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When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!” – Acts 21:27-36

I am a student of Church Growth. Now much out of favor with many, this discipline is useful and salutary for those who wish to remove barriers to people’s access to God and worship. It is true: church growth principles can be used to help a Lion’s Club be more successful. It is also true, however, that insights about how the church grows can help churches be more effective in their mission and ministry efforts. That doesn’t seem to be a bad thing to my way of thinking.

There is a danger, however, in an indiscriminate use of principles that essentially market the church, seeking to do whatever one can to attract people to the church. Certainly we ought not to make worship confusing, nor should we hide the restrooms, or try to be unfriendly to guests and visitors to our services. But we need somehow to convey the fact that it is a high and holy privilege to worship God. We’re not doing him a favor when we show up for church services. He is. And he shows up in order to do that.

Which brings me to Paul and Trophimus the Ephesian, whose supposed presence in the temple, instigated by Paul stirs up quite a conflagration. By the time it is unraveled, Paul is under guard, carried by soldiers, while the people call for his death. The ESV Study Bible notes:

The Jews from Asia (v. 27) charged Paul with defiling the temple by taking a Gentile (“Trophimus the Ephesian,” v. 29) beyond the stone barrier that divided the outer courtyard (Court of the Gentiles) from the inner sanctuary, which was off-limits to Gentiles, under penalty of death. But their accusation was a lie. Paul, knowing of the death penalty, would not have brought a Gentile into the forbidden area.

One commentator suggests that they shut the gates (v. 30) so that they would not desecrate the temple by murdering Paul there. I guess it’s OK to murder, just don’t do it in the temple! It could also be, however, that this was a move to prevent other gentiles from entering the temple. In either case, however, there is certainly a strong awareness of the sacredness of the temple. One does not saunter nonchalantly into the presence of God. But maybe they took it a bit too far.

When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sacred area was torn in two. God was saying by that act, that Jesus had provided direct access to God.

While it remains true that no one can approach God who is not totally holy and perfectly pure and righteous, it is also true that God’s gift to the world is the righteousness of Jesus, which we receive through faith. He provides full and free access to the Father. In fact the throne of God is now called a throne of grace, which we can approach boldly through Jesus.

The Jews of Paul’s day hadn’t quite worked that through. But today we may approach God boldly and with confidence in his mercy and love.

When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. – Acts 21:17-26

Heartbroken

“Brokenhearted” from my 2017 Portfolio, “Views of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” | Berlin, Germany, August 2017

My board of elders in a former church were good men. Few in number but strong in their commitment to the church and their love for me, they were a blessing. Once in a while it was really good to have them also as allies. Yes, there were those who really did challenge my ministry and leadership in that church. Once one of the elders (now sainted) spoke of a member (now also sainted), “Joe’s [not his real name] hurting the church. I’ll talk to him.” Joe was grumbling a lot about me and my leadership priorities and programs.

Not too many days later I saw my elder-ally outside the church speaking with Joe. He had his finger pointing in his chest and was taking no prisoners. I heard little more grumbling from Joe. It’s good to have allies!

My situation was no where near as severe as Paul’s, and his allies were similarly more vital. The question Paul faced was akin to what we have heard of and experienced in the church today when one group accuses another of actions that tear at the fabric of the church’s traditions and practices. Sometimes those need to be torn away to be sure. Other times, however, they need to be treated more tenderly and carefully.

On this occasion Paul will go with these men who have taken a vow. His presence with them will show those who question Paul’s legitimacy and faithfulness that he has not abandoned the faith, nor is he intent on undercutting every Jewish tradition.

This is much the same posture as Martin Luther took when certain people wanted to tear down everything in the church that reminded them of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. That was not Luther’s desire. He, too, was protected by allies (Frederich the Wise of Saxony).

It’s sad to say that there are times when we need allies, people who will stand with us in the heat of the battle or sting of accusations. This is especially true when the continuation of the mission of God is at stake.

When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”

15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge. – Acts 21:7-16

A walk in Martinshöhe, Germany

A walk in Martinshöhe, Germany yielded this flower photo. August 2017

When I talk to couples who are getting ready to be married, I will ask him whether he would be willing to stand in the way of someone who was going to try to harm his fiancé – even to the point of physical harm, or possibly even death. Frequently the man will strongly avow his willingness to protect his future bride. I like to offer a challenge to this willingness to sacrifice for her sake. “Will you turn off the TV and listen to her and talk through an issue that is on her heart – even if your favorite team is playing? Ugh. It’s easy to talk big when the threat isn’t all that real or present. But when it becomes a real possibility…that’s often another matter altogether!

