May 22, 2022
Rev. Brent Gundlah

There is no “I” in “team.”

Anyone who’s ever belonged to any kind of organization has probably heard this line before. From a purely linguistic standpoint, it’s accurate — the letter “I” isn’t actually in the word “team” — but we all know that this really isn’t the point of the saying.

Truth be told, any group of people assembled to do absolutely anything is made up entirely of “I”s, and so the true significance of this little pearl of wisdom resides in its challenge to put aside my ego — my own collection of biases and priorities, my understanding of the way things are, what I perceive of as being good or beneficial for me — in the interest of a greater good. Let’s be honest: everyone needs to be reminded of this every now and then — even an Apostle like Paul.

As today’s reading from Acts begins, Paul is a bit frustrated. He’s just had a falling out with his traveling companion, Barnabas, and the two have decided to go their separate ways. Paul has enlisted a new disciple named Timothy to help him spread the gospel but, after some initial success, they just can’t seem to get anywhere — and it appears to be all God’s fault.

You see, Paul and his companions have recently had some false starts; the verses directly before today’s text tell us that they had “been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” and that “when they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Paul seems to be having some trouble with this whole “Not my will but thine” thing, with the idea that God sometimes calls us to go to certain places when we’re inclined to go to others.

It’s kind of hard to understand without looking at a map with all of these places on it, but this game of “don’t go this way, go that way,” that Paul and God seem to be playing has literally pushed Paul to the end of the world as he knows it.

Basically, Paul plans to go East as the Holy Spirit keeps nudging him West. Today Paul and company find themselves in the port city of Troas — and they can’t actually go any further West without falling into the Aegean Sea.

This had to be incredibly frustrating for Paul. Everywhere he wants to go to preach and teach the good news, he runs right into a divine roadblock. Paul must have wondered why God didn’t want him to visit all of the places he hoped to visit; Paul must have asked, “For crying out loud, God: where do you want me to go and what do you want me to do?” 

And then Paul has a dream in which he’s visited by a strange man from Macedonia who asks for his help. Visions, as we know, are a big part of the Bible story, and so maybe we should be open to the possibility of them happening even today. I myself have never had one, but I do often yearn for the kind of clear instructions that Paul gets from God here, a voice that points out exactly which path to follow. It would be so much easier than having to do the work of discerning it.

The mysterious Macedonian arrives with a new itinerary for Paul and friends; instead of heading-off to Asia as originally planned, they set sail for Macedonia in Europe and end up in the city of Philippi. There, in a seemingly chance encounter, Paul’s entourage meets a group of women who are praying by the river’s edge, including “a certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God,” who seems to be doing some seeking of her own. 

Though Paul’s vision clearly led him to Macedonia in order to spread the Gospel, what happens next probably isn’t exactly what he had in mind.

Philippi was, by all accounts, a pretty nice place to live. It definitely wasn’t the biggest city around, but its location along the imperial trade route known as the Via Egnatia made it an affluent and cosmopolitan one. The Roman Emperor, Octavian, had also designated Philippi as a retirement community for his army officers. Philippi was a town full of fairly well-of and powerful men, who would have been desirable converts for any new church to have. But Paul doesn’t cross paths with them; instead, he finds himself face to face with Lydia.

She is a successful merchant dealing in purple cloth, which was the fashion choice for the rich and famous back then. But Lydia also happens to be a single woman who was born a Gentile, and it would have been scandalous for a devout Pharisee like Paul to be seen interacting with such a person.

Yet she’s the one Paul finds praying with a group of other women just outside of the city walls. This was not the typical bunch of men in a synagogue that Paul had grown used to interacting with in his travels and Lydia probably isn’t exactly the worshipper that Paul was hoping to find but, hey, that’s the way God works sometimes.

Looking at it from Lydia’s perspective, I doubt that she woke up that morning thinking, “Hey, I think I’ll go wait down by the river for Paul to show up — you know, Paul — the one who’s going to spread Christianity throughout the world. Yet, for whatever reason, Paul, the unlikeliest of apostles, and Lydia, the unexpected convert, end up meeting right here at the river’s edge. Go figure.

It boggles the mind to contemplate all the events that have transpired to this point, to consider all of the things that had to come together for these two people to cross paths in this particular time and place. Maybe it happened purely by chance, but Paul, Lydia and Luke (who actually chose to tell this story here) don’t seem to believe that it has.

Paul and his companions are convinced that God’s Holy Spirit has called them to proclaim the news to the Macedonians — and to these particular Macedonians at that. Lydia’s heart is opened by the Lord “to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  In fact, she is so changed by all of this that she has her entire household baptized, and opens her home in Philippi to Paul and his companions.

The Philippian church that began on the riverbank that day would become a cornerstone of Paul’s work. It seems that from the most ordinary encounters can spring the most extraordinary things. And just think about this: If Paul had actually gone where he’d wanted to go and done what he’d wanted to do, none of it ever happens.

God works in diverse and mysterious ways. And incredible things seem to happen here when God brings people together:

Paul has a vision, but he and his disciples interpret its meaning together; led by the Holy Spirit; they decide to bring the good news to other groups of people.

Lydia’s heart is opened to God, but also to the power of community: she prays with the group of women; she listens to Paul and shares her faith with her entire household; she invites Paul and the other disciples into that household; she becomes a leader of the new church in Philippi. 

It is no accident that Luke uses the words “we” and “us” so often throughout this passage (eleven times, to be precise). There is no “I” in “team,” and there is no “I” in “faith” either — okay, there actually is an “I” in “faith,” but you get the point.

God might not actually prescribe or dictate our each and every move on life’s journey, but God does guide us — often in mysterious ways — towards companions with whom to take that journey. We may not ever get a clear vision like Paul did, telling us exactly where to go and what to do; in fact, discerning what God is calling us towards requires a lot of work and a good deal of patience on our part. Sometimes God makes us wait, and sometimes God leads us in difficult directions that we’d neither hoped nor planned to go — I’ll be darned if I know why.

Mostly, we need to be mindful of and open to all of the people that God chooses to place in our path — friends and strangers, people we like and people we don’t like, people with whom we have a lot in common and people with whom we don’t seem to share much at all — for together we are called to discern God’s truth and, who knows, perhaps even to change the world. 

So, who has God placed in your path?