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Memories; Precious Memories

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Sermon Preached at Grace Community Church (EPC)
Sun City Grand, Surprise, AZ
Sunday, June 24, 2018
by the Reverend Cooper McWhirter 

“Memories; Precious Memories”
Acts 20:24-28

In this heartwarming, or some might say, bittersweet passage, the apostle Paul bids farewell to a church where he ministered intermittently for three and a half years.  In fact, Paul spent more time in Ephesus (located in modern day Turkey) than anywhere else during his entire ministry.

Which begs the question, “What did Paul find so fascinating, so captivating about this particular church?”  The answer is both simple and complex.  As the founder of this church, Paul shared both their victories as well as their setbacks.  In good times, as well as in difficult times, Paul never shirked his responsibilities as: pastor, preacher, and spiritual mentor.

Ephesus was one of the most prominent churches in that part of the ancient world.  It was a diverse church comprised of: both Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, young and old, slave man and free.  It was a church that was later beset by heresies and cultic myths.

Prior to his departure, Paul gathered the elders of the church and spoke passionately to them: “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me …” [Acts 20:18, 19].  In other words, Paul had a vested interest in this church’s well-being.

But the time of his departure was at hand.  He bid farewell to a people that he had come to know and love so well.  Paul believed he would never see them again; leastwise not in this world.

This was Paul’s own premonition, which appears to have been altered by God’s divine providence.  In 1 Timothy 1:3, it suggests that Paul might well have returned to Macedonia after his first imprisonment in Rome when he had been under ‘house arrest, and prior to his second incarceration, which ultimately led to him being beheaded.  Although this form of execution was cruel and inhumane, it was far less painful than crucifixion.  In part because he was a Roman citizen.

After his farewell address, Paul was setting sail to Jerusalem in observance of the Jewish Passover.  A long and arduous journey which many of his followers had urged him not to undertake.  Paul himself seemed aware of the severe opposition and persecution that awaited him there.  In the preceding verses Paul tells them: “And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me” [Acts 20:22, 23].

This foreboding omen was later attested to by an obscure individual by the name of Agabus.  A person mentioned only twice in the New Testament [the Book of Acts, chapters 11 and 21] to whom many in Jerusalem believed him to be a prophet of God.

While on his way to Jerusalem, Paul stayed briefly in Caesarea in the home of Philip, the evangelist.  While residing there, Agabus, having just arrived from Judea, suddenly grabbed hold of Paul’s belt.  He then bound his own hands and feet as a sign or vision, saying, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, so shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” [Acts 21:11].

In this passage, Paul spoke of his life as being of little importance.  He steadfastly remained focused on his ministry to both Jew and Gentile which the Lord had called him as an apostle and evangelist.

I find verse 26 particularly noteworthy where Paul says, “…I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.”  Was he mindful of his former life as Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, who had once zealously persecuted these so-called “Followers of the Way”?  Yes, blood was surely on his hands!  That is until the day he was confronted by the risen Lord on the road to Damascus.  That dramatic and life-altering experience would forever change his life.  Why even his name was changed!

What do you suppose Paul meant by this startling declaration?  He said: “…I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men”?  In his previous life his misguided deeds had long since been expunged by Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

So, if Paul was not referring to his former life, then why did he make such a bold claim?  I believe the answer can be found in the next verse where he says: “…I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.”  Paul did not shirk his solemn obligation to preach the whole of the gospel.  Put simply, Paul never “sugarcoated” God’s infallible Word!  He spoke the truths of God unashamedly, uncompromisingly with sincerity and passion!

This, too, became my own solemn vow when God irresistibly drew me to ministry.  As a precursor, the Lord graciously called my wife in a most profound way.  We both sensed God’s irrefutable “tugging upon our hearts.”  For just as it says, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” [Romans 11:29].  Throughout my life in ministry Sammie has been my “mainstay.”  Or, as Solomon would testify, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken” [Ecclesiastes 4:12].

From the time Sammie and I first arrived here at Grace, and now to the time of our departure, we both have strived to be faithful followers of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

As a Minister of the Word, if I leave behind a legacy worth footnoting, may it be said [that]: my preaching and teaching was always predicated by the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit.  In this regard, I have no regrets.

But this solemn obligation that Paul shares is extended to all who profess Christ as Lord and Savior.  There will come a time when each of us will be held to account for both our actions and inactions.  In speaking to His prophet Ezekiel, God said: Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel.  Therefore, listen to what I say and warn them for Me.  If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths.  But if you warn them to repent and they do not repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself” [Ezekiel 33:7-9 - NLT].

These words of the prophet serve as a sobering reminder to all who profess to be followers of Christ.  These are solemn vows.  If we fail to heed his warnings, surely there will be consequences!

For months now, I’ve been praying for your next pastor, just as many of you have as well.  My prayer has been that this individual, known only to God at this point, will follow the indelible footsteps left by our previous pastors.  Those worthy under-shepherds who know well the condition of the flock.

God alone will make the final determination if my time spent with you was well-spent.  Will my footprints fall upon the shifting sands of time, or will they be etched on a solid footing?  Ultimately, I, too, must fall back on Paul’s words as he reflected upon his own ministry causing him to say, “I do not consider my life of any account.”

We tend to look at our lives as a failure unless we get something out of it.  Something tangible.  Something recognizable (e.g., fame and fortune, etc.).  Something of significance.  Paul, however, viewed his earthly life as utterly worthless, if he failed to do what God had called him to do.

What this apostle gave of himself so sacrificially was of far greater value than any benefits he might have received.  Or, as someone once said, “It’s what we leave behind that will ultimately determine if there is to be an enduring legacy.” [1]

Paul closes by saying, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

Paul was referring to the forces of evil.  Pawns of Satan who continue to infilitrate the visible church.  People who disguise themselves as one of us.  But they are not of us.

Paul forewarns the elders “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”  Paul was mindful of the forces of evil that played havoc during his ministry there and elsewhere.  And the same holds true for churches in today’s world.

But, dear ones, look on the bright side.  Satan attacks only those churches where Christ is exalted!  Satanic forces will never disturb, or disrupt churches where God’s Word has been sullied and compromised.  So, it stands to reason that if Grace Church continues to follow the footsteps of our Lord, you can expect, you can anticipate, adversity.  It’s a given!  Consider such adversities as a kind of “badge of courage”!

When Paul finished his discourse, he knelt down to pray with them.  Just as I hope we would do.  One chapter has come to an end.  Another chapter is about to begin.  Farewell!  Go with God.  You, the people of grace.  Have a care!

Let us pray…

[1]     No editor cited,  Life Application Bible  (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers,  1991)  pg. 2005.

 

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