Sunday, 19 January 2014

Acts 20 - Paul's Parting Words of Grace

We left Paul in Ephesus, having spent a couple of years, teaching, discussing and sharing first with the Jewish community there in the synagogue and then with a predominantly Gentile community in a hall he hired from Tyrannus.

When the silversmiths who made a living from the temple of Diana of the Ephesians roused up the crowds in the theatre, Paul sensed it was time to move on.

And so we take up the story in Acts 20.

After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples; and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia. 2When he had gone through those regions and had given the believers much encouragement, he came to Greece, 3where he stayed for three months.

It was quite some tour he did, re-visiting the area around Corinth and Athens.  It’s possible to match up the letters of Paul with the story in Acts and work out that one of the things he was doing as he visited those churches again was making a collection for people back in the area around Jerusalem who were facing particular hardship.

He devotes two whole chapters in the second letter to the Corinthians urging them to give generously and describing the way he had organised the collection.

It’s a wonderful couple of chapters on giving and where we get such phrases and ideas as …

God loves a cheerful giver.

Cast your bread upon the waters.

From each according to their means to each according to their need.

Paul had a small group of people travelling with him, looking after the money he was collecting.  Here they are named.  Notice how they are identified as coming from some of the churches Paul had founded and visited.

He was about to set sail for Syria when a plot was made against him by the Jews, and so he decided to return through Macedonia. 4He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia.

This is one of those points at which the narrative changes person.  And it is as if the writer begins describing things he had seen.  Is the writer of Acts drawing on someone’s journal who was travelling with Paul?  Or is it that the writer of Acts is himself the one who at this point is the travelling companion of Paul.  Lots of good reasoning leads me to the conclusion this is Luke, the beloved physician, who for a while is a travelling companion of Paul.

Notice the detail he gives of the journey, and the length of time it takes.

It’s the days of Unleavened bread, around the Passover, what we think of as Easter.

5They went ahead and were waiting for us in Troas; 6but we sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we joined them in Troas, where we stayed for seven days.

Now comes one of those precious little insights into what was happening in the church at this time.  It’s interesting that the followers of Jesus by this time had taken to meeting not on the Sabbath, but on the first day of the week, on the Sunday.  And when they met they broke bread together.

What Paul does is interesting.  He holds a ‘discussion’ with them.  The word translated ‘discussion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘dialogue.  It’s easy to picture Paul always preaching – actually a lot of his sharing of the gospel is done in the context of dialogue and discussion.

Very interesting.

As they meet Paul also teaches and preaches, until midnight … and on until dawn.   Wow!  It’s only 7-00 as I’m telling this story … so I have another five hours to a break at midnight and another seven hours until dawn!!!

There’s a salutary tale to tell about the dangers of falling asleep in a sermon.  Let those who have ears to hear, hear!!!

7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. 8There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 9A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. 10But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’ 11Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. 12Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.

There’s more detail about the itinerary of their travels as Paul in the company of Luke and the others travels on.  There’s a sense of urgency about Paul.

He was already mature in years when he first encountered Christ on the road to Damascus.   There was a fourteen year gap before his ministry began as he got his mind round all that he would be sharing of Jesus and the Gospel.   This was the third of his journeys … and he was still planning one last journey that would take him to Rome and on to the other end of the Mediterranean, to Spain.

Another interesting detail is to notice how Paul wants to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost.  That gives a good indication of his anticipated travelling time.  But it also gives a hint that just as the followers of Jesus marked the feast of unleavened bread, the time at which Jesus was crucified and raised to life, they also, it would seem, marked Pentecost, the time of the out-pouring the Holy Spirit.

13 We went ahead to the ship and set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul on board there; for he had made this arrangement, intending to go by land himself. 14When he met us in Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15We sailed from there, and on the following day we arrived opposite Chios. The next day we touched at Samos, and the day after that we came to Miletus. 16For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; he was eager to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

Paul realises that he hasn’t time to re-visit Ephesus, but he longs to meet up with the people he has got to know so well there, and give them the kind of encouragement he loved to give in re-visiting churches he had helped to found.

He decides instead to meet up with the elders, the ones from the church who in Ephesus who are older, the senior members, older perhaps in faith, not necessarily in years.

From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. 18When they came to him, he said to them:

He knows this is going to be the last time he meets with people from this church, indeed the last time he will meet with people from the churches of Asia and so he wanted to share with them the things that were really important to him.

It’s fascinating to see just what it was that Paul had to share and to look out for some of the key things that go to the heart of the message as he understands it.

