When Paul finished speaking, he knelt down with the people and prayed. There was much weeping. They embraced and kissed, sad, because all knew they would see Paul’s face no more. Acts 20:36-38
In chapter 20 of the Book of Acts, we are told about Paul’s last meeting with people he loved from Ephesus, a city near the coast of ancient Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. Paul had helped take the gospel to the city. He had spent several years there (54-57 CE) proclaiming the kingdom, caring for the church–even to the point of suffering persecution. Eventually, he had moved on and founded other congregations. Now as Paul traveled from Macedonia to Jerusalem, his ship put into Miletus, a port city to the south of Ephesus. Some Elders from Ephesus came to see him. It would have been a 60 mile trek down coast for these old friends.
By the time the travelers arrived, they must have been tired, but their greeting was filled with joy. The old missionary spoke to the people. He foresaw that he would soon die. He said that he didn’t count his life of any value to himself, but he wanted to continue in ministry as long as possible, testifying always to the good news of God’s grace. “I know,” he confided, “that none of you will ever see my face again.” He commended those there to God and to the gospel. He urged them to watch over each other, reminding them that “God has made you caretakers one of the other.” He recalled that he himself had not coveted gold or silver, urging that they hold dear Jesus’ words “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” When finished speaking, Paul knelt with the people and prayed.
The author of Acts then completed his account with the reaction of the people: There was much weeping. Those gathered embraced and kissed Paul and each other, “grieving especially because of what Paul said, that they would see his face no more.”
So, what is it about a face that causes us to cry because we’ll see it no more?
- Marked by the Gospel.
On Paul’s face, the people of Ephesus saw passion for the gospel. The message of God’s grace changes lives.
We all know Paul’s story. As a young man, he bitterly opposed Christianity. He participated in the stoning of Stephen, he ravaged the Christian community in Jerusalem, entering house by house and dragging off men and women to prison, even procuring a special license to persecute the Christians away from Jerusalem, all the way into Syria. But then on the road to Damascus, the Lord stopped Paul. The Lord threw him from his horse, blinded him with a bright light, saying, “Paul, why do you persecute me? It hurts to kick against the goads”—that is, why are you fighting you own nature, Paul?
The Lord called Paul away from a life of violence and hatred to the work of spreading the gospel to the nations. Becoming a Christian meant adopting a different set of values.
1a. In my introductory New Testament course at the College, I enjoy discussing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with my students. Many of the students have been brought up in the Church, but somehow it has escaped them that the gospel is truly revolutionary. “You have heard it said of old, ‘Love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Here’s another of Jesus’ sayings: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’; but I say don’t be angry.” Our actions are important; but so are our thoughts, our desires. “Blessed (or Happy) are those with a pure heart,” Jesus said, “for they will see God.”
Is it possible to follow Jesus’ teachings? When discussing the Sermon on the Mount with my students, I always bring up Jesus’ teaching about adultery. You recall how Jesus extended the commandment not to commit adultery to include not looking at another lustfully. There is usually some nervous laughter among the young folks. Is it possible not to think of others as objects of our desire? Sure it is. We are called to look at people as people, all living creatures as God’s creations. We don’t need to dehumanize one another.
Is the gospel practical? Jesus said to turn the other cheek; if someone forces you to walk a mile, go also a second mile; if someone takes your coat, give that person your cloak also. Let’s perform a mental experiment. I drove my pickup truck to church this morning. It’s sitting out in the parking lot. You can’t miss it. It’s a yellow Nissan Frontier. My spouse, Dixie, loves that vehicle. Now, let’s say, after the service, I walk out and see that Dixie’s truck has been taken. Should I then give the person that took it my Honda Accord also? That doesn’t at first blush sound very practical, does it? But, let’s see. If Jenny, my daughter, were in trouble and needed that yellow truck, wouldn’t I be glad she took it? Or if a sickness arose with one of my granddaughters, perhaps little Sarah who went last year to Busy Bees, and my son needed the money from the truck, wouldn’t I say, “here, take it and my car too; and let’s take out a second mortgage on the house; whatever I have is yours.” And wouldn’t you do the same for your families and close friends?
