This sermon was the third-to-last installment of a year-long survey of the Bible's great stories and themes that I entitled, "The Storyline." My last two installments would focus on the major themes of the Book of Revelation. The two preceding it were to be an overview of the ministry and message of the Apostle Paul. My colleague, Greg Ogden, was in the saddle to deliver the first of the two sermons about Paul. I would cover the second half of the material. We divvied up a selection of texts from the Book of Acts and the Epistles from which each of us would develop our messages.
To both my delight and my chagrin, Greg did a particularly wonderful job of summarizing the life story and major theological emphases of the Apostle Paul. I sat there listening to his message and thought to myself, "This is really great, but what's left? He's said it all. Maybe I should just stand up next week and encourage everyone to go back and read the sermon from last week." As some of you may know from your own preaching journey, having nothing more to say is not a happy feeling.
In that peculiar state of despair and longing known only to those who write on a weekly deadline, I began to beg God for inspiration. As it happened, he used the occasion of an upcoming holiday and the remembrance of two prior experiences to answer my prayer.
First, the Sunday I was next scheduled to preach was Father's Day. That reality began to prescribe for me something of the boundaries of the message I needed to give. I felt led to preach something that came from the "fatherly" heart of Paul toward the Christian family.
Second, some years before, in a series on the Book of Acts, I preached a message about Paul's farewell message to the Christians in Asia Minor from Acts 20. In preparation for that message I felt a powerful personal identification with what it must have been like for Paul to say "goodbye" to the people he had so deeply loved and invested in for many years. As I flashed back to that earlier sermon, I started wondering if there were not some "final" or "summary" exhortations in the texts I'd been assigned that might have some particular bearing on our role as fathers, parents, and mentors of the next generation.
The third piece God used was supplied by Hollywood. Several months before, I rented the film The Bucket List and was struck by the idea of keeping a list of things one wanted to do before "kicking the bucket." I began to think, If Paul was our model, what would he tell us to put on our "bucket list" as disciples?
These three streams of inspiration subsequently came together and resulted in this message.
Last week Greg Ogden did a wonderful job of walking us through the amazing message and ministry of the man we know as the apostle Paul. Other than Jesus, no figure in early Christianity had more of an influence on the explosive growth of the church than this one-time Pharisee and persecutor of Christians. It was through the beliefs and bravery of the apostle Paul that God set off the expansion of Christianity from a small sect within Palestinian Judaism into the world-changing influence that moved the gospel all around the circuit of this earth.
Today I want to look with you at the final days of the ministry of Paul and what they have to teach us. I want to speak especially to the men in our circle today, because I believe Paul's example speaks deeply and directly to those of us who are fathers and mentors of others. But let me be clear that this message has applications for all of us who want to be part of the continuing movement of God's grace and truth across this world. It's a message for every one of us who wants to get to the end of life and know that even if we made mistakes along the way (and who doesn't have things that we'd like to do over?), we still feel like we've finished well. That is certainly what Paul was aiming to do.
As we meet him in Acts 20, it is towards the end of his life. It's about A.D.58. Paul can see the end of life's track looming in front of him. The campaign against Christianity in the surrounding culture is intensifying towards a fever pitch. Within seven years the apostle Peter will be crucified upside down for his faith, and Paul will be arrested for the final time, his earthly voice silenced by a Roman executioner's axe. But Paul is not slowing down. Paul is not going on cruise control. We never hear him say anything like what you sometimes hear people say later on in life: "I taught Sunday school when I was younger." "I volunteered in the youth ministry when I was in my twenties or my thirties." "I did what I could with my kids." "I put in my time as a volunteer. But that time of influence is past."
