Shepherds of the Flock; Messengers of Grace

Acts 20:25-38 – Second at Six - August 25, 2013

In our passage for tonight, we drop into Luke’s recollection of an important speech given by Paul to the leaders of the church in Ephesus.  The church in Ephesus was a church Paul had a hand in establishing and nurturing.  He had spent three years with these people teaching, preaching, and living in their community.  This was the longest that Paul had spent in any place on his missionary journeys.  Therefore, the people of Ephesus held a special place in Paul’s heart. Our text for tonight is a part of Paul’s speech to the leaders of the church he had gathered some 30 miles south of Ephesus in Miletus.  This was not just any speech.  This was his farewell address to the people of Ephesus with whom he had so much history and many important memories.  Just prior to our text, Luke tells the hearer, now us, the reader, how Paul spoke of the nature and character of his ministry and time spent among them.  Paul had reminded them of how he diligently spoke of and lived out the gospel message every day in their midst.  He then told them to remember his example.

Then Luke writes that Paul said these words that we now know as Acts 20:25-38.  There is a distinct shift in tone from the previous portion of the speech.  Paul turns his attention from how he ministered among them to admonishments on how to live in his absence.  Even the verb tenses in Greek shift, signaling the importance of what is about to be said.  Listen for God to speak…
“And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Keep 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. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And 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. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In 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.’”

When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.”

Saying goodbye is never easy.  I don't mean the "see ya later" kind of goodbye.  You know, the "I'm going to the grocery. Bye." or "I'll talk to you soon." as you hang up the phone.  What I am talking about are the gut wrenching goodbyes; the goodbyes where you know that you won't see the other person for a long while, if ever.  And when you do see them again, so much will have changed that you are uncertain if the relationship will be anything like it currently is or used to be.

We have all said these goodbyes.  The ones where you feel as though our heart may literally break.  The kind of goodbyes where you feel as though you have to say everything all at once before you can even begin to let the other go; reminding them of everything you have done together; warning them to please be careful out there; and then encouraging them to live into the best that they are, the best you know them to be.

There are plenty famous examples of these kinds of goodbyes.
In his farewell to baseball, Lou Gehrig said, “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

In what would be Dr. Martin Luther King’s final speech the night before his assassination in Memphis, he said…
“I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

And before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

Yes, these kind of goodbyes are hard for everyone involved.

In our text for tonight, we read a portion of Paul's tear-filled goodbye to one of his most beloved communities.  Paul spent three years working as a tent maker in Ephesus establishing and nurturing a new faith community.  In order to understand the reason why Luke would include this goodbye speech in his text, it is important to know something about the city to which it was spoken.  Ephesus was a significant city in the ancient world.  In its heyday it was a city of some 250,000 residents.  It was located on the coastline of the Aegean Sea and was considered the gateway into Asia for the Roman Empire.  It was a true metropolitan city with its countless temples; beautiful homes – complete with mosaics on the floors, frescos on the walls, and running water; a magnificent library; and two theatres – one of which could seat well over 25,000 people.  Ephesus was a center for trade and was one of only three lighted cities in the Roman world with over 50 street lights running down its main thoroughfare.   Like most cities during that time period, Ephesus had a patron god or in this case goddess.  Artemis, or Diana as she was known in the Roman world, the goddess of fertility, was the protector of Ephesus.  The Ephesians honored her with arguably the greatest temple ever constructed with its 127 majestic columns; each standing some 60 feet tall.  It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  It was a source of pride and religious devotion for the citizens of the city.  Because this was her city, Ephesus had many silversmiths and idol makers who sold their statues of Artemis throughout the Roman world.

In Acts, 19, we are told that one of these idol makers, named Demetrius, began to see Paul and this thriving new faith as a threat to his business and the livelihood of many in the bustling city.  Feeling that his trade and way of life might be in danger of being viewed as unnecessary, he and his fellow tradesmen stirred up a disturbance among the Ephesians.  They began to chant, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” as they marched toward and filled the theater demanding Paul to come and defend himself and his cause.  It was a near riot.  The crowd was eventually calmed and Paul quietly but quickly departed the city by sea to Macedonia.

Paul’s missionary work in Ephesus was obviously a success and led to a vibrant and growing community of disciples.  When Paul made the decision to make his last visit to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, he asked them come to him in Miletus, 30 miles south of Ephesus, perhaps because of the previous disturbance as well as because of his haste to get to Jerusalem.  As we heard in our text, Paul gathered these leaders of the church to say goodbye.

