Bishop Pete's sermon from the Celebration of Lay Ministries
Posted by Bishop Pete on 16th September 2018
Sheffield Cathedral, 15.09.18, 11.00am Celebration of Lay Ministries
Acts 20.17-38: Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders
Not every farewell involves tears. My father tells the story of some friends of his, who had given hospitality to difficult guests who vastly overstayed their welcome. This was way back in the 1950s. Eventually, the day came for the guests to leave, and the host couple drove them to the train station. The two couples said their goodbyes a bit stiffly, and off went the guest couple to find their train. But at once they realised they’d left a small piece of luggage in the car, and rushed back to the drop off area to retrieve it before their hosts drove away, only to find the host couple doing a little jig together, and singing ‘They’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone’. True story.
So it’s a good sign, when a farewell is accompanied by tears. Usually at least, it suggests a good relationship and a sadness at parting. Now, I realise that for those of you who are about to be licensed and authorised in this service, today is more of a beginning than an ending, more of a hello to a new phase of life and ministry than a goodbye to a period of training and preparation — but all the same I want to focus for the next 10 minutes or so on the farewell between the Apostle Paul and the Ephesian elders which we heard in our first Bible reading a few minutes ago. I want to explore this passage with you, to ask what it might have to say to you about the ministries you are about to take up.
The passage marks the conclusion of Paul’s third missionary journey. It probably dates from about AD 57 — so quite late in Paul’s life. He’s about to embark on a journey to Jerusalem, where, as our passage anticipates, he will be arrested and imprisoned and eventually sent under armed escort to Rome, to face trial before the Emperor. It’s likely that within a few years, he was dead — though the end of Acts is silent about that. Here, he’s saying a tearful farewell to a group of elders with whom he had been working closely for a couple of years — and I want to suggest that what he says to them might be helpful advice to each of you this morning. I am speaking directly to the 40 or so of you — but if those who have come along this morning, among you families, friends and church allies, want to eavesdrop, there’s nothing very much I can do about that.
I’m going to follow the passage quite closely, so you might find it helpful to have the service booklet open at page 9. You’ll see that there’s single verse of scene setting at the start of the passage, and several verses of epilogue at the end. But in fact the passage is almost entirely made up of a speech by Paul — it runs from verse 18 to verse 35, and it’s on that bit that I am going to focus. I’m going to say a brief word about four things in turn, which I’m calling Paul’s integrity, his destiny, his anxiety and his summary.
1. vv 18-21, Paul’s integrity
First of all then what I’m calling Paul’s integrity. This is verses 18 to 21 and it’s dominated by past tenses because Paul is looking back on the time he has spent with the Christians in Ephesus. ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia (that’s Asia Minor by the way — modern day Turkey; not modern day China), serving the Lord with all humility and with tears’. Serving the Lord with humility and with tears.
I hope you don’t need me to remind you that ministry just means service. Whatever the ministry to which you are being licensed or commissioned this morning, in essence you are called to serve the Lord and to do it with humility. You are called to follow in the footsteps of the one who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Humility is the great Christian virtue. It means putting other people first — or as Paul put it in one of his letters, considering others better than yourself. You are called to a daily discipline, a mental habit, of regarding the people you are called to serve as precious in God’s sight and therefore in your sight too.
And this will mean tears. Mostly, I hope they’ll be the good tears, the sort of tears of love which we see Paul and the Ephesian elders weeping together at the end of this passage. You know, it’s amazing how often people apologise for crying. Have you noticed that? But tears are surely never something to be ashamed of. People especially apologise, I’ve noticed, for crying in church — but I hope you’ll understand what I mean when I say I think there should be more tears in our worship and fellowship and not less. Of course, not all tears are good tears, I realise that. I can think of at least half a dozen occasions in the last 30 years, when conflicts or disappointments in my own ministry have reduced me to tears. I hope that doesn’t become a routine part of your ministry, but you’ll probably not escape it. If you testify faithfully about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus, to use Paul’s words again, from time to time it’ll end in tears of distress. But more often in church life, tears are a sign that God is at work and for that reason, I wish you the blessing of tears which will accompany a ministry of humility. That’s the first thing.
2. vv 22-27, Paul’s destiny
In the second section of our reading, in verses 22 to 27, Paul moves on from talking about his integrity, his ministry in Ephesus, to his destiny, to what lies in store for him in Jerusalem. So the past tenses which dominate verses 18 to 21 give way to mostly future tenses. Paul anticipates trouble and hardship, which is worth noting in its own right. But I want to draw your attention more to his perspective, when he says in verse 24 that he does not count his life of any value to himself, if only he can finish his course, like an athlete finishing a race, and the ministry he has received from Jesus — to testify to the good news of God’s grace. Isn’t that beautiful?