In our service one of our members read the first half of the speech Acts 20:17-24, then I led the congregation in reading together as a statement of the faith we share together with each other, together with that church in Ephesus and together with Paul Ephesians 1:3-12.  Rachel then read the remainder of the speech to the end of the chapter and we sang a wonderful hymn, God of grace and God of Glory, come among us in your powers.

I then returned to the speech and drew attention to some of those things Paul had to say to the elders of Ephesus on this occasion that go to the heart of the faith we share.

‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. 20I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus.

Repentance was at the heart of John the Baptist’s message.  Repentance was at the heart of Jesus’ message.  Repentance is at the heart of Paul’s message.

But what does ‘repentance’ mean?

It’s very easy to think of it as saying sorry for the personal sins you have committed.  But there’s much more to the word used here than that.

It’s very easy to think of it as an about turn but in a very personalised way that I make in an interior kind of way as I make an about turn from my sinful life, and turn to Jesus.

The word is even richer than that.

It’s a bout a whole change of your mind, of your way of thinking.

Paul uses an intriguing set of words here when he speaks of ‘repentance towards God’.  It is as if he is saying we have to come to the point at which the whole we think about God and the whole of life is changed, our whole world view is different.

That whole different way of looking at God is so important.

I had a fascinating conversation with one of our youngsters this morning who for RE homework had to write the arguments for the existence of God and then the arguments against the existence of God and then say what he felt.

It was a fascinating conversation … and he had got those arguments off well.

I shared what I believed as a Christian.

I think it’s brilliant working out and thinking through all the arguments for the existence of God … but you’ll never prove the existence of God through those arguments.  There will always be arguments for and against.

I, as a Christian, want to start with Jesus.  You can find out about him.  You can see what he taught, what he did, the way he came into a hurting world to bring healing, the way he experienced abject suffering to the extent of feeling that God had abandoned him.   And the way he gained a victory over death in resurrection.

Then Jesus opens up a way of seeing God that’s very different from those philosophical arguments.

Start with the God of the philosophers and you end up down a blind alley: if god is all powerful, all loving, all seeing, how can there be suffering in the world?

Start, instead with the world as it is and focus on Jesus … and you discover God to be one who is there in the middle of a suffering world always working through the likes of you and me to alleviate suffering, to set things right and inviting us to be part of that.

Then that releases within us a sense of the presence of God as a God of love who brings love into a suffering world in such a way that nothing, not even death itself, can separte us from that wonderful love.  And where do we find that love?  In Christ!

So coupled with a whole new different way of thinking of God (repentance towards God) comes faith that finds its focus in Jesus (faith towards our Lord Jesus)

This is powerful stuff!

Then with that kind of sense of the presence, released for Paul by the Holy Spirit of God, he feels able to face whatever the world will hurl at him. It has already hurled some pretty awful things … and it will do again!

22And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.

Paul is determined to run the course, finish the race … and take that collection in person to Jerusalem.

And at this point he goes to the heart of what the faith is all about.

He arrives at a little word that is fundamental to the thinking about God he has come to … and we must too.

For me it is a word that’s really significant because it is a word that for me represents a complete turn around in my thinking about God.

I started out by thin king that being a Christian was all about meeting the demands of Christ’s teaching to love God, love your neighbour and love your enemy.  The heart of being a Christians is to live out the Sermon on the Mount.

I was growing up at the time of Martin Luther King.

Christian faith was a wonderful way of life to follow.

My problem was that people accused me of being inconsistent, of failing to live out that perfect way of life … and that troubled me.

Then I brought to mind the fact that Jesus not only taught such a high standard, but he accepted and mixed with precisely those who failed to live up that high standard, the Zacchaeuses, the tax collectors, the sinners of this world!

I discovered, ironically while worshipping in a Baptist church, that for me the heart of Chrsitianity was not a way of life to follow, not even faith, but grace.  The initiative God takes in reaching out to us before ever we know anything about us – that plan he has for us from before the beginning of time, the way he knows us from the womb.

From having loved the verses Love God, Love your neighbout I discovered the verse in 1 John 4 …

This is love.

It is not that we loved God.

But that he loved us.

And gave his son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.

That’s grace.

The free gift of God’s love.  And nowhere is it more vividly expressed than in the sacrament of baptism as it is shared with a tiny little baby and we celebrated the initiative and the wonder of God’s gift of grace.  With the prayer that as that little one grows older they will make this love of God their own in faith.

For me salvation is by grace through faith.

