We are now in the midst of the time when many parents are sending their kids off to school. My experience is that, whether we're sending them to pre-school, first grade, high school or college, this is a time both of joy and tears. (Here, I'll show a picture of my granddaughter going to first grade.)
When most of us send our kids off to a new place, we stop and give some final instructions, e.g.,:
- What's your new address?
- Listen to God and to yourself—it's ok if the 'thing' you want to do turns out to be something different
- Chase down Christian Community! Don't do this alone!
- It's ok to be angry or discouraged or disappointed. Feel what you feel, but don't do it alone.
- Here's your insurance card
- Call me
- When may I visit?
- (Don't go!)
- I love you. (From Carol Kenyon)
When you are going to be separated for a while from people you love, you always have some important things you want to say. Often, the emotion you feel makes it hard to deliver a focused and organized expression of your love and hopes for the time away from one another. When you grasp that (as I'm sure all of you can), then you will deeply appreciate the passage we come to today.
Paul was in a hurry to get from Troas to Jerusalem in time to experience Pentecost (20:16). The trip would take him close to Ephesus. (I'll show a map.) Remember that Paul had spent three years in Ephesus first founding and then pastoring the church there. So, using quite urgent language, v.17 tells us, "Paul summoned the elders of the church" to meet him at the port city of Miletus, about 30 miles from Ephesus. When you read the speech, it's clear Paul thought he might die in Jerusalem and that he would never see his church people again (though he did not die there). It's also unmistakable that Paul loved his church people. And they loved him. There is no speech quite like this one in Acts. Other speeches are written to non-Christian audiences seeking to convince people that Jesus is the savior of the world. But this speech is from a pastor speaking to his church. Deep emotion permeates a speech that 1) tells some of the story of their history together, 2) has shifting and sometimes repetitious subjects (just like our personal conversations do), but 3) highlights the things most important to him.
I'll be leaving for sabbatical after the services are over this weekend. I'll only be gone three months (Lord willing). But, I do have some things I want to say to you all before I go. So, I'll use Paul's speech as an example to guide me. What things did he talk about in his parting words with his church leaders?
#1: Reflections on Life Together (20:18-21, 27, 31, 33-35).
Throughout his speech, Paul kept circling back to memories, to telling them about what happened during his time with the church in Ephesus. Some have criticized Paul because, reading his words from our cultural viewpoint, he sounds like he's being arrogant. Paul declared more boldly than we're used to that he had not coveted anyone's silver or gold and that the way he worked was the way a person should work. But, this was not pride. Paul always knew that he was not all that God would have him to be (Phil 3:12) and that he was the person in the world most needy of God's mercy (1 Tim 1:15-16). No, what Paul was doing in this meeting with his beloved church leaders is what all followers of Jesus should do, i.e., he was passionately following Christ personally and calling others to follow him as he followed Christ.
That's what I've sought to do these years with you as well – to be a shepherd who follows the Great Shepherd and calls you all to follow with me. I too have sought to preach the Word faithfully and as courageously as God enables me and to call all to repent and believe in Jesus. And I want to remind you of something that those of you who were here before me might remember. I want to remind you that God led us together to this church family. (Here, I'll tell the story again of God's leading.)
So, because we know God has led us together, we also believe he will lead us back together after this sabbatical is over. Of course, as I often have said in sermons, "We don't even know what will happen tomorrow (Js 4:13)." So, over these months, we will pray as the Bible teaches us, "If it the Lord's will, we will be alive --and do this or that (Js 4:15)." Let us seek and trust the Lord together across the miles.
#2: Reminders of What Holds God's People Together
Throughout his speech, Paul then touched upon several things that he knew always hold God's people together in this world. I'll summarize his thoughts with two words: truth and tears.
• Truth (20:20-21, 29-31)
In his time with the elders, Paul said over and over that he had taught "the good news of God's grace (20:24) and the "whole council of God's will (20:27)." In his absence, the same things had to happen. So, Paul urgently called the elders of the church to teach the truth and watch out for those who distort the truth of the gospel (20:30-31). I know that many people in our culture think that truth divides. The spirit of our age is, "Let people believe whatever they want to believe. Religious doctrine divides!" But, let me say a few words about what can happen when people sincerely seek what is true. If we believe that there is anything that is actually true in this world, then those who pursue truth will come closer together as they do what Paul did, i.e., take time with one another and engage in reasoning together about what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong.
