6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’
At Jesus’s ascension in the beginning of Acts Jesus tells the disciples that they will be witnesses to the ends of the earth. If this is the case then why keep them from going into Asia?
I have not spent enough time in biblical geography and so the imagery of this passage was not immediately apparent. In the larger narrative Paul is travelling West from Israel through modern day Turkey.
And then it says that they simply passed through Phyrgia and Galatia where the Spirit prevented them from speaking. After this Paul and Silas attempted to turn north or even curl back northeast into Bithynia but again they were not allowed by the Spirit. The imagery on a map is of Paul wanting to veer north or northeast. After being denied entry Paul gets a vision of someone from Macedonia calling for help. Macedonia is west. This short passage is indeed historic. Paul crosses over with the Gospel into what is modern day Europe.
There are two implications to this story that I want to draw out. The first is that contrary to the overwhelming weight of church history we are not simply called to preach the gospel to all places at every given opportunity. Paul was to pass through in silence and pass by completely areas of Asia.
For centuries the church has believed it is literally God’s gift to all people and the church approached new lands and new people unable to learn when to be quiet and when to acknowledge truth that did not come from our tradition.
This posture of superiority was not only evident in the church but with Christian culture in general as it emerged in the West right up into secular modernity, today seen in our general suspicions of Islam or prejudices against various indigenous forms of knowledge. We as Christians have developed an incredible capacity to think we are better than others.
This reminded me of song I listened to years ago when I was attending Bible college. The song was by the David Bazan. Bazan was a sort of marginal character who wrote about the church and religious themes but never completely fit within the more mainstream expressions of Christian music.
One song is about a conversation between a Christian and non-Christian. The song culminates with the following lines,
You were too busy steering the conversation towards the Lord
To hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut up
You thought it must be the devil trying to make you go astray
Besides it could not have been the Lord because you know he doesn’t talk that way
Now ironically I had to clean up the language in those lines because indeed we don’t believe the Lord does talk that way. We feel we already know the limits of what God would and would not say.
Now I know many of us in this congregation are not interested in talking to strangers about Jesus but the point remains that too often we think we know in advance what is right for other people. Just think about casual conversations around various social issues. Boy, if only everyone would smarten up and just do what I think is best.
Many of us have become overconfident in our opinions, unable to listen and hear the voice of the Spirit telling us, as he did Paul, to, you know, be quiet. For many people no news is good news if we can learn to be attentive to the times when the Spirit is just telling us to listen.
But Paul’s journey is not stopped completely. He doesn’t simply pack things up and call it day. So what is it then that redirects this journey? Can we discern something of what the gospel is in this transition? Perhaps we can say that the gospel only exists when it is an appropriate response to those in need of help, when it actually comes as good news. Paul receives a vision of a man from Macedonia who calls for them to come over and help them.
Now we would do well to be a little skeptical of placing too much weight on this individual vision. In fact early European missionaries to modern day Massachusetts used those exact words, ‘come over and help us’ and put them into the mouth of an indigenous person on the official seal of their colony. We need to take great care in how we think we hear and perceive the need for help. And so the words from this vision, the call for help, can only make sense within the larger context of this passage.
The move away from Asia is a move towards Rome. In the same way that the life of Jesus was ultimately turned towards Jerusalem so too the early journeys of the gospel became bent towards Rome. It was in turning towards these places that the gospel could address those powers that claimed sovereignty and control over others. It seems then that the gospel is drawn to the places where claims to power are concentrated and where they are most often abused.
We are given confirmation of such a reading as this chapter unfolds. First we are told that Paul and Silas end up in Phillipi which we are then told is a leading city in the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. This is the only instance of the word ‘colony’ in the New Testament. It is a Latin word, a Roman word, which is here transcribed into Greek.
Colonization is an ongoing process of control by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and all that is in it including people and resources. The church has its own history of colonization but it did not invent the practice. Rome established colonies to maintain control over their interests which meant that a colony could be employed in military conflicts, contribute financial and material resources, and spread Roman culture and language.
