Sermon from Lent III: God Be with You

God be with You
Lent III; March 7, 2021
Acts 20:7-38

A lot has happened in the life and work of the Apostle Paul between last Sunday’s reading and today’s. He has traveled around the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preaching the Gospel. He has been beaten, imprisoned, run out of town, and loved and welcomed. Now he is on his way back to Jerusalem, and as you heard, he expects to get into major trouble there. He will.

The first scene is sort of tragicomic. I always want to laugh at the story of Eutychus and the window, but that feels in poor taste. Those of you who often fall asleep during sermons: I don’t know whether you should take comfort in it or take a warning from it. Perhaps you should just give thanks that we aren’t on the third floor, and that I don’t preach all night. By the way, the name Eutychus means “lucky.” Given the story, I don’t know if that’s irony or not. Anyway, it wasn’t only that Paul was droning on and on that put Eutychus to sleep; it was also the fumes from the oil lamps. So you can also give thanks that we have electricity. This is all sort of Paul’s farewell tour: he’s visiting places he’s been before, meeting with Christians who have come to Jesus largely because of his work, and saying “Good-bye.”

And I mean, literally, “Good-bye.” Side comment: Have you noticed that most of the time these days when someone says “literally” they don’t mean “literally” but “figuratively”? Someone will say, “I was literally knocked out by that song!” which means, literally, that the song took a stick and beat them unconscious. They don’t mean “literally,” but “figuratively.” There, my grammar rant for the day. I mean “literally” literally. The word “Good-bye” is a contraction of “God be by ye.” So when you say, “Good-bye” to someone in English, you are saying, “God be with you.” Literally.

Luke doesn’t tell us what Paul said in Troas – perhaps no one remembered; all they remembered was Eutychus falling out the window and Paul reviving him – but does recount his words to the elders of Ephesus, whom he met with in Miletus, another seaport nearby. Perhaps Paul’s ship didn’t call at Ephesus; or perhaps he decided to stay away from Ephesus, since the last time he was in Ephesus there was a riot. Paul did have a way with people.

I am moved by Paul’s words to the elders at Ephesus. He is frank about his own situation, what he expects to happen to him in Jerusalem. Now, why he expects trouble is something of a puzzle. When you read chapter 21 on Tuesday you will read about the prophet Agabus, who foretold Paul’s imprisonment. But that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps Paul expects trouble because he has been the focus of trouble nearly everywhere he has gone. Why should Jerusalem be different from Ephesus or Philippi or Iconium? But somehow he feels in his gut that this is the last time he would ever see these elders of Ephesus, and so he pours out his heart to them.

Well, I can’t read your mind about how you approach the Bible or what you want from it, but I can share how it affects me. I read this and I think, “This is a real person. Paul is not a character in a morality play, not a figure in a stained-glass window. Paul is a man with a story, with feelings, with hopes, with anxieties.” I’m sure listening to him can be tough. He’s probably one of those people who starts talking and you wish he would take a breath so you can get a word in. But you also get in his words his passion for the Lord Jesus and his love of people. He loved those elders from Ephesus; they wept when he said “Good-bye” to them. You don’t weep when a figure in a stained-glass window says Good-bye. You don’t care when a character in a morality play heads off. But when a person who loves you says, “I don’t think I’m ever going to see you again” and kneels on the floor to pray with you, then you weep.

Relationships are complicated, aren’t they? Whether we’re talking marriage or friendship, the people you work with, the neighbor in your retirement community, your playmates at school, or relationships such as Paul’s: the evangelist who founded a church, things are never simple. Paul could be arrogant, opinionated, and verbose. Some of you have expressed your distaste for some of what he wrote, especially about women. Before you judge him too hard, look at the whole picture. He honored Lydia as the host of the church in Philippi, one of his favorite places. He respected the teaching of Priscilla. And he referred to Junia as an Apostle (Romans 16:7, for those who don’t believe me). Anyway, he sometimes wrote things that seem out of keeping from what he actually did and believed, so we’re probably misunderstanding them. Or he had the occasional bad day or moment of thoughtlessness. That happens to me; maybe it never happens to you.