Illustration: If you came up and said that Duane Funderburk is a Ugandan sumo-wrestler brought up in Siberia, you could believe that if you want. You could also say that you believe such things in our country. But it still wouldn't be true. To know Duane, you have to seek the person as he really is
I believe that every responsible human being should seek what is true about the most important things in our universe, like 1) what is true about God, 2) about our world, and 3) about ourselves. The Bible declares that when we sincerely seek what is true, we will come to Jesus, the one who is the way, the truth and the life. That truth will always bring us to what Paul calls the gospel of Jesus Christ in 20:24, the good news that is at the heart of our "Shared Faith" as expressed in our LAC Statement of Faith that we will be focusing on in the coming months at LAC. We are united by the truth of Jesus and his gospel that unites us across the usual human divisions such as race and ethnicity, generation gaps, money – and, over these next months for me personally, geographical distance. So, I want you to come to understand more and more about the truth of Jesus and the gospel over these next three months. The more you understand the gospel and experience its truth, the more united we will be.
• Tears – Our heartfelt compassion for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The truth about Jesus that unites us is not just an intellectual exercise. No, when we trust in Jesus, we are made alive to God as our Father and we experience being brought into the family of God. What happens is that we can meet a person from another culture and even who speaks a different language, and we know we have a deep and intimate bond with them. Have you experienced that? It's one of the most beautiful parts of our faith. And, deep love for people always leads to some shared tears – sometimes of joy, others of sorrow, and yet others of pain. Let me tell you two ways this bond of tears actually happens for believers.
1. Tears for brothers and sisters in Christ broken and in distress (20:21,24)
I don't want you to miss the importance of v.21 in relationship to Paul's letter to the Ephesians. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. Remember that Paul is meeting with the elders of the Ephesian Church. When he later wrote the letter to the Ephesians, the biggest issue he had to deal with was that the Jews and the Gentiles in Ephesus still didn't want to be in one church together. Paul would say, "Not one of us – Jew or Gentile -- deserves to be in our Father's Church. It is only by the grace of God received through faith in the crucified Jesus that any of us are in God's family! So, be grateful to your Father for his mercy to you. And, love the others who have also received mercy. Speak the truth in love to one another but always live in unity (se Eph 4)!!" So, it's to that same church that Paul says definitively in v. 21, "I have declared to both Jews and Gentiles..." When we place our faith in Christ, we are brought into a family relationship with a family made up of all people groups!
Make note of this: When we enter into a relationship with people very different from ourselves as happens in the church, then we can be quite sure we will have very different perceptions of things and experiences in the world. This happens in marriages too, doesn't it? If we will have a lasting relationship, we must learn to listen with humility in order to understand where the other person is coming from. In most marriages, when there is a problem, men have tended to simply listen for the facts and then to fix the problem. "Facts; then fix!" – That's most men's approach. What most of us men have to learn is that there is often a long history of things that have led to the problem. For example, words we say to our spouses may bring up years of abuse, abandonment or anxiety that, unless we take time to listen to our spouses carefully, we may never understand. (You can see how Bryan Lorritz talks about this at ow.ly/Aytr6.) We need to grasp the facts – but also the history and the feelings that are going on. Men – mark that down and your marriages will be better.
I believe we need to apply this to what is happening in Ferguson, MO right now and how the shooting of Michael Brown there is affecting our brothers and sisters of color all over our nation. Many of us tend only to want to get the facts of the case and then fix the problem by keeping everyone calm. But, we may forget – or may not even know -- there are years of violence against young black men in our country and there are non-stop episodes of killing of young unarmed black men in our cities. There is one unarmed African American man killed every 28 hours in our country. Did you know that?
When an unarmed 18-year-old man of color is shot in our nation, "Facts and fix" is not the way we should walk with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must listen. Learn. Care. Weep together. And always pray with one another as one family prays, i.e., 1) for this situation to uncover all that is wrong, 2) for a deeper understanding of what causes the anger that we see, for a profound repentance to take place, and 3) (above all things) for our just, loving and reconciling Father to be glorified.
The church of Jesus Christ is the place where the world is to see that brokenness along all lines – and now especially across racial line – finds reconciliation. We must seek God together. We must weep together and then walk together in a divided world.