Paul is facing a very real and present danger as he approaches Jerusalem. This is attested to by the Spirit-led disciples of Tyre and the affirmation of the Spirit’s warning by the prophet Agabus. Paul will face grave danger if he insists on going to Jerusalem.

But Paul is ready not only to face the danger, but even to die for the sake of Jesus Christ. Perhaps he is aware of God’s word to Ananias: “I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). It is likely, also, that he is determined to act in good faith regarding the monies collected in Corinth for relief of the saints in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8 & 9).

Whatever the case, Paul is heading to Jerusalem, willing to make the greatest sacrifice for the sake of Jesus. He will go to Jerusalem, be in grave danger and flee from there – ultimately appealing to Caesar, and as a result end up in Rome. It is said that he did ultimately offer his life for the cause of Jesus. Paul isn’t all talk. He won’t brag about his bravery in the face of danger. He will face it, and we are the richer for it. For God used this man to spread the Word across the Roman Empire.

It is likely that most of us will not face the possibility of giving up our life for the sake of the gospel. But there may be other smaller dangers we will need to face, and sacrifices we can make for the sake of the Gospel. May the Holy Spirit sustain us and give us courage whenever these times come.

And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. – Acts 21:1-6

Fireweed - just like we saw in Alaska

Germany Fireweed – just like we saw in Alaska | August 2017

For the most part I have stayed out of places where danger lurks – especially when I’ve been warned. That wasn’t the case, however, when Diane and I were in Paris. We were in search of a SIM card for our cell phone, and were very unfamiliar with the city. We didn’t know particular neighborhoods or shopping areas. We managed to find a small store which had the SIM card but when we went in there were signs we should probably not tried to do business there. We should not have even been in that part of the city; it was a strongly Islamic area and we even encountered a demonstration in one roundabout as we got out of the area! We just should not have gone there.

This was the message to Paul about a very familiar place to which he was traveling: “Don’t go there!” I notice that this message is conveyed by the group of Jesus’ followers in Tyre, “by the Spirit“. Paul, however, is bound and determined to go to Jerusalem. He is not to be dissuaded from this destination. He was going to Jerusalem – even if the Holy Spirit led people to tell him not to go.

Paul’s insistence on going there – even against the advice of Spirit-led disciples – has to be put into the category of human stubbornness of will. The Ephesian elders have bid him farewell not knowing whether they would ever see him again. He is warned in Tyre not to go. There seems to be no one else who wants him to go to Jerusalem. But Paul will go. No matter what.

It’s a good thing that God can use such people. Stubborn people like Paul, Martin Luther, and sometimes even yours truly. There are times when we simply have our minds set on a thing which may not be morally wrong, but outside of God’s will for us. Going to Jerusalem, moving to a new job, marrying someone too early in our lives: these are the kinds of things (not autobiographical) that may not be morally wrong, but might possibly be a path other than God’s will for us. Thankfully God can work through our willfulness – just as he will here.

Paul will go to Jerusalem. It will also be a launching pad for his trip to Rome – through a very convoluted series of events, and against the odds of conspiracy and efforts to undercut his ministry and even take his life. It is possible that had Paul not gone to Jerusalem, he would have also gotten to Rome in a more peaceful and less-conflict-ridden way. We’ll never know. But what we do know – thanks be to God – is that God can work through all kinds of people to accomplish his work.

This is not a call for foolish stubbornness. It is certainly better to go where common sense and good advice would lead us. But at least on this occasion, Paul will continue beyond Jerusalem to serve the cause of the rule and reign of Christ. Thanks be to God!

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them:
“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.’”
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. – Acts 22:17-38

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Yellow rose blossom at The Flower Fields | Carlsbad, CA | Photo take April 2017 (rerun photo)

Early in my ministry I found myself in the crosshairs of no small amount of accusation. There were those who considered me less than what I ought to be as their pastor and had no trouble letting me and others know about it. For a while it became so intense that I decided to provide a written defense of some of the actions I had taken. After I wrote it, however, I did not share it immediately with anyone in the church. Instead, I shared it with a respected colleague. He took it, read it, and when he handed it back to me he said, “I have written a thing or two like that in my time. But I wouldn’t publish it. Keep it handy and be ready to read from it if the time comes. Otherwise someone might take it and find things to use against you.”

That turned out to be good advice. I never even had to read it out loud. But I had it at the ready in case I needed to refer to it.

Paul’s experience in bidding farewell proves to be an opportunity to defend his ministry in a much better context. He is not merely speaking about the things he did or did not do, but by doing so, he is instructing the Ephesian Elders (and offering us today good advice and a truly-Christian approach to mission work.

