Acts 25:6-12

7th Sunday of Easter

St Barbara’s; 12.05.2024

Rev Jeremy Bevan

Are you one of life’s planners? Or happier to let it take you where it will? The apostle Paul, as the writer Luke portrays him in Acts, looks at first glance like the archetypal planner, criss-crossing the Roman world in an organised campaign to spread the good news of life transformed by the risen Jesus.

But there’s a lot of happenstance in there too: conversations with anyone who’ll listen in Athens; being forced to leave places earlier than planned when the atmosphere turns ugly; in trouble with the law through no fault of his own. In the events leading up to our Acts 25 reading just now, things have gone pear-shaped following Paul’s return to Jerusalem. There was a riot; he was nearly killed; arrested, he was then the intended victim of an assassination plot; and now he stands before the Roman governor, unsure how things will unfold.

Whatever Paul’s take on his life was, Luke has no doubt that God has purposes, and Paul is part of them. Again and again in Acts, Paul declares that God has told him to take the good news of Jesus to non-Jewish people, the Gentiles, fulfilling the commission Jesus gives in Acts chapter 1 to take his message from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.

I wonder what sense we have, if any, of our part of God’s purposes? Can we put it in ten words? Some people will tell you that God has a definite plan for their life. But it seems to me that God’s purposes for us don’t often fall from the sky, with a route from “Start” to “Finish” clearly marked in blue like a celestial version of Google maps. They can be quite vague, as “Go to the Gentiles” probably seemed to Paul. And they don’t have to be grand. A 17th century French monk called Brother Lawrence wrote a wonderful little book, still popular today, about his part in God’s purposes, which was simply this: working in the monastery kitchen, “giving his all for God” (that’s ten words, by the way).

But what happens when God’s purposes seem to go awry and we get into a tight spot, as Paul is in our reading? Anyone looking in on his predicament might think he’s no longer on the same page as God. And the journey onward to Rome might support that view, involving as it does a terrifying 14-day storm at sea, shipwreck and even a snake attacking the apostle when they finally reach safety.

If you’re a person with definite plans for how God’s purposes are going to work out in your life, you might struggle in Paul’s shoes. As a student, I was sure that God’s plan for me involved working for a very specific missionary organisation overseas, translating the Bible into tribal languages. An orientation course, a taster if you like, with that missionary organisation suggested very clearly that wasn’t the case. And I was floored. It took some years, and a very wise friend, to point out that the alternative career path I’d almost fallen into was a perfect fit for God’s purposes for me as a different kind of translator. A translator of complex health and safety law into simple instructions and guidance for businesses and workers.

Paul seems able to sit light to the detail, so that, in a tight spot, he still has a strong sense of where he’s headed with God. And boy does he need that as he journeys on to Rome. That storm I’ve already referred to blows up as the ship bearing him and other prisoners, plus their Roman guards, leaves Crete. Things begin to look desperate. The crew throw cargo and ship’s tackle overboard, and Luke dramatically tells us all hope is abandoned.

But amid it all, Paul has a vision of an angel of God. He tells the crew and passengers the angel has assured him he will stand before the emperor in Rome, and that everyone on the ship will be saved. He urges everyone to keep their courage up. Now there’s a man sure of his God, however bleak, even life-threatening, the circumstances of the moment might seem. Later in the journey, Paul is equally courageous. Just before the ship founders on rocks off the island of Malta, Paul breaks bread, gives thanks, and urges everyone to eat something. Even when the crisis is at its height, then, he can recall the Eucharist, the sign of the continuing presence of Christ among us, to encourage faint hearts. And of course, he and everyone aboard is saved. He gets to Rome and preaches the gospel there, having cooperated unwaveringly, boldly, bravely, in God’s purposes all the way. In our situations, no matter how difficult they may be, are we expecting God to sustain us this week? And with that sustaining, where might God be calling us to take our courage in both hands for the divine purposes in the coming days?

We may not be called to traverse the known world for God like Paul was. But God’s purposes are for all of us, not just super-apostles like Paul. Have you got yours in ten words yet? When things are sticky, as they inevitably will be at least sometimes, being rooted in those purposes can be the source of calm, strength and courage in a raging storm, as Paul experienced in the final quarter of the book of Acts. As we seek God’s way for us, may the Spirit strengthen, sustain and encourage us on the road ahead.