Sermon Seeds: Disciples Together

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C color_white_1.jpg

Lectionary citations
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Worship resources for the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C can be found at Worship Ways.

New reflection on Acts 16:9-15 (with worship resource) by the Rev. Noel Andersen for UCC Immigrants Rights Sunday.

Additional reflection
on creation care by Professor Ken Stone, Chicago Theological Seminary.

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Acts 16:9-15

Weekly Theme:
Disciples Together

by Kathryn M. Matthews katehuey150.jpg

There are some times when it’s easier than others to figure out what God wants us to do and where God wants us to go. After Paul, with his new traveling companion Silas, had completed a tour of the churches he had already founded on his first trip, they decided to strike out into new territory. However, the verses immediately preceding this week’s passage tell us that the “Spirit of Jesus” prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia to preach the gospel (even though they seemed inclined to do so), so they headed instead to Macedonia, that is, to Europe. How did they decide on Macedonia? Paul had a vision of “a man of Macedonia” asking him to come, delivering a clear message from God, or at least that’s the way Paul understands it.

A note about geography and history from Paul Walaskay, who tells us that here “Asia” doesn’t refer to what we understand as Asia, but to Asia Minor. By going to “Europe” (certainly not as we understand France, Germany, etc., but the easternmost part of Greece), Paul and Silas embarked on their “challenging mission in the cradle of western culture — the home of Homer and Hesiod, of Socrates and Plato, of Aristotle and Alexander the Great” (Acts, Westminster Bible Companion).  

Reversing the path of Alexander

The journey of the great evangelist, then, is the opposite of that of Alexander, who left Macedonia to bring the Greek language and culture (along with war) to much of the known world three centuries earlier; Paul, of course, is bringing something much better, Charles Cousar observes: the gospel of Jesus Christ (Texts for Preaching Year C; Cousar also gives very helpful historical background about the importance of Macedonia in ancient history). But the journey is not simply to “Europe”: as Walaskay describes it, Paul’s missionary activity takes him “from Judaism’s religious center into Greece’s intellectual center, and eventually to Rome’s political center” (Acts, Westminster Bible Companion).  

If there is something of the unexpected in Paul and Silas’ decision to go to Europe rather than Asia, then there is also a most unlikely candidate for First Christian Convert in Europe: Lydia, a Gentile, and a woman at that. (After all, it was “a man,” not “a woman” of Macedonia who summoned them there.) Lydia seems to prompt all sorts of speculation on the part of commentators. Some think she had children and even a husband, along with her servants, all of whom she brought to baptism (whether they wanted it or not, we might wonder). Others say she was single, and still others say she may have been a former slave, but most agree she was now wealthy, and used to dealing (literally) with wealthy people, who were the only ones able and permitted to wear the purple cloth she sold.

A woman in charge

We’re used to hearing in the Bible that powerful men made decisions for their households, but does it strike our ears differently when a woman does so? And how ironic is it that much of European Christianity has long prevented women from being leaders in the church, when the first European Christian was a Gentile woman? There is definitely something of the unexpected for us in this text, and it makes our patriarchal church history even more perplexing. When we think of the countless women whose works and stories are untold, we wonder what has been lost to the world, and how those women themselves have suffered. I believe it was Maya Angelou who said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Reading only the lectionary passage, however, keeps us from hearing that this period in the ministry of Paul is actually “framed” by this woman, Lydia. The first part of the frame is set when Paul and Silas go looking for devout Jews in Philippi to whom they might preach the good news of Jesus Christ, and they wait until the Sabbath when they’re sure to find an audience among those gathered in prayer. Is there a synagogue? If so, it’s a humble one, and probably just a gathering of folks down by the river, ready to pray and listen for a Word from God. (We’re reminded of new church starts that begin in unlikely places: bars, coffee shops, karate studios.)

