Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus  Christ. Amen.

“All’s Well That Ends Well” was made famous by the English playwright William Shakespeare, but the phrase was used long before the Bard of Avon penned it to paper. The phrase was and is still used to describe a troubled start to a project or process, that turns out with a positive closure.  The happy ending compensates for the difficulties in first arriving at the destination.

Over the centuries the sentiment of Shakespeare’ words have been modified to include the notion of “ending well” or “finishing well” in all endeavors- including ministry. As a supervisor and mentor to American pastors serving in Europe, I often reminded them as they were preparing to leave Europe that they should end their ministry in their churches well.  You don’t want to be remembered as the last pastor to serve the church, or the one who left before it fell apart. Instead, they should plan their farewell when the congregation was strong enough to say goodbye, when new leaders were prepared to take on responsibility and when the congregation was financially solvent. But over the years, I discovered that things don’t always fall into place the way one might like and anticipate- and so, sometimes, you are forced to make a choice to end well.  That was certainly the reality facing the Apostle Paul in Philippi.

Most of us here have never truly experienced any serious violation of our religious rights as Paul did.  We do know the kind of persecution experienced by Christians in the former Soviet Union, or those in strongly Islamic states.  In my years of service in Europe, I knew pastors who had been denied entrance to university, who were banned from performing on their nation’s Olympic sports teams, were arrested and charged for holding foreign currency, who went to sleep at night regularly with a suitcase packed under their bed, who had known midnight visits by police at their door and had their homes burned down. They knew the Apostle Paul’s story firsthand, far better that I can portray it. They also knew personally the choice he had to make to end his ministry in Philippi well.

As Roman citizens, Paul and Silas had a right to a trial before any punishment. Romans were exempt from public beatings. And yet the two missionaries were falsely accused, beaten, and thrown into the inner prison, with their feet locked into the stocks, without any semblance of a trial. Their rights had been violated. If anyone had a right to be angry, they did. If it had been here in America, they would have sued and had the magistrates removed from office.

We don’t know why the magistrates who had thrown Paul and Silas into jail had a change of heart the following morning.  Perhaps it was a sense of guilt or that the intimidation had gone far enough. Maybe it was the earthquake. In the ancient world, this would have been interpreted as a judgement upon the magistrates. Whatever reason, the following morning, when day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen to jail to release Paul and Silas fully assuming they would shamefully retreat from Philipp, but when the jailer in turn reported these words to the prisoners,  Paul, knowing his rights, and knowing that he had been publicly wronged by a great injustice, said to them, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed!  Let them come themselves and bring us out.” The policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates, and in a very telling phrase St. Luke says, “They were afraid when they heard that they were Romans.”  Keep in mind, the colony of Philippi was a retirement community for Roman soldiers who understood honor, discipline and authority. Suddenly the blatant abuse and arrogance of the magistrates was on open display. The whole city stood condemned.  Sheepishly, and woefully, they came and appealed to Paul and Silas, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city. The magistrates were the ones who had broken the law and stood condemned. The public spectacle of them pleading with Paul and Silas to depart the city spread quickly in the morning light of the Forum.

Paul, however, understood that his ministry in Philippi was drawing to a close. He needed to leave well. The birth of the first congregation in Europe, though still fragile and in its infancy, had been successful.  Lydia of Thyatira and her household had been baptized, and the power of God  had been demonstrated by Paul driving the unclean spirit from the slave girl. Through their singing, Paul and Silas had witnessed to their fellow prisoners in the jail and proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ, and after the earthquake he had baptized the family of his jailor. These successes surely should put the sorrows in perspective. For All’s well that ends well, right?  But was the Apostle Paul willing to forfeit all of that- and the fledgling church for sake of being right? And proving a point?

That is the challenge for each one of us- and not just for clergy.  We all know that we should finish well, whatever task God has set before us.  But we have a tendency to follow the rules of the world instead of the call of heaven. You joke, you don’t get mad, you just get even. You embrace the ways of the Empire, instead of the kingdom of God. Yes, you are willing to forfeit the good work and success of the Holy Spirit, all for the sake of personal selfishness and satisfaction and being right. That was the choice facing Paul that day as he was preparing to leave Philippi- and everyone the city knew it.

Paul had two options and two different speeches he could make.  Either he could appeal to Rome for vindication and justice, or he could appeal to heaven for love and grace and forgiveness and peace. It is the option we are faced with in life. And which one did he choose?  We read in the Book of Acts that Paul did not go to the Forum, but he went to Lydia’s home where his ministry in Philippi began, and there, when he had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters, he departed.  He didn’t rally them around his cause, nor did he incite them to action. Instead, he encouraged them to remember that the followers of Jesus Christ are called to live by a higher standard.

The church in Philippi grew because of the suffering of Paul and Silas, and amazingly, the apostles rejoiced in their struggles. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “We rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ Years later, Paul would write in in his letter to the Philippians. “I thank my God for every remembrance of you, always in every one of my prayers for all of you, praying with joy for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” For all’s well that ends well. Ok, Paul didn’t actually write that, but he was thinking about it. Those words certainly don’t sound like a man with regrets about the choice he has made.  Nor are these the words of an apostle regretting the vengeance he did not seek.

Paul had to make a choice about his sorrows.  Could he see God’s mysterious hand in the midst of them or not.  That has been the challenge for Christians ever since then.  How do we deal with sorrows and tragedies that seem unjust and fair?

The beloved hymn “It is Well With My Soul” was written by Horatio Spafford who was faced with life’s harshest challenges. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had ruined him financially. As a successful lawyer he had invested significantly in property in the area of Lake Michigan that was destroyed by the fire. His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time Spafford had planned to travel to England with his family on the SS Ville du Havre to help with the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody’s in a revival tour. In a late change of plans, due to a Chicago planning commission meeting to discuss rebuilding plans, Spafford sent his wife Anna and four daughters ahead while Spafford was stayed behind.  While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with another sea vessel, and all of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone …”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to England to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write  “It is well with my soul” as his ship passed the spot near where his four daughters had died. The composer Philipp Bliss later  called his hymn tune Ville du Havre from the name of the stricken ship.

My friends, when you are wronged, or feel the world is unfair and unjust, how do you choose to speak?  Do you appeal to language of incrimination and justice in the public forum, or do you turn to heavenly grace and forgiveness as in the home of Lydia?  Do you choose to end well, or let all things fall apart? Consider Paul’s actions and his own words in the Epistle to the Philippians. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”  Remember, in the kingdom of God, “All’s well that ends well.” Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.