JULY 22nd, 2018 PASTOR DON PIEPER
In Paul’s Footprints ACTS 20:13-21; 22-38
After pausing to read from the letters Paul wrote during his third missionary trip, we're back in the saddle again. Or more like, back in the boat, as most of Paul's traveling at this late juncture is done by sea. Let's recap the trip. After setting off from his home church in Antioch, Paul went to Ephesus, where he stayed for three years discipling the church there before returning to Macedonia by way of Troas. After planting a church there he sailed to Neapolis, and began visiting the churches he'd planted during his second trip in places like Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth. It was from Corinth that he wrote the letter to the church in Rome we read from last week. Then, after retracing his steps back up north to Macedonia, Paul and company caught a boat back to Troas.
It was there in Troas that Paul preached so long that a young man fell asleep in the upper deck, fell to his death, only to be revived by Paul thru the power of the Holy Spirit. If you think I can be long-winded, you should've been there for that one! The congregation was dropping like flies...!
After a week in Troas, Paul's entourage departs by boat but for some reason Paul travels alone by land to Assos. Why? I don't know, he's on third, and I don't care!
No, wait, that was Who's On First! Point is, Luke doesn't tell us why Paul travels alone on foot to Assos. Maybe Paul goes it alone because he wants to witness along the way - or maybe he just wants to order out for pizza! Luke doesn't say. We don't know.
What we do know is Paul's entourage meet up with him in Assos, and from there, Luke notes, “We sailed together to Mitylene”, which was the capital of the island of Lesbos. Nothing to report there so Luke moves on: “The next day we sailed past the island of Kios.” Kios was the island where the famous Greek poet, Homer, was born but apparently nothing noteworthy happened there either.
So..., “The following day we crossed to the island of Samos.” (Acts 20:15) Samos was the birthplace of Pythagoras, the father of mathematics and geometry. (Yawn) Apparently it was a great place to catch some zzz's so they spent the night and, “A day later we arrived at Miletus.” (Acts 20:15)
Paul invites the leaders of the church in Ephesus to meet him there. Apparently the Holy Spirit has revealed to him that he will not be returning to the church he spent so much time and energy wit-nessing to and disciplining. So they gather to hear his parting words.
Saying goodbye can be hard. Luke notes that “When he had finished speaking..., they all cried as they embraced and kissed him good-bye.” (Acts 20:36-37) Can you picture it? They had a hard time wrenching themselves apart. Maybe it looked a bit like this... ['Funny Farewell' YouTube video]
Looks painful. I'm sure it was. Paul had spent three years with them – far longer than he'd spent with any other church he'd planted. He was like a father to them. It was his labor – his blood, sweat and tears – literally, from which the Ephesian church had been birthed. He'd been beaten, imprisoned and sent into the arena to fight wild animals. He “worked humbly and with many tears.” (Acts 20:19)
He's about to cut his child loose and so he seeks to share some parting words with them. Have you ever received or spoken such words, words intended to leave the child with some last good advice, words of wisdom to help them in the time apart that lies ahead?
Christian comedian, Tim Hawkins, has some fun with that. He tells how his mom, just after he hurt himself, would tell him, “Be careful!” His brother would throw their whammo frisbee – a great name for a flying projectal, by the way – and the frisbee would hit him in the eye! Whamo! And just then his mother would call out from the front steps: Be Careful! Thanks mom...
Or he'd be getting in the car and his mom would say, “Make good decisions!” How would it be, Tim muses, if once she said, “Drive fast and take chances!” Alright...!
Back to Paul's parting words. He wants to encourage them to make good decisions, but he, of course, goes well beyond that. He reminds them of his initial message by which they came to faith: “I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike – the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God thru faith our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21)
He reminds them not only to encourage them to stay rooted in the faith that sprang to life when they heard this message but that they have been entrusted to pass it on to others. He also tells them of the insight the Spirit has given him. He informs them that he won't back. And there are more tears.
Then, he offers three key insights we would do well to keep in mind as well. First, he speaks of being led by the Holy Spirit. “I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don't know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead.”
Paul tells them this so one, they will not try and talk him out of what God has told him he must do; and two, to remind them what it looks like to walk in the Spirit – that prayer is more than talking to God, it is as much about listening as it is about talking. If the church is to thrive, every believer, starting with her leaders, must learn to faithfully listen to and follow the Spirit's leading.
Paul also reminds them that it is this same Holy Spirit that called them into the positions of servant leadership in the church in the first place: “The Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” (Acts 20:28) He's reminding them that when they stepped forward they were following the Spirit.
If we are to be effective as the Body of Christ, we must all learn to do this. It takes both faith and practice. This is part of the reason Jesus puts his Spirit in us in the first place – to speak to us, to lead us, to inspire us, to empower us! For more on that subject check out the message from July 8th...