People outside the gate, on the edge

It seems, again, that these devout, open-hearted people, thanks to God at work in their midst, are women, which somehow doesn’t surprise us in a book written by Luke. However, the ironic note is hit again: people outside the gate, people on the edge or the fringe of social acceptance, people who are not traditionally given a voice or a place in the life of organized religion, are often most open and, perhaps, most in need of good news. The audience may be unexpected, but so is Paul’s behavior: since when do Pharisees sit down with women to talk about faith? (We wonder if Lydia herself was surprised.)

If Jesus came, as he said in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, to proclaim good news and the year of the Lord’s favor, and we carry this good news, like Paul, to all the ends of the earth, wouldn’t those on the fringes, those outside the gate, be hungry to hear what we have to say? And could it also be that God has surprises in store for us about who’s included in the circle of God’s grace, and who’s part of the great conversation of faith? Acts is just full of small moments like this, and big stories as well, from our earliest, earliest Christian ancestors. Yes, they had many of the same prejudices and unjust, exclusionary rules that we have, but the story itself keeps breaking those down. Do we pay enough attention to the big story of which we are a part, and those important though small moments of truth breaking through?

Lydia the God-fearer

It’s also significant that Lydia has been prepared for Paul’s message by her participation in the faith of Israel. According to Charles Cousar, the Jews were often receptive to Paul’s message, because they already knew the God of compassion and justice who would understandably give the great gift of grace in Jesus Christ (Texts for Preaching Year C). There was great coherence between the message of the Old Testament and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Lydia, “a worshiper of God” (that is, a Gentile who was studying Judaism, sometimes called a “God-fearer”), was drawn to the God who gave us Jesus, and open to hearing how God was working in the world through his life, death, and resurrection. In The Women’s Bible Commentary, Gail R. O’Day links Lydia, the first official European convert, to Cornelius, the very first official Gentile convert (Acts 10). Perhaps God is trying to tell us something?

Lydia the Unlikely is a “frame” for this story because it is her house, now a house church, as they did things in those days, that provides a haven for Paul after his imprisonment in verse 40. Oddly, while Lydia’s whole household was baptized with her, she’s not described later as the leader of the house church; while she was obviously a “somebody” in her business dealings and her household, she still slips from view (as so many women do) as a leader in the early church.

Who led the church?

The church at Philippi, we recall, was later the recipient of Paul’s beautiful letter of joy, urging them to “make my joy complete” (2:2) and “[r]ejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice” (4:4). Whether we gather in houses, or in church buildings, or in “places of prayer” out on the edge of things, down by the river, have we opened our hearts to the least likely in our midst who are called to share the good news, and to be leaders at doing so?

Our reading from these earliest days of the church prompts several questions for our reflection. We might spend some time thinking about the spiritual practice of discernment, and the question of how we know that God is leading us in new and unexpected ways. Paul may have thought he needed to go to Asia, but “the Spirit of Jesus” said no. He may have packed all his things and had his itinerary all worked out, but the Spirit of Jesus closed the door on that plan. Don’t we wonder how Paul felt, with his plans frustrated? How did he feel about all those travels just to end up outside the city gate with only a bunch of women to listen to him? How do we know what God wants us to do, and where God wants us to go, and with whom God wants us to work? And when we get to where we’re going, what surprises wait for us?

Visions or strategic planning, or both?

Commentators provide rich material for our reflection on this question. When it comes to mission, David Forney observes that it’s common to do strategic planning in the church, with the help of experts from outside. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course…but could it be, as Forney suggests, that we find such an approach something we can manage much better than things like, say, visions from God? And yet visions from God like the one experienced by Paul that set him on a very different course in his ministry are found all through the Bible.

