Planning -Sixth Sunday of Easter
Paul responds to a vision to go to Macedonia, arrives at Philippi, and finds opportunities for witness and a leader (Lydia) ready to begin a congregation in her house.
Psalm 67 (UMH 791).
God's way made known in all nations. Use the response with Tone 1 in C Major.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5.
In the Spirit, John sees a vision of the New Jerusalem and the way the whole world works in the fullness of God's kingdom.
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Jesus teaches that the Holy Spirit will guide his disciples to understand, remember, and live out his teaching in all Truth.
It is still Easter! This is the sixth Sunday of Easter. After today, there are two more Sundays in the Great 50 Days (Ascension/Easter 7, and Pentecost). If your congregation uses a Paschal Candle, continue to light it through the Day of Pentecost (or at least Ascension Day) and at all baptisms and funerals. For more on the Paschal Candle, see "The Paschal Candle."
Easter Season has two main formational purposes: to teach Christian doctrine richly and to prepare persons for ministry in the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit and in Christ’s name.
This week, the Scriptures build around a common theme of "Guided by the Holy Spirit.”
The doctrinal focus is on the basic work of the Holy Spirit
The ministry focus is on learning to live in the Spirit.
Next Sunday, May 12, offers a choice of two different sets of readings. One is for Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter (May 9), which may be transferred forward to the following Sunday (May 12) when not celebrated on that day. The other is for the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
See Come to the Waters,
pages 94-95, 120-121, for further reflection on the season.
See DIY Tools for Spiritual Gifts Discernment and Ministry Deployment
for guidance on building a spiritual gifts assessment process.
Also see Pentecost Commissioning of Laypersons in Christ's Name.
For more about Eastertide, see Planning Worship for Eastertide, Year C.
Denominational Calendar for May and June
May is full of cultural and program calendar celebrations. Always remember theScriptures for the day or season in the Christian calendar are the first priority in planning. Plan all of worship around the Scriptures, and weave other programmatic or cultural emphases into worship as may be appropriate given the Scriptures and series or seasonal emphasis for that day.
Next Sunday, May 12: Mother’s Day and Festival of the Christian Home are celebrated on May 12. This is also Ascension Sunday and The Seventh Sunday of Easter. Plan around Ascension and/or Easter 7 themes.
May 19 is Pentecost, Heritage Sunday, and the Sunday in Change the World Weekend. Plan around Pentecost themes. Consider whether other emphases belong best in worship or in other formational settings, such as Sunday School, small groups, or other programming outside of worship.
Pentecost is the culmination of Eastertide and a major feast day in the life of the whole church.
Heritage Sunday is one of the official program days of the church. The theme this year is "The Power of Place: The Contemporary Mission of Heritage Landmarks and Historic Sites."
It is also the Sunday in Change the World Weekend, sponsored by United Methodist Communications.
May 26 is Peace with Justice Sunday. This Special Sunday coincides with Trinity Sunday, another major feast day in the life of the church (first Sunday after Pentecost). It is also the day before Memorial Day.Plan based on the texts and themes for Trinity Sunday.
June 16 is Father’s Day and the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. For the Season after Pentecost, GBOD advocates developing sermon series using one stream of the lectionary texts (Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings are not related during this season) or another theme. Attend to Father’s Day during worship in relationship either around the texts for the day or the thematic series you have chosen.
June 19 is also known as Juneteenth, the oldest known African-American worship celebration, commemorating the date in 1865 the last of the former slaves (in Galveston, Texas) was notified of the end of the Civil War and their freedom guaranteed in The Emancipation Proclamation.
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The unifying theme of today’s readings is “Guided by the Holy Spirit.” The doctrinal focus is on the work of the Holy Spirit. The ministry focus is on living in the Holy Spirit.
Christian art has typically depicted the Spirit as dove, wind or flame, all of which are grounded in Scripture. Today’s texts use none of those images.
