Wednesday, 19 May 2010

It is more blessed to give than to receive

The theatre at Miletus ... after it was enlarged in the Roman period it could hold 25,000 people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 20: 28-38


28 προσέχετε ἑαυτοῖς καὶ παντὶ τῷ ποιμνίῳ, ἐν ᾧ ὑμᾶς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἔθετο ἐπισκόπους, ποιμαίνειν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ἣν περιεποιήσατο διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ ἰδίου. 29 ἐγὼ οἶδα ὅτι εἰσελεύσονται μετὰ τὴν ἄφιξίν μου λύκοι βαρεῖς εἰς ὑμᾶς μὴ φειδόμενοι τοῦ ποιμνίου, 30 καὶ ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν ἀναστήσονται ἄνδρες λαλοῦντες διεστραμμένα τοῦ ἀποσπᾶν τοὺς μαθητὰς ὀπίσω αὐτῶν. 31 διὸ γρηγορεῖτε, μνημονεύοντες ὅτι τριετίαν νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν οὐκ ἐπαυσάμην μετὰ δακρύων νουθετῶν ἕνα ἕκαστον. 32 καὶ τὰ νῦν παρατίθεμαι ὑμᾶς τῷ θεῷ καὶ τῷ λόγῳ τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ τῷ δυναμένῳ οἰκοδομῆσαι καὶ δοῦναι τὴν κληρονομίαν ἐν τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις πᾶσιν. 33 ἀργυρίου ἢ χρυσίου ἢ ἱματισμοῦ οὐδενὸς ἐπεθύμησα: 34 αὐτοὶ γινώσκετε ὅτι ταῖς χρείαις μου καὶ τοῖς οὖσιν μετ' ἐμοῦ ὑπηρέτησαν αἱ χεῖρες αὗται. 35 πάντα ὑπέδειξα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὕτως κοπιῶντας δεῖ ἀντιλαμβάνεσθαι τῶν ἀσθενούντων, μνημονεύειν τε τῶν λόγων τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ ὅτι αὐτὸς εἶπεν, Μακάριόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον διδόναι ἢ λαμβάνειν.

36 Καὶ ταῦτα εἰπὼν θεὶς τὰ γόνατα αὐτοῦ σὺν πᾶσιν αὐτοῖς προσηύξατο. 37 ἱκανὸς δὲ κλαυθμὸς ἐγένετο πάντων, καὶ ἐπιπεσόντες ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον τοῦ Παύλου κατεφίλουν αὐτόν, 38ὀδυνώμενοι μάλιστα ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ ᾧ εἰρήκει ὅτι οὐκέτι μέλλουσιν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ θεωρεῖν. προέπεμπον δὲ αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον.

[Paul said:] “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.”

When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.

Byzantine remains at Miletus ... this was no cultural backwater (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

It is more blessed to give than to receive

For our devotional reading this afternoon, I have chosen the Lectionary reading for the Eucharist today (Acts 20: 28-38), which continues from yesterday’s reading, with the Apostle Paul’s farewell discourse at Miletus (Μίλητος) to the elders of Ephesus.

Unlike Paul, I have taken the boat from Samos to Ephesus (see 20: 15) many times, and from there I have made my down to Miletus. Unlike Paul’s journey, it is impossible today to arrive in Miletus by boat, because the Maeander River has silted up at its mouth, and the ruined classical city is now 9 or 10 km inland. But it was impossible in Paul’s day to journey by land from Ephesus to Miletus.

Miletus was once at the centre of Greek philosophical and scientific thinking, when Thales and those who followed him speculated about the material constitution of the world, and to propose speculative naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

Later, it was a prosperous classical city, with typical Roman bathhouses that survive in many ways to this day, with their apodyterium (dressing room), frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm room), and caldarium (hot or steam room), with statues of the Greek gods in the halls.

The theatre of Miletus was built in the 4th century BC after Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. In the Hellenistic period, the theatre could seat 5,300 people, but after it was enlarged in the Roman period, it held 25,000 people. The theatre benches are decorated with animal legs and paws along the aisles, and many of the Greek inscriptions at the theatre are still legible, including one that reads: “To the Jews” – evidence of a considerable Jewish population there in the 1st century AD.

Many of the Greek inscriptions at the theatre in Miletus are still legible today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

So when Paul stopped by here on his way to Jerusalem, perhaps for a few days, it was no cultural backwater. Paul has spent three years in mission and ministry with the church in Ephesus (verse 31), and we can presume that by the time of this visit there was also a growing Church in Miletus. He may have met the Ephesian elders either at the steps of the Great Harbour Monument or in the theatre, and then bid them farewell on the nearby beach.

When the Ephesian elders arrive, he preaches this sermon, his only recorded sermon directed exclusively to believers (vv. 18-38). And it also provides us with the only New Testament recording of those famous words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (20: 35) – a saying of Christ that is not found in any of the four Gospels.

The part of the sermon that we read today is strongly pastoral:

● The elders of Ephesus are told that they are on their own now and must stand on their own feet (verse 26).

● They must keep watch over the flock where they have been appointed bishops or elders (verse 28).

● They must beware of those who seek to prey on members of the Church (verse 29).

● They must be prepared for the reality that some of the elders will distort the message (verse 30).

● They must be alert (verse 31).

● And they should follow his example (verses 32-36), being generous in giving and not expecting any reward in return (verse 35).

They then kneel and pray, and after that there is much weeping, not because of what Paul has said, but because they think they are never going to see Paul again. In fact, they probably did, as this was not his final farewell. We know that Trophimus, who accompanies Paul to Jerusalem (see Acts 21: 29), is left behind by Paul in Miletus on a later visit to recover from an illness (see II Timothy 4: 20). So Paul made at least one more visit to Miletus, perhaps as late as 65 or 66 CE.

There can be much weeping at the end of an era. Saying goodbye to students and lecturers after three, or maybe more, years, bringing a three-year course to a close – all these can be a cause for sentimentality and for shedding a tear or two.

But it is more important for Paul not that the elders of Ephesus grieve his departure, but that they have learned what he has taught them … that they too seek not their own reward but the good of the Church.

We brought to a close today another phase in the three-year B.Th. course with the final meeting of the Court of Examiners. Over the next few weeks, students who have been here for those three years are being ordained. But this is not a matter for grief or for shedding a tear.

Saying farewells properly is an important gift in ministry. We have each given a lot to this course, but I am sure that we each received more than we gave. For it is a Gospel truth that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was prepared for a meeting of the academic staff on Wednesday 16 May 2010.