Now from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how 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. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 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, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 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. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 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 the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:17-35 ESV)
The First Reading can be quite widely chosen in the lectionaries because they are designed to reflect or foreshadow the Gospel. Traditionally a reading from the Old Testament and pointing forward to Jesus, in the Easter season, a series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles can be found to emphasise, I expect, the profound changes the risen Christ had on his followers and on those they met. We can find this in each year of the 3 Year Lectionary. Our reading today of Paul’s farewell to the leaders and, by extension, to all the church in Ephesus is rather rare – as far as I can tell it is only mentioned in one Orthodox lectionary as one of 6 readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter. Otherwise no one reads this. Curious.
The situation is that on his third missionary journey, Paul has spent 2 years in Ephesus where Luke records ‘so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks’ (Acts 19:10). But now there has been a riot and social disruption because it seems Paul’s preaching is a challenge to the silvermiths who made their money from making silver shrines of Artemis (in the Roman pantheon she is called Diana). So Paul has left Ephesus on the coast of western Turkey and gone across to then Macedonia and Greece but eventually trouble catches up with him – this time a plot against him (we presume to kill him) by the Jews – and so he travels again in Greece and at some point decides to go to Jerusalem by Pentecost and so he heads south. This would take him through or past Ephesus and he decides to go past – we presume because he doesn’t want to stir up trouble for the church there – but when at Miletus he sends for the ‘elders of the church’ which we generally understand to be the equivalent of the pastors and maybe the deacons – the church leaders – to come to him. It is about 40 miles they have to travel but travel they do and our text is Paul’s message to them in the context he’s not coming back to them. This is the last time he expects to see them because he is aware that at some point those out to get him will succeed – and possibly in Jerusalem. So with that emotion hanging over their heads we hear him speak – about his ministry goals, about his ministry ethics, and about how he thinks his ministry will end, and about what he wants them to remember and do in their ministry. Maybe it’s like a farewell sermon from a pastor who has accepted a call – his last Sunday – just before a rite of closure when he and the congregation release each other – if you’ve ever been in that situation.
What do you say for your final message?
Paul wants to make clear that he has worked for them – whether out in public or in their homes, he has maintained a call to repentance for everyone and a call to faith in Christ – because God is faithful and good in Jesus Christ. In Lutheran lingo, we’d say ‘Law and Gospel’. He acknowledged that the work was hard because of the opposition thrown at him.
He says clearly that he believes the Holy Spirit is sending him to Jerusalem – not to retire – but for more of the same and it will get worse – imprisonment and death await.
He then wants to make clear that he is leaving with no unfinished business – he hasn’t omitted any teaching – he has told them the truth – the whole truth of God – and he then encourages these pastors or church leaders to care for the flock, be vigilant, because wolves are coming – from without and within – to draw people away from the grace of God. False religion is always Law dressed up as a Gospel of some sort – be careful, beware.
And it is to the grace of God that Paul turns in conclusion – that is what sustains and grows the Church. Oh and yes, that means working not to be a burden on others and working not to receive your spiritual inheritance but because it is already yours so the work we do here and now is to help those around us who need it here and now. ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ he says, citing Jesus (though we do not have these words written by any other New Testament writer, I think it simply rings true for Jesus and we know that not everything Jesus said and did was written down).
And then the tears and prayers and hugs and kisses and farewells happened and they went their separate ways – or rather the Ephesus church leaders accompanied Paul to his ship and he went one way – south – and they went north.
There is an art to distilling all the words or messages you’ve said when you believe that you’re not going to be able to say any more. What do you leave behind?
People can prepare the details of their funeral service. Sure they can change it the next day but giving the family an idea of the Bible readings and songs that have spoken to them – hence they want others to hear them – isn’t a bad or a morose thing.
I haven’t heard of it happening but I can imagine it is or it will be soon happen when a person’s message will be broadcast at their funeral. If in 20 years time, it was common for everyone to leave a message, I wonder what the Christian funeral rite would look like? Could everyone get a personal message on a screen in front of them?
Nowadays people can and do write letters to loved ones. This is more than the classic ‘what was I left in the will?’ but messages about the relationship, about what is important. Another good thing, generally.
While I’ve been called to numerous dying and death scenarios and offered prayer and blessing – plus the personal encounter with Jesus in Holy Communion – also called the antidote against death and the medicine of immortality – it is rare, in my experience of ministry, but it has happened that sometimes the last words are a confession of sins and seeking for absolution. How wonderful the Good News is always for all! Sadly the older we get the more stubborn or set in our ways we seem to become and this includes our spiritual perspective, it seems to me, so death bed confessions are, I believe, a rarity.
Today people are talking about curating our digital lives. Who accesses and more importantly, controls – posts even – on social media after we’ve died? How aligned are our social media lives and the one we really live? How aligned will our deaths be? What is our digital last word or epitaph?
Ok, enough musings – topics for discussions and reactions in an ever changing world but one, I expect, will still go from birth to living to ignoring or denying death for as long as possible until death comes into view and into action. That’s the world’s biology and history and the way we live but it is not the perspective in this place or in this Christian faith because we say, ‘Christ is risen!’. [He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!]
This proclamation of death’s dethronement and removal of its final power means for people born in sin, spiritually dead, that death is no longer a forgone or fearful finality for us. Instead because of an empty tomb, we move from death to life. In Baptism we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s Word kills and makes alive! In Holy Communion we don’t meet a dead man but are embraced, nurtured, strengthened, healed, forgiven and blessed by a living one, a living Lord, even as we proclaim his death until he reappears.
Our orientation for each day is one of moving from death to life – each day is a day closer to seeing what we believe. This doesn’t make us fatalists but we are prepared, like Paul, to follow where we believe Jesus leads – even into tough times which might lead to our death. This is unlikely to happen to us here in the UK but this is the walk many Christians globally are on – not from a perverse choice, self selection but circumstance. But they are not alone – and we are not alone – for Jesus walks with his people drawing them to him again and again.
And whatever those last words of ours will be will be ours but whether up front or more hidden those in Christ face each day knowing that death’s power is defanged and we will still live even when people will not see us anymore.
- Acts 20:17 - 35