You never hear the apostle Paul talk like it's even possible to retire from one's mission as a disciple of Jesus Christ. And that strikes me as pretty amazing on one level, because Paul traveled nearly 7,000 miles for the sake of Jesus. In an era before buses and airplanes and trains and anything that would have made travel easy, Paul walked and sailed and rode nearly 7,000 miles to do the gospel work. He planted dozens of churches. He shared the gospel with thousands of people. He endured staggering hardships and persecution. And we would not have blamed him in the slightest, for saying, "I have worked hard. I have given it all. Let me just put my feet up for these last seven years. Let me catch up on my hobbies. Let me work on my short game." Instead, as he nears the end of his life, Paul sets off on his third missionary journey.
Here's how 20:24 records what was on the mind of the father of the early church at this time: "I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race. If only I may complete the task that the Lord Jesus has given to me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." He's saying to heck with the comforts, to heck with being safe.
Have any of you ever seen the movie The Bucket List? For those of you who have not, it's the story of two men played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer and are thrown together by destiny. They are very different kinds of men, but they share a common passion to use the time they have left. Before they kick the bucket there's a set of things they want to do, and so they make a list. They're going to go skydiving, and they're going to climb the pyramids, and they're going to drive race cars, and they're going to do all kinds of other things. Along the course of their adventures they learn about many of the simple things that matter most.
I want to plunge into this question: Do you have a bucket list? Are there some things—maybe some pretty hairy ones—that you want to complete before you finish the race? It's clear to me from reading his story that the father of the early church had such a list. I don't know whether he ever kept it literally in the way we might, but there were obviously certain things he was absolutely bent on doing before his time was up.
All of the things on his list fall underneath one big headline of testifying to the gospel, the good news of God's grace. Paul believed that was the greatest thing he could do with the time that he had left, and keep in mind, Paul had a checkered past. Paul had whole seasons of life in which he had completely rejected the way of Jesus and lived for something else. But as he looked at the final stretch, Paul had a set of things he was bent on completing in order to fulfill the command of Jesus and to help more and more people discover the grace of God, the wonders of God's grace.
Encouraging the family
So Paul sets out on the final days of his journey. And the first thing on his list was this: I want to encourage my family to never give up trying to follow Christ's way. Paul completely understood something that gets downplayed in many Christian circles today. They assume that being a Christian is not all that different from being anything else. It's a little varied pattern of attendance on the weekends and a little varied pattern of how you talk or control your tongue, but it's not all that different. Paul understood that the way of following Jesus was radically different from what's being practiced in so many parts of the world and that it's hard to live this life. It takes courage and resolve and self-discipline to live this Christian life. And so in Acts 20:1 we read these words: "Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said good-bye and he set out for Macedonia. He traveled through that area speaking many words of encouragement to the people."
There's a wonderful little story in Acts 20 where Paul is in the city of Troas as part of his journey. He's encouraging the believers there to hang tough, to keep following Christ. And because he knows that his time is very short, "He kept on talking until midnight." I promise I won't do that. Maybe until noon. But in this particular story, a young man named Eutychus is in the audience. He's in the room where Paul is talking, sitting in a window frame. The Scripture says that Paul goes on and on, and Eutychus nods off and tumbles out of the window, falling three stories down to the ground and is taken for dead. This is why churches are built on ground floors now. You're safe.
You can imagine Paul. As Paul watches this does he think, Serves him right. He shouldn't have been asleep in church? No. The Bible says that Paul rushes down. He throws himself on Eutychus and helps him get up again. You get the sense of the grace of Paul's action here, because Paul understands that it's a hard thing to stay awake to the cause of Christ in our world. It's a hard thing with all the other pressures stretching us and pulling us to stay alive to the presence of God and to keep living for him. It may be especially hard when we're younger not to nod off, to stay awake for the cause of Christ.
There are times when somebody needs to be whacked upside the head or maybe given a boot in order to stay with the program, to avoid falling asleep on the job as a follower of Jesus. Paul makes it clear in 2 Timothy 4:2 that the biblical concept of encouragement is not just soft and fuzzy, not just about comforting and assuring people. Sometimes it's about rebuking people and correcting people and challenging people, but Paul says, always "… with great patience and careful instruction are we to encourage each other." Paul uses a balanced tone of deliberate challenge with compassion as he encourages people, especially when we hear him talking to his spiritual son, Timothy.
