December 19th, 2013
Early last Sunday morning as I was praying for our Service of Particularization–and moreover for our future together–I turned to a text I’ve read many times, but which this day gave greater import to. In Acts 20, Paul has set a feverish course for Jerusalem, bypassing some of the regions in which he’d formerly invested much time planting churches and preparing elders. His mad dash underway, Paul nevertheless sends urgently for the elders at Ephesus (on the west coast of what is now Turkey) to meet him in Miletus, about 60 km south. Unbeknownst to them it’s Paul’s intention to give them a farewell sermon, since he’d been given insight from the Holy Spirit that persecution awaited him of a kind likely to finish him. So vv. 17-35 are that parting shot–his final instructions for how to be and what to expect as elders.
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.
His words are centuries old but you can hear the earnestness, the tenderness, the abiding concern for the elders and the churches they’ll oversee. Paul’s zeal would at times prompt decisions he’d later revise. But here none can accuse him of anything but deep humility and exceptional valor.
I’ll not claim his or their ensuing experience will predict our life as elders of CtK, but I have to believe that Paul’s words, to some degree, not only presage our “job description” but also explain what you should expect from us.
Whole sermons have been composed on this impassioned and impromptu valedictory. But as the whole session and I discussed the passage earlier this week, at least three things emerged that outline the contours of our ministry among you.
- As we seek to be shepherds for your lives, we will open our own lives to you. Twice in the passage Paul emphasizes their intimate acquaintance with both his profession and practice. They themselves know, Paul reminds, how he’d lived and served among them. He was in no small measure an open book to them, if only to confirm both the truth of his belief and the shape such belief might take. Their tears at the end of the passage prove well that Paul was more than a voice, but a true comrade. He’d pointed them to Christ, but had himself been Christ to them. While we as elders are called to models of faith, that model will always be cast in clay (2 Cor 4:7). We are men who will always have God’s power confirmed only in our weakness. And unless we are men unafraid to disclose–with judiciousness to be sure–our own stumbling version of pilgrimage, you cannot trust that we in fact sympathize with your weaknesses (cf. Heb 4:15)
- Our ministry is one with a narrow focus but comprehensive implications. Paul summarized his purpose as proclaiming repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus. He planted churches, trained elders, decided disputes, and saw to the needs of the poor. But each of those radiated from the glorious center of the Good News. As elders we will attend to myriad priorities and projects, but we will run them all through the grid to see that each encourages a greater trust in the righteousness and redemptive interest of Jesus. What does faith in Jesus call for in a given moment will be a question we’ll ask time and again, of you and ourselves. But such faith will necessarily have manifold implications and applications in every dimension of life. Most times those applications will entail some form of repentance–from an ignorance, an idol, or a sin we’d prefer to characterize as mere idiosyncrasy.
- Attention to the health of all our souls will rest squarely on a clear sense of the preciousness of the Church to God. Paul gives perhaps his most profound instruction in v. 28, saying, “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.” Insidious threats to our own soul’s wellness and the peace and purity of the church demand the utmost, and regular, reflection upon the presence of spiritual fruit (Gal 5:22ff). And yet the prime motivation for all such reflection lies within God’s immeasurable regard for this company of the damnable beloved. He proves that regard by what it cost Him to purchase. However weary we might become, or tempted with frustration in our shepherding, we will need to remind ourselves frequently of the esteem God has for the church so that our esteem might be in parallel.
Sunday was in one sense a mere change of formal status; things will proceed as they have, but with new efforts to see our vision put into practice. But I will gladly confess an amplified sense of responsibility–like a pilot who’s been in a simulator for a long time transitioning to an actual plane with passengers aboard! If not with the same metaphor, I dare say my fellow elders may have felt similarly. And so as we outline for you what to expect from us, we also ask that you pray for us. And if you’d like to know how to start, you might click here.
Sunday, we’ll hear from Zechariah as we’d planned to prior to “Icemageddon”–Luke 1:57-80. We’ll ask the same questions we asked of Mary the first week of Advent: why is he singing and why is his song in some sense the substance of ours?
Zechariah’s song emanates from his sheer joy in the salvation that has come in Jesus (and which will be heralded by his own unlikely son). So we’ll consider his song in, so to speak, three stanzas:
- the ground of this salvation
- the substance of this salvation
- and the point to this salvation
One aspect of the substance of salvation is of course forgiveness. I’d like to set up our time of Q&A by inviting you to meditate on a rather provocative quote from the prolific author and recently deceased Lutheran pastor, Father Robert Capon. Capon was known best for challenging all who read him to consider just how gracious is God’s grace. In this excerpt he makes a rather striking, if not counter-intuitive, claim about the sequence of forgiveness; from that he infers the basis upon which forgiveness should be offered. Consider the quote and then come ready to discuss this question: which comes first–repentance or forgiveness?
He forgave you before you repented. That’s crucial. See, that is why it is so outrageous. The gospel is really vulgar, crass and immoral because it says God forgives the world before it repents. In the gospel, repent is always repent and believe. It means turn yourself around from not trusting the forgiveness and trust it. That’s it. It doesn’t mean that you earn it by repenting. You had it before. If you do something to me and you are wrong and I am right, you can repent all you want but until I forgive you, it’s not going to do you a bit of good. It only helps when I have already forgiven you and you can enter into the restored relationship and turn again to me. Only I can decide to forgive you and God for His own idiot reasons decided to absolve the world. He really did. It’s outrageous. It’s immoral. It’s tough.
Community quick hits:
- Icemageddon has melted away but the cold keeps calling for something warm and spicy. So we’ve rescheduled our Cornbread and Carols to this Sunday, December 22nd, 6-8p, at the Lafferty’s. Click here for details on what to bring.
- Those interested in coming for membership in CtK should save the date, January 10-11 (Fri-Sat) for our next membership class. A time to dig deeper into what membership means and how we plan to live out the vision of CtK. It’s also a time to ask questions about faith, community, and our leadership. Email us if you have more questions or would like to register.
- Registration begins this Sunday for the Evangelism Seminar with Mike Rasmussen, Saturday, Feb 1, 8:30-noon at FBC. The only cost for the seminar is $5 for the book, and the time it takes to read it in advance. Books will be for sale in FH. Sign up on the clipboard during Q&A or email us.
Pastoral Backstory will take a short break, but will begin in January by giving you a tour of the sermon series in 2014.
Finally, would you pray:
- for our sister Helen Johnson mourning the loss of her beloved Don, and for the service to his memory and the Glory of God on January 4th
- for Rachel Kull as doctors have at last determined both the cause of her heart condition and outlined a treatment plan
- for Jane Pappenhagen as she prepares to return to the US (and to Us!) in early January after a season of teaching in Thailand
- for Kyria Johnson as her plans to depart for W. Africa now accelerate
- for blessing upon our hosts at FBC
- for those who find this season especially difficult to celebrate, in the wake of loss or difficulty
See you Sunday at 9:30,