Sunday, June 5, 2016

Miletus: "If Only I May Finish My Course": Sermon on Acts 20:13-38

Over these past two months, we've been following Paul through his second and third missionary journeys. When he started, he answered the Macedonian call. We learned that Jesus is still the Head of the Church, and that he sometimes sends us into new ministry frontiers. Just the same, we might have to set aside our old familiar ways of 'doing church' in order to reach our “Macedonians” – the people in our community we'd never reach by doing things the way we've always done them. 

In Philippi, we learned that the beauty of the gospel isn't in a generic God we can tame or fit into our preconceived worldview; the beauty of the gospel is in the name of Jesus, and “if our faith is in Jesus, then our faithful prayers and faithful songs can show off the splendor of the King,” even if we're in dark places ourselves. We asked the question: “What would it take to make your faith a beautiful witness?”

In Thessalonica, we learned that “following Jesus is not life as usual,” because this King turns our sinful world upside-down: “He wants to flip your anger into peace, your despair into joy, your greed into generosity, your lust into love, your earthiness into heavenly freedom, your hurt into healing.” That's the power of the gospel; that's the spiritual and political truth of the gospel. “And I'd rather displease Caesar, rather lose out on Mammon, rather walk out of step with the American way, than displease King Jesus, the Anointed Son of God.” 

In Berea, we learned the importance of listening with an open mind but verifying every claim against what the Bible says – making it the authority, the yardstick, by which we measure any preaching or any teaching, and especially any behavior or attitude we find in our own lives.

In Athens, we saw Paul set an example for how to build bridges for evangelism – how to start with what his audience knows and believes, and bring the gospel into contact with it. And we heard Paul's encouragement: you never needed idols, because God always stayed within reach, but now he's sent his Son, and it's time to repent and believe in him. Paul called us out on trying to limit our faith to the church walls, at failing to see the image of God in our every neighbor, at being intimidated by threats limited to the times and places God himself has set. 

In Corinth, we heard Paul receive a message from Jesus to “speak and not be silent.” “The church is a sent people, a missionary movement, the one holy worldwide and apostolic church; and if we're sent, then we're sent to speak the good news,” like Priscilla and Paul and Jeremiah – and even like Apollos, a man who wasn't just educated; he was “boiling in the Spirit.” And we started praying – may we never stop! – for God to turn up the heat in this church until we're all boiling in the Spirit too.

In Ephesus, we learned the difference between the gospel and magic – between really trusting Jesus as a person, and trying to use his name as a magic trick to get what we want, when we want it. We learned that Jesus won't settle for 95% of a person; he wants all of you or none of you; we don't get to keep a little pagan corner in one or two areas of our lives. And we learned how the word of the Lord can prevail in our lives, and how it can prevail in our world through the mission of the church to disciple our neighbors and neighborhoods. 

And then, finally, in Troas, we learned that even when everything seems like it's drawing to an end, even when death is inevitable, death doesn't have the last word for a Christian soldier who marches onward in faith and discipleship under Jesus Christ, the Recruiter and Commander.

And that brings us to this week. Here we meet Paul again on his goodbye tour. He spent the most time with the believers in Ephesus, where he lived for more than two years and had the most fruitful ministry of his career. But stopping in Ephesus would take ages to visit everybody, and besides, he's not exactly welcome back in the city anyway. So he sends word ahead to the Ephesian church elders – probably the leaders of each house church in the whole region, whose title in their churches was 'Overseer' or 'Bishop,' but who when gathered together were called 'elders.' And they're ready to meet Paul when he reaches the port city of Miletus – ready to listen to one of Paul's longest and best recorded speeches, as Luke summarizes the main points for us. At this stage in the game, we'd be foolish not to listen to what the mature Paul has to say.

Paul opens by reminding the elders about his ministry. They saw him the whole time he was in Asia – they know how Paul does things. They know the opposition he faced, and did it stop him? No – “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). Through it all, Paul never backed down – not once. When the going got tough, Paul kept going. He kept teaching, he kept preaching, he kept bearing witness. And that wasn't going to stop: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit...” (Acts 20:22). Paul isn't sure if he'll survive Jerusalem or not – might get beaten, might get arrested, might even get lynched.