People in your family need reminding that it takes effort to keep the flame of God alive. "I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline. Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, Timothy," Paul said. "Continue in what you've learned." Don't give up. Keep going. "And the Lord be with your spirit," he says. "Grace be with you."
Can you hear the positive, hopeful, encouraging tone here? At the top of our bucket list as followers of Jesus Christ has to be this passion to encourage people, to not just assume they'll find their own way or that the world will usher them into the presence of God. We need to be encouraging people for a deeper reception of God and a response to the grace and the truth of God. But that encouragement comes best when it is delivered like Paul does, filling the Word with grace and not judgment.
Praying for the family
The second thing on Paul's bucket list next to encouragement was this ambition: Before I die I want to pray for my family faithfully and fervently. I want to pray for them to be filled with the grace of our Lord. Nowhere is that commitment more beautifully expressed than in the prayer that Paul offers for his spiritual sons and daughters in the Ephesian church. In fact, I write the citation for this prayer at the bottom of every baptismal certificate. I give it to parents in the hopes that they'll read it, and it will become their prayer for their kids day by day in the years to come. No prayer is a more regular part of my own prayer pattern for my family or the kids of our church than this one.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
In other words, I pray that Jesus will not be just a word to you. I pray that Jesus will not be just a symbol to you. I pray that Jesus will not be just a bit of history to you. I pray that Jesus will come to live more and more within you.
Paul goes on, "And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love …" In other words, I pray that your life will have solid foundations. He's basically saying, My children, I want you to know that the greatest foundation for life is the love of God. And I pray that you'll "have power, together with all the Lord's holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." In other words, I pray that you'll come to know that Christ's love is the greatest power of all and that he will fill you up and overflow you with that love.
I might pray that my kids get good grades, that they might get into a good college, that they might marry some wonderful girl (I have three boys). But the greatest prayer I have for my kids is that their lives will be about the love of God filling them up and overflowing them. Is that the prayer that we're praying for our children these days?
Paul concludes, "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." In other words, I pray that Christ will do in you what I as your spiritual father, can't do. I'm going to do my best, but I pray God will do abundantly more than we could ask or imagine in you, even if my parenting, my befriending, and my discipling is imperfect. And it will be.
From start to finish as a disciple of Jesus, but especially in his final days, Paul prays. That's one of the luminous aspects of his ministry. He prays faithfully and fervently for his family. He believed that nothing could possibly replace asking God to do in other people what he could not do in them and for them by his own power. Paul not only prayed for his family regularly, he asked his family members to pray for each other. And he even said, "Pray for me." When was the last time, Dad or Grandfather, that you said to your kids or your grandkids, "Please pray for me. Please pray that I live out the calling of Jesus in my life"? Prayer was one of the biggest treasures Paul sought to put in his bucket.
Equipping the family
One of Paul's highest priorities was obviously this: I want to equip my family for the spiritual battle they face. I want my loved ones to see that the greatest struggle going on today is not economic, political, or social; it's spiritual. We may solve the economic crisis. We may find a way to get along with the races. We may somehow forge a link between the Western and the Muslim world. But if we do not address the matters of the spirit, if we do not face the battle at the core of the human soul over love versus self-interest, then we cannot possibly succeed as a race. It's at the level of the soul that we either win or lose the battle for real health and real hope in this world.
Therefore, says Paul, I want to help people. I want to help my family put on the armor of God so that they can stand their ground against all of the evil that threatens their spiritual life. My priority is to model for and teach my family how the truth and the righteousness and the peace and the faith and the salvation and the Spirit of God has enabled me to stand up against all of the evil that's bedeviled me in my life. And I want to help you put on that kind of armor, too.
