When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.
When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the believers and stayed with them for one day. The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy. While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.”
We continue our journey with Paul as he and his companions wend their way across a corner of the ancient world. There are ships to find, cargoes to unload, winds to wait for, greetings and farewells. In all the journeys described here cover something like 500 miles. The places mentioned are a mixture of the significant and the less important; a glimpse of the ancient map of power and economics, learning and empires. Cos had a famous medical school and was the centre of Jewish life in the Aegean. Tyre was a gateway trading port into the Roman province of Syria. Caesarea was the centre for Roman administration of Judea.
It seems Paul is revisiting communities of Christians he knows. At least twice earlier in Acts Paul is in Caesarea (9:30; 18:22) and he would probably have used Ptolemais as a stop-over (11:30; 12:25; 15:3). We glimpse something of the fledgling churches that are emerging in these places so that the party are welcomed into believers’ homes, prayer and worship are offered, news and teaching shared. It seems, if we have the chronology and names right, that the Philip mentioned in our passage is the one who settles in Caesarea some twenty years earlier (8:4).
What can we, so long after, discover in these snippets of a travel journal?
We see the gentle outworking of the reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus alerts us to in parables of a mustard seed and yeast growing; a small beginning that, invisibly at first, transforms with abundance (Luke 13:18 – 21). Here are the first fruits of the followers of Jesus; Easter and Pentecost becoming communities of hopefulness. Here is witness happening. The beginnings are small, practically invisible and often unnoticed amidst the hubbub of the surrounding society. But God is changing the world as these women and men, largely nameless now, meet and pray and become the Church. This is our task too. We, now, are weaving together our networks of Christian relationship and care; mutual prayerfulness and hospitality flowing from each of our lives and every one of our congregations. Never doubt how much God does as even one or two faithfully gather and learn to be disciples.
Never doubt, as well, the risk and cost. The partings are bitter and filled with foreboding. Paul is heading into the storm. Agabus echoes Jesus’ predictions of the cross as he confronts Paul. God calls us to faith in a world of risk. Sisters and brothers across the world and throughout history give up their all in obedience to the call. We need to hold them in our prayers. More. We need faith profound and vibrant enough to drive us to take up whatever cross comes our way for God’s sake.
God of wanderers and wonderers, of dreamers and schemers, of ancient travellers and tomorrow’s companions, guide our journeys today. Bless us with grace and gentleness, with foresight and fortitude. Carry us onwards with you, into your future, as the friends of Jesus and the company of your Spirit. Amen.
The Revd Neil Thorogood is Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge and member of Bar Hill LEP.