2. Tears for brothers and sisters we love whom we will miss when they are away (20:37-38)
Read 20:37-38. It's clear that Paul loved his people and his people loved him. So, when they thought about being apart, they felt a deep gnawing inside. I tell you candidly that I feel right now what they felt as I think about being away for three months. Most of you have noticed that when I have someone else preach on a weekend, I come to LAC anyway. I love being here with you!
I hope you feel some of that – for anyone who is away for a period of time from your class or small group at our church. A church should not simply be a teaching center or an activities location. In his letter to this Ephesian Church, Paul called them "a household" of faith (Eph 2:19), "no longer strangers but God's people (Eph 2:19), "people built together by God as a dwelling in which God lives" (Eph 2:22), and a "family kneeling together before our Father from whom we all receive our name" (Eph 3:14).
When you read how he spoke about his church people, you can grasp why they fell down and prayed together, wept together, embraced one another, and kissed." As we grow together as a local church family, we too ill see a lot more of that kind of emotion. I feel it today. And, I know that I'll be back in November!
We are knit together both by truth and by tears.
#3: Directives to Do the Most Important Things
Let's go back to those parting words that parents give our children when we send them off to school. They always include a few parting directives. I love what my daughter Heather told her oldest child, Riley, when Heather dropped her off for her first day of 1st grade: "You're going to have so much fun! I love you! I'm so happy you're getting so big. I'll be here to meet you as soon as school is over. If you have to blow your nose, make sure you grab a Kleenex from Mrs. Karlsson's box."
Paul gave his church people all sorts of directives in his time with them. I want to do the same. So, what do I want you to do while I am away? I have three things:
1. Be more faithful to your LAC family than you ever have been before. This is the church that God has led you to – every bit as much as it is the church God has led me to. I pray that church attendance will grow enormously while I'm away. Support and pray for Pastor Jeff Mattesich as he leads in my absence. He is a remarkable man called by God to this role. Support and encourage the entire pastoral staff in the ways you encourage me. God loves faithfulness. I'll be so encouraged when I see that you are continuing to worship together, to brings friends with you to church, to being active in your church community and small group, and in service.
2. Make progress in your faith and doctrine while I am away. That's what Paul told Timothy in 1 Tim 4:15-16. I envision tis fall will be a life-changing season for many of you as you walk through the church through the essentials of the gospel. In Paul's speech to the elders, he kept saying that false teaching would come in and destroy the work of God (see 20:28-31). To keep that from happening in your life, in your families, and in the church, we will spend this fall learning and experiencing anew the essential matters of our faith. Our worship times will teach and be drawn to worship God about these essentials. Our classes and mid-size groups will provide more complete teaching about them. Our small group will provide opportunities to discuss and apply them. And personal devotional written by your pastors will facilitate meditation and deepening of the beautiful truths about God and his work into your hearts and lives. We'll do this from childhood to senior adulthood. When I return, I believe I will come back to people who know the Lord more fully and love him more deeply.
3. Watch out for people in distress (20:28,35). As happened so often in the life of Jesus and then again in the early church as reflected in Acts, Paul simply took it for granted that anyone who loves Jesus will care for people who are hurting. Acts 20:35 is so clear. Paul said, "In everything I did, I showed you that God's people must help those who are weak." I know this already is deep in the heart of LAC. It's one of the things I love most about our church. I see the love of Jesus flowing through you. So keep praying for those who face crises in our world, our nation and our community. Extend help in the name of Jesus as God enables you. Weep for those who weep. If you think a person in church seems down or hurting, go and ask. Then, walk with them. And, if you have a need, let me give you the contact information for our Care Deacons. (Put that up.) I agree with Paul, i.e., that people in a church family never have to walk alone. And, of course, Paul said this on the authority of Jesus himself. 20:31: The Lord Jesus himself said: "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
I want to close with the words Jeremy and Vanessa Rose gave to Jacob when they left him off at Kindergarten this past week: "We will be back to pick you up soon. Before you know it, you'll see us again!" So, walk with the Lord, love people, and be faithful to your church family. Before you know it, we will see one another again.
To His glory,
Dr. Greg Waybright
Greg Waybright • Copyright 2014, Lake Avenue Church