Forney writes about the surprising results from a Gallup survey of Presbyterians in the 1990’s (not the 1890’s but the 1990’s!) in which half of the church members, and even more clergy, had had a vision from God. As the daughter of a lifelong Presbyterian, I find this a remarkable result, and I agree with Forney that we need to open our hearts and minds to God at work in our lives in the most dramatic and unexpected ways that might transform our lives and our ministries (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

Blocked by the Spirit of Jesus

Of course, visions and dreams are powerful and risky experiences of God’s leading. Paul himself must have wondered at times — on the road to Damascus and here, on the road to Philippi, what exactly God was saying to him. For example, John M. Rottman suggests that Paul found himself a bit stuck here, at the end of his tour of the churches; we might say he was “at loose ends.” Each time Paul and Silas try to go somewhere, they’re blocked, the text says, by the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Jesus.”

Rottman writes that this feeling of being blocked and frustrated and uncertain might have caused Paul to “second-guess himself,” especially after the argument he had had with Barnabas, his old and trusted partner in ministry, an argument that had actually separated them and sent them off in different directions (such things are not new in the life in the church). Rottman suggests that Barnabas was better than Silas at discerning what God did want them to do rather than what God didn’t want them to do (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).  

The larger story of God’s work in the world

However, the reflections on discernment in this text focus not just on messages about our personal relationships with God but on the nagging, inspiring call of God to the community of faith. Even in the biblical stories about visions and dreams, the move isn’t inward toward self-absorption but outward, toward the wider world of God’s grace and actions in the life that we share. Rottman suggests a tender, personal image of God inviting us to participate in the larger story of God’s work in the world, a story full of transforming love for us and for the world (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).  

It’s easy, and therefore customary, to focus on Paul in this text: his discernment of God’s calling, his openness (and transformation) in preaching to women and even visiting the home of one of them, his establishment of a church in Philippi and his later experiences of imprisonment there, as well as the hospitality he received from Lydia afterward. But we might also spend some more time considering Lydia herself, as a figure in the early church, however elusive and partial her story, and also as a kind of “figure” of women in the history of the church.

Mothers of the church

Each year on Mother’s Day, which seems almost like a holy day in the life of many Protestant churches, we celebrate the motherhood (in many ways) of the women in our lives who have given birth, perhaps more importantly, have given and nurtured life in each of us (not only biological mothers). But we can also draw from this story, and the story of so many women in the church throughout the ages, inspiration for all who open their hearts and minds and homes and, we might add, pocketbooks, for the sake of spreading the good news. Years ago, I took a course in Patristics, studying the “Fathers of the Church.” Alas, there was no course in “Matristics,” but there have been plenty of “Mothers of the Church” throughout the centuries, and I don’t just mean mothers of ministers and priests (although that’s an honorable thing, too).

True, Lydia embodies the inquiring hunger of someone who senses there is more to life than what they presently, personally experience. Today we might say that she “hungers for meaning in her life.” More than money, more than success, more even than the evident measure of power and influence she enjoyed — after all, this is a woman who dealt with the most powerful and wealthy in her society, those who wore purple when common folk couldn’t, and a woman who could decide that her whole household would be baptized — how unusual is that? This is a woman who was willing to go beyond the boundaries set for her in a time when women were seen by many as property rather than people who owned and controlled property. When Lydia joins the other women down there by the river, this wealthy, powerful woman leaves the circles of influence and goes out to the margins of her society, joining those who undoubtedly had far less power, influence, and wealth than she did.

Lydia the seeker

When she encountered the gospel in the preaching of Paul and Silas, Lydia found everything she had been seeking, everything she had hungered for, even if she could not name it (how often, we wonder, would seekers say the same thing, when they come to our churches?) Lydia responds to the gospel with actions, with commitment, first in being baptized and then by insisting on exercising the great, foundational Christian virtue of hospitality, the expression of God’s own grace and welcome, to the preachers themselves. Again, how ironic: in her own way, she was preaching to the preachers, through her actions.

The story of Lydia is a story about the early church, about mission, about discernment, about hospitality, community, and, of course, the experience of women in the church, often at its edges but never without impact. Gail R. O’Day writes in The Women’s Bible Commentary that “Lydia embodies Luke’s ideal of women’s contribution to the church: to provide housing and economic resources.” Lydia, then, evokes many other memories, of women through the centuries and in many different settings, our foremothers in faith, who didn’t let their marginalization stop them from being powerhouses for good in the life of the church.

