Pauls Farewell at Miletus
There is a good deal of uncertainty in the Church of England these days, about where we are headed and what the future holds. This has partly to do with disagreement about the ministry, what it is and who may do it.
Are the clergy here to administer the sacraments, lead services, preach, evangelise or is it for you to share? Are we museum curators, tourist guides, social workers, psychotherapists, educators, administrators or something else? This evening I'd like us to spend a few minutes together listening to St Paul's last recorded sermon, given to the Ephesian Elders at Miletus for we might find some answers. Paul knew his life was drawing to a close and that he would never see them again. Consequently he wanted to prepare them for the future. He begins by taking them back to the first time they met, then to the present day, then on into the future, their future. We start with
1. PAUL'S PAST MINISTRY IN EPHESUS 20:18-21
Marshall Mcluhan back in the 1960's coined the now famous phrase "the medium is the message". That is what Paul is saying here. His life had literally been an open book. Everything he told them to do, he had done himself. "You know how I lived" (20:18); "you know" (20:20); "you yourselves know" (20:34). Why this repeated emphasis on their knowledge of him?
While Paul had been away he had been criticised. Easy to do in someone's absence. "He doesn't really care about us, he's just empire building....."
Paul defended his motives by appealing to their first hand knowledge of him, their personal experience of him, during the whole time he was with them. Sometimes clergy have a problem with credibility. About four years ago as I tried to leave Israel having visited some of the churches in the Occupied Territories, I found the security staff at the airport wouldn't believe I was an Anglican priest. Its a strange, confusing experience when those in authority don't believe you. The security staff held me for over an hour in solitary confinement. I didn't look like a priest they said. May be I was a spy, they wondered. They took me into a special room and searched through everything in my luggage. They took my cameras to pieces, even my shaver and torch. They checked my bags for hidden compartments. They even gave me a body search. When they told me they would be keeping my cameras for a week I didn't react the way they expected. I heard myself say "fine, you keep them, they're insured". That really threw them because they expected me to have a tantrum and demand my rights. I didn't shout or swear, I didn't bang the table and demand to see the British Consulate.
I was so scared I didn't think to tell them they should have believed me, and so I forgot to give Jesus the credit. There was nothing I could do to convince them who I was or what I did. Ultimately I hope my behaviour was enough to confirm my claim. Paul on the other hand had known these Christians for years not just a few hours. His life validated his authority, it verified his authenticity. He had given all his energy (20:18), to meet all their needs (20:20), among all nationalities (20:21). He didn't just say as a certain US President did, "read - my - lips", but "read my life, its an open book". Paul's past ministry at Ephesus.
2. PAUL'S PRESENT MOTIVES AT EPHESUS 20:22-27
In this section Luke replaces the "you know.... you know" of the previous paragraph with "I know... (20:23) I know... (20:25) I know... (20:29)"
For he turns from the past which they knew to what the Holy Spirit was teaching him and what he must now share. The same Holy Spirit who warns him in every town of prison and hardships (20:23) nevertheless compels him to keep travelling to Jerusalem (20:22).
He explains that he is neither doubting his calling nor deserting their needs. His overriding concern is not to survive at all costs but rather to finish the race, and complete his Christ-given task of sharing the good news.
Paul describes his ministry like that of race nearing its end. A good runner saves some energy for those last few metres to the tape. Knowing his end was near he has no thought of retiring or relaxing a bit.
Just the reverse. Probably America's top astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking contracted terminal cancer early in his life. In his biography he wrote these words. "When your expectations for life are reduced to zero, you really appreciate everything that you do." That was Paul's attitude.
I have never felt like that, although I have friends who have. My life may not have been threatened but it caused me to think through my priorities. Read 20:26-27
This is an attitude we might well cultivate whether we are young and fit, or elderly and unwell. It is an attitude of living each day as if it might be our last, of finely tuning our priorities, not putting off till tomorrow what needs to be done today. Of seeing life as a race, a race with a goal, a purpose. Read 20:24 again. Paul's past ministry, Paul's present motives......
3. PAUL'S PROPHETIC MESSAGE 20:28-37
Paul predicts the future for the Ephesian Church. He tells them about the role of the shepherds, the rise of the wolves and the value of the sheep.
3.1 The Role of the Shepherds
Its time we rehabilitated the noble word "pastor" for that is what the minister really should be. Shepherds of Christ's sheep, called to tend, feed and protect them. Note that the Ephesian elders must first keep watch over themselves, and only then over the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them responsible. For they could not care adequately for others if they neglected the care and culture of their own souls.
