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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I am not sure where I first heard the words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” but certainly it must have been in a church. For centuries, they were the words of invitation spoken to the congregation as the pastor handed over the offering plates to the ushers, solemnly stating, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, who himself taught us, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And ever since pastors have been the brunt of good natured “offering” jokes. This past week a friend posted on Facebook with my name mentioned, “Do you know the difference between a Bank Robber and a Preacher? A Bank Robber says “Stick ‘em up” while a Preacher says “Will the ushers come forward to take the morning offering.” Perhaps the only jesting more painful for pastors is when it is directed to the quality of their preaching. Another friend recently posted, “There’s a fine line between a long, drawn-out sermon and a hostage situation.” I guess that that is better than the pastor who had automatic, hand dryers installed in the rest rooms at his church, and after two weeks had them removed. When asked why he confessed he went into restroom, and discovered a sign on the hand dryer that read, “For a sample of this week’s sermon, push the button.”
Ironically, the words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” were not intended to be a part of a subtle and persuasive stewardship campaign. The words were the summation of Paul’s missionary work which he offered to the elder of the church in Ephesus as encouragement and inspiration for an uncertain future.
Paul had lived and ministered in the city of Ephesus for three years from the year 54 to 57 AD, which was the longest time he stayed in any city on his missionary journeys. Ephesus was an important seaport and trade center. With a population of 300,000 people, it was also the capital of the Roman province of Asia, and the center of the cultic worship to the goddess Artemis or Diana. The Temple of Artemis which once stood in the center of the city was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Ephesus was the jewel of Paul’s third missionary journey, and as he was travelling back to Jerusalem, he knew that he would never set foot in Ephesus again. Travelling from Macedonia to Syria, he intended to sail past Ephesus. But as he drew near to the coast of Asia Minor at Miletus, standing aboard the ship at the geographic crossroads between East and West, and the religious crossroads between the Jewish and Gentiles worlds, he decided to invite the elders of the church of Ephesus which was 30 miles away to meet him there while the ship was unloaded and loaded with new cargo. Paul was preoccupied with threats against him, from the Jews who were convinced that he was a heretic, as well as the Gentiles who were upset that his new teaching was disrupting their economic interests. Paul was in a reflective mood as he spoke to the elders on what he believed was his last journey. And yet, in that farewell in Miletus, the one time Paul ever spoke to believers only, we glimpse what is true for all of us when we are standing at some crossroads of life. You and I cannot shrink from proclaiming the word God has placed upon us and in us. Whether we are faced with trial or persecution, it is always more blessed to give than to receive.
In his farewell address, Paul began his good-bye by looking to his past with the Ephesians with grateful reminiscence. “You yourselves know that I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot on Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and tears.” When Paul ministered among them his motive was simple: he wanted to serve the Lord. He wanted to share the promise of Jesus’ life and resurrection freely with everyone. He certainly wasn’t in it to make money, speaking publicly day and after day from house to house nor was he in it for his ego, with its frequent bruising and imprisonment. . “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions.” No, Paul’s only motive was to serve the Lord, and his manner of ministry was also clear. “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
It is odd hearing this phrase from Paul without mentioning generosity and finances. But let me assure you, there was a tremendous cost. For Paul, giving was more than just pulling out a weekly offering. Giving meant extensive traveling at a time when traveling was a hardship. Giving meant working his own way through his journeys as a tent maker. Giving meant proclaiming a message to people who often refused to hear it. Giving meant having to take beatings, stoning and other abuse because of the message he spoke. I suspect most of us would have reached the point where such giving would have to stop. There is only so much abuse a person can take. But, not Paul. The suffering and grief were not a deterrent to him, but a testimony for him as to the importance of his work.
My friends, it may be difficult for you to see comparisons between your life and the life of Paul, but the message he spoke to the elders of Ephesus is just as applicable today. As we stand at the crossroads of life with family and friends, with co-workers and colleagues, we can choose to “shrink” from saying what needs to be said. We can pick and choose what is most comfortable and comforting to those who hear it. Yes, it is far easier and less costly to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. Yes, we can all find ways of shrinking from speaking the word of God has placed within us.
But that was not the example Paul was setting for the elders in Ephesus. The entire time he was with them, he did not hesitate to preach the whole purpose of God, not just the safe and popular teachings. Paul told them all to repent of their sin and to have faith in the Lord. Paul ministered to both Jews and Gentiles with no partiality. You see, Paul was not looking for personal gratification in his work, nor was he looking for credit and adoration” Paul didn’t even seem to be bothered that his efforts were often unappreciated. He simply found contentment in giving of himself freely so that others might know Christ’s love. It was with that confidence that he had shared the whole purpose of God regardless of the comfort and discomfort it provoked that Paul could truthfully say that the blood of guilt was not upon him. He believed in Jesus words as his calling, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
It was that commitment to the whole purpose of God, that allowed Paul to offer a truthful warning to the elders as well. “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth.” These are the same dangers the God’s faithful people face today, so don’t be surprised if the world dismisses you, or considers your life of faith and lifestyle to be uninformed and unimportant. Paul warned of “savage wolves” who would not spare the flock. This is why you need the loyalty and support of others, including a pastor, who will stand with you in your own missionary journey against both intellectual and physical attacks. Paul also warned the elders that some men would rise up among their own number, seeking to draw people astray. In the great struggle for the life and vitality of the church, which only the Holy Spirit can ultimately guarantee, we must be on guard against those who are willing to abandon their principles and teaching too quickly. They are willing to be defined by the norms and mores of the culture, instead of the standards of faith, that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
When our two sons Vitali and Alexei were small, we used to read them the Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. It’s the story of a boy’s life-long relationship with a tree. The tree loved the boy. He’d gather her leaves and climb and eat apples. The boy grew up and he left, coming back only when he needed something. First, he wanted money to buy things and have fun. The tree didn’t have money, so she gave her apples for him to sell. Then, the boy wanted a house. The tree didn’t have a house but gave him her branches to build one. Then, the boy wanted a boat to sail away and be happy. The tree didn’t have one, but she gave her trunk. Then, one last time, the boy came back, but he was too old and tired for anything. The tree was only a stump. She had given him all of herself. “I don’t need very much now,” said the boy. “Just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.” “Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” And the boy did. And the tree was happy. The tree gave her life to the boy, and the last word is “happy.” It’s more blessed to give than to receive.
As Paul stood at the crossroad of life at Miletus, he knew that he was “compelled by the Spirit” to leave for Jerusalem, but it didn’t make a lot of sense. Everywhere he visited, the Holy Spirit told him through prophesies that persecution and imprisonment was waiting for him ahead. I don’t think anyone really wanted Paul to leave-especially the elders in Ephesus. Probably even Paul experienced occasional doubts. But he believed in the blessedness of giving.- And it was in finishing the task that God had set before him that he found delight and “happiness.” His purpose and faith were clear “I don’t count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” Travelling to Jerusalem, Paul didn’t know whether he would live or die, but he trusted fully and completely in the promise, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
And when he had said these things, Paul knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.
The life of Jesus’ faithful followers, like that of Paul’s, is often filled with tears. But my friends, no matter how many tears you shed here on earth, God will one day wipe them all from your eyes. As followers of Jesus, we give ourselves to God and to our neighbors freely. We entrust our lives to God boldly, and we wait patiently for him to set it all right. In between, as we labor and love and serve and give, what we experience is the blessedness of God’s abiding presence. And then one day, when the blood, sweat and tears have truly past, you will discover yourself standing in God’s glory, looking with a smile and saying, “it was all worth it.” And you too will know that you have been truly blessed. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.