Also an heir according to the promise

The beauty of this story is how well it illustrates what Paul later writes in the famous passage in his letter to the Galatians, when he emphatically quotes the baptismal formula used by the very early, early Christians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” When Paul baptized Lydia that day down by the river, we can just imagine him using those very words as he welcomed a new daughter of the promise – and it no longer mattered that she had been a slave, that she was a woman, or that she was a Greek (or gentile), because now she was an heir according to the promise, too.

I once heard a sermon by a colleague, Jan Aerie, who told the story of women in the earliest days of global mission work in the church, more than two hundred years ago, the “rest of the story” of the Haystack Meeting that we all learned about in school. When that story is told, we hear about the young men who committed to going overseas in mission, but we rarely if ever hear about the women who were such an important and early part of the story of global mission. Jan told us that morning, “Before the establishment of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and even well before the five students received their call through the thunder and lightning, the women were hard at work on mission. The Female Society for Spreading Christian Education (later changed to the Women’s Board of Mission) was organized in 1801, a full five years before that haystack call. The women started the ‘Penny Society’ and asked women in the churches to give one cent a week for mission.”

Saving pennies for mission

Jan continued, “By 1812, when four of the young men and their wives were duly commissioned and ready to sail across the sea, the ABCFM knew the funds were not sufficient to book passage. Ironically, or in divine order, the ship’s sailing was delayed for several weeks. In the meantime, churches were inspired by the prospect of mission and money began to flow. But it was the women that saved the day. The women’s Penny Society over twelve years had raised $6000—that is 600,000 pennies!! Their $6000 was what enabled the eight to book passage on two clipper ships, fully outfitted with supplies and food and salary for one full year! We can safely say that without the women this would not have happened. For fifty years the women faithfully collected their mission pennies and, working closely with the ABCFM (men), funded many, many missionaries.” However, Jan also notes that, “[t]hroughout that time the ABCFM (men) would not allow any woman to be sent as a missionary herself.”

As I listened to Jan speak, I thought of this Lydia text, and Mother’s Day, and the wondrous ways God is at work in the world. It was, in its own way, a brief but inspiring “Matristics” course. The journey of Paul and Silas into new and unexpected places, in ministry with new and most unexpected people (women! Gentiles!), is the story not only of the early church but of the church throughout the ages. And, as we embark on God’s mission in our day and in our own setting as well as around the world, we are more, together, than simply the sum of our parts: we are the Body of Christ active, at work, in the world that God loves.

Listening for God’s leading

The power of this community exists not just in the story of Silas (or Barnabas, or Lydia) added to Paul’s ministry long ago, but in the relationships of all of us in the church, each and every one of us, in our rich diversity, our unique stories and gifts, and our visions, too, opening our hearts and listening for God’s leading: where we should go, even if it’s to the most unexpected places; how we should get there, even if the means come from the most unexpected sources; and whom we should serve, even if we find ourselves most unexpectedly blessed by them in turn.

How does it strike our ears differently when a woman (instead of a man) in the Bible makes a decision for her entire household? How do you discern God’s will for your life? When have you ever encountered obstacles on the path you thought was right, until you found the path God actually wanted you to take? Who are women who have been “mothers” in the church, bringing new life and energy to its mission and ministry? How do you imagine the life of Lydia before and after that day by the river, when she first met Paul?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Emily Dickinson, 19th century
“We never know how high we are/Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan, Our statures touch the skies.”

Meryl Streep, 21st century
“Motherhood has a very humanizing effect. Everything gets reduced to essentials.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 20th century
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Jeanne d’Arc, 15th century
“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

Fred Rodgers, 20th century
“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.”

High Eagle, 20th century
“To be blessed with visions is not enough…we must live them!”  

