Acts 20:16-36, Genesis 15, Genesis 28
Where do we usually go to hear the words of Jesus? Why, of course, to the gospels! But this Sunday, as we prepare for Pentecost (just as St. Paul was in our reading from Acts), we find an otherwise unattested word of Jesus in an unusual place: in the mouth of St. Paul as he instructs the Ephesian elders who have come to meet him as he is journeying.
Our passage for today (Acts 20:16-18; 28-36) is lengthy, and in fact omits ten verses of Paul’s exhortation. It helps to know the scene: Paul is on his way to Jerusalem, even though he has been warned several times by prophets and prophetesses that great trials await him there. Presumably he desires to celebrate Pentecost, which he mentions, with the Christians in Jerusalem. But it is certain, knowing Paul, that he is not simply going for a visit. Indeed, in the bit that we skip over, he tells the elders, whom he has summoned for a final serious word, that he is on his way because he is “constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to there.” Paul is not naïve: he has already suffered much hardship, even from his own fellow Jews, as he has publically and courageously preached “the gospel of the grace of God, repentance toward God and … faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” What a wonderfully concise summary of our faith! — the good news that God has GIVEN himself to us. (Paul speaks of “his grace,” God’s free gift, leading us to repentance and ongoing faith in the Lord.) Here he reminds the elders that the very basis of his teaching is God’s immeasurable gift to us, and for this reason he has been bold to witness, and will continue to witness to the truth—even though he is uncertain about what will be a difficult future. The apostle is trying, with some grief, but also with hope, to prepare his leaders to continue in their faithfulness once they no longer have him around to help them.
So what is the saying of Jesus that Paul imparts to them? Towards the end of his emotional talk to them, we hear it: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Like all the benedictions of Jesus, this one is counterintuitive. Blessed are the poor, the persecuted, the reviled, the meek. And MORE blessed is the one who gives. Even as we look through the story of salvation, this may seem doubtful. After all, we remember the patriarchs mostly for what they received from God—an inherited land, a beloved wife, a promise of posterity. Like Paul, Abraham was called to journey into an unknown future:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse…” (Gen 12:1-2)
So, he obeys, and his way is attended by blessing: he receives an answer to his prayer concerning Lot’s family at Sodom, several visions from God, a visitation from angels, a blessing from the mysterious Melchizedek, and release from the command to slaughter Isaac. Indeed, in the end he receives God’s assurance that, because of Isaac, his progeny would be like the stars—both in number and in brilliance. But there is perhaps something we have not noticed. The true blessedness of Abraham is not in what he receives, but what he gives. From the beginning of God’s word to Abraham this is hinted at. When Abraham was told by God to leave Haran, He also promises: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” He is blessed because he will be a blessing to others. How is this accomplished? A little later, God is more specific in speaking to Abraham: “Your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” (Gen 22:18). We might think that this is simply a general word about Abraham’s descendants, but St. Paul tells us that this is instead a revelation concerning Jesus himself. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal.3:16). Yes, indeed, there is only One who has thoroughly possessed “the gate of his enemies”— “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” and knocking down the gate of His and our enemy, so that all of us, from every nation on earth, can be blessed.
This is what God gave to us, through Abraham: the lineage that would culminate in Christ, who Himself is the great blessing. Abraham’s greatest act was to give us, at the long line of his descendants, Christ Jesus. Though Abraham did not understand the LORD as we do, but only through mysterious visions, through the shadows of the three angels and through the mysterious Melchizedek, he believed and obeyed. And so the apostle Paul and James the brother of the Lord can both commend Abraham to us as a model for faith, for loyal trust of God.
Like Abraham, then, St. Paul is being sent on a journey. Abraham’s journey led to the immediate possession of land, though his family would eventually experience oppression and slavery. St. Paul’s journey, too, will lead to imprisonment and eventually to death. However, even in his bondage and death, he will proclaim the gospel freely. The evangelist Luke reminds us of St. Paul’s grace to continue giving at the very end of the Acts of the Apostles: our last glimpse is of the apostle in a Roman prison, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). To the very end, the apostle embodied the word of Jesus that he had imparted to the Ephesian elders: “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Today we celebrate the holy fathers of the first ecumenical council. They are blessed because of what they gave to us—a clearer articulation of the faith, hedging it off from pernicious errors that could destroy the Church. We remember them because they were faithful overseers, just as St. Paul exhorted his Ephesian elders to be for their own time. St. Paul foresaw a day when heretical teachers would ravage the flock, and warned them:
“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” (Acts 20:28ff).
And he followed up these words by actively praying for them, a gift of intercession as his final testament to God’s love (Acts 20:36).
Not only the first century, but we today in the twenty-first century, thank St. Paul for his clarity of vision, for his ability to see danger, and for his warning with tears, alongside his proclamation of the good news with joy. For even today those who are leaders are called to be alert, knowing that God intends to build us up and give us the promised inheritance, but that God’s enemy still roams around, and slyly tries to insinuate himself into the Church, twisting things and seducing the weak. It is the responsibility of Christian leaders to “work hard” and “help the weak,” just as St. Paul instructs these elders. The apostle himself set a very high bar—mostly so that no one could criticize him—paying his own way, and “tent-making” to make ends meet. However, the flock also has a responsibility—to support our leaders, and not to allow them to sacrifice more than is necessary! As St. Paul also taught, “a laborer is worthy of his wage”—and so the laity should make it possible for our leaders to do the work to which they are called, giving them of our sustenance AND our energy.
A leader’s responsibility can be onerous—giving positive direction, watching for danger, caring for the weak, maintaining the truth in a hostile time. During this time of upheaval with the pandemic, their burden has been even more difficult to carry. Perhaps some of the flock has made it particularly difficult, as we turn hooves and teeth on each other, or even on our shepherds, allowing this time of tension to foster enmity within the very household of God. Putting out fires, and speaking peace, is something that of necessity falls to our leaders, but let us take care that it is not WE who are setting the fires. And let us do our best to quench such friction wherever we see or hear it, with wise words, and with brotherly or sisterly kindness—especially shown to those with whom we disagree, but who worship the LORD as we do.
We are so much bigger than our current restrictions, confusions, arguments, and irritations. We are the Temple of the living God, the ones for whom the ascended Jesus prays constantly, and the ones to whom the Holy Spirit has come, linking us forever to the living God. We are ones to whom the message of life has been entrusted, and so our focus should not be trained inward on our own problems, but outwards to a confused, hurting, and dying world. This week it is my prayer that those who are in a position to receive the holy mysteries, do so with prayers for the entire Church. Alongside them, may those who must, because of circumstances, fast at this time, pray fervently for their brothers and sisters, and know that they are not forgotten, but remain part of the body! And may we all look beyond our own troubles to those who are particularly in danger at this time—physically, psychologically, spiritually. The slower pace may have given us an opportunity to know and encourage our neighbors in a new way; let us seize every opportunity, making the most of this time, redeeming it, as St. Paul suggests (Eph. 5:16)
On this Sunday, when we have seen the LORD go up in triumph with a shout, and in anticipation of Pentecost, when He visits us with holy power, let us remember all that we have received from the LORD. And let us rejoice that we are not made to be simple recipients, but also “givers.” Out of us, too, will spring rivers of living water. For it is more blessed to give than to receive.