Some of the things he offers:

  • 
He will move forward in the mission of God even though he did not know what lay before him. Courage.
  • He has and will continue to proclaim the full truth of God that leads people to repentance and faith.
  • He urges the Ephesian elders to attend to themselves and to the people under their care so that they may persevere in the faith.
  • He reminds them of his demonstrated love for them as shown by his three years of ministry among them.
  • He refers to Jesus’ teaching that it is more blessed to give than receive (one of a very few sayings of Jesus that is found outside the Gospels).
  • He leaves them after a prayer, departing by ship.

The challenging thing for any true follower of Jesus is to hold oneself up as an example without appearing to be self-righteous. On the other hand we are to be an example to one another of true love and faithfulness to God. Paul seems clearly to have landed on a matter-of-fact summary of his ministry and missionary activity. He is not bragging. He is offering an example that is worthy of our embrace – both in what he showed by his life and the fact that he showed it at all.

I hope somehow to offer that kind of example to others, in a humble sort of way. In all this – as with Paul – it is my desire to lift up Christ and encourage others to follow him.

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 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. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 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. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 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.’

36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. – Acts 20:17-38

Beautiful flowers at the Gartenschau in Kaiserslautern

Daisy in the Gartenschau in Kaiserslautern, Germany | August 2017

A friend and respected colleague of mine offered 10 farewell sermons to his congregation before retiring. They were on different subjects or facets of the Christian faith that were dear to him, and that he wanted to leave with the congregation he had served for many, many years. Knowing him, I’m certain they were well-thougth-out and very edifying. But, boy! That’s a long farewell.

Paul offers a significant farewell to the Ephesian elders – so significant that Luke records a large portion of his comments. Several things he mentions are notable, and near the beginning he points to his main message: a call to repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Luther observed that repentance has two parts: we are sorry for our sins, and we put our faith in Jesus Christ. Contrition and faith are the two essential elements of repentance. Paul refers to both of them here. Perhaps this is exactly where Luther got that idea. Whatever the case, however, these two moves: turning toward God (away from sin), and placing our faith in Jesus Christ is a life-long calling for the follower of Jesus. Paul lifts this up in his initial comments to them.

That dual move is the foundation for all of Christian life. We may face challenges to our faith; sometimes even from within our church. We may have to defend ourselves from the wolves who are Satan’s servants seeking to devour and destroy the work of God in our hearts. But it comes down, always and in the end, to repentance and faith.

Here is the good news in all of this: Although repentance is a life-long calling for the follower of Jesus, faith in Jesus rests on his righteousness and faithfulness, mercy and forgiveness – which never runs out. We may wonder how it is that we constantly need to repent – sometimes of the same sin, again and again. But we never need wonder whether Jesus is ready to receive us. He is ready, and he delights when we turn to him in repentance and faith.

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.

13 But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. 14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15 And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. 16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. – Acts 20:7-16

Roses were growing all along one path of the Königstein fortress

A yellow rose along a path at the Königstein fortress | August 2017

I am not wired for lingering conversations when it’s time to go. That’s not true of other people. In fact I recently had a conversation with a woman who admitted (with no sense of deficiency or guilt) that she was a dawdler. She grew up in a country and culture where people lingered and talked. There was always tomorrow in her world. Not me. I’m ready to take the hill. I want to see things happen. In this account Paul seems to show the latter kind of mentality as he continues to make his way to Jerusalem.

Before he leaves, however, he will preach… a long, long sermon if you will. And Eutychus falls asleep and falls out the window to his apparent death. He is the preacher’s favorite object lesson about not falling asleep in church: You never know if you’ll fall out the window and nearly die if you fall asleep in church! Eutychus’ lesson is much more far-reaching than that however. His experience and Paul’s intervention seem to be almost a passing non-event, rather than a miraculous intervention of Jesus’ power through Paul. In the end, after the fall and “resurrection”, they were comforted – no doubt. But little more is said. Paul is on his way. The reminder of this section is a travelogue indicating where Paul went and that he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, hopefully by Pentecost.

Perhaps this is a lesson in continuing to move forward, seeking to get some particular place by some particular time. That vibrates well with me; I tend to be a let’s get going and accomplish something kind of guy. I sometimes miss smelling the roses along the way. I can easily miss the deeper conversations that might enrich me as I pursue another goal. That’s not always good. But there are times when we must get a move on and move forward. It may not be so much having a ho-hum response to the miraculous, as it is a “let’s keep pursuing the goal” mentality that moves the church forward.

I thank God for those who enjoy the trip, and even slow me down once in a while to encourage me to see what God is doing along the path. But it is easier for me to keep moving forward as much as possible in the mission God has given me as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps that’s the key: Don’t go any faster or slower than Jesus is moving. That is the perfect pace.