Parker Palmer, 21st century
“The moments when we meet and reckon with contradictions are turning points where we either enter or evade the mystery of God.”

Transformational Hospitality through Welcoming the Sojourner
May 1: UCC Immigrants Rights Sunday

Focus Scripture:
Acts 16:9-15

by Noel Andersen

 Paul was a troublemaker. In fact he was at times defiant to his detractors. Along his journey, he was kicked out of various cities, beaten and imprisoned, yet he never seemed to give up. His mission took place in a time when Christianity was just a minority sect of Judaism, not the sponsored religion of the empire that it later became.

Acts 14 describes Paul’s first mission in Iconium as a great success because large crowds of Jews and Gentiles gathered to learn, but this threatened those in power and they grew jealous, eventually convincing the masses to stone Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, dragging them out of the city and leaving them for dead. Noel_Anderson.jpg

Paul had a vision of being called towards Macedonia. So after traveling over 150 miles, they met a woman named Lydia just outside of the city who was a leader in a small local Jewish community of faithful women. Jewish communities often worshiped on the margins of these cities occupied by the Roman Empire. Lydia was either single or a widow and was a powerful woman who dealt in fine purple cloth. After being baptized, she said (according to the text), “If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us” (Acts 16:15).

Her warmth overwhelmed them as she offered these sojourners a place in her home. Without much time passing, Paul and Silas were brought before the magistrates, discriminated against for being Jews, and were again beaten and imprisoned, before being set free by a great earthquake that loosened their bonds and opened the prison walls (Acts 16:26).

Just as Barnabas, Silas and Paul, many are dedicated to the mission to spread the good news, to serve the poor and to set the prisoner free. Sometimes the greatest mission is to put food on the table, or to escape grave violence that threatens their family; in these circumstances, crossing borders becomes a form of resistance.

Many of us in the UCC don’t know the experience of fleeing for our children’s safety, but we hear the stories all around us. We live in a time that has the most displaced people in history. From the conflict in Syria to the gang violence in Central America causing women and children to flee death threats, we now have the most refugees globally since World War II.

At the same time, our government has deported 2.5 million immigrants in the last several years. Our immigration system is outdated and there is no way for the 11 million undocumented people living the U.S. to adjust their citizenship status. This has lead to an unprecedented number of separated families and a sense of terror and fear among immigrant communities.

The most common excuse to discriminate against those who are undocumented is that they’re here “illegally.” However, when the motivation to migrate is to feed their family or escape violence, should the framework of legality be the metric for what’s moral and ethical? Jesus upset authorities by healing on the Sabbath, just as Paul was thrown out of the city for professing beliefs authorities claimed went against their laws.

We come from a faith tradition that was once the minority, placed on the margins, and our leaders were beaten and imprisoned for professing belief in Christ’s teachings. The Holy Family was a refugee family fleeing the political persecution of Herod. Israelites were treated as outcasts and slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Hebrew Bible reminds us again and again, “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

Often, once we attain a certain level of comfort, or wealth, we can forget our own history. Lydia, who built a successful business, reminds us that we are called to be a hospitable people and to offer what we have. At a time when Paul might have lost faith in his mission after rejection, Lydia and her followers gave him hope to carry on.

This small faith community of women were themselves living on the margins of Phrygia within occupied territory. The patterns of patriarchy that exist within the Christian institution unfortunately leave out the women leaders of the early Christian movement, but Lydia, who is known as the first convert in Europe, represents the strength of women faith leaders’ capacity for spiritual transformation and hospitality to help a larger movement. Lydia reminds us that we must re-center our theology to the space of the margins, the space where God manifests transformation and liberation.

Some UCC congregations have fallen into the comfort of the status quo and have lost the vision to welcome new people and they have lost their capacity to challenge authority. Part of congregational revitalization, vitality and growth is the willingness to provide hospitality, to offer a prophetic voice, and to speak truth to power.

