Acts 20:22 Ė 28, St Boniface Day
(Luke 10:1 Ė 11)
Note Ė reading is Ďofficially' from v24 but makes much more sense if taken from v22.
With the opening of the Olympics in Beijing just a few weeks away, there will be many, many athletes around the world who will be focussing on just one thing Ė winning their particular race or event. As they step out into the arena in Beijing, it will be the culmination of years and years of self sacrifice and dedication with the sole objective of being able to stand proudly on that podium to hear their national anthem played as the gold medal is hung around their neck.
Sadly of course, with just a very few exceptions in the form of the various team events like the relay and rowing races, for all those gallant hopefuls who start out, there can be but one winner of the gold medal in each event. Speaking as someone who never found sporting success on the running track my objective was just to finish the race and to try and avoid being last but for those world class athletes preparing to seek glory in Beijing, their whole life is focussed on winning the race and such is the level of competition these days that without that degree of dedication, victory will never be possible.
Although the apostle Paul in those words we have just read from the Book of Acts declares his dedication to winning the race, we have no indication that he was an athlete at all, let alone one who regularly participated in the ancient Olympics. †Indeed in all probability, quite the reverse was probably true for Paul himself refers on a couple of occasions to the Ďthorn in his sideí which although we never discover what it was it was clearly a cause of considerable discomfort to him. However, despite his lack of athletic prowess, Paul is utterly focussed on winning a race in order that he should complete the task the Lord Jesus had given him of testifying to the gospel of Godís grace.
The words that we have just read from Acts 20 are part of Paulís deeply personal, emotional and impassioned farewell to the elders of the church in Ephesus. Paul is coming to the end of his third missionary journey around the churches of Greece and Asia Minor and is now, compelled by the Spirit, returning to Jerusalem to an uncertain fate. †As he travels towards Jerusalem on this farewell tour, he is convinced by the Spirit that whatever the fate that awaits him when he gets back to Jerusalem, he will never see the elders of the church in Ephesus again this side of eternity and that is a cause of great sadness to him for he had a great affection for the Ephesian church and its leaders.
Indeed, that prophecy was fulfilled for when Paul did eventually reach Jerusalem, he was eventually arrested but just as he was about to be flogged by the Roman soldiers, he plays his trump card and declares his Roman citizenship and his right to a fair trial before being punished and ultimately his right to stand trial before Caesar himself.†
After many trials and tribulations, Paul eventually reaches Rome where he is indeed imprisoned but where he also has the opportunity to speak with the Emperor himself many times as well as personally encouraging the Roman Christians and having the time to write at length to many of the churches he had helped to found in the course of his missionary journeys, letters that form a key part of the New Testament Scriptures. Included amongst those letters was one written to the church in Ephesus in response to the visit of Tychicus who had come from Ephesus to visit Paul in prison.
After a number of years in prison, it is thought that Paul was freed for a few years during which time he may even have travelled west to Spain before eventually returning to Rome where tradition has it that he was martyred by the emperor Nero in around 67 AD but all of that was yet to come. Sadly though, he never returned to Ephesus in person.
Now though Paul is on the quayside at Miletus, the port city that served ancient Ephesus, saying farewell to the elders of the church. As Iíve already said, Paul had a tremendous fondness for the church at Ephesus and its leaders.
He had founded the church on his way back to Jerusalem at the end of his second missionary journey in 53 AD before returning a year later as he set out on his third missionary journey when he stayed in Ephesus for three years establishing and building up the church. It hadnít been an easy ride. Ephesus was the centre of worship of the goddess Artemis and riots had followed his attempts to bring the gospel but the church had taken root and had grown and flourished and indeed when Paul writes several years later from prison in Rome, it is unique amongst the prison epistles in that it is not written to counter some problem or heresy or conflict but as an encouraging and affirming message to the people.
So Paul had a tremendous soft-spot for the Ephesian church but he knows as he talks to the elders that he is venturing into the unknown as he heads back to Jerusalem and that whatever fate awaits him, it isnít going to be a pleasant one for the Spirit has warned him that prison and hardships await him but despite all this, and this is the real key to understanding Paul and a real example to each of us, despite all this foreboding, Paul is eager, desperate to finish the race and complete the task that the Lord had given him of testifying to the gospel of Godís grace.
There is a tendency amongst some Christians to preach a health, wealth and prosperity gospel Ė turn to Jesus and all your troubles, however serious, will be a thing of the past. Sadly this trap, this distortion of the gospel, is one that all too many of our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic fall into. Sadly, the reality as Scripture and church history record in painful detail, is quite the opposite. Yes, we may well find ourselves richly blessed as Christians but that is the exception rather than the rule and just in case we think that we live in more enlightened times we do well to reflect on the grim statistic that more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than in the previous 19 added together.
