By David Baumann
Reading from Acts, 20:17-38
17 From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. 18When they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. 20I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus. 22And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 24But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
25 “And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. 26Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, 27for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28Keep 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. 29I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. 32And 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. 33I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. 35In 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.’”
36 When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. 37There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.
Paul’s last known written words are his second letter to Timothy. There he writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith” (4:7). But surely Paul’s words to the elders in Ephesus in today’s reading ring with the same astounding power: “I served the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials… I did not shrink from doing anything helpful… teaching publicly and from house to house… about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” With this meeting he effectively finishes his apostolic ministry in the greater Roman Empire. For roughly thirty years Paul has traveled abroad, founding churches, bringing huge numbers of people (both Jews and pagans) to faith in Jesus, and writing letters of dazzling power. In today’s lesson he acknowledges that this ministry has been completed, with only “imprisonment and persecutions” remaining ahead of him. He passes the responsibility to the elders of Ephesus to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock” and to “be alert.” He warns them pointedly to be wary of “savage wolves” that will come in, and even of those in their own congregation who will “distort the truth” and entice others to follow them into separatist and personality-driven movements.
Few in the history of the Church have come up to the mark set by Paul in his courage, all-encompassing commitment, and recognition of the warfare against the gospel, with his power to refute all challenges. There is no sign anywhere that Paul was subject to complacency, discouragement, or “talking without doing much.” How do we measure up? Surely Paul had some extraordinary gifts. But does that mean we give up on pursuing an equally powerful commitment to our own ministry, or to the Church today?
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 45 years, 39 of them in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He now serves as part-time priest in southern Illinois. He has published devotions, articles, and essays, as well as science fiction novels and short stories.
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