The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer online      16th August 2020
When the unexpected is unexpected
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 16. 1 – 15
I wonder what news reports from January and February about Covid-19 look like now. Not every expert opinion expressed then will stand up to the scrutiny of actual events. Those early Government briefings have not aged well either. 
Even being prepared for the unexpected, it was not quite the unexpected we told ourselves we weren’t expecting. We’ve had to adapt, constantly. As a church that’s been about looking to our deepest values, our foundational beliefs and our essential activities, adapting them to the circumstances of the day. It’s taught me both to plan and to pray, to prepare and to be prepared to change. It has focussed me, and I hope us as a church, on what is essential and what is simply familiar. Every motivation comes under scrutiny when the unexpected happens. 
In Acts 15 Paul is well into his ministry. He has begun his faithful following of Christ, learnt his Gospel, preached it to his own people the Jews, been led to share it with all peoples, and planted churches especially in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. He’s established a pattern: knowing that he will be blown by the Spirit, once he is led to a place he preaches first to the Jews, and then more widely. He has companions, whom he mentors into leadership. He is ready for danger and hardship. He’s ready, he thinks, for the unexpected. 
And yet, the unexpected he gets in Acts 16 is different again, with challenges even he will not have factored in. Firstly, the companions have to change. He’s been with Barnabas, and Barnabas’s nephew John Mark. But John Mark had left them, and was ever diminished in Paul’s eyes. Barnabas, the encourager, wanted to give him a chance. No, says Paul, and he and Barnabas fall out so much that they never work together again. Thankfully Paul speaks well of both Barnabas and John Mark later, but right now Paul has to look for new colleagues. 
One such is Timothy, probably converted when Paul was previously in his home town. Here’s another challenge. Paul has been scathing about Jewish Christians who want all the baptised also to be circumcised. He refuses to let Titus be circumcised when others demand it. But here the situation demands the opposite. Timothy had been raised in a mixed family but not circumcised. For the sake of the Gospel, so that Timothy will not be prevented from preaching to the Jews, Paul has him circumcised. It’s what’s needed there, where it wasn’t before.   
Paul is also expecting to be going back into familiar territory. Twice in this passage we are told they are actively prevented by the Spirit from doing this. Instead they end up near ancient Troy, in the far west of Asia Minor, at the Dardanelles. They have traversed the whole of modern Turkey. And the call, in a vision, is to cross the Hellespont – but not quite like Leander or Byron - from Asia into Europe. Here begins the planting of the Gospel and the church in modern Greece. New cultures, and different challenges once more. It’s not the unexpected they expected. 
Normally Paul would go to the synagogue first. But there isn’t one in Philippi, presumably because there are not the 10 men required to found one. There are faithful Jewish women there, who have a place of prayer, so that’s where Paul goes instead. The Gospel in Europe starts with Lydia and the women with her. That’s unexpected too. What Paul does know is that where the Spirit is at work it will get controversial and threatening, and it’s not long after that they are beaten up and flung into prison. Read the rest of Acts 16: Paul and Silas take that opportunity too and the new converts in Philippi include their jailer and his family. 
In Acts 15 Paul is established in his ministry, his team and his methods. What he is expecting to do is to review where he’s been, open as he may be to where God might lead. What happens is something utterly different: a new set of companions, a new place for ministry, and new applications of his beliefs and working practices. He does not change his belief in the God who calls, nor in the Gospel he proclaims. But almost everything else has to alter. Because the world does. 
There’s a lovely subtle change in Acts 16. From describing in the third person and using the pronoun “they”, the text suddenly starts using “we”. Almost certainly the author of the travel diary which becomes Acts was one of the new companions Paul took to Europe. I like the use of “we”. In times of radical and unexpected change, we are included. We have new companions. We are prevented from doing what we have got used to. We have new and fresh places of mission. We don’t quite know what will happen next. Our own news report in January 2020 might be a bit embarrassing to look at now!
May the ever creative Spirit of God guide us to bring and to be Good News wherever we are, and whatever has changed, that in all this we may rest on the changelessness of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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