Instead, the Spirit is One who calls, One who sends dreams and visions, One who opens hearts and reveals new leaders, and One who leads people into all Truth.
What kinds of artwork or images would support the understanding of the Spirit present in today’s readings? What other elements of your worship space already offer support for the understanding of the Spirit offered in today’s readings? How might you help call attention to these? Since the baptismal font is where we are initiated into Christ by water and the Spirit, where and how might the font be more visible in worship today?
Visions are an integral part of two of today’s readings (Acts and Revelation). How does your worshiping community respond to the idea of visions? What are “visions” in their minds? What distinctions do people where you are draw between visions, daydreams, and hallucinations? How might these “perceptual realities” on their part inform the ways you present these texts today, both in art and in teaching and preaching?
Paul has a vision or dream of a man from Macedonia calling him to come help the people there. In response to this, Paul led his traveling companions on a journey that ended in Philippi.
The travelers "hung out" there a few days, long enough to get the lay of the land and to discover where a group of Jewish women normally met for Sabbath prayers just outside the city walls. Here Paul found warm reception for his message of Jesus Christ, a message he did not "preach" or “argue” but rather "chatted about" with them. The result: a leader of the group, Lydia, was baptized with her household and invited Paul to stay for a time to help her host the fledgling Christian community that met in her home.
This story is "Missiology 101" for a growing number of Christians in the U.S. and worldwide today — especially for those who may use the term "emerging missional church" to describe their way of ministry. They listen for the Spirit's call to a place and go there. They trust that God's kingdom is already bearing fruit in that place. They look for signs of where that may be happening. They join the effort, whatever it may be, and in the process talk about what brought them there — the call of God to bear witness to God's kingdom as disciples of Jesus Christ. And they let the Spirit establish who will provide leadership and when.
The technique Paul used here is less important that the reason Paul approached this work this way. Paul relied on the Holy Spirit to direct him in mission. If you go back a few verses, starting in verse 6, you will see several instances right before this where Paul had intended to preach or teach in Asia Minor (Turkey), but the Holy Spirit stopped him. Instead, as revealed in the dream, Paul was to go across the sea to Macedonia. Upon receiving this vision, Paul and his companions set sail right away.
The mission is the Spirit’s first. Ours is to follow where the Spirit calls and leads.
Paul trusted the Spirit who called him to open opportunities for sharing the gospel, starting with any of his fellow Jews who may live there. There was no synagogue in Philippi, so Paul visited the prayer meeting by the river outside the town walls. He continued to show he trusted the Spirit. He did not try to “take over” the prayer meeting, but rather joined in conversation with the women there. And then, despite all sorts of non-Philippian convention to the contrary, he and his companions accepted the invitation of a woman to stay at her home after she and her household were baptized. She then began to host and probably lead the nascent Christian community there. The Spirit was doing all of this. Paul was a vessel of the Spirit to facilitate it, not a brilliant community organizer who “made it happen.”
What stories of listening to and following the Spirit to an unexpected place, learning the lay of the land, discovering a possible point of contact, and beginning a new ministry can people in your congregation or community tell? If you’ve been using these weeks of Eastertide to prepare people to begin a new ministry or recommit to ministry, today may be a good time for some to share what the Spirit is calling them to do, how they’re developing that, and what they anticipate the beginning of this new ministry may be after commissioning at Pentecost.
Use images and soundscapes or perhaps interview clips in audio or video from these current stories, visions, promptings of the Spirit and plans to illustrate the ways in which the work of the Spirit described in Philippi is still happening in your worshiping community today.
Doctrine: The Holy Spirit directs us in discipleship and mission, closing some doors and opening others.
Ministry: Living in the Spirit requires that we be open, listening, and watchful for what the Spirit is already doing in the lives of others around us, wherever we may be sent or find ourselves.