Knowing and using the Bible
In his final days, Paul also made a renewed effort to underline the importance of knowing and using the Word of God. I want to show my family the value of the Bible, Paul kept saying. My goal is to help them see how crucial it is to know the Scriptures, not just to carry a Bible, not just to touch one occasionally in a religious ceremony or look at one on a projection screen. It's so important that we take this Word into our lives, says Paul. This Bible is so useful. The Scriptures are God-breathed, he said. They're useful for teaching truth, for rebuking wrong, for correcting error, for training in righteousness. If we can get our kids steeped in the Holy Scriptures from infancy on, they're going to be equipped not just to survive the spiritual battle but to advance the good work of the kingdom of God. They're going to be agents for powerful blessing in this world.
Preserving his witness for the family
There is, however, one more passionate interest on Paul's list that is so pervasive it almost blends into the background and doesn't get noticed at all. He'd been talking about it everywhere he went, but Paul decided to write this stuff down. He did that so it would be there after he was gone, so that his family would have his witness when he was gone. So he wrote it down without a word processor, without the iPhone voice control application. He did it by candlelight with a feather quill while locked up in a dark, dank prison. In fact, a lot of these letters are written directly from a prison cell, dictated to a helper because Paul's eyes had grown too dim to even see the words that were forming on the page. Paul painstakingly penned in his final days the colossal book of Romans, the brilliant letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians and the Philippians, and the pastoral epistles to Philemon and to Titus and to Timothy.
Why didn't he just keep talking about the faith? Why would he take such trouble to write his story down, to record his theology, to inscribe his counsel to people? Paul answers the question himself in these words: "It is so that in reading this, my family, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ." He did it for us, so that after he was gone we'd still have the witness. We could read it over and over again, and new meanings could come out to us as we increasingly understood the mystery of Christ and his plan. And thank God he did.
In closing, fellow fathers and grandfathers and disciples of every kind, I want to ask you a question: What are you focusing on as you finish the race? Whether your race is another seven months, another seven years, or maybe seventy years, what are you focusing on? One day we are all going to kick the bucket. Nobody gets a pass. We're all going down. So what do we want to complete before your journey here is done?
Voices surround us supplying answers to this question. They say that our focus ought to be on amassing more experiences in our bucket, on acquiring more assets in our bucket. But that is not what the greatest story ever told tells us lasts in eternity. The Bible teaches that in the end, life is not about what gets poured into the bucket. Life is about what gets poured out. It's about the water of life we pour out to other people for the future. I pray that's what life will be about for you and me.
What if Paul's list became our list? What if the reason we have Paul's list is so we'd have what we needed to finish the race? What if we renewed our commitment today? For a moment I'm just speaking to the dads and the mentors, but if anybody else wants to listen in, they can: What if we made a first-time commitment or a recommitment to do everything we can, whatever our history has been, to encourage the people we know and love in the way of Christ? Let's become the greatest encouragers our family history ever recorded. In words and deeds and any way we can, we're just going to say, "Keep at it, kids. Let me model this for you. Let me show you what it looks like. Keep at the faith. It's going to be hard, but it's worth it. Keep following the way of Christ."
What if we resolved to pray faithfully for God to fill our family members with his love? When they stand at our graveside one day they'll say, "Dad was a man of prayer. I know he prayed for me and for the love of God to grow in me."
What if we set out eyes afresh on equipping ourselves and our loved ones to win the spiritual battle? What if we started studying the Bible? What if we got an accountability group? What if we put on the armor of God in various ways to show other people how to do the same? What if we resolved to equip ourselves and our loved ones to win the battle? What if we read the Bible every day and shared with others the difference that it made as it corrected us, challenged us, and comforted us, guided us in Christ's way?
What if sometime this week we actually took the time to write down what we believe, to write an epistle to our family or a particular person in the family? To write a letter that told somebody in our family who we believe has saved us and how we experience him saving us daily and what we believe the Savior will do to ultimately save us when he fills the earth and fills us with the splendor of his glory at his return?
Maybe nobody would ever make a movie about these choices. Maybe we wouldn't care, because we would know we have left a lasting legacy. We have been part of the greatest story ever told. We have been part of the movement of the grace of God poured out, flowing toward that day when Jesus Christ comes again and makes all things new. Amen.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.