The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:23). That's not exactly the kind of message I'd want to get from the Holy Spirit! If I were in Paul's shoes, it'd be awfully tempting to take a vacation. Wouldn't you? If you knew that everywhere you went, jail time and mob riots and punches and kicks were around the corner if you kept saying the things you were saying... wouldn't you take a break? Wouldn't you consider an early retirement – let somebody else take over, consider your time served?

I mean, think about your health, think about your life! “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus...” (Acts 20:24). Paul refuses to think about his life that way. Paul's planned persistence matches his past persistence. Paul will persevere. He won't back down. He won't chicken out. He refuses to let attachment to his own live be a distraction or an obstacle that keeps him from crossing that finish line. And his ministry is “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God,” a grace made available through repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, just like he said.

That's Paul's gospel, right there. He won't let the Ephesian elders forget it. Paul isn't the bearer of bad news; he comes with good news, he comes with great news! God is giving out gifts! God is looking on us – his sinful, wayward people, and even on Gentiles who never were his people – with favor. And all we have to do is first repent, change our minds, turn away from ourselves and fix our eyes on God; and then, trust and depend on Jesus, the rabbi put to death like a godless criminal, to be living again as the Promised Redeemer, the 'Christ,' and the true King of the Universe, the 'Lord.' If we can do that, then we can be saved, we can be rescued, we can be gifted and graced with God's very presence in our lives, we can be raised from the clutches of our corruption to the power of God's Spirit, and everlasting life is ours. It's just that radical, but it's just that simple, too.

Paul won't let anything stop him from spreading that good news all over creation. If it gets him beaten, well, so be it. If it gets him arrested, well, so be it. If it gets him killed... well, he's ready. All that takes a back seat to finishing the race, finishing his testimony up to the end. And so he has to say goodbye to the elders. Paul won't be around Ephesus any more; and so they'll need to be ready to take care of things without him. “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:25-27).

Isn't that a weird phrase – 'innocent of the blood of all'? I mean, is Paul worried that the elders will think he killed somebody in the woods? Well, actually, Paul's goodbye sermon seems to mostly be based on a couple chapters in the Book of Ezekiel. And here he's looking back at Ezekiel 33, and we need to understand what it's saying. For the second time, God calls Ezekiel to be “a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7). But this time, God explains: If trouble's coming on the land, and the people have a watchman, and the watchman sees trouble on the way, sees judgment coming, well, a watchman has two choices: sound the alarm, or keep it quiet. 

If he sounds the alarm, and somebody ignores it and keeps on doing the same dumb things and dies because of it, “his blood shall be on his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and didn't take warning; his blood shall be on himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life.” On the other hand, if the watchman gets scared or lazy and doesn't do his job, and the guy down in the field keeps on doing the same dumb things and dies in judgment, then “that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand” (Ezekiel 33:2-6). That's just a general principle, but God applies it to Ezekiel: if God warns an evil person and Ezekiel doesn't convey the message, then even if that evil person gets their just desserts, Ezekiel's on the hook: “His blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 33:8).

Paul's saying to the elders, “Hey, listen, I'm Ezekiel, I'm the watchman. And I'm telling you that I've warned everybody. Nobody slipped through the cracks. Not once did I fail to pick up the trumpet when I saw trouble coming. Not once did I fall asleep on my watch. So maybe not everybody listened, but I did my part faithfully. And when I see God, he isn't going to say, 'But now what about so-and-so? Why didn't you warn them? Isn't their blood on your hands?' Nope – no blood on my hands – I'm 100% innocent. And now it's your turn, elders. You're watchmen for the church, just like the church is a watchman for the world. Don't get bloody. Don't hold back a part of God's message.”

That's what Paul's telling them – that's what Paul is telling us. It'd be easy to run with this in the wrong direction. If there's one hobby we cherish in the church, it's complaining about the world – whining that the good old days aren't the good new days, whining that it's ugly and rough out there, that evil forces have somehow “taken God out of schools” – as if anybody can block God from somewhere – or that we just don't get the respect we used to. 

The church's hobby is complaining about the world. The church's hobby is fretting over America. And that is not what Paul is asking us to do. Remember, Paul says that his job isn't to judge the world; his job is to judge the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). That doesn't mean he thinks the world is sinless – no, the sinful ways of the world are a given, to him. But he calls out sin among those who claim to be God's people.