Last week, we heard of new creation and the New Jerusalem, a sure sign that our promised hope is in a renewed earth with a renewed human culture. This week we see the new creation not simply as one city, but indeed as a whole planet with nations, political leaders, energy that flows from God, an economy built on the tree of life and the water of life from God, and a renewed world order in which dishonor and falsehood are thoroughly driven out and security and shalom abounds for all whose names are "written in the Lamb's book of life."
In Revelation, this world order reflects the goal and summit of God's new creation. As disciples of Jesus, we are empowered to be witnesses and bearers of that new creation now, while recognizing it is always only God who makes all things new.
At first glance, it may not be obvious how this text connects with today’s theme, “Guided by the Holy Spirit.” Easter is the season, par excellence, for teaching the mysteries! Here the Spirit appears not as air or wind, but as light from the lamp (the Lamb, Jesus) and the flowing water of the River of Life. People find their way by the light, and their lives, personally and politically, are sustained and made whole by the water that also nourishes the Tree of Life. The Holy Spirit thus irradiates and flows through everything in this final state, the fulfillment of the life we already have now because in baptism we have been reborn of water and the Spirit.
How well do people where you are already see and experience the Spirit radiating and giving life even to these mortal bodies and corrupted political and economic systems? What is it like to draw not just guidance (light) but also sustenance (water) and healing (leaves of the Tree of Life), and not just personally but even politically, from the Spirit, here and now?
What stories or music or artwork capture these experiences among you, and how might these be shared as part of worship today?
Doctrine: The Holy Spirit shows the way and continually gives life to all who will receive it.
Ministry: Sharpen your awareness of the light that guides and the water that gives life, and learn to draw on both, personally and socially.
If we needed some “mystagogy” to decipher the work of the Spirit in Revelation, or we had to back up and read between the lines to find it in Acts, in John the teaching is as clear as day. If we love Jesus, we keep his commandment to love one another as he loves us (last week’s text, and the heart of sanctification). As we do this, we will find the Holy Spirit teaching us everything we need to know and reminding us of everything Jesus has said.
The Spirit is empowering, powerful, and demanding, continually driving us to do things we could not have imagined we could ever have done, all in obedience to Christ and love to God and neighbor. The peace Jesus offers in these verses is indeed not as the world gives, not a quieting but a "couraging," not a stilling but a stirring of our hearts to follow where Jesus continues to lead. Christ’s peace and the Holy Spirit give us the capacity to do all of this, regardless of circumstances, unshaken.
How is the Spirit continuing to teach all things and remind people of the words of Jesus where you are? Capture testimonies on video or audio, create art or music, and sing of the Spirit’s continuing empowering guidance in your midst.
Doctrine: The Holy Spirit continues to teach and guide us in obedience to the word of Jesus.
Ministry: We abide in the Spirit as we cooperate with the Spirit leading us.
A Wesley Hymn for This Sunday
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(based on Revelation and John — A "sequence hymn" between the two readings)
Suggested Tunes: JOSEPHINE (not in UMH, but score and midi available at the Cyber Hymnal website. )
BE it my only wisdom here
to serve the Lord with filial fear,
with loving gratitude;
Superior sense may I display,
by shunning every evil way,
and walking in the good.
O may I still from sin depart!
A wise and understanding heart,
Jesus, to me be given;
And let me through thy Spirit know
to glorify my God below,
and find my way to heaven.
Greeting: BOW 385 (Psalm, Revelation)
Opening Prayer: UMH 335 (John)
Prayer: BOW 399 Week 6 (Easter)
Prayer: BOW 503, For the Church (Acts, John)
Intercessory Prayer: BOW 397 (Revelation)
Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda
Great Thanksgiving for Easter Season: BOW 66-67 or UMH Word and Table II, pp. 13-14.
For online alternatives see our collection of Great Thanksgivings for a variety of occasions.
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If you have been following my preaching notes for this series through the season of Eastertide, you will remember a couple of weeks ago the subject of the lesson was the conversion of Tabitha. In those notes, I referred to the work of Barbara Thurston in her eye-opening book, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998). Here, as we deal with the story of another amazing female pioneer in the faith, Lydia, I will once again turn to Thurston’s work as the primary source for my notes on this text.
