Scripture Readings: Acts 16:9–15 | Psalm 67 | Revelation 21:10, & 22–22:5 | John 14:23–29
“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:26-27)
Last week we spent some time looking at the ‘Big Picture’ of God’s love, and how the whole story of God’s salvation is headed towards a New Creation: the restoration and reunion of Heaven and Earth, drawing all peoples and nations together into one family in Jesus Christ.
And today, our reading from Revelation gives us another glimpse of this glorious destination that the LORD is leading us to: a New Jerusalem descending from Heaven where God’s people will dwell with Him forever… where the light and life of God shines out, and flows into all the world… bringing about the healing of the nations, who are all drawn near to share in the joy of God’s eternal reign.
This vision, again, is of the fulfillment of the entire story of God… the culmination of the work of the Risen Christ. But it is not simply about some distant horizon… it’s meant to help us understand our place in the story here and now. N.T. Wright words it well, when he reminds us that “Images of the future are vital to beckon us along the way. But they do more: they work backwards, as it were, towards us, shedding light on our present darkness. Jesus promises a peace which nothing in the present world can provide, a peace which comes from, and points to, God’s future.”
In the light of this ultimate peace which Jesus the Risen Lord will one day bring to complete consummation, we can take heart, and hold on confidently to hope. Even when the world around us seems dark and dangerously off track… when we feel isolated, vulnerable, small, and uncertain of what to do… the Risen Jesus calls us to trust Him. We do not need to be afraid. He sees and knows all that we need. And one day, we who stay true to His love will reign with Him forever.
This all sounds great, this ‘Big Picture’… but how do we get there from where we are today? How are you and I, and our small Parish family here in Gondola Point supposed to play a significant part in bringing this glorious vision to light? How do our ‘little lives’ fit into the ‘Big Picture’ of God’s plans?
What gives me hope is that no matter how ‘Big’ God’s picture and plans may be… and we’re talking BIG… the Living God seems to absolutely love starting small. And our reading today from the Book of Acts affirms this hope.
At this point in the Book of Acts, the author is recounting the second missionary journey of St. Paul the Apostle, whose ministry has been to share the Good News of the Risen Christ far beyond Israel’s borders… both to his fellow Jews, and to Gentiles as well… to those who knew little or nothing at all of the story of the Living God. Paul shared this ministry with a small team committed to this same mission, including at times, our patron, St. Luke, a prophet named Silas, and a younger disciple named Timothy. Together, they’d go from town to town in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, preaching the message of Jesus, gathering those who believed into the first Christian Churches, (which often simply gathered for worship in one another’s homes), before moving on to the next community, to start all over again.
At times Paul would write to these communities, and offer some guidance and direction, and often they would appoint leaders to take care of these brand new Christian Churches, but it’s clear that Paul and the others trusted God Himself to continue to care for His children… to trust that the Holy Spirit would be at work in the midst of these little Churches, just as Jesus had promised: teaching them to follow the ways of Christ that Paul had passed onto them.
Paul could trust God’s Spirit to guide these Churches because time and again, God’s Spirit had guided him… bringing him through all sorts of challenges. But right before our reading today begins, St. Paul and company run into a new problem: they are unsure of where God was leading them next.
A few times, they had started to make plans… good, and God-honouring plans at that… but the doors kept slamming shut in their faces…. by God Himself. Acts 16:6-8 says that “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. [What is now Western Turkey.] When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.” Without a clear plan, Paul and company had to just keep going, and trust that the LORD would make plain what He had in mind for them to do in His time.
How often have we felt like this? Unsure of what God has in store for our lives, or how we are to take part in His ongoing mission. We Christians talk a lot about trusting God, and asking for Him to lead us, but as N.T. Wright puts it, “It’s one thing to trust God’s guidance when it’s actually quite obvious what to do next. It’s something else entirely when you seem to be going on and on up a blind alley.”
Sometimes it’s not just as individuals, but whole Church communities can have these times of uncertainty… of knowing that God has already led us through all sorts of challenges in the past, and has helped us share in many years of faithful ministry… but now we may face a moment when we need a fresh vision of God’s plan for us.
At times like this, it’s easy to feel vulnerable… and small. Like Paul and his Christian companions, seemingly adrift alone in the largely pagan Roman world. But just like them, we too can trust that God is still with us… that His Holy Spirit still guides us in the way of Jesus, the Risen Lord, bringing us His precious peace that the world can’t give.
