In this passage from Acts we find Paul receiving a vision from God. This is far from a unique occurrence, as stories of persons responding to a divine summons are nothing new. Earlier in the book of Acts we find Peter being directed by the Spirit of God to go with the representatives from Cornelius (Acts 10:20). As he recounts this story for the leaders in the church in Jerusalem he tells how Cornelius’ men had initially come to Joppa to find him because of a similar summons from God (Acts 11:13). And Paul himself had experienced divine direction, too, most notably in his conversion story (Acts 9) but also in the events immediately preceding what happens in our lectionary account for today.
In Acts 16:6-7, we read that “they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Sometimes God opens doors. Sometimes God closes them.
Paul was already well practiced in following the prompting of the Spirit of God, no matter what the prompting was. So when the man of Macedonia beseeches Paul in his vision, it is not surprising that Scripture records that Paul and his companions “immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (Acts 16:10).”
Around 400 years later, Saint Patrick would also famously respond to a divine vision, summoning him to “Come over… and help us.” After being kidnapped from Britain by Irish marauders and taken to Ireland where he worked as a slave for six years, Patrick escaped and returned to his homeland. He devoted himself to the service of God, studying fervently at places such as Tours and Lérins, and later under the tutelage of Saint Germain. And yet through all of this his thoughts continually turned back to Ireland, from which he would receive visions of the children of Focluth, a village by the Western sea, who beckoned to him, saying, “O holy youth, come back to Ireland, and walk once more amongst us.”
This sort of story, a divine summons to a holy work, can be found throughout church history. In Assisi today one can see the cross of San Damiano, from which Saint Francis heard Jesus calling him to rebuild the church. Whether one believes that account to be true or not, as Christians who believe in the veracity of Scripture we do believe that God speaks through visions, through angels, through His Spirit, and sometimes through things that are seemingly more mundane, like donkeys and maybe even dreams of children in Ireland. And if we believe that God has spoken this way in the past, why would we doubt that God might choose to similarly summon us to His work today?
Beyond believing that God still speaks, we then need to believe that God knows whom to call, and why. One of the gifts each of us is given on our faith journey is the awareness that not only does God love us and redeem us, but that same God has created us in His image and likeness. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, God gives us spiritual gifts in addition to our natural talents and skills. And so when God has work to do in the world, women and men are called and equipped to do that work. We simply have to faithfully respond to that call. When ministry in the church in the world falls short, nine times out of ten it’s because one or two or ten of us have a hard time believing that God would ever, that God could ever, choose us to do something worthwhile and of significance for His Kingdom.
When Paul received the summons from the man of Macedonia, he went. He trusted that God was directing his steps. And, as Acts 16:14-15 tell us, fruit was born from this faithfulness. Lydia and her entire household came to faith in the Lord Jesus and were baptized. Saint John Chrysostom, among others in the Early Church, linked this conversion directly to the faithfulness of Paul to respond to God’s call, with the fruit of conversion a sure sign that God had been guiding and directing the process all along. And yet Paul had to be faithful to go.
This entire section continues to call followers of Jesus to faithful obedience to His word. God never violates our freedom. God asks us to trust Him. He invites us to follow. He presents us with opportunities, and yes, God often puts us in places where His will may be clear, but we clearly have to choose whether to align our will with His or not. As we consider this lesson from Acts 16, may we consider the ways God still calls us, and may we be faithful to respond to that call.