That's how the elders are to be watchmen – how people like me, and like Carl, and like the other leaders of the church, are watchmen. As pastor and board, we challenge and encourage the church. But the church has a watchman role too, and it isn't to whine and complain and play mournful little notes on the trumpet like a dirge. No – the trumpet isn't about the faults of 21st-century American culture; the trumpet is about the gospel. It's as simple as that! It's the same message that we needed to hear in the 1950s, and in the 1850s, as in the original 50s when Paul's telling it. “Repent” – some of the sins may be different, plenty are the same, but they were and are and will be sins – “and have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” – and there's salvation in the kingdom of God, if you'll be a disciple and citizen.

This is serious business, the gospel. It means life or death to every soul. The gospel is not a hobby. The gospel is not a pet theory. The gospel is not a little box in our life that we open up in church and then close at the edge of the parking lot. Lately, I've been reading a lot of online tips from Europeans about travel to Europe – hey, go figure – and one of the common refrains is, “Keep religion to yourself – that's not something people show in public here.” 

We're hearing that in America these days too: the idea that 'religion' or 'faith' is something necessarily private, to the point that it'd be inappropriate to bring into public view, let alone to touch somebody else with it. But not only is that a weird quirk of modern Western culture, foreign to the whole experience of the human species from before recorded history; it's also a recipe for death. Because the gospel is not private. It's not just an opinion that you might or might not hold. It's a public truth about a public Lord and a public Savior, and it means life or death for everyone, whether they want to hear or not.

Friends, here's the key point. Our neighbors are dying. Some are dying fast; others are dying slow. As soon as a baby's born, she's starting to die. That's Adam's world. But worse, our neighbors are dying spiritually. They are passing away under God's sword of judgment, because our neighbors are clinging to their sinful flesh and to all the sinful ways we try to cope with our fragile existence. Our neighbors are refusing the wisdom of God for living, and are instead running around on foolish roads that lead to death – if not the big death of their souls, then the little death of their potential as disciples. And it happens to the churched and the unchurched. Your neighbors, our neighbors, are dying, are just wasting away. And there is a trumpet in your hand. Will we silently watch our neighbors bleed out, quietly sit there and stare at them as they expire? Then we can't say, like Paul, that we're “innocent of the blood of all.” This gospel is serious business.

Paul goes on to talk about wolves and shepherds and caring for the flock, and it's all a little bit befuddling, to be honest. But there are two main passages of Scripture shaping this part of the speech. The first is the next chapter of Ezekiel, about the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves but not the sheep (Ezekiel 34:2-3). And the other one is Luke's story about Jesus commissioning the Seventy. It's the only other time in his writings that Luke mentions wolves, because Jesus tells the Seventy that he will “send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). 

The church is always a church under threat. We've forgotten that too easily in America. We have this long legacy of the church as some kind of respectable institution, safe and secure from all alarm. But the church is always a church under threat – from wolves. Some wolves are persecutors of the church. But Jesus most uses the image of wolves to talk about false prophets, false teachers – those who bring twisted, corrupted ideas into the church and try to revise her faith (Matthew 7:15). And Paul warns that, after he leaves, “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). Sadly, that's true. We could stand here and name plenty of false teachings that, like the fangs of a wolf, tear apart the gospel, dividing the seamless fabric of the church's faith.

But just as dangerous as those wolves are the bad shepherds. A shepherd's job is threefold: a shepherd feeds the sheep; a shepherd protects the sheep; and a shepherd shows care for the sheep. But a bad shepherd steals from the sheep, leaves the sheep defenseless, even abuses the sheep. We see that in Ezekiel 34: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you don't feed the sheep. The weak you haven't strengthened, the sick you haven't healed, the injured you haven't bound up, the strayed you haven't brought back, the lost you haven't sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts” (Ezekiel 34:3-5). And that's what Paul warns about, why he tells the elders to “pay careful attention to [themselves] and all the flock,” because not only will there be wolves, but “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28, 30).

Now, I want to make this clear: Paul is not against a paid ministry. You might think that, from all the times he says in this speech about how he didn't covet anybody's gold or silver, how he refused to accept compensation for his service, all that (Acts 20:33-34). But actually, he says it would be a shepherd's right to drink some milk while guarding the flock (1 Corinthians 9:7). Paul insists that he has the right to “refrain from working for a living,” in the way he does as a tent-maker (1 Corinthians 9:6). “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Corinthians 9:11). Just like all Israel supported the landless Levites, so the church provides for those who lead. After all, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). And those in the church who preach and teach, he suggests, are worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17). Jesus himself told the Seventy to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). So if you hear anyone say that pastors or missionaries shouldn't be paid, know that Jesus, Paul, and all the apostles disagree. Paul may have had practical reasons to not use that right, but it was still his right (1 Corinthians 9:15).