Notice too they were to be "shepherds" of God's Church.
The word here means to tend a flock and in particular to lead a flock to pasture, and so to feed it. This is the first duty of shepherds. Paul then uses a quite startling concept for they are shepherds of "the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." This expression appears no where else in the New Testament. The Role of the Shepherds.
3.2 The Rise of the Wolves
In the ancient Near East wolves were the chief enemy of sheep. Hunting sometimes singly, sometimes in packs, they were a constant threat. What's the difference between a wolf and a shepherd?
A wolf sacrifices the sheep for himself. A shepherd sacrifices himself for the sheep. Sheep are defenceless against wolves. Shepherds could not afford to relax their vigilance. Nor can Christian pastors. So the shepherds of Christ's flock have a double duty; to feed the sheep (by teaching the truth); and to protect them from the wolves (by warning of error). There are many wolves around.
A wolf is concerned with what you can do for him. Regularly I receive mailings from individuals or organisations who want to come to our Church to minister to us. I had one last month who was really pushy claiming the Lord had raised up his ministry of healing and prophecy to serve the local churches of Surrey. When I asked him which particular church fellowship he was a member of, he admitted that he and a few friends met in his home to worship. That's when I get suspicious. Wolves treat people as pawns, objects, numbers, a means to an end. A wolf uses people to assist him in his ministry. A true pastor on the other hand nurtures people so they can fulfil their own God given ministry. Read 20:30.
Paul specifically tells us here where this would happen, how and why.
3.2.1 Where this was going to happen
"from your own number" Paul predicts there would be wolves in sheep's clothing, even from within the church. If there were wolves in the Church of Ephesus, you can be pretty certain there are wolves in the Church of England. How do we know?
3.2.2 How this was going to happen
"they will distort the truth" Have you ever looked at yourself in an old mirror that was flawed?
It exaggerates certain parts of your anatomy. You know its not your real shape because as you move, the reflection changes shape too, so the exaggeration shows up the flaw. Heresy is the distortion of truth not necessarily the denial of truth. A distortion is the overemphasis or under-emphasis. It may be in teaching, the liturgy, personal ethics.
I saw some old friends recently from Hastings. I asked how their Church was doing and there was a long pause. The Church has moved into a deliverance ministry, and it has become central to everything they do.
So everyone needed delivering. Deliverance had become the solution to every problem. How do you know something has become a distortion? Hold it up to the mirror of God's word, and the distortion will stand out a mile. Paul not only tells them where and how but also why.
3.2.3 Why this was going to happen
"in order to draw disciples away after them" Distortion leads to division, to bickering, in fighting, cliques, splinter groups, factions. The sects and the cults of today find their prey on the edges of the Church, just as the wolves do to the flock. They are like the gulls that follow the fishing boats, picking off the fish which the fishermen are careless to leave exposed. "Keep watch... keep watch" says Paul. The Role of the Shepherds, the Rise of the Wolves.
3.3 The Value of the Sheep
Implicit in verse 28 is the truth that the pastoral oversight of the Church belongs ultimately to God himself. That should have a profound effect on all involved in Christian ministry whether clergy, House Group leaders, Youth or Sunday school teachers for example. It should humble us to remember that the Church is not ours, but God's.
It should inspire us to faithfulness, for sheep are not at all the clean and cuddly creatures they may appear. A couple of years ago we went on holiday to Ireland and stayed with some friends who keep sheep.
When you get close to sheep you discover they are dirty, subject to unpleasant pests and regularly need to be dipped in strong chemicals to rid them of lice, ticks and worms. They easily get lost, they are unintelligent, defenceless, wayward and obstinate. I am reluctant to press the analogy too closely. But there are times when Christian ministry is lonely, thankless and apparently futile. Its at times like that we need to remember how valuable the Church is in God's sight. We are part of the flock of God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of God the Son, and supervised by overseers appointed by God the Holy Spirit. If the three persons of the Trinity are thus committed to the welfare of the people, should we not be also? Richard Baxter's great book The Reformed Pastor published way back in 1656 is really an exposition of Acts 20:28. In it he writes,
Oh then, let us hear these arguments of Christ, whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless; "Did I die for them, and will you not look after them? Where they worth my blood and are they not worth your labour? Did I come down to earth to seek and save the lost, and will you not go to the next door or street or village to seek them?
I debased myself to this, but it is your labour to be so employed. Have I done so much for their salvation; and was I willing to make you a co-worker with me, and will you refuse that little which lies upon your hands?