Easter 6 C – Obstacles and opportunities

Paul and his small group of dedicated friends are not yet “The Church”

they have no institutional boundaries – no buildings – no prayer book – no trappings.

They are just a group of people whose lives have been touched by the miracle of Easter –

the life changing reality of Resurrection.

They are eager to share their good news,

but time and time again they seem to be denied the chance.

They were “forbidden to speak” by the Holy Spirit (v 6) in Galatia –

Jesus Spirit kept them from entering Bithynia.

The new horizons in Asia that they had sought have been undeniably closed to them.

Things are not going as well as they might have hoped.

Then their leader has a vision.

A rather ordinary vision, when you think about it.

A resident of Macedonia, calling for help.

No fiery chariots – no blinding lights. No burning bush – no startling signs or symbols.

And suddenly the whole group become

“convinced that God had called [them] to proclaim the good news [in Macedonia]”

There are two outcomes in this passage that demand our attention –

obstacles and opportunities.

They are very closely connected –

they may even be completely dependent on one another.

And if we are attentive, both can lead us to an experience of the Spirit of God.

We are not told what form the “forbidding” takes;

were they struck literally dumb? Voiceless? Inarticulate?

Were they unable to find an audience for their preaching – was their meeting place black-listed?

Whatever may have happened, this isn’t simply a case

of “God closing a door and opening a window”.

We’ve heard that often enough to think it might be some sort of universal truth,

but what happens here in Acts 16 is that Paul and his pals are learning discernment.

There was something at work beyond the regulation of their meetings –

civic authorities had ceased to be obstacles for Jesus followers –

they shared the good news under constant threat of imprisonment –

so there was something else; something Holy at work…

To make the move from disappointment to delight in their new destination

these fellows begin asking one of the fundamental questions of the Christian life;

“Is this from God, or not?”

This is the act of discernment for all of God’s people.

This is the kind of question these travellers ask,

not just because their plans were being thwarted

but because they were seeking something of and for God, rather than themselves.

When opportunities and obstacles collide,

this is the question that helps us make sense of them.

When the road to Asia looks dangerous –

when the words stick in your throat, though the audience seems harmless –

when doors are locked and travel plans disrupted, we have two choices:

we can curse our bad luck, or – in faith – ask “Is this from God, or not?”

We can only ask this question if we are eager to serve God –

the selfish entrepreneur stops for no obstacle –

the plan must be successful – the venture can not fail.

To those in the world, a challenge is simply a reason to try harder,

to aim higher, so that nothing (ultimately) can stand in their way.

Our choices – our faith – demands that we try a different approach.

Probably the most difficult thing about a life of faith

is learning to define failure as “not yet”.

The successful Christian is not necessarily the one who has completed the most projects

who has visited the most mission fields, or preached to the largest crowds

Success for the Christian is learning to apply that question – “is this from God?”

– to every project – every dream – and most importantly, every obstacle.

The freedom to stop and turn around – to accept rejection as merely temporary –

is liberation indeed if we are determined that our actions should reflect faithful living.

It is a freedom that lets us find opportunities

when obstacles turn us aside.

I’m convinced that it was this discerning question

that led to such eager acceptance of Paul’s vision as “the new plan”.

Ultimately, the obstacles that had kept them from Asia were removed

and the Gospel came to Galatia, and Asia, and circled the globe,

not in one seamless, co-ordinated move, but in fits and starts

from obstacle to opportunity – from Paul’s time to our time.

The journey continues today.

The constant appeal to the Spirit –

not standing idly by hoping for a divine nudge in the appropriate direction –

but a sincere questioning of the activities in our lives

is what marks us as people of faith.

The road that we have chosen is full of obstacles – we know that only too well.

But the solution is not more effort – more money – more people or even more faith.

The answer is a thoughtful question – “is this from God” –

and the opportunity is in our listening, eagerly, for God’s response.

Amen

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