On the 7th Sunday after Pascha, the Epistle Lesson is taken from Acts 20:16-36. This section of the New Testament does give us some insight into the concerns and experiences of St. Paul and the early Church. My sermon notes for 2008:
(vs. 20:16) “Paul … was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.”
Pentecost was a Jewish feast, but obviously, the early disciples also kept this Feast as a Holy Day. Paul wanted to be in Jerusalem with the other disciples for the anniversary of this event – a Feast we still keep in the Orthodox Church 2000 years later.
(:18) “You know… in what manner I always lived among you”
One of Paul’s claims is that all that he did and taught was open – nothing was secret. His life was open for all to see, to imitate, to judge. Modern critics of St. Paul claim he hijacked Christianity and made it into a religion that is not consistent with Christ’s teachings. But Paul’s own testimony seems to indicate he was upfront and open about everything, and his life was his proof about what he believed. Transparent and trustworthy would be words Paul wanted people to notice about his life.
(:20) “but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house,”
St. Paul is denying there are any secret teachings – you can ask anybody. He was never sneaking around and was never secretly changing anything. Every teaching of his was given publicly and open to public scrutiny.
(:23-24) “the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. … But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy”
Paul was well aware that what his future held for him was suffering. He was not a preacher of a prosperity Gospel. He did not follow Christ just to get blessings from Him and have a wonderful life. He was not a Christian just because of the benefits it provides in this world.
(:25) “will see my face no more.”
And Paul knew the sad reality; he would never see these people again. But despite his love for them, he does not alter his desire to complete the task before him. He is determined to accomplish his mission – they have to accomplish their own mission in life. Here Paul shows a great deal of confidence in leadership emerging in the local church. He does not see the Christian movement failing because its leaders are cut off from the local community. He has a much broader view of leadership – it is diffused throughout the Christian community, not limited to a few hierarchs. This is how the Church was able to survive persecution and to grow! A hierarchically dominated Church will emerge with Constantine, but St. Paul does not envision this as normal for the Church of his day – the Church is the Body of Christ and the entire Christian community is essential in leading Christians to the Kingdom.
(:29) “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
Not only did he know that he himself would have to suffer for Christ, but for any pastor/father he also knew the flock, this nascent church was going to suffer tribulations. This probably weighed on his heart more than knowing that he would be suffering in the near future. And he can do nothing to stop the attacks that would occur on the young church. St. Paul knew his limits – he had to go on to finish his ministry, but would be worried about his disciples who had to undergo a terrible trial and he wouldn’t be there to help them. But note he is not despairing about this. He seems confident that they will triumph.
(:30) “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”
Not only will the young Church be attacked by enemies from the outside, but sickeningly enough, from within the Church destructive people would arise. But again, he can’t stop these events from happening. He can only warn them to be alert, be vigilant, be watchful, be prepared for every problem.
(:31) “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone”
Paul’s job was not to prevent the attacks from happening but to forewarn the flock so that they could prepare themselves to deal head on with what would befall them.
(:32) “And now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up
He expresses some confidence that they will pass the test – not only will they survive, they will be built up by God’s Word. And Paul deals with what he can change. He does not fret about events over which he has no control.
(:35) “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak.”
And he gives them this charge – you must support the weak. Paul realizes that some are going to have their faith put to the test. Some will not be prepared for the ordeal which is to come upon them. But his command is to support those who will be tempted to apostatize, or despair, or give up. The Christian response to the weaker members is to support them, not to judge, condemn, deny or denounce them.
(:35) “And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
And the summary of Paul’s own teaching on Christian behavior and attitude – it is better to give then to receive. If you are a Christian just for what you can get out of life – prosperity, salvation, blessings – then you are a taker and not a giver. But Christians are to be givers, to give care to others. Don’t keep looking for what you can get out of the church, the liturgy, the bible. Look to what you can give to others, for in this giving you imitate Christ, and St. Paul. The real blessing for us is not in what we personally will get from Christ, but what we are inspired to give as a result of experiencing Christ’s saving love for us. Paul modeled this behavior and it became his way of life toward others as he continued as a disciple.