As faith communities we cannot stand by idle: we have a moral responsibility to act and to show an extravagant welcome to refugees and immigrants through our ministries. The Sanctuary Movement is one example where congregations are willing to take a prophetic step. Shadow Rock UCC in Phoenix and University Church in Chicago (DOC/ UCC) are two congregations that have offered Sanctuary to immigrants willing to take the courageous step to fight their deportation order.

josejuan.jpg“Abandoning my children is not a choice I can make. I live for them, and I will fight to stay with them,” says Jose Juan Frederico Moreno, who took sanctuary at University Church in Chicago in order to fight his deportation order and stay with his family.

Rev. Julian DeShazier responded, “When Jose Juan was placed in deportation proceedings and ordered to leave the country and his family by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Chicago Field Office, my church took emergency moral action and welcomed him into Sanctuary. Jose Juan has called Illinois home for almost half of his life. His US citizen children – ages 2, 5, 9,12,  and 14 – have never known any other home. Our faith compels us to respond to injustice, to welcome the stranger, to promote families staying together.”

These UCC churches have made a decision to offer a prophetic and moral platform to welcome the sojourner and create space for those on the margins to tell their story. They are joined by at least 50 congregations willing to offer Sanctuary and another 350 congregations that support the Sanctuary Movement from all different faith traditions.

Your congregation can join this movement through supporting or offering Sanctuary (, or through becoming an Immigrant Welcoming congregation, a model of covenant and commitment promoted by the UCC National Collaborative on Immigration.

Together we can strengthen our congregations and grow the movement for social justice by offering a prophetic voice to welcome immigrants, refugees and all people, no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey. By creating space to listen to those who are traditionally marginalized, we can be part of creating a theology from the margins. Through this type of transformational hospitality our congregations can thrive and re-vitalize as we work to build welcoming communities.

*If your congregation would like to get more involved on immigrants’ rights advocacy and organizing efforts please contact Rev. Noel Andersen –

The Rev. Noel Andersen serves as UCC & CWS Grassroots Coordinator for Immigrants’ Rights in Washington, D.C.

Prayers of the People

God of love, God of mercy and God of liberation, bless this movement for immigrants to gain the dignity that all people deserve. We pray for the more than two million families who have recently been deported and whose families have been separated. Today we pray for relief from deportation for more than five million immigrants through DACA+ and DAPA. We pray that our Supreme Court Justices might take the side of compassion and allow this much-needed program to move forward. We know they are the highest court in the land, but we look to a higher court and a higher law, one where we understand that loving one another and welcoming one another into God’s family is of the utmost importance and we pray to keep these families together. Amen.

Leader: God who led our people out of the desert and into a land of milk and honey, we pray for all those immigrants struggling on their migrant journey now.

All: Our tradition is one of people on the move, on the journey and today we walk in prayer and solidarity with those sojourners in our midst who need our love.

Leader: We have seen too many families separated by these outdated and unjust laws, more than 2.5 million deportations in recent years, we cry out for justice.

All: We pray for the judges in the highest court of this land, that they may be wise and compassionate in their proceeding to lift so many millions of people out of the fear of deportation.

Leader: We look to a higher law, a higher power that reminds us to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger.

All: We pray for unity and love among our brothers and sisters, no matter their national origin, or documentation status, we are all children of God.

Additional reflection on creation care by Professor Ken Stone, Chicago Theological Seminary

Focus text:
John 14:23-29

In today’s Gospel reading from John 14, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, Jesus tells the disciples, will serve as a teacher after Jesus has gone (v. 26). Indeed, John’s Gospel indicates that the teaching of the Spirit will expand upon the teaching of Jesus, which the immediate context of John 14 associates with love, peace, and the doing of God’s word. According to John 16:12-13, the Spirit will even teach the disciples about matters yet to come that Jesus was not able to tell them, since the disciples weren’t ready to hear such things during Jesus’ life.