He gathered these leaders of the church in Ephesus reminding them of his ministry and the message of grace they have received, warning them against the dangers from without and from within, and encouraging them in the ministry they had witnessed and received from Paul.  This was Paul’s message as he launched them into their future as a community of faith in his absence.

Paul called the leaders of Ephesus to “keep watch over” themselves as well as the entire community of believers as a shepherd watches over the sheep.  This is the only time in all of his writings or addresses that Paul uses the imagery of a shepherd and the sheep.  Paul called the community to become the shepherds in the same sacrificial manner in which he himself served as a shepherd.  Those who once may have thought of themselves as part of the flock were now being asked to take on this new role together – to nurture, to protect, to guide.  About shepherds, Henri Nouwen writes, the image of shepherd is not “about a brave, lonely shepherd who takes care of a large flock of obedient sheep.  In many ways…ministry is a communal and mutual experience”  Henri argues, “We cannot bring the good news on our own.  We are called to proclaim the Gospel together, in community…whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name, but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us…Ministry is not only a communal experience, it is also a mutual experience” (Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 40-43).

It would have been easier for Paul to pull aside a single leader and admonish them to become a “little Paul” leading the church in the same manner in which he led.  However, Paul knew that such an approach would only sustain the small community for a season.  The call was to shepherd together.  It was not the responsibility of one individual leader.  It was the responsibility of the entire community.  The church, the body was to serve as shepherds of one another – to nurture, to protect, and to guide.

This approach seems foreign in a place and time that celebrates and encourages rugged individualism, and it is something that in many ways may seem sorely lacking in the Christian community today where we often injure one another rather than nurture; abandon our sisters and brothers at the first sign of difficulty instead of protecting one another; and seek our own glory instead of sacrificially guiding.  But it is the challenge toward which we are called.

What if we were to recommit ourselves to the attitude of the shepherd?  What if our heart beat with the desire to nurture, protect, and guide one another?  Such an attitude would require the humility to place selfish pursuits after the needs of the other.  It would require an understanding that our corporate witness to the grace of God is more important than our personal desire to be right.  It would require an acceptance that all of us are sheep in constant need of the mercy of the Good Shepherd.

Such an approach would require grace.

Paul reminds the leaders of the Ephesian church that the message of grace is the reason the community exists and is that to which the community of believers bears witness.  Luke writes that Paul said to the leaders gathered in Miletus, “And now I commend you to God and to the message of (God’s) grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified…In 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.’”

In order for the community to continue to thrive, it was imperative that they never forget the message of grace that called them together and to which their community was to give witness; witness not only to the world outside but also within the community itself.  With all of the pressures that had already been put upon the Ephesian church, it would have been easy to focus on what it would take to ensure their survival as a community.  It would have been understandable if Paul would have told the community to become insular, to close ranks and worry only about themselves.  But this was not Paul’s message.  Instead, he reminds them that they are to continue to bear witness to the grace they have received and to support the weak remembering the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”  Church, he said, it is not enough that you have received.  You are called to give.

Sometimes, I must confess, it feels as though the church, the corporate church, is under attack, from outside as well as from within.  And often, it has fallen prey to the desire to preserve itself at all costs.  When self-preservation is the main focus anything “other” becomes the enemy that must be isolated or eliminated – different ideas, perspectives, understandings, or ways of being.  Throughout the history of the church, such an approach has been the cause of major disagreements, schisms, and church splits.  Grace has been lost along the way.  There is no good news without it.

N.T. Wright says, “And that, of course, is the point. For Paul, the whole essence of the gospel was found, not in a doctrine or theory, a magic formula or a secret access to a powerful Name by which he could stride through the world making things happen…(Paul) had lived out the message of the gospel as he had understood it, ‘the message of God’s grace’, which isn’t primarily a theory but a way of life, an image-bearing way of life.  And it is to that message, and that way of life, that he now commends them” (N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part Two, 136) and us.

For 175 years, the faithful people of Second Presbyterian Church have been diligent in their work as shepherds of the flock that God has given them.  This place has been characterized by a sense that the people were responsible one for another.  In addition, the call of grace permeates what Second Presbyterian Church is about and the work the church undertakes.  This is our legacy – the story of where we have been and the narrative into which we are call to live.

As Paul launches the church in Ephesus, he launches the church today.  He gives them and us this challenge…
Nurture, protect, and guide one another and never forget to give out of the grace we have been given.
When all else fails, we must never forget to be shepherds of the flock and messengers of grace. Amen.


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