Compared to many, many of our brothers and sisters around the world, it is easy for us to be Christians. We are able to meet together to worship, to pray, to hear the Bible read and Godís word preached openly and without fear. Contrast that to the situation in many countries around the world and it is not just in the Islamic world that Christians face persecution. Christians are heavily persecuted in parts of India, in Burma, China and most recently in Zimbabwe where the regime has been brutally attacking Anglican churches in particular because of their apparent support for the opposition in the parliamentary and Presidential elections. To be a Christian in these countries requires enormous courage, perseverance and a desire to run the race to completion.
The challenge for each one of us has to be to continue to strive to run the race that has been appointed for each one of us to run in the service of God. Just as that race will be different for each one of us so the challenges associated with it will be different for each of us. Just as in the Olympics, not everyone is a sprinter or a marathon runner, so we are not all called to be evangelists or missionaries or teachers or pastors but we are all called to one roll or another. We might be being called to minister to children or the elderly, the dying or the recently bereaved, we might be called to use our administrative skills in the service of the church or our gifts of hospitality or praying for those of need. However insignificant our calling might seem, we are all called to play a critical and active part in the service of God and his glorious kingdom and that requires perseverance and determination in just the same way that the athletes preparing for the Olympics will step onto the track determined to at least finish the race.
The apostle John writing in the Book of Revelation described the church in another part of Asia Minor, Laodicea, as lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, only fit to be spat out. Our challenge is to make sure that our commitment to Christ and his church is as determined as the athleteís is to finish the race ahead and doesnít become weak, insipid or lukewarm. We should strive to be like Paul and not focus on earthly success and status but on living a life day in and day out devoted to Godís service.
As Paul continues his farewell, there is no doubt in his own mind that this is a final parting from the Ephesian elders Ė Now I know that none of you amongst whom I have gone about preaching will ever see me again he says and yet despite the evident sadness, there is no sense of melancholy about it, rather Paul defends his own ministry before giving the elders advice about caring for the church into the future.
Paulís comment that he was innocent of the blood of all men may seem a strange comment to make in a farewell speech but to understand these words, we need to remember the tensions that Paul had encountered primarily with the local Jewish congregation pretty much wherever he took the gospel. Paulís pattern wherever he went was always to begin by sharing the gospel with the local Jewish congregation, only taking the message beyond them once they had, by and large rejected the good news.
It would have been easy for Paul to have skimped on the message of the gospel, left out the difficult or tricky bits in order to make the message of the gospel more palatable to his listeners but that would have been to make a travesty of the gospel and is perhaps one of the traps that the church of England has fallen into in an attempt to stem the decline in numbers Yet Paul remained resolute to the task he had been given of proclaiming the gospel and leaving the individual to respond to the message they had heard. If they chose to reject it, that was of their own free will but Paul had not failed in his command to take and share the wonderful, glorious gospel of Christ.
It is highly appropriate then that we have this reading today as we celebrate the festival of St Boniface for he followed very much in Paulís footsteps some 600 odd years later, demonstrating a dogged determination to share the gospel of Christ, often against much opposition, sharing that same determination to finish the race appointed for him to run.
Boniface (or Wynfrith as he was born), had a burning desire for overseas mission just as Paul did and in 716 he set out from his monastery outside Southampton to travel to the Frisian people in the Netherlands to share the gospel message. Sadly, war and concerted opposition from the pagans saw his mission fail and he returned a few months earlier but he didnít give up at that point, rather he devoted himself to another couple of years of preparation and set off again two years later in 718, travelling first to Rome, where he sought the blessing of the pope who named him Boniface before he set off across the alps to begin 35 years of missionary work to the heathen in Germany, initially to the east of the river Rhine but eventually extending across the whole of Germany culminating in his being declared bishop of all of Germany.
Boniface not only planted new churches and monasteries but re-organised and re-equipped the church for mission but also sought to ensure that the political authorities and rulers shared that Christian faith. It was Boniface who crowned Pepin as king of all the Franks and it was Pepinís son Charlemagne† who became the first Holy Roman Emperor, a title that was to last for 1000 years of history.
It was at the age of almost 80 that Boniface sought to return to the scene of his first unsuccessful mission in the Frisian region of the Netherlands. He set off with 52 companions on a missionary, evangelistic mission but on the day of Pentecost in 755 near the modern day town of Dokkum right up on the north coast near Groningen they were massacred by a band of pagan rebels. The sword that killed Boniface was wielded with such force that it penetrated the Bible that he had raised to protect his head.
It is then highly appropriate that on this day when we celebrate St Boniface that we are reminded of both his determination to share the gospel whatever the cost and the apostle Paulís determination to finish the race set for him by God above all other things to share the good news of Jesus with those around him. With such auspicious examples to follow, can our determination and commitment be any less?