The Poisonwood Bible, a novel, tells the story of Nathan Price and his family. In 1959, Nathan Price, an unabashedly overzealous and paternalistic missionary, goes to the colonial Congo with his wife and four daughters in tow. The story is told from the perspective of his family who range from the hyperactive youngest, to mute and cynical, to similarly zealous. Through their eyes we see the father and husband act without appreciation for the culture, people, or history that shapes this community. He attempts to plant North American vegetables for which there are no pollinators. He attempts to baptize the villagers in a crocodile invested river. He refuses to leave the country as the colonial powers pull out and render him unprotected. His family flees without him, dispersing throughout the world, shaped and haunted by what happened. This is an admittedly bad example of a mission(ary).
If you look in the back of your Bible you very well may see a map labeled “Paul’s Missionary Journeys”. The Bible I use most frequently has four maps. 1)The route taken by the Jewish people fleeing slavery in Egypt—what is called the Exodus, 2) the division of the land of Canaan after it was captured by this same group 3) a map of Palestine in the time of Jesus and 4) and the Apostle Paul’s first, second, and third, missionary journeys.
Of course these maps were added in by Biblical Scholars (or perhaps a covert guerilla cartographer at the printing house) who prepared this particular edition of the translation and compilation of the books that make the Bible. These maps were, of course, not original sketches by Moses or Jesus. Though not originals, their presence would imply either importance or perhaps that this is one of the few geographically interesting things to show—Jesus’ traveling was of course much less notable and stayed pretty close to his ((relatively) uninteresting) home. Jesus’ travels were not nearly as epic as the Exodus which was the flight through the wilderness guided by fire, chased by an army, and fed by heaven bread. Paul’s missionary journeys, however, brought epic journeys back in style. As one following Jesus, how then did Paul get it into his mind to wander the world preaching? And why did this become such a central piece of the New Testament.
Paul may have, in fact, gotten this idea from Jesus. Jesus’ last command to the disciples was go. Though Paul was not with them for this command, he inherited it when he dramatically joined the community. Jesus said, get up out of here—go. The passage at the end of the gospel of Matthew reads.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In what is called the Great Commission, Jesus says, “go!” Jesus had spent his relatively limited time in ministry—3 years—in a relatively limited area with a relatively limited range of people doing a relatively limited (if notable) number of things. Of course, Jesus was “going from town to town.” He went up and down but this was still rather limited in range. This makes it perhaps even more interesting that his final teaching includes the imperative to “go.”
The missionary journeys of Paul (which included companions at most points) are the nearly immediate response to this command to go. At the coming of the Holy Spirit with the departure of Jesus, the Spirit—like some sort of wild fire—started jumping the boundaries.
We drop-in part way through trip # 2 of 3. In the last verses of the chapter before ours Paul and Barnabas have a difference of opinion and part ways. In chapter 16 “Paul[a] went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy,”
Timothy’s mother was a Jewish Christian but his father was a Greek. Interestingly, even though it was decided a chapter earlier in the Jerusalem council, that the Jewish requirement of circumcision was not a requirement for being a Christian, Paul has Timothy circumcised so as to create fewer obstacles for Jews to follow Jesus.
So with Timothy, Paul went through region of Phrygia and Galatia. The reason stated was that they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.
Then, when opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia. But again were prevented, it says but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.
Note that they passed through a particular region because the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word. And then in the next verse the “Spirit of Jesus” didn’t allow them to enter another place. I find this baffling. Presumably it is not that Asia or Bithynia were not worthy of Paul’s preaching. Perhaps then it was a strategic move? Paul, even though an Apostle (which, admittedly, sounds pretty impressive), can only do so much. This also opens many other questions. A basic question is; what is the purpose of this text? Is it an historical account or guidance in mission or church growth? To this I am going to say it is the telling the story of the early church theologically to demonstrate the moving of God in the community following the departure of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke, which is part 1 of a two part work, Luke-Acts opens with the explanation—that the writer, after careful research, wrote an account “so that you [Theophilus] may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
So we continue along with them on this trip. [Are these towns useful to look at or is it simply tidbits of a travel log that is interesting and perhaps gives a little context?]
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.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[c] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
After being stopped and redirected and silenced Paul experiences a vision of a man from Macedonia calling them to come. They immediately redirect their course. Stay a few days. And a church is started. This church is initiated by a business woman—Lydia—who is herself and has her household baptized. This is all very matter-of-factly stated. Following the vision and radical shift in direction Paul and Tim seem to just hang around waiting for the Sabbath. Though they received direct communication (from God) about the region it is left to their going to the place where they “supposed there was a place of prayer.”
So where does all this get us? Earlier I proposed that the purpose of this book is the telling the story of the early church theologically to demonstrate the moving of God in the community following the departure of Jesus. As such it is in part an account of what happened and in part a resource to guide us as a church. Since we have already covered the telling we will now turn to a few things this passage points towards.
- Outward mission defines the church
Think back to the four maps. In part the inclusion of these is the decision of scholars but it also indicates core events that are seen as central from a reading of the Bible. The Exodus was a central act of God’s provision and liberation for the people of Israel. Major religious holidays commemorate this. Similarly, Paul’s missionary journeys are a central narrative of the early rapid expansion of the church outside of Jesus’ home environs. As noted this was at least in part fueled or spurred on by Jesus last command to Go and make disciples. At the coming of the Spirit and then external threats the disciples scattered preaching wherever they went.
In the last few years the recognition of this outwardness as a central characteristic has been elaborated as the paradigm of church as missional. Outward mission defines the church.
- If outward mission defines the church then we need to go.
Outward mission defines the church, not because there is some faddish American(?) church strategy that has recognized this but because this outward-ness can been seen as the pattern in the New Testament.
This does not, of course, assume we need to go everywhere or do everything. Remember the limitation on Paul and Timothy. At several points they were restrained, pulled back, or redirected by God. While possible we will experience such immediate direction, it is more likely that we will need to rely on the less certain process of discerning in the gathered body.
Since outward mission defines the church then we need to go.
- When we go we will need to invite, talk, serve, make peace, seek justice—Washington City Church of the Brethren has defined our ministry as this, “Seeking Justice, Wholeness, and Community through the Gospel of Jesus.”
The Church—this particular body—is not a social club, not simply a nice place to be, nor a historic building, not a social service center or a strangely timed weekly concert. We have a mission—are a mission, a people on the move. We are “Seeking Justice, Wholeness, and Community through the Gospel of Jesus.” This pushes us out into our community—outside of ourselves.