Thurston observes that in several ways the story of Tabitha in the ministry of Peter parallels the story of Lydia in the ministry of Paul. She also notes that this story marks the beginning of Paul’s ministry on the European continent, as he makes his way across the peninsula into Macedonia and into Eastern Europe. As a colony of Rome, Philippi is a place of special rights and privileges. One of those special rights and privileges appears to be that women are allowed to participate in the culture with more freedom than in places previously visited by Paul. In this instance, women seem to have special rights and privileges in the synagogue. Thurston states that the word translated as “place of prayer” (verse 13) is a word that, when used in other places in Scripture, usually refers to synagogues. Since the synagogue was usually the initial point of contact for a visiting minister, it makes sense that Paul would have gone there first. Presuming Thurston is correct about all of this, then it would appear that in this synagogue in Philippi, women were allowed to gather for prayer without men present. And in fact, when Paul and his colleagues were invited to sit and speak with them, they were invited to sit in the rabbinic position for the purpose of teaching this group of women who had gathered for worship in this synagogue. Among these women was a woman by the name of Lydia.
Lydia was obviously a person of importance in the community. She was a professional woman, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God; that is, a Gentile woman who had accepted Jewish teaching. She was not technically Jewish by ancestry, but she had become conversant in the Jewish faith. And finally, she was the head of her own household, which would have been very unusual in this place and time. She was also clearly a risk-taker, in that she invited Paul to come to her home without concern for what effects it might have on her reputation or her business.
The story goes that after hearing what Paul had to teach, her heart was opened to receive Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized. So this means that Paul’s very first missionary church on European soil was started entirely within the context of women. This is pretty amazing to think about. As Thurston puts it, “Paul’s first European congregation is made up of women. In Gentile Macedonia, there were apparently not ten Jewish men to make up a synagogue congregation; but faithful women met to worship nonetheless, were receptive to Paul’s preaching, and, according to Acts, became the first European converts. Lydia’s home became the meeting place for these new Christians (verses 15 and 40). One wonders if Paul’s letter to the Philippians was addressed to her home. In that letter, as we saw, there was little hint of limitation on women in the Christian community” (Thurston, 124).
How can reading this story in this light be a source of signs and wonders for our congregations, especially the women in them? How can it speak a word of clarity in a world that continues to marginalize and oppress women and limit their participation in leadership roles across the globe? In the United States, among Methodists, we may think that because our denomination has been ordaining women for more than fifty years that this issue is resolved; but as a woman who has been in professional ordained ministry for nineteen years, I can tell you from personal experience that it has not. How might it change our views about women if we were to understand that there were likely women among Jesus’ first disciples, that some of the earliest Christian communities were supported, housed, and led by women, and that it was only after Christians started being threatened for their radical behavior that included allowing women to teach and lead that the early church began to greatly limit the activities and roles of women in the church?
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How does this vision of “Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” connect with our theme of being Kingdom Dwellers? This vision is of a holy city from which perpetual light shines, lush flowers, fruits, and vegetables spring forth, and through which the river of the water of life flows from the throne of God and the lamb. In this city, there is no need for a Temple because God lives here, dwelling in the midst of God’s people. There the people can gaze directly upon the face of God and see God’s name written on their foreheads.
I think, for many people, descriptions like this one dwell in their minds as visions of the heavenly realm to which they will one day go to live for eternity after they die. Is this not the picture of heaven that is given to us by painters and songwriters and artists? a place of perpetual life and light and love? a place where we will all come together one day to live eternally in the direct presence of God?
But notice here that this vision is not cast as a place separate from earth. Apparently from the vantage point of the high mountain, the viewer can see that this holy city is a part of the earth that lies below. It is a vision of a place within this world -- not a place above this world where we go after our earthly life is over. So how do we help people to begin to see the kingdom of heaven as something that has already come down from God, a place or state in which we are called to dwell today, here and now?
