for anything going between Byzantium and Rome overland, and right next to the port at Neapolis.

Not a Judean place. A fact made more evident by our protagonists having to seek outside the walls for a proseuchē at which to worship on the Sabbath. But certainly a place with Judeans in it, as made evident by the fact that they found one! And not ethnic Judeans only, but Gentile "God-fearers" too. A living and active community.

Now, how Paul and Silas wind up at what looks at first glance like an "all-girls retreat" by the river is another question, but the author of Acts doesn't bat an eye at it. There are things I love about the ancient Hellenistic world, and this is one of them. We didn't invent female empowerment. A congregation of faithful women and their households, meeting for their regular Sabbath prayers, when Paul and Silas arrived visiting. And as visiting missionaries and teachers, they did their jobs, same as always. And one of the God-fearers, Lydia of Thyatira, by all indications an influential trader and the head of her household here in Macedonia—my guess, holding down one end of the family business—is moved to be baptized. She is, in fact, from the region they had just left in Asia Minor, and she invites the apostles to be her guests there in Macedonia. (Small world, eh?)

Now, this little story gets interrupted, because the narrator proceeds to jump back in time and explain a story that winds up with Paul and Silas beaten and imprisoned for unlawful restraint of trade instead, all because they cast out a demon on the way to the proseuchē. So this little popular bench trial and sentencing happens after the service, and Paul and Silas don't get to take Lydia up on her offer of hospitality right off. On the other hand, in the middle of being housed on the state's dime, they do get dinner with the works following the conversion and baptism of their warden and his household. (That, of course, takes a miracle … and a freakout, and an aborted suicide attempt—unlike Lydia, who was already practically Judean, and was convinced by simply listening to them teach.) And, after the fact, once they've made a little sport of the kangaroo court that imprisoned them in the first place, they still don't get to take Lydia up on her offer—possibly because it's just not wise to stick around. So they schlep on down the road to Thessalonika.

What's the story, here? It's hard to imagine that this is the help they were sent to Macedonia to provide. That must have happened on the weekdays between their arrival and the Sabbath, but the narration leaves us with little to go on. It happens offstage. And where's the gospel? There's a placeholder for it, in that we know that Lydia hears something, by the grace of the Spirit, that moves her to further commitment to the inclusive God of Israel. But it, too, happens offstage. And otherwise this is, like so much of the rest of Acts, a travellogue about God working through human means to spread the gospel in spite of obstacles. The chess-playing moves of the Spirit bear fruit in conversions stimulated or aided by the apostolic presence and actions.

But it isn't those apostolic actions, or that apostolic presence, that make the difference. It isn't the human actions onstage that matter most. God chooses to use them, certainly. But, in each case, it is God acting directly, God onstage in person, that creates the receptivity that produces conversion and trust in God. We are tools in the hands of a God who has all things well in hand. However we come together or part ways, whatever company we keep in our travels, wherever our part in the story begins, whatever happens to us en route, and wherever our part in the story ends, we are tools in the hands of a God who has all things well in hand. It is not up to us to make sure that the church grows, to see to its future, to worry obsessively over our demographics. By the gracious provision of God, these things will be taken care of. It is only up to us to respond to the moving of the Spirit of God, who in fact is moving us even in spite of ourselves, reforming us into trust in God, and shaping in us even the ability to respond.

It is the presence of God in Spirit, the real and powerful reality of God at work both onstage and off, that is the gospel here. It is nothing you have to do. And it is part of everything you will ever do. Amen. Thanks be to God!

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