The gospel extends the concept of family and community to its proper boundaries. We are all God’s family. Or as Paul expressed it, once baptized into Christ then “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.”
1b. I spent the summer of 1966 (that was the summer I graduated from High School) with my Uncle Will and Aunt Agnes in Buffalo, SC, working in the town’s cotton mill. One Saturday afternoon, the cousins and I were discussing the War in Vietnam. At that time, there was a lot of optimism about that war. And the cousins and I were pretty much agreeing that we needed to stop communism before it got here—you know, seriously buying into that domino theory of world politics in vogue during those years. Well, Uncle Will came into the room, listened to our discussion for a little while, and said, “If we were serious about helping the people of Vietnam, we would send missionaries instead of soldiers. Some would die, of course, but in the end we would see real change. Uncle Will was a Citadel graduate, a man to be taken seriously. At the time I was respectful, of course, as were my cousins. But, in my mind I didn’t think too much of the idea. Force seemed the better alternative. That was 1966. As you know, the war wore on and by the time I was graduating from college four years later that domino theory had been replaced by the general understanding that we had become involved in a civil war born out of French colonialism. My brother Sonny was in Vietnam, as were numerous friends, and I wasn’t so convinced about what we were doing there anymore. And I’m here to testify that after many more years I’m completely convinced that the real power to change the world is to be found not in bombs or destruction or hate or fear, but in the power of the gospel.
- The Face of Suffering.
The Elders of Ephesus cried when they realized that they would see Paul’s face no more, because Paul’s face was marked by Jesus’ cross. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
2a. We don’t have to live too long, do we, to learn that there is a cost to discipleship. There is a price associated with loving others. And to oppose injustice, often means to oppose powerful people and institutions. Even acts of mercy can be dangerous for us. We know this. In II Corinthians, Paul described some of the cost he experienced:
“. . . with far more imprisonments, countless floggings, and often near death. Five times,” he wrote, “I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once, I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold, and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (II Cor 11: 23-28)
Now as a Bible scholar, the most interesting thing about this list (and the fuller accounts of Paul’s sufferings described in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters) is that so many of Paul’s sufferings didn’t come from the hands of evil people. Rather, Paul suffered from those bulwarks charged with protecting society—judges, governors, the paragons of business, and even the leaders of the religious communities.
2b. The Emory United Methodist Church has a proud history of working for social justice. And I am proud to be part of this community. Our programs of assistance to those in need, outreach, and striving for equality are well known. And this year, the Emory Church voted to become a reconciling United Methodist Church. That is, the Emory UMC decided “to welcome all persons into full participation in the life of the congregation regardless of age, sex, racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, marriage status, or physical or mental condition.”
Wonderful! But there is a cost to this decision. And we know it. The subject of the United Methodist Church’s posture toward the LGBT community dominated the agenda of this year’s General Conference. May practicing gays and lesbians be ordained? May UMC ministers perform LGBT weddings and celebration ceremonies? May such ceremonies be held in UMC sanctuaries? A number of United Methodists answer “No” to these questions. Others, answer “Yes.” There are strong feelings. At General Conference, there were several proposals for compromise, one of them led by Adam Hamilton, whose books I enjoy reading. All failed in committees. Finally, facing the breaking apart of our denomination, the bishops proposed the formation of a commission to study further possibilities and to come back with a report within two years. The differences seem irreconcilable and the expectation after General Conference is that the United Methodist Church will formally divide over this issue.
- The Face of Love.
The Elders of Ephesus cried when they realized they wouldn’t see Paul’s face again, because they knew his love.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once remarked that “the arc of the moral universe in long, but history bends towards justice.” Dr. King was affirming that ultimately justice will win out. That was the view of the Hebrew prophets, of course. And it is the Christian’s view too. But Paul, I think, might have phrased the hope or expectation a little differently. Instead of saying that justice will ultimately win the day, he would have said “love will win.” Love wins.
