You know, sometimes life is just frustrating, isn’t it? Are we all familiar with that emotion, frustration? Maybe there are frustrating people in your life. Maybe you’re the frustrating person in someone else’s life – I know I am! Maybe you’ve had this experience-maybe at some point, you had this whole plan or a destination you were aiming for, but it seemed like the world or the people around you were actively working to keep you from getting there?
Maybe sometime in the past, you tried to go on a family trip, but it didn’t work out well-too many arguments, too many wrong turns, you forgot half of your bags at home. Maybe you had a goal of advancing in your career, but promotions always seem to go to someone else. Maybe you wanted to further your education or take classes for certification or licensing in some area, but no place would accept you and doors keep closing in your face.
I think this is the kind of thing Paul and his traveling companions experience in our reading from Acts today.
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit kept them from speaking the word in the province of Asia. When they approached the province of Mysia, they tried to enter the province of Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them. Passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas instead.A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days.On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us. (Acts 16:6-15, CEB)
So we have something strange here. Did you catch it? Paul and his traveling companions are on the second missionary journey, trying to spread the Gospel around Asia Minor-what’s now known as Turkey. But there’s something off here. The Holy Spirit is
The Holy Spirit is keeping Paul and company from spreading the Gospel. Weird.
They try going to Galatia – no. They move on to Phrygia – nope! Maybe if we go up north to Bithynia – not that way either? Maybe if we go east to Troas?
So we have this new image of the Holy Spirit here. We might know the Holy Spirit as our Advocate, our Comforter, our Sustainer. But here, in this story, it’s more like the Spirit of Frustration, right? They try to go to one place, and they can’t. They change directions…nope, not there either. The Holy, Frustrating, Disturbing Spirit. It’s a new image, right?
What we have in this story is an image of what happens when the Holy Spirit is in charge of our work, our mission, directing us to the right place, and barring off the wrong places. The Spirit directed Paul and his companions where to go, the Spirit showed them where the Kingdom of God is already at work, the Spirit frustrated every option until Paul and his crew had no other option except to follow the Spirit.
You heard how the story went-Paul had a dream of a man from Macedonia – a region that included modern-day Greece – begging them to come help them in Macedonia. So Paul and his crew follow this prompting, after being frustrated by the Spirit at every other step. They go to Philippi, in what we now know as Greece. A woman named Lydia hears and embraces their message about Jesus. She’s baptized, and most scholars say that she started a house church there in Philippi, the same house church that probably received Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we have later in the New Testament. None of that would have happened without this holy, frustrating, disturbing Spirit, blocking the wrong paths and guiding them on this crazy journey to Philippi.
In a way, this story is similar to the story of St. Patrick, if I can jump forward a few centuries in the history of Christianity. We all know about St. Patrick’s Day. And most of us probably know that it wasn’t originally just a day to party and be surprised at the number of people around you who claim to be Irish. Originally, it was a day set aside by the Catholic Church to celebrate the man St. Patrick.
Patrick was born in Britain, or what we now know as Britain, in 387 A.D. At age 16, he was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates and was taken to Ireland to work as a slave, herding and tending sheep. He was enslaved in Ireland for 6 years.
Eventually, he escaped captivity and returned to Britain. So he’s all safe and back at home, right? But a few years after he returned home, he started to have a recurring dream in which people from Ireland, the region of his enslavement, were calling him to come back. Patrick had just escaped enslavement there! How could he go back?! But this frustrating and disturbing Spirit, the same one in our story from Acts today, called Patrick back to Ireland. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary and ended up planting over 300 churches and baptized over 100,000 Irish people.
Just as he got home and was settling back in, the Holy Spirit called Patrick back to Ireland. Patrick wasn’t in charge of anything. This was all the work of this holy, frustrating, disturbing Spirit.
Think back to our story from Acts. The Holy Spirit is using Paul and his crew to spread good news and new life around the Roman Empire. But while that’s happening, the Holy Spirit is also working within them-breaking down any of their preconceived notions and wiping away whatever plans they had for their life.
The Holy Spirit is disturbing and frustrating them. I almost hear the Spirit saying “I’m going to show you what the kin-dom of God is going to look like. I’m going to show you how it’s going to be spread. I’m going to show you who will be in this kin-dom. You don’t decide any of that.
The Holy Spirit frustrates us, disturbs us, and works to wipe away all of our prejudices, preconceived notions, and our own plans so that the mission of God can win out.
The truth is, if we were in charge of the mission, then the church would’ve died out a long time ago. If Christianity was a car and we were in the driver’s seat, it would have crashed and burned a long time ago. I thank God every day that I’m not actually in control of this thing called church.
But the problem is…we keep trying to take control away from the Spirit.
Think of our Community Outreach Center that we recently finished a little over a month ago. Let’s be honest-it took a lot more money and lot more time than any of us were expecting. Now, that could very well have been due to human error and human mistakes. It happens all the time. But it could also be at least partially due to the Holy Spirit disturbing and frustrating us as a church. Maybe it’s a lesson that we are not really in control of the ministry of this church. We try to be. But we’re not really.
Now the Community Outreach Center is finished. All the bills are paid, all the inspections are passed. We’re working to put together a Board of Directors for the Center who will do the work of setting the policy and lay the groundwork for us to expand our ministry. Then our Lay Leadership Committee will choose a Director who will work with the Board to manage the ministry we do in our Community Outreach Center. Our youth are already using the building, our monthly food pantry is already using the building.
I believe the Holy Spirit has more disturbing and frustrating to do through our work in the Community Outreach Center. As we open our doors wider and wider to our community, as we start new ministries and engage more and more in service to our community, we’ll start to reach people and attract people who are not like us, who don’t really know this church or how we do anything here, who may or may not know God or Jesus at all. And that’s frustrating. “Why can’t they be like us? Why can’t they believe like we do? Why can’t we just keep doing everything the same way we’ve always done it and expect new people to just go along with it?”
The Holy Spirit frustrates us and disturbs us to push us into new territory and new ministry, places we wouldn’t go on our own, people we wouldn’t go near if we had a choice. But we are not in control of the ministry of this church.
The Holy Spirit frustrates and disturbs us to show us that it’s not about what we want to do, where we want to go, who we want to be in ministry with.
It’s about the mission God has for us.
So my question for you is this: How is the Holy Spirit frustrating and disturbing you? Where is the Spirit directing you? Is there somewhere you feel you should go or someone you feel you should talk to, but you don’t want to? How is the Holy Spirit disturbing and frustrating you?
In the story from Acts, like I said earlier, the group of women Paul meets, and especially Lydia, start the first church in Philippi, most likely in Lydia’s house and led by Lydia. And things go well there. If you read Philippians, Paul’s letter that’s most likely written to this same church, it’s overflowing with joy about Paul’s love for this church.
All of this happened because Paul had been frustrated and disturbed by the Holy Spirit. He gave up control of his mission, and he let the Holy Spirit direct his steps.
If that’s what happened when Paul and his small crew did that, what would happen if this whole church did something like that? Could you imagine the good we could do in this community, with the people in our village, if we would just pay attention to how the Holy Spirit is frustrating and disturbing us?