I would like to direct my words this morning to those of you who are preparing for ordination and who are with us in retreat this week. In classes, seminars and field placements, you have studied and practiced the skills you will need for the ministries you will soon be taking up. But you may well feel that you have only begun, that there is so much more that you need to know. And you will be right about that. Your formation is not yet complete; in fact, formation is a life-long process that extends far beyond the formal training you have received. You will need to be constantly learning, constantly observing, reflecting, evaluating, and growing.
You have a worthy mentor in St. Paul, whose final words to the elders of the church in Ephesus are recorded in Acts 20, which we read as the first lesson last night and again today. Paul explains to them that he is on his way to Jerusalem, “not knowing what will happen to [him] there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to [him] in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for [him]” (v.22-23). “But I do not count my life of any value to myself,” he says to them, “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” (v. 24). We see here what is most important to Paul, and it is not his status or reputation or accomplishments or even the preservation of his own life. He desires only to “finish the course” God has set before him and to be faithful in the ministry which God has given him. And what is this ministry to which Paul has so whole-heartedly dedicated himself? In his own words, it is this: “To testify to the good news of God’s grace” (v.24).
Having received this good news and having experienced the gift of God’s grace in his own life, Paul has made it his purpose and aim to share it with others. His own life has been completely transformed by this good news of God’s grace. The things that were once important to him he no longer values. To the Philippians he writes, “[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless”(Phil 3:5-6). I had it all, says Paul: a proper family, an excellent education, a stellar reputation.“Yet whatever gains I had,” he continues, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (v.7-9a).
Paul values “the good news of God’s grace” more than anything else – more than background or education or reputation or success; more even than his own safety and well-being. “The good news of God’s grace” has transformed his own life, and he desires nothing more than to offer this same “good news of God’s grace” to others. He has tasted the glorious freedom of the children of God and has given up striving for the things the world counts as valuable “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord.”
This glorious freedom is available to us all. By God’s grace we have discovered the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Now you are being entrusted with this mission, the same mission which was carried out by Jesus, God’s Son, and by Paul, God’s apostle to the Gentiles. And what is this mission? It is simply this: “To testify to the good news of God’s grace.”
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