Yet at the same time, it's one thing to drink milk from the flock and another thing to butcher the sheep for meat. And the sad truth is that Paul was right: throughout the history of the church, plenty of shepherds have put themselves before the flock. Think of pastors who introduced false teachings into the church – Arius, one of the worst heretics ever, was a priest in Alexandria. Think of televangelists, urging the poor to exercise faith by sending donations – funny how you never hear Creflo Dollar or Benny Hinn proving their own faith by giving away their fortune to all the people who watch their antics on the screen. Think of the Mormon prophets, demanding tithing from the poor so that they can make more business investments, buy more stately houses and finer suits.

And I'm led to remember a conversation I had last week. You might remember I hadn't been feeling well, and I didn't stay for Sunday School. But on the way home, I stopped at the bed and breakfast down the street, to drop off some copies of the church newsletter. There were plenty of guests and neighbors on the porch, eager for some conversation, and one man told me a story about the church he used to attend in Virginia. I won't name names, but a new pastor took the reins, dismissed the board, and set about turning the church into a cult – he directed them to shun any dissenters, even divorce their spouses if they weren't on board with what he was teaching. He's still there – that's the sad part of the story. 

Now, that's extreme, but I'm sure more than a few of you have someone who comes to mind when you think of a truly bad shepherd – one who didn't feed you, one who didn't protect you, one who didn't care for you, one who tried making disciples for himself – his theology, his vision, his gain, his benefit – rather than for Jesus or for the kingdom of God. But the church doesn't belong to any shepherd, good or bad; it's “the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

The truth is, there are a lot of people out there who used to 'go to church' until they had a run-in with a bad shepherd; and they dropped out and swear they'll never come back, never again have public fellowship with God's people, all because there was one bad shepherd. That's one of the greatest tragedies I can imagine. It can't be easy to get over that kind of trauma – and yet you have to. You can't let one, or two, or even ten bad shepherds keep you away from the Good Shepherd when he's calling you back to the flock. But there are more than just a few names on our church's membership rolls who've spent years doing exactly that – staying away from the Good Shepherd's flock because of how a bad shepherd they met here or elsewhere failed them. Their blood will be on that bad shepherd's hands – but they themselves are starving, whether they realize it or not.

So “pay careful attention” – “be alert” – don't fall asleep on the job, like Eutychus did last week in Troas. Watch out for wolves. And pray for your shepherds – your pastor and your church board. But also, whatever area of stewardship God has given you – maybe your work, maybe your area of ministry, maybe your family – be a good watchman and a good shepherd. And in the end, it's between you and God. The same is true for these elders: it isn't between them and Paul; it's between them and God – and us and God. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). 

Isn't that an amazing thought? Grace isn't cheap, and grace isn't an excuse. We use it that way too much. Grace cost God his own blood, and grace is meant not to excuse us but to change us – not through our power, but his. Trust in his word of grace – it will meet you where you are, but it won't leave you where you are. And when God is through with you, you'll see clear as day that “it's more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Paul doesn't deny the times will get tough. They already are tough! And they'll get tougher without him. But the solution isn't to find another apostle; the solution isn't to toss up our hands; the solution isn't to fret; the solution isn't to build our own little kingdoms. The solution is the grace of God, and faithfulness to what Paul passed on. 

And there's hope beyond the wolves, hope beyond the bad shepherds. Because Ezekiel's prophecy continues from there – God himself will rescue his sheep, God will appoint good shepherds, and God says at the end, “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land. … And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land, and they shall know that I am the LORD … They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. … And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (Ezekiel 34:25, 27-28, 31).

That's what we're counting on! That's what we're trusting in! That's the inheritance for the sanctified – what we have promised to us through the word of his grace! So even though it's hard, even though bad shepherds leave a foul taste in your mouth, even though the wolves snarl or even sneak around in borrowed wool, don't give up. Don't shrink back. Don't stop short of the finish line! 

Count all those things as nothing, if only you might finish your course and the ministry Jesus gave you, to testify to the good news about the grace of God – to announce the word of his grace that brings the only safety we could ever have or ever need. Keep warning the dying; keep dodging the wolves; keep caring for the church of God; keep trusting in his word of grace. Amen and amen.

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