February 27, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Move
Ahead into the Unknown
Acts 20:13-24

During one of the college’s preview days a few years ago, I stood near the library and talked with a prospective student. This particular young man was not considering a major in my department, but we somehow struck up a conversation anyway. When I asked him what subjects he was genuinely passionate about, he told me that he loved literature. “Little excites me more than a moving poem or a gripping play,” he said. So I immediately began thinking about Paul Nisly, Crystal Downing, Sam Smith and our other professors in the Language and Literature Department—and of course the various classes that they taught—and I said to the young man, “Oh, you’re hoping to major in English.” “No,” he responded with his head now hanging down just a bit. “I’m going to be a business major. Everyone tells me that I need to get a good-paying job after graduation, and I don’t know what I would do with an English major. I need,” he continued, “to play it safe.”

Playing it safe was a foreign concept to the Apostle Paul. Instead, he was, as this passage readily reminds us, a risk-taker par excellence. Paul remains involved in his third missionary journey, although he is now on his way back to Jerusalem. The book of Acts no doubt over-simplifies the complexities of Paul’s itinerary—these have been taxing excursions, to say the least. Presently resting in Miletus, an important port on the western coast of what is today Turkey, Paul sends a fax to Ephesus, some 30 miles to the north. In the fax, he asks the elders of the church in Ephesus to meet him in Miletus so that he can talk with them before continuing on to Jerusalem. When they arrive, Paul shares with them what is often referred to as his farewell address. This address, preserved for us here in Acts 20:18-35, is in fact the only speech in the entire book of Acts addressed specifically to Christians.

The similarities between Paul’s farewell address here and Jesus’ own farewell address to his disciples have long been noted (Mark 13; Luke 22:14-38; John 13-17). Jesus, you will recall, sat around a table with the disciples and talked with them about everything from who among them was the greatest to his own impending death. In the same way, Paul now speaks with these Ephesian elders—a close-knit group of people who had supported Paul and his work in Ephesus. Look at just the opening paragraph with me this morning. We’ll come back to the rest of the address next week.

Paul begins by briefly rehearsing his ministry among the Ephesians in the past (18-21). His was a ministry characterized by transparency and presence. Unlike some of the pastors I met when I was in New York, pastors who ministered in the city but never thought of living there, Paul “lived among you the entire time….” It was a ministry about which Paul was passionate and deeply emotional—“I served with humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me….” And it was a ministry in which Paul modeled persistence and unwavering commitment—“I did not shrink from doing anything helpful….” Clearly, Paul reminisces about the past, not with a measure of guilt or regret, but with a profound sense of satisfaction. “I did what God asked me to do,” Paul confidently announces. Given all that he has been through recently, one might think that this would be enough.

But not for Paul. Not for this adventurous visionary who seemed to see everything in life as yet another opportunity. As Max Trundle, the generally easygoing editor of the New York Standard, commented to his gossip-columnist, Sara, in the movie Hitch, “There is more to life than watching other people live it.” Paul would certainly have agreed. Already he is focusing his attention on Jerusalem, even though he readily acknowledges that he does not know what will happen to him there. Paul does not need to have all of his “Ts” crossed and his “Is” dotted before moving ahead. He demonstrates no hyper-dependency on having all of his ducks in a row. On the contrary, Paul anticipates the next step of the journey, the latest in a series of opportunities. For Paul, life is a journey rather than a static state, an adventure rather than a destination. For Paul, life is far more a roller coaster ride at Hershey Park than a jaunt on a stationary bike in the basement.

We must note, at the same time, that Paul is neither naïve nor uninformed. My guess is that countless foolish steps have been taken over the years by people who thought they were being faithful but were actually presumptuous. Paul, though wildly adventurous, is also intentional. He assures the Ephesian elders, for example, that the Holy Spirit lies behind his irresistible drive to return to Jerusalem. Paul further points out that this urge—this compelling presence of the Spirit—has not gone untested. Paul is painfully aware that great difficulties lie before him—“imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me”—and he clearly engaged in some serious cost-counting. “I do not count my life of any value to myself,” he suggests. “I simply want to finish the ministry that the Lord Jesus has given to me.” Paul has weighed the evidence and considered his options. Now, he is once again off and running.

And it is striking, you will agree, what God does through Paul and his adventurous spirit. In the course of his travels, including three missionary journeys spanning over eleven years and covering untold thousands of miles, Paul visits many of the major cities of the Roman Empire. Within little more than a generation following the death of Jesus, Christianity had grown from a tiny movement within Judaism into a predominantly Gentile religion. And who stands behind such a development? This physically unimpressive, strong-willed, sometimes impetuous but generally affectionate man who refused to play it safe with his life. Just listen to his self-assessment that he included in his second letter to the Corinthians:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, dangers from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (11:24-28).
Do those sound like the words of someone who always played it safe? Someone who had to have all of the pieces of his life neatly in place at all times? Someone who disregarded the passions of his heart in order to do what was simply practical and expedient? Hardly. This is the Apostle Paul, the Indiana Jones of the New Testament. This is Paul, a risk-taker.