3a. In Paul’s letter to I Corinthians, he addressed a church filled with divisions and controversy. Certainly, many of the problems were of that day and not our day. Some Christians thought they were superior to others because of the foods they ate; because of who baptized them; because of their functions in church meetings; because of their abilities to speak in tongues. One person was sexually immoral in a way that would have even been disgusting to non-believers; there were concerns about marriage and dating; there was a concern about raising money; and the list of divisions and difficulties goes on and on. One senses that the church at Corinth, like our United Methodist Church, teetered on the verge of separation. The differences were irreconcilable.
But Paul answered, The body of Christ is one. To this end, Paul wrote that although free, he made himself a slave to all. To the Jew, he became a Jew in order to win Jews. To those outside the law, he became as one outside the law in order to win those outside the law; to the weak, he became weak so as to win the weak. He became all things to all people that he by all means might save some. Did Paul have theological integrity? Yes. But he also tabled certain questions and pushed aside his own theological opinions in favor of proclaiming the gospel. After all, “now we see through a mirror, dimly. . . ; now we know only in part.” Unity, Paul argued, was central to the church. And what brought unity? Well, that was love.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I does not insist on it own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Cor 13: 1-8a)
3b. As many of you know, I am a member not of the Holston Annual Conference but of the South Carolina Annual Conference. And we held our annual meetings a couple of weeks ago. As you might suspect, our South Carolina UMC hardly touched the LGBT subject that is pulling us apart. My sense is that my annual conference finds the subject too difficult. We are going to pray about it and wait for the General Conference’s commission to do its work.
But love wins out, and the arc of the moral universe is long. What we did take up at length at Annual Conference and adopt was a resolution to eradicate racism from the South Carolina United Methodist Church. I’m genuinely thrilled. The fourteenth amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing equality under the law to citizens dates from 1868, almost 150 years ago. I was high-school age when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and half way through college when Wesleyan denominations united into our current United Methodist Church. And yet, now on the down slope of my life, racism is still with us. We are still fighting it on the Emory campus; and this week it’s specter came alive viciously in our country in the police shootings of African American men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and in Micah Johnson’s mass murder of White policemen in Dallas. And after the Charleston massacre last year at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, my South Carolina conference said enough is enough. And we adopted a resolution asking each congregation and district to come up with a strategy and plan to eradicate systemic and individual racism from our Church. As I said, “Wonderful!”
During the discussion of the resolution, the name of my first District Superintendent, Eben Taylor came up. So I thought I would share a personal experience from many years ago when in my first pastorate in South Carolina, integrating the Pisgah and Oak Hill United Methodist Churches. Most of all, it is a story about Ms. Gilstrap and Mrs. Terry from the Pisgah church—and Eben Taylor’s take on ending racism.
The year was 1975. As mentioned, I was serving my first pastorate about 30 miles south of Greenville, SC. It was my second year there, and I decided that it was time to integrate my charge. Why were we still segregated? Moreover, there was a small African American congregation not far from the parsonage, served by a African American UMC minister who would drive down from Greenville.
I discussed the matter with Eben Taylor and came up with a plan to tackle the Oak Hill church. The Pisgah church just seemed too difficult. As for the plan: Every year Oak Hill held a series of revival services one week in August. Instead of inviting one speaker to deliver the Wednesday through Sunday revival sermons, the plan was to invite a different speaker for each night. And on one of the nights, I would ask my friend Sammy Jackson, an African American minister, to deliver the sermon. Very well! In the month leading up to the Revival Week, I visited all of the members in my charge. I also preached a series of sermons leading up to the act of integrating. And for our prayer meetings that month before Revival, we focused on Paul’s efforts in Galatians and Romans to unite Jews and Gentiles.
The process was not easy. A middle-aged couple stormed out of worship on the last Sunday before the Revival, shouting that they would never return, angry, the man claiming that I was destroying their church, his wife in tears. They were long-time Methodists. Dixie and I were very close to the family and had visited a sister-in-law weekly for over six months as she died from cancer. Will and Annie, our much loved neighbors who weren’t even Methodists but were members of