The gospel appears to be setting its course into the territory of colonial powers. To use contemporary language we might say that the message of the gospel is a decolonizing. To decolonize is to undo the process and reject the forces by which foreign powers can simply enter, inhabit, and control the people, spaces, and resources of a given place.
But am I stretching the text too far in suggesting that gospel is a decolonizing force? The two examples immediately following Paul’s change of course indicate that this understanding is not far off. After Paul and Silas reach Macedonia we find the story of two women. Women of course representing the population that were most under control by domestic and political powers.
The first image is one of welcome and confirmation. It was not a religious or political leader and not even a man who first recognizes and receives Paul’s message but a woman. She appeared to be in a position to understand the significance of this message. There is confirmation among the local people that this message is valued.
It is the second image that gives a clearer image of the work of the gospel in this new land. Paul and Silas meet a slave-girl who was possessed by a local spirit and able to predict the future. Her masters were able to profit from her ability. When she encountered Paul and Silas she proclaimed that they were not slave to anyone but served the most high God and had a message of deliverance. The woman continually spoke about this until Paul commanded that the spirit leave her.
The woman’s masters immediately knew the economic implications of this act. Their resource was now depleted and they seized Paul and Silas and brought him to the police. And so before the authorities these slave owners announce, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
The message of the gospel disturbed the order of the colony and went against the law of the colonizers. The gospel directly confronted how we use and control others for our own gain and security.
Now to be clear as the Book of Acts and the early church unfolds the message of the gospel takes on all sorts of shapes and forms. But in the midst of conversations about what the gospel is we should not forget this pivotal section in its early movement. In the same way that Jesus’s life drew him towards Jerusalem because of his commitment to justice and care for the vulnerable so too the gospel drew Paul away from some places and turned him towards Rome.
So where is the gospel turning us? The gospel is not a message we bring. The gospel emerges from a spirit that compels us. A spirit that compels us sometimes to be quiet so that we ourselves can hear the gospel from the mouth of another, from the mouth of a stranger, even if those words make us feel uncomfortable or defensive. It compels us to be quiet to remind us that we do not possess the gospel, we do not possess the truth. We are not masters of the gospel. We are not colonizers of the gospel. The spirit compels us to be quiet and listen so that we might learn what is life giving and that we might repent from what was harmful.
And the gospel emerges from a spirit that compels us to speak. Compels us to at least name the powers that confine and abuse life even if we don’t know how to change things.
But as we leave here I want to think about how the spirit might be compelling you. A crucial piece of discerning the movement of the spirit is to understand your place in the midst of the powers. As a healthy straight white male I needed to recognize that the powers established in North American culture have been tailored to fit me.
In light of this reality and even with good intentions I need to practice restraint and silence in many areas, to be sure that I hear and am attentive to communities and individuals who are discriminated against. As with Paul there may be times when I need to simply pass through in silence because I have no right to speak into particular situations.
Prominent lawyer and activist Murray Sinclair has asked churches if they can acknowledge the equal validity of traditional indigenous spirituality alongside Christian spirituality. We cannot begin to speak about this question until we have spent a great of time in silence listening and reflecting.
In which of your present situations do you need to simply learn to be quiet?
For some of you it will be a rising urge to speak. Sometimes we think we are honouring our faith by being humble and suffering in silence, that it is our cross to bear, but that is not the image of the woman enslaved in our story. She cried out that here was a message of deliverance.
No doubt this woman’s words were awkward, uncomfortable, and even offensive to others (certainly to her masters) but she recognized the power of the gospel and would not be silenced.
More and more women in the church are beginning to break the silence of experiences of abuse and harassment that happen at the hands of church leaders and within church walls. We need to encourage such voices.
In which of your present situations do you need to find the strength to speak out?
May the church be a place where the spirit compels us; strengthening some voices while restraining others; that the spirit would compel us in courage and humility so that any message that comes from our midst would indeed be good news.