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how to leave a congregation: lessons from paul

August 17, 2010

I sometimes speak to groups of pastors; maybe they are in the first few years, or they have gathered for some purpose.  In listening to them I hear a singular thought expressed in a variety of ways:  they will tell me that they do not get any respect, or that they do not have much influence or authority.  I have come, over time, to this response.  The minister is almost the only person in a community who stands up every week and speaks for twenty minutes, and people listen, or at least they put aside what they have been doing for a time.  That is authority.  It is something I do not take for granted.

And I have also come to another conclusion.  Over time, months, years, the pastor, the preacher, the teacher does shape a congregation, for better or worse.  Instead of filling us with resignation or despair, what a pastor does is actually a calling that is humbling. 

What is preached and taught matters.  I hear this in today's reading of scripture. We have moved deeply into Paul's missionary work, and in a sense it is coming to a conclusion.  Luke tells us that Paul is in Ephesus.  At the time, in the first century, it was the second largest city in the world, next to Rome.  It was an ancient Greek city located on what is now the coast of Turkey.   Paul had been there for three years, and he wants to go to Jerusalem, for Pentecost.

Why does Paul want to go to Jerusalem?  For the festival, maybe, but it seems to be about destiny.   In Acts this parallels  a turning point in Luke's gospel, when Jesus "sets his face toward Jerusalem" (9. 51).  Jerusalem is  a place of suffering, where the powers are confronted, but it is where God's mission is fulfilled.   And so he calls the leaders of the church of Ephesus together. 

It turns out to be something of a farewell statement.  These were popular in the ancient world and they are today:  we think of Tuesdays with Morrie or The Last Lesson.   But it is deeper than that; many of us have sat with family or friends, we have wondered and worried and waited for anything that might be said.  In the scripture Paul is getting closure on what he has tried to do among the Ephesians, and what it has meant. 

He begins by talking not about doctrine, but a way of life, and this is appropriate.  We care about what people think because we have observed the way they live.  I have listened to adult children stand in our sanctuary and bear witness to the influence of a father or a mother, and they will recall some wisdom passed on, but first they reflect on what they observed in everyday life, which is what is so compelling about it:  "my father would never do something for himself unless everyone else in the family was taken care of"; "my mother was a grade parent every year of my life"---a child might bristle about that, in the moment, but decades later it means something. 

And so, Paul says, "from the day I stepped foot here I served the Lord with humility and with tears and endured trials".  He was not motivated by ambition or vanity; in his own writing in 1 Corinthians 13 he would summarize it: 

If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and have faith to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Paul's humility was not only a way of life that the Ephesians could observe; it was humility under the word of God, which shaped what he would say to them.    And this seems to be the burden that Paul is trying to express in this gathering.  Twice, he says, I held nothing back from you, I did not shrink from doing anything for your good, "I did not skimp or trim in any way" (The Message) from declaring to you the whole purpose, the whole counsel of God.

In other ways, Paul is saying, I have been honest with you, forthcoming with you, truthful with youThis message was revealed to me, and I did not hide it from you. 

What was it that he shared in all of its fullness?  What was the "whole purpose of God" that was for their good, and for our good?  It is to know who we are, in relation to God and to our neighbor.  In relation to God, the substance of it is grace. 

To the religious person, the good person, the moral person, the good news can be bad news:  our religion, our morality, our goodness does not save us. 

To the person who would not describe himself or herself as religious at all, the bad news can be good news:  we are children of God, we are created in the image of God, no matter the distance that has separated us.  In both instances it is rooted and grounded in grace, what we do not deserve, what we cannot earn, what we will never repay. 

The grace of God is made visible in the mystery of the cross of Jesus, in his suffering and humility, through his death and resurrection.  And so we can be honest about our flaws and failures.  We can be honest about our sin and our need for divine grace.  "I did not pretend", Paul is saying.  "I held nothing back that was for your good".  To the religious:  your virtue will not save you.  To the pagan:  you are a child of God.

