Wednesday, 7 May 2008

‘Serving the Lord with humility and with tears’

The library at Ephesus: Paul calls the Church leaders from Ephesus to meet him at Miletus before sailing to Jerusalem (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 20: 17-27; Psalm 68: 7-19; John 17: 1-11a

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A few years ago, while we were on holidays in Kusadasi, I visited two of the cities mentioned in our readings from Acts this evening: Ephesus and Miletus.

The Apostle Paul has sailed from the island of Samos to Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia. He is eager to get to Jerusalem, and so he decides to avoid spending time in Ephesus.

Ephesus was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the classical world. It had wonderful paved streets, public hospitals and latrines, a splendid library, the Library of Celsus; tour guides today continue to point out the location of some of the other questionable houses that seem to have been well patronised by visiting sailors.

Ephesus was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, which probably had the same reputation as some of the unashamed houses of ill-repute.

It is coming up to Pentecost, and Paul is eager to get to Jerusalem for the celebrations. there In his eagerness and in his wisdom, he decides not to stay in Ephesus. Instead he stays in the ancient city of Miletus, near the mouth of the Maeander River.

The Greek-speaking city of Miletus was said to have been founded by traders from Crete and was known for its learning, its writers, its school of philosophy and its scientific advances … a much more pleasant place for Paul to stay than Ephesus, I imagine. The harbour at Miletus was silted up by about the year 300, but in Paul’s days it was still possible to dock a ship there.

While he is staying there, Paul sends a message from Miletus to the leaders of the Church in Ephesus, asking them to come and meet him.

There are many parallels between Paul’s farewell discourse to these Church leaders and the the ideas we heard this evening in Jesus’ farewell discourse to his diciples at the Last Supper.

As he is speaking to the leaders from Ephesus, it seems Paul has some premonition about his impending doom (see verses 22-23, 25). We know that when eventually he does get to Jerusalem, he is arrested and sent to Rome to go on trial. But whatever he knows about what is about to befall him, Paul still maintains a tone of optimism and hope as he addresses thosee church leaders from Ephesus.

He tells them how hard he has worked in his mission and ministry, with a Trinitarian faith: repentance towards the Father, faith towards Christ, and remaining alive in the Spirit (verses 21-22).

It might appear that he is abdicating responsibility for the church leaders in Ephesus, his former friends and companions, those who were once his fellow-labourers.

But in reality Paul is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, he is encouraging them to accept mature responsibility for their own ministry and mission.

In our mission and ministry, collaboration and co-operation will be very important skills to develop. But there is a difference between collaboration and co-operation on the one hand, and dependence on the other hand.

At times, it can be lonely in parish ministry. There are times when we offer leadership, and it is rejected. There are times when we offer new ideas, and they are turned down. There are times when we think we are being prophetic, only to find that others dismiss us as being difficult. There will be times, in your rectory or on your parish rounds, when you will feel no-one understands and no-one knows what you are going through; when you will yearn for a listening ear, but not find it.

Paul is going through this himself, and is preparing his friends and colleagues for this too.

There will be times when it is tough. And then there will be times when it will all seem so worthwhile. There will be sorrows, but there will be great joys. There will be isolation and loneliness, but then there will be times you will be totally overcome by feeling and knowing the presence and love of God in Christ. There will be times you feel vulnerable and threatened; but there will be times that you will know, in a way that no-one else will understand, what it’s all for, and what it’s all about.

Throughout those times, it will be possible to endure these difficulties and rejoice in these blessings if you can keep before you three things, as Paul did: repentance towards the Father, faith towards Christ, and remaining alive in the Spirit (verses 21-22). And it will all be worth while. Or as Dame Julian of Norwich says: “But all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

And now may all power, honour and glory be ascribed to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached on the College Community Eucharist on 7 May 2008.