“And so we came to Rome” (Acts 28: 14) The final chapter of Paul’s journeys, according to the Acts of the Apostles, brings him finally to Rome: journey’s end. Whatever else Paul was, he was a great traveler. When I was at school, perhaps aged fourteen, we studied Acts in our religious education class. I didn’t like religion much, but I did love drawing maps, like the ones you can find at the back of a Bible, maps of Asia and Europe, and drawing three lines across them. One line was in red, one in blue and one in yellow, each showing the route of Paul’s three missionary journeys. Paul traveled hundreds of miles, all over Asia Minor and Europe, preaching the Gospel. And the routes he took were very deliberate. He had a very clear idea of where he was going. In chapter 19 of the Acts we read, ‘Paul resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.”’ And that’s exactly what he did. But the significant words in this passage are ‘in the Spirit’. For it was the Spirit of Jesus, his constant companion, who guided him at all times throughout his journeys. I love the story in chapter 16, where Paul is planning to go further into Asia on his preaching mission. He’s all set to go, until, we read, ‘The Holy Spirit forbad them to speak the word in Asia.’ And during the night he had a vision: ‘There stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”’ Macedonia of course is in Europe. Paul changed direction. Instead of heading east, he turned west. He completely changed direction. Maybe Paul remembered that earlier journey he had made to Damascus, and how the Spirit of Jesus had also stopped him in his tracks, and again totally changed the direction of his life. I remember at school poring over the map and imagining Paul arriving at the shores of the Aegean, at Troas. I imagined him staring out across the sea, due west, towards this new continent of Europe, my continent. I wondered how he must have felt. Scared, I think. But he trusted the Spirit of Jesus to guide him; this Jesus who had always been faithful. And for the rest of his life, Paul would trust completely, would place his life time and time again, in the hands of Jesus, his faithful companion.
We have been reading through the Acts of the Apostles at Evening Prayer ever since the end of July. We have heard stories of danger and adventure, and of trust and faith. As we come today to the end of the book, perhaps there is an invitation for us to pause and reflect on our own journey through life; those adventures and dangers, and the experiences of trust and faith which we have known on the way. What has the journey been like for you so far? It is a good idea, on any journey, to pause on the way and take stock. Rather like if you were hiking a mountain, you may reach a plateau on the journey and pause for a while, and look back and see all the places you have hiked through to get you this far. Some of the difficult parts, times you felt like turning back. But you’ve kept going. And then, having reflected on where you have been and what you have learned, you are in a better place to plot the route for the next part of the journey up the mountain. You could see this period we are in now, this pandemic, as a kind of plateau, a kind of flat time. So, it could also be a perfect time to pause and take stock of our lives. What’s the journey been like so far, and what have I learned? And when this flat period is over, how will I go forward again in my life; what route will I take? Call on the Spirit of Jesus.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the story of Paul’s extraordinary journeys, full of adventure and excitement. But we also glimpse another journey, a more profound journey which is taking place within Paul himself. It is a journey which leads him into an ever-growing love for Jesus. The one who first called him so dramatically on the Damascus Road, would never, ever, leave his side. Love was Paul’s guide.
There is a beautiful church in London, where I used to go to pray. Set into the stone floor, right in the center of the church, there is a large compass rose. It has four points, showing north, south, east, and west. Around the circumference of the rose there is a circle. And within the circle, there are engraved some beautiful words of St. Augustine. I used to stare at these words and pray with them, as I tried to chart my own journey through life. The words are: ‘We come to God not by navigation, but by love.’ Paul trusted not in maps, nor in his own enthusiasms, but in an ever-deepening relationship of love with his God. His was a life of pilgrimage, and his loving God was his faithful guide. I would not have ‘navigated’ my way to a monastery.
‘We come to God not by navigation, but by love’. May God guide each one of us through this life, and lead us safely home, to dwell with God forever.
Year A First Evensong of Pentecost 20
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