In this vision, the holy city is described as a place where there is plenty for everyone. In this vision, there is light available to all, not just to those who can afford to pay their utility bills to keep the electricity and heat going, or for those who happen to live in a part of the world where electricity and heat are continually available. In this vision, there is plenty of fruits and vegetables for all, not just for those who are able to afford to buy more expensive fresh foods rather than the food that is more readily available to the poor: cheaply produced, prepared foods loaded with fat and chemicals and sodium and other preservatives to keep them from spoiling. In this vision, the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. In this vision, there are not thousands of lives being lost in a civil war; there is no threat of war between neighboring countries; there is no brokenness and hate in the world, for “this is a city where “nothing accursed with be found there anymore” (Verse 22:3). How can we dwell in this vision here on this earth? How does it call us to live and be and act toward our neighbors, especially those for whom the fight against war and poverty and disease and oppression and hunger is a daily battle?
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Like so many of you who are reading my words right now, I am at a point in my life when my brothers and I must face the hard reality that our parents have really aged. My father will be 80 years old this July. And while he and my mom have enjoyed mostly good health and are still able to live independently in the home they own, I know that won’t be the case for much longer. We can see the inevitable signs of aging. It is clear that their lives on this earth are coming to an end.
My parents, of course, are trying to face this reality as best they can. They have a will, and they occasionally try to discuss with us who will get which of their properties and possessions after they die. They have made us all go to their safe deposit box at the bank and add our signatures to the list of names that are authorized to open it. They have showed us that this safe deposit box is where they keep their will.
Even though we all know it is coming, my brothers and I don’t like to talk about it much, either with our parents or with each other. We just don’t want to face that the time is coming when they will no longer be with us, when we will have to deal with the awful task of watching them die and then dividing up their property and living the rest of our lives without their loving presence and gentle guidance in our lives.
It seems to me when I read this passage from the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel that the way my brothers and I feel about losing our parents must be very similar to the way that Jesus’ closest disciples must have felt when Jesus kept trying to talk with them about the time when he would no longer be with them. So what wisdom does Jesus offer to them? What wisdom does he offer to us?
This passage is part of what is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. It continues through chapter 16. Jesus delivered these words shortly before his death, just before the festival of Passover. He knew that his final hour was drawing near, so he had gathered with his disciples in the upper room to talk with them heart to heart. He wanted to talk about what was coming. And he wanted to give to them, in essence, his last will and testament.
So what does he say to them? He tells them to be strong in their faith by believing in God and believing in him. He tells them to love one another as he has loved them. He tells them that even though he is going to a place where they cannot follow him, he will not leave them alone. God will send his Spirit to continue to be with them and teach them. They have a hard time with this news, and one after the other asks questions and seeks clarity about what Jesus is saying. He tries to answer and be patient with them. He knows this news isn’t easy to hear.
In this short section of this rather long conversation, it seems to me that Jesus is trying to give them their inheritance. Just like my parents have tried to do, Jesus tells his disciples what he is leaving to them. He doesn’t make them wait until after he is gone; he gives it to them personally with his words: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give 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.”
What Jesus gives here is not just the inheritance given to those first disciples. It is also our inheritance. And truly, it isn’t what the world gives. It isn’t the property that has been accrued over a lifetime and now must be divided up and perhaps fought over, and I thank God for that! It is the peace that can come only from letting go of our possessions, letting go even of the possession of our earthly life. It is the peace that comes from understanding that nothing on this earth is ours to keep.
How can we help our congregation members find comfort and peace in Jesus’ message? How can those of us who are afraid to even talk about the death of our loved ones and the grief that will follow find the peace we need to face it with courage? How can Jesus’ message ease our troubled hearts? It seems to me that the only way is to see what Jesus is trying to say to us here, and believe him. Believe that what Jesus wants us to receive as our inheritance is not what the world gives, but the unifying love of God the Father, God the son, God the Holy Spirit.
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