The love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to move ahead into the unknown. To be more adventurous. To celebrate life’s turning points rather than running from them. Studies have shown that one of the most frequent regrets among those who are dying is that they failed to take enough risks. “99% of the world is asleep,” I recently read in a magazine called Heron Dance, “and the remaining 1%...move through life is a state of constant amazement.” “Life,” remember, “is more than watching other people live it.”

So why is it so difficult to experience the amazement? Why is it so tough to follow our God-given passions?” Fear. Over-emphasis on practical details—where is this going to get me and what will I do when I get there? Unhealthy and at times sinful preoccupations with worldly pleasures—high salaries, elaborate houses and fancy clothing. An obsession with security. An inability to let go and trust. Interestingly enough, these struggles and preoccupations more often than not rob us of a godly spirit of adventure and leave us among the 99% who continue to sleep. The love of Christ call us to wake up, join the adventure. This business of stability and security is, after all, only an illusive dream anyway. As Helen Keller once phrased it:
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of human kind as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.

I have sometimes lamented that I am not what might be called a “mono-directional” person. I remember talking to some of my classmates in seminary who seemed to know exactly what they would be doing for the rest of their lives. “I plan on completing my education, finishing the ordination process, and pastoring in the central Pennsylvania conference of the United Methodist Church for as long as I live,” one of them told me. I’ve never been able to relate to that. I enjoying teaching, pastoring, preaching, writing, and participating in cross-cultural mission work, just to name a few things. While looking ahead and thinking at times about the big picture, I tend to take life in smaller chunks. I simply don’t know what God has in store for me in the remaining years—or days—of my life, and I don’t want to miss any of it. And occasionally that gets me down, as though I am always thinking about what I want to do and where I want to go next. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be here or teach there?” “I just heard that they need a short-term missionary in this country or that—that would be exciting to do!” I’ve even teased my wife about my going back to school once she finishes in May, although I really was only teasing! What is wrong with me? I’ve sometimes wondered. Why can’t I just settle down?!?
Just two weeks ago when I was on a week-long prayer retreat at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, the good Lord brought a fascinating woman into my life for just a few moments. We both had been involved in silent retreat during the week, so we hadn’t talked with anyone for several days. On the last morning—we were packing up and preparing to leave—Sharon sat across from me at the breakfast table. It soon became clear that we were both eager to share with someone else, so we began talking with each other. Sharon is a sociologist who also completed law school. Her husband died a few years ago, and Sharon now spends the majority of her time working in inner-city Philadelphia. In addition to providing legal counsel to the poor, Sharon’s primary passion is to help other lawyers think deeply about issues of peace, poverty and justice. Sharon, I soon discovered, is a profoundly joyful person who is on an adventure.

As I then shared just a bit of myself with Sharon, I watched with delight as she responded to my story. I told her about some of the places we’ve been and things that we’ve done. I mentioned that Deb was finishing graduate school in May, and that we saw the next several months as a period of discernment for us. What would Deb do with her degree? How would she integrate her training as a spiritual director with her deep sense of concern for the poor? I told her about our trip to Zambia this coming summer, and about our interest in cross-cultural ministry. As I talked, Sharon kept saying, “Wow.” “Wow.” And when I shared with her the stress I sometimes feel because of my tendency to think about various areas of service and involvement, she gently scolded me. “Don’t look at life’s intersections as danger zones,” she said, “but as opportunities.” “Life is an adventure!” “Take some risks.” “Go out on a limb once in a while.”

Life is an adventure, for each of us individually and for all of us together as a church. We shouldn’t look at life’s intersections as danger zones, but as opportunities. That’s what Paul did. What about you? You want to go back to college, or graduate school, even though you’re “older” than the average student. You want to leave your mundane and rewardless job to pursue this inner tug of the Spirit into the unknown. You want to follow your heart and change your major. You want to stop trying to be like everyone else and celebrate who God calls you to be.

And what about us as a church? Do we want to continue this journey of stretching ourselves and trying new ideas? While preserving the best of who we are, do we want to reach out with the Gospel to a wider assortment of people. Are we courageous enough, not only to “watch” the church move along in the book of Acts, but to live that kind of adventurous Christian life ourselves.

I certainly hope that that student I spoke with some years ago in front of the library at the college eventually decided to major in English rather than in business. Life is an adventure. Let’s follow our passions.