And as our reading today reminds us, it was in that time of uncertainty that God sends them the guidance they needed. Acts 16:9-10 “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.” 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.”
In His good time, God sends them in an unexpected direction: no longer spreading the Good News in Asia Minor, they were being sent to preach in Macedonia in Europe… to head deeper into the heart of the Greco-Roman world.
What would await them there as they approached the great Greek cities of commerce, culture, and influence? As our passage reminds us today: God seems to love starting small.
Not that Philippi, the city they ended up in, was all that small. We’re told it was a noteworthy community in the area, and a Roman colony to boot: a city with special connections to the Capital… a mini-Rome, meant to spread Rome’s values, culture, and way of life in the conquered lands of the wider world.
And so, Paul and company arrive in Philippi, and “remained in this city for some days.” (Acts 16:12). Typically, when Paul would go to a new city, one of his first stops would be the local synagogue: to first share the Good News about Jesus the Messiah with his fellow Jews in their places of worship… to start with those who at least knew something about the story of God’s saving love.
But this time, we’re told by the narrator, likely St. Luke himself, that “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.” (Acts 16:13). This odd note tells us something significant about Philippi at the time: there likely was no synagogue in the city… no place for Jews and Gentiles who feared God to gather for prayer and worship… except outside the city limits. According to custom, a synagogue needed at least 10 Jewish men, and the gathering that St. Paul attended only mentions women being present… so it seems very likely that the Jewish community in Philippi was just a tiny minority literally on the outskirts of that local society.
This was a very small and vulnerable community of worshippers of the Living God, and it seems really unclear what kind of a difference they could hope to make in their world, aside from seeking to live lives of simple obedience and faithfulness to the LORD. And yet, they were precisely who the Living God had sent Paul and company to see. God had big plans to start His work in Philippi with this small gathering.
The scholar John Rottman points out that “it looks for all the world that God has diverted Paul and Silas to meet with Lydia and her obscure little group of women in Philippi. Notice the trouble to which God goes to initiate this personal meeting between the missionaries and the women’s prayer group that Saturday down by the river. God seems to have diverted the apostle Paul hundreds of miles, to have stopped him from preaching in Asia and from entering Mysia, all so he would be right on time to preach that day to that handful of women down by the river in Philippi.”
And God’s plans were not wasted: a Gentile worshipper of God named Lydia was part of the prayer gathering that day and we’re told “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14). One heart was opened. God led Paul and his fellow missionaries hundreds of miles to start with this one heart He had opened.
God loves to start small, doesn’t He?
Of course, from that small start, that one open heart, things begin to grow. Lydia and her whole household believe the Good News about Jesus and are baptized into the Church, becoming a seed of God’s New Creation taking root in Philippi… a tiny colony of Christ’s Kingdom, spreading God’s life and light in the midst of the Roman Empire.
The story of Paul’s ministry in Philippi goes on from this small beginning, and quickly he encounters resistance, hostility, persecution, as well as surprising new life as the Holy Spirit continues to guide and work through his small life, his small group of friends, and the small Christian family they had been a part of bringing to life.
And this same kind of story has happened, again and again, all throughout the history of God’s people: a handful of people believe the Good News of Jesus, and through their seemingly small lives, God brings Christ’s kingdom to life in our world. The Holy Spirit continues to work in the Church, whether our gatherings are big or small, to draw us into the ‘Big Picture’ and the plans He has for our neighbourhood.
It's easy for us to feel discouraged at times… to let our hearts be troubled when it feels like God’s is absent… our way forward uncertain… and we are too small to make a difference. But God loves starting small! His eyes are on all His children, day and night, and He’s near to all who turn to Him in faith. Like Lydia, the LORD knows us all intimately, and He longs for us all to come to know Him intimately, and to share in His blessed life. For our hearts to be open… for our Parish family, and households, and our little lives to become the seeds of God’s New Creation… sharing the life and light of Christ any way we can.
Next week is Ascension Sunday, when the Risen Lord returns to the right hand of God the Father to reign forever. In two weeks time, we’ll celebrate the story of Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, empowering us to faithfully follow God’s ways in the world.
But today, as we remember our little place in the ‘Big Picture’ of God’s story, let us take to heart the words of Jesus our Lord, especially when we feel small, and unsure of what to do:
“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:26-27).
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 65.
 Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008), 59.
 John M. Rottman, “Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 578.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School