The whole counsel of God has a vertical dimension  but it also has horizontal implications, namely how we live with each other.  If we exist in relation to God through grace, we live in relation to each other with humility.  Our love for each other covers a multitude of sins.  We forgive, as we have been forgiven.  As Paul would write, again, in I Corinthians 13:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The whole counsel of God is the commandment to love God  and to love our neighbor.  Luke who recorded this encounter in the life of Paul had also recorded in his gospel  two stories of Jesus that anticipate Paul's teaching:  the parable of the prodigal son (our relation to God) and the parable of the Good Samaritan (our relation to each other).   This is the substance of the faith.   It seems simple, but it is difficult.  It involves repentance, the need for continuing self-examination, and faith in the power of Jesus Christ to do what we cannot always do on our own.

And here Paul is a model for us.  It is a cliché to bash Paul, or to stereotype him.  But we can learn something here.  What is it for a parent to say, to our children, "I have told you the truth."  If we can do this, they will grow up, they will mature.  This turns out to be Paul's concern for the church at Ephesus.  just as Jesus prepared the disciples in John 13 and 14 for his departure, Paul is preparing them because he will no longer be with them.   

And so Paul does not sugarcoat it.  I am going to leave and you are going to need to look out for each other.  Wolves are going to come in and devour the sheep.  Some from within our own group will distort the truth in order to entice people to follow them.  I am warning you, Paul says, with tears.

And then Paul concludes with a brief reflection on grace and generosity.    I did not do this work among you for personal gain, Paul says (is it possible that some were making this claim?).  I worked with my own hands, I supported myself and I gave you this example.   Work and the dignity of work are essential.  This allows us, Paul goes on, to support the weak.   The church that lives by the grace of God extends this grace to the most vulnerable of our society.  Then Paul remembers a saying of Jesus, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."  This is not a verse that appears in any of the gospels, but, as a wise friend noted recently, maybe it was in the oral tradition; among the living, the community remembered  hearing these words from Jesus himself.

"It is more blessed to give than to receive."  A Christian community is always a circle of giving and receiving.  As we are generous, we unclog a vessel through which the grace of God flows toward us and we are blessed.  As we receive, the reality of God who is love becomes real and tangible.  And we are bound together in a cycle of giving, grace, and thanksgiving. 

I struggled somewhat with this passage over the past days.  It would be arrogant to preach this as if I am the Apostle Paul and you are the church at Ephesus.  No sane person claims sainthood or the mantle of being an apostle unless he or she is under a delusion!  But it says much about ministry that is very personal.  I am never clear that I am communicating the fullness of the gospel.  The tension, in holding something back, is always that a pastor grows to love a group of people.   It is easy to be a prophet when you come in from the outside, aim, fire and then leave town!  The weeping prophet---Jeremiah, for example, or in this text the Apostle Paul, speaks the truth, but in love, and for the good of the community.  

There is surely, and Paul makes this clear, an accountability in our teaching, preaching and hearing the gospel.  A worry I often hear expressed is that we need to have some program, some initiative, some offering, or we will miss out, and another church will move forward.  Perhaps this is true. But there is in scripture a deeper accountability, and that is to the substance of the faith:  are we living honestly and truthfully before God, in grace, and with each other, in humility?   

It has been my experience that I have received a great deal more in ministry than I have given.  That I am a Christian, that I am a United Methodist , that I am a minister, that I am a minister with a particular congregation, Providence, it is all a gift and a blessing.   Ministers probably do not say "thank you" enough.  This text and this time seem to be the occasion. 

In the midst of sharing with the leaders of the church at Ephesus Paul had said something that must have startled them:  I am leaving, and I know that none of you will ever see my face again.   He finishes speaking and kneels to the ground, a gesture before God and  with them, and they pray for him.  There is a genuine outpouring of grief.  It is a profound transition.  Paul has given them a gift,  and they have been a blessing to him.   And yet it finally not about him, the church is not a personality cult,  the mission of God is greater than any one person, even the Apostle Paul.  Life will go on.   

They walk with him to the ship. Ahead are the storms.  We will talk about the storms next Sunday, How does Paul make it through the storms?  How do we make it through the storms?  All of that is later. 

For now, they walk with Paul to the ship, and he climbs on board and sails away.


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