In the Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel which we’re reading from these days, the disciples seem stunned by the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They don’t know what to do and hardly know what to say. All they seem to hear is Jesus announcing his death. He is leaving and they seem frozen by the thought.
“I have a lot to say to you, but you cannot bear it now,” Jesus says to them. The Lord recognizes the paralysis that’s come upon them.
In our readings from the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples led by Paul, seem quite different. They don’t have a clear picture or plan before them; they’re entering a brand new world, but they’re brave and bold about it. Even though the scriptures say the Spirit is directing them, they’re also deciding themselves what they’re going to do, and they don’t seem overly constrained by caution or doubt.
The list of places they go to may not make much of an impression on us, but if we listen carefully it’s an impressive list. Psidian Antioch, Philippi, Athens, Corinth. Three of those places were important Roman colonies, strategic cities on the Roman grid, steps on the road to Rome itself. Athens, of course, was a key intellectual center of the empire, though maybe a little down-trodden when Paul got there.
You can see in his choice of places to go that Paul knows where he’s going. He’s using his talents and all his abilities. He taking advantage of every opportunity he can.
And so he meets Lydia by the river, the trader in purple dyes, and she and her house were baptized. Was her house, like the house of Cornelius, among the first of the gentile house churches? You wonder where did she bring the gospel? Priscilla and Acquila, the two Jews that Claudius expelled from Rome during the Jewish riots of AD 42, what part did they play in bringing the gospel with Paul to the heart of the empire? Paul knew that people were important in the spread of the gospel and he included them in his mission.
The Acts of the Apostles may seem like a well-staged campaign, but it is filled with one surprise after another. An earthquake brings a jailor and his family to the gospel and sends Paul off to Athens. Even prisons and beatings and clamoring mobs serve the spread of the gospel. (Acts 16,22-34)
Maybe it’s good that we read these two scriptures together. The Acts of the Apostles tell of a church that is on its way to the ends of the earth, and so it is. We have to use our own minds and talents and utilize every opportunity to help it achieve its mission.
The Farewell Discourse tells us that sometimes we can’t see beyond death and so become paralyzed in our thinking and acting. But it also says that what we think is an end may only be a beginning.