Paul's second pastoral word is a message of warning: “Guard yourselves and God's people. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave...” (Acts 20:28-9)
Paul predicted that the Ephesian church would come under attack from two sides. The vicious wolves were well-educated and represented a threat from the outside in. In addition, Paul warned, “Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following.” (Acts 20:30) Later letters from Paul reveal that this is exactly what happened. In the letters Paul wrote to his protege', Timothy, who he assigned to pastor this church, we see this prophecy fulfilled.
I found this text amazing timing for me personally. Two weeks ago Jeremy loaned me a book entitled, Battle For The Bible, in which the author writes about the threat of those who are teaching that the Bible contains errors. The author warns that an approach to interpreting scripture called, The Historical-Critical Method, undermines the authority of Scripture by teaching that a number of biblical stories are not historical but mythical, that some books are not authored by the names attributed to them, that many of the quotes from Jesus he may never have actually said, and so on.
Such ideas are being taught at universities and at seminaries of numerous denominations across the country, the author warns. When I checked the copyright I saw that the book was written some forty years ago! The author goes on to warn that such teaching creates a slippery slope.... (apostacy)
It's now so prevalent its featured on the History Channel, National Geographic and others. We live in a land and a time in which the wolves are running rampant! As Paul warns: “Watch Out!”
The third thing Paul shares in his parting words to the Ephesian leaders is his reminder to them to be grace-full and generous. He declares: “My life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finish-ing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God... So now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace.”
(Acts 20:24, 32)
It’s all about helping people embrace and live out the wonderful grace of God. God’s grace is the gift of God’s undeserved, unconditional love and forgiveness offered in Christ to a wounded, wounding world. But as a gift we need to not only know about it but to unpack it, to apply it...
The church in Ephesus would soon come under attack from wolves, just as Paul prophesied. For a season the mission would reel and falter, but eventually they would stand firm in the Word. Jesus even commends them for doing so in John's Revelation letter to them: “Write this letter to the church in Ephesus: 'I know all the things you do... I know you don't tolerate evil people. You have examin-ed the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars...'”
But then Jesus adds a word of reproach. Listen to how they have lost their way: “But I have this complaint against you. You don't love me or each other as you did at first!” (Revelation 2:4) In their zeal to cast out false prophets they've lost their first love. This church of former prostitutes and pagans, children of grace, are no longer full of grace to the sinners around them!
Simone Weil, a Jew who followed Christ and died at age thirty-three in France under Nazi rule, left as her only legacy a written record of her pilgrimage to God. Weil concluded that two great forces rule the universe: gravity and grace. Gravity causes one body to attract other bodies so that it continual-ly enlarges by absorbing more and more of the universe into itself. This same force operates in us as well. We too want to expand, to acquire, to swell in significance. We get trapped in the gravitational field of self-love, filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass. “Grace,” on the other hand “embraces with joy our total dependence upon the goodness of God. We become ‘jolly beggars’.” (C.S. Lewis)
C.S. Lewis referred to this life as The Shadowlands, a place where light only gets in through the cracks. That’s why it’s so important for the church to be a safe haven for hurting people. That’s why we want to be known as a “Come as You Are Church” – a haven for people who know they’re messed up. After all that’s who Jesus hung out with. He preferred their company because they were honest about their junk and didn’t put on airs, people who realized their life was in ruins as opposed to those who were consumed with religion. Whatever makes us feel superior to others, whatever tempts us to convey a sense of superiority, that is gravity, not grace.
The Christian life does not primarily center on ethics or rules bur rather involves a new way of seeing and relating. I escape the force of spiritual gravity when I begin to see myself as a sinner who cannot please God by efforts at self-improvement. As I turn to God for outside help – for grace – I discover a holy God who already loves me despite my defects. I escape the force of gravity again when I recognize my neighbors are also sinners, loved by God.
One of my favorite films that conveys this is the 1990's version of Les Miserable...
[DVD clip from the film, Les Miserables; ]
As I turn to God for outside help – for grace – I discover a holy God who already loves me despite my defects and recognize my neighbors are also sinners loved by God. “My life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of demonstrating to others the Good News of God's wonderful grace...” (Acts 20:24)
It’s like the little boy who was dressed up in his Sunday’s best and was told to keep himself clean while his parents got ready. But while they were doing so he slipped outside to make a few mud pies. When his mother found him he was covered in mud and muck. Tears swelled up in his eyes as he raised his hands in a pitiful gesture. Without a word she stooped down and picked him up. She carried him inside and cleaned him up but as she stepped out of the bathroom she bumped into her husband. His mouth dropped open as he she stood there in her new dress, covered in her son’s mud and muck.
That is what God has done in Christ for you. He has stooped down to meet you in the muck, has taken on your mud, and offered to clean you up in the living waters of his limitless love and forgiveness. You may be soiled thru and thru but you are still God’s pride and joy. All of us in the church need grace-healed eyes to see the potential in others with the same grace that God has bestowed on us. “So now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace.” (Acts 20:32)