If the Spirit continues to teach after the time of Jesus, then we as Christians need to ask ourselves continually what the Spirit might be teaching us in new times and places. We need to be open to emphases that earlier generations of disciples weren’t ready to hear. What is the Holy Spirit teaching us today?

Many Christians associate the Holy Spirit primarily with the redemption of humans. The redemption of the earth is not so frequently linked to the Spirit. In fact, if we look around at the damage that humans have caused to the earth, we may begin to suspect that too much emphasis on the Spirit has led Christians to an otherworldly faith. As we are only too aware, Christian “spirituality” has too often been associated with neglect of our environment and neglect of the bodily needs of humans and other living creatures. Such a faith ignores our existence as embodied creatures who share a fragile earth with other embodied creatures.

However, the Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, in his book The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, that the Spirit is actually “the divine energy of life animating the new creation of all things” (p. 9). The experience of this Spirit, in Moltmann’s view, leads us beyond ourselves and our local congregations “to the rediscovery of the same Spirit in nature, in plants, in animals, and in the ecosystems of the earth.” Thus Moltmann directly links “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” with “the community of creation” (p. 10). In the view of Moltmann and other theologians, the Spirit promised by Jesus will lead us toward a faith that is the very opposite of an otherworldly spirituality.

One of the places where Moltmann directs our attention in order to help us understand this Spirit better is the Hebrew Bible. There the Spirit takes the form of the ruach of God. This ruach – translated spirit, wind, or breath – is present from the beginning of creation, moving over the face of the waters that God must command in order to create our cosmos (Gen. 1:2). God sends forth this Spirit to create living creatures, and to renew the face of the soil or adamah (Ps. 104:30), the very same adamah from which humanity, adam, (Gen. 2:7), as well as all the other animals (Gen. 2:19), are created. Humans and animals have this same ruach within us. Indeed, we cannot live without it (Ps. 104:29; Eccles. 3:19-21); and when we die, the ruach returns to God who gave it to us, leaving behind only our dust (Eccles. 12:7). The Spirit is therefore associated in the Hebrew Bible with the same God of creation who calls the earth and all of its creatures good (Gen. 1:31), the God who blesses us by causing the earth to put forth its produce, as God does in this week’s Psalm reading (Ps. 67:6). No wonder the earth itself is invoked when the Psalmist reminds us all to revere God (67:7). As another Psalm puts it, God’s love extends to the heavens, God’s faithfulness extends to the clouds, and God saves human and animal alike (Ps. 36:6)

In the light of these associations, we need to be open to the possibility, or rather the likelihood, that the Holy Spirit today is teaching us to love God’s creation just as God does. Indeed, many churches appear to be responding to just such a teaching….[C]hurches of all persuasions – Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic – are beginning to acknowledge more consistently the importance and goodness of God’s creation.

Yet our reading from John 14 also reminds us that it is not enough to love the earth, though that is a crucial first step. We also have to act on its behalf. As Jesus says to his disciples, “those who love me will keep my word” (14:23). If the Spirit promised by Jesus instills in us a recognition of God’s concern for creation, we will become aware of our responsibility to take concrete steps to care for the earth and all of God’s creatures. Our Spirit-driven Mission will truly be directed to all of creation, and not only to one another. In this context, keeping the word of Jesus and the Spirit may mean recycling, lowering our carbon emissions to reduce the impact of climate change, insuring habitat for other living creatures, protecting endangered species, lobbying on behalf of environmental regulations, and any number of other forms of creation-care that the disciples in Jesus’ time could not have imagined. So this week, let us ask what steps can we take together as Jesus’ disciples, inspired by the teaching of the Spirit of Life that Jesus promised to send, on behalf of God’s earth and the community of creation.

Dr. Ken Stone is Professor of Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Lectionary texts

Acts 16:9-15

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.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 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. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make God’s face to shine upon us,

that your way may be known upon earth,
    your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
   God, our God, has blessed us.

May God continue to bless us;
   let all the ends of the earth revere God.

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But 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.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”


John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”   

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!