And that’s what Paul alludes to here!

24But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

[It was at this point that we had broken off for all of us to read together Ephesians 1:3-12.  We used the church Bibles, not the NRSV I have been using … but the Good News Bible.  A lovely passage to read together as a congregation …

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world.
4 Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him. Because of his love
5 God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his sons and daughters — this was his pleasure and purpose.
6 Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son!
7 For by the blood of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God,
8 which he gave to us in such large measure! In all his wisdom and insight
9 God did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ.
10 This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.
11 All things are done according to God's plan and decision; and God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning.
12 Let us, then, who were the first to hope in Christ, praise God's glory!

Returning to Acts 20 – the remainder of Paul’s speech continues to highlight some of those things fundamental to our faith.

It’s very easy to overlook.

We often think of Paul preaching the Gospel of salvation.

Actually he did exactly as John the Baptist had done before him.

He did exactly as Jesus had done before him.

He proclaimed the Kingdom of God, the rule of God coming into the world to shape the world in the way God wants to shape the world.

Just as John the Baptist had done, just as Jesus had done Paul lived in a world that was dominated by the Roman way of doing kingdom – they called it Empire and it regarded the Emperor as Son of God, as Saviour, it told good news ‘evangelion’ about the Emperor and his achievements.

And as John the Baptist had done, and Jesus had done, Paul proclaimed a diffeent way of doing ‘kingdom’, God’s way.  It was a way that held the kind of values Jesus put across in that Sermon on the Mount and throughout his teaching.

And the prayer Jesus taught us to pray is that God’s rule, God’s way of doing kingdom should come on earth as it is in heaven – and that happens when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

The centrality of the Kingdom to Paul’s thought comes across so clearly in these powerful words.

25 ‘And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again.

This is a poignant moment as Paul this is the last time he will meet with people who have become close friends and who have been through so much with him.

He knows full well, they will face difficult times.

He felt sure that that would be within the purposes of God.

26Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, 27for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.
Paul was very conscious the world of that Roman empire had a myriad of things on offer that would purportedly make life better.

Not much diffeent from our world – where there are so many alternatives presented to us.

We have a tendency, sometimes even within the church, to say anything goes.  So long as people have faith in something it doesn’t really matter.

That’s not what John the Baptist felt.

It’s not what Jesus believed.

It’s certainly  not what Paul believed.

He reminds those older members of the church in Ephesus that they share a responsibility as ‘episkopoi’ – that’s the word that is often translated ‘bishops’.

But for Paul here the bishop is not some individual who has charge over a whole region – all those who share in pastoral oversight of this particular church in Ephesus are ‘episkopoi’.  I love that word pastoral oversight – it captures what Paul means by shepherding as overseers.  We often speak of someone being called to the pastoral oversight of the church – that’s exactly what Paul is talking about here.

How important it is to steer people away from so much that’s on offer and to point them to Christ and to the Kingdom and God’s way in the world

28Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.

Paul’s coming towards the end and he has a wonderful commendation.  It’s back to that wonderful little word, grace.

Hold on to grace, the free gift of God’s love and that more than anything else will build you up in the Christian faith and in the Christian way of life!

 32And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.

Paul reminds his friends how he paid his own way – he must have been involved in his tent-making while living and sharing in Ephesus.  But then there’s a hint of a reference here to that collection he has been making.

He may have paid his own way … but he was convinced that it was important for people then to share what they have earned with those who are most vulnerable, those who are weak.

That kind of giving to others is at the heart of the Christian way as far as Paul is concerned … and at the heart of all we stand for too!

3I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. 35In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

It’s rare for Paul to quote Jesus directly. Isn’t it interesting that one of those rare occasions is this comment about giving.  It shows how high on the scale of priorities is a commitment to the poor in Paul’s understanding of the Christian faith.

The speech over there’s one thing for Paul to do.

36 When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed.

In a moment we too will share in prayer … the very life-blood of the Christian’s life.

There’s no mistaking just how heart-rending this occasion was.  Everyone there knew they wouldn’t be seeing Paul again.  It was a very emotional moment.

The chapter ends as Paul is accompanied to the ship and ready to make his last fateful journey to Jerusalem.

37There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.

What better way to finish than with that most wonderful of prayers from  Ephesians 3 …

Maybe we can hear Paul praying these words for those very people in Ephesus, maybe we can hear him praying these words for us …

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory,
he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being
with power through his Spirit,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,
as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend,
with all the saints,
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,
 to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus to all generations,
for ever and ever.

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