The sum of Paul’s farewell words to the elders of Ephesus is “Good-bye,” God be by ye. I won’t be around to help you, but trust in God. God will guide you.

As Luke tells the story, he uses the first person plural, so Luke was probably there when Paul had this conversation. He heard what Paul said. Now, what he wrote down is probably not word-for-word. When I did my Clinical Pastoral Education, I had to write what was called “verbatims,” transcripts of conversations with patients. Of course I didn’t get it word-for-word, but what I wrote was close to what we actually said to each other. Luke heard Paul speak and probably wrote it down when they took ship for Cos the next day, getting it pretty close to what he said. And Paul’s concerns are similar to the concerns of his letters, letters that are now part of our Bible.

Notice that he is concerned about faithfulness, a frequent theme of his letters. I don’t know why people easily get caught up in heresy, strange notions, and conspiracy-thinking, but staying focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ is plenty for anybody to deal with. In his speech to the Ephesian elders he summarizes the Gospel as “the message of God’s grace” (v. 32). Last Sunday I told you about one of the heresies that was going around that was contrary to the message of God’s grace: folks saying that men had to be circumcised in order to be part of God’s people. The clear Gospel message, the message of God’s grace, is that baptism is sufficient. But there was a group trying to put up a wall, walling off some of God’s grace. Stay focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ and you won’t get distracted from the message of God’s grace.

Paul is concerned that the elders of Ephesus exercise appropriate leadership; that is, keep an eye on what is taught in the Church to keep out what he calls the “savage wolves” (v. 29). Now, Paul may be faithful and loving and intelligent, but that doesn’t mean he’s particularly nice. In his mind, anyone who disagrees with him is a savage wolf. Or maybe the image is appropriate, because when people come in with their list of “you haftas” the effect is usually harmful to the sheep. The job of elders is to oversee the faithfulness of the Church: to pay attention to what is taught, to be careful about what the Church stands for, so that we are faithful to the message of God’s grace.

And Paul is concerned about care for the weak. Not everybody is gifted enough intellectually to know what is faithful teaching and what isn’t; not everybody is gifted enough financially to be able to care for all their needs and responsibilities. Now, another moment of disclosure: I despise the term “social Darwinism,” because it doesn’t represent Charles Darwin very well. But that said, we have a tendency toward social Darwinism in our country. If you aren’t smart or strong or successful enough to pay for your own health care, then you should just, well, drop dead. If we choose that as an ideology, it makes me wonder what kind of society we are. Now, Paul isn’t as concerned with civil society as he is with the attitude of Christians. Even if so-called Social Darwinism dominates in our society, we Christians know that it certainly isn’t faithful to the message of God’s grace, in which we all bear a certain responsibility for each other. And Paul writes in his letters about the grace of generosity and he speaks of it here in his farewell to the elders of Ephesus: “We must support the weak,” he says, “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”[1]

In one speech Paul seems to have summarized most of the concerns you find expressed in his letters, and he did it without talking all night! None of the Ephesian elders fell out of the window, thank God. And when they were done, he knelt and prayed and they knelt with him and they wept and said good-bye. “God be by ye.”

It has been a year since we had a service of worship in which we could sing together and hug one another and, well, simply be with each other. March 8, 2020 was our last “Y’all come” service of worship, although we have had some limited-attendance and limited-participation services since then. Although you may enjoy sitting in your easy chair in your slippers to listen to the sermon, I bet most of you miss simply being together. That’s what Paul was feeling as he said good-bye to the Ephesian elders: I won’t see you again (v. 25). God willing, we will see each other again, and not just over Zoom or a webcast but here in this room, singing our hearts out, and in Fellowship Hall, eating chicken and mashed potatoes, with homemade sugar cookies to follow.

Until then, dear people of God, God be by ye.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska
[1] When I preached this, I said that I thought this was the only time in the New Testament Paul quoted Jesus. I was wrong; see I Corinthians 11:23-26. It shows the danger of off-the-cuff remarks.