There are two things I want to say about that. The first is to remind you that although you will walk away from this service with either a licence or a certificate signed by me, the ministry which is being entrusted to you today is not ultimately being entrusted to you by me, or even by the Diocese of Sheffield or even by the church of God generally, but by the Lord Jesus himself. And no matter what particular shape your ministry might take, as a pastoral worker or a reader, a youth workers, children’s workers or worship leaders, you are called to testify to the good news of God’s grace. Some of you are being licensed as lay evangelists and pioneer ministers and it’s true that you have a special responsibility in this area — but proclaiming the good news of God’s grace in our communities is far too important to be left to any specialist group of ministers. One of my challenges to you today is just this: how will you testify to the good news of God’s grace?
In the nineteenth century, there was a great Baptist preacher of whom some of you will have heard called Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He used to tell trainee ministers, ‘When you are testifying to the good news of God’s grace, let your face shine with the joy of the Holy Spirit; but when you are speaking of the wrath of God, your ordinary face will do’. Friends, the good news of what God has done for us in Christ should never be far from your lips, which means a smile should never be very far from your faces. Please, oh please, don’t be gloomy lay ministers. We don’t need those.
3. vv 28-31, Paul’s anxiety
On the other hand, I’m not demanding that you pretend your life is one long picnic with Jesus. Ministry is hard and Paul is not naive. Yes, at its heart is good news, and good news lifts the heart. But ministry is seldom easy and it can be painful. In verse 19, Paul referred to his trials. In verse 23, to imprisonments and persecutions; and in verses 28 to 31, he warns the Ephesians that while they are called to keep watch over themselves and the flock which has been entrusted to them, savage wolves will come in. That’s not a rosy image, is it.
You’ll see in verse 30 that he is particularly anxious about the threat posed by false teachers: and again I want to urge each of you (and not just those of you who are being licensed as readers today) to take seriously your responsibility for upholding the truth of the Gospel. That means continuing to invest in your own learning and growth as a disciple, in prayer and Bible reading, so that you grow to maturity in Christ and are able to help others grow to maturity in Christ. That’s an awesome responsibility, because we are talking about those who were obtained, as Paul puts it, at the cost of the blood of God’s own Son.
There is a proper anxiety which comes with a new ministry, when you stop to consider the weight of your calling — and I hope you never lose that feeling of inadequacy and the burden of responsibility; I hope you never become flippant or casual about your ministry, but that you pray earnestly for the help of the Holy Spirit, as you seek to keep watch over yourself first, and others too. That’s the third thing.
4. vv 32-35, Paul’s summary
Finally, after he has spoken about his integrity at the beginning of our passage (mostly in the past tense) and about his destiny and his anxiety in the middle of our passage (mostly in the future tense), he comes at the end to what I’m calling his summary, and in verse 32 to the present tense. He commends the Ephesian elders to God and to God’s grace. You know, I’m sure, that your ministry will only be fruitful if you continue to rely on God and his grace. It will be hard work, but your own hard work won’t be enough. It will require all your imagination and creativity, but your own imagination and creativity won’t be enough. It will take hours of your time, but no matter how many hours you invest in it, that won’t deliver the goods. You have been called by grace, and you must continue to rely on God’s grace.
And if you want one clue, one indication of whether or not you’re on the right track, well, Paul gives it to you in the final verses, when he quotes the Lord Jesus, saying ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’. Actually, some of us have to learn to receive as well as to give, and that can be a work of God’s grace in us too. But Paul is right, that a minister who is more concerned with what they can get out of their ministry than what they can give is in deep trouble, spiritually, and has lost sight of God’s grace.
One of the really important things about the ministries to which you are being licensed or authorised today is that they are voluntary. None of you will be paid for what you are taking on. Some of you won’t even claim expenses, so you’ll be out of pocket — though I hope that your churches will never assume you’re willing to do that, so that you can have a choice about it. But this means your ministry are an important reminder to those of us, including myself, who are given a stipend for ministry: ministry is not supposed to be a route to silver or gold, or anything else we might get out of it — not status or praise or power in the congregation. We are called to support the weak and to live lives which are centred on giving, not receiving.
I must stop. I’ll sum up and then I’ll shut up. I know not all of you are being licensed today — only some of you. But in preparing for this morning, I couldn’t help thinking about the range of things for which you need a licence in society generally. In this country, without a licence, you can’t drive a car or fly a plane, own a gun or a bar, practice law or medicine, or run a casino or a tattoo parlour. I suppose the reason is, that in any of these activities, you can do harm as well as good.
And that’s true for ministry too my friends. The responsibility which the Lord is entrusting to you today is an awesome one, because it will impact on the lives of people who are made in the image of the God who loves them. If your impact is going to be for good and not for ill, you must beware — hold fast day by day to humility and tears; testify to the good news of God’s grace; keep watch over yourselves and your people, looking out for savage wolves; rely on God and his grace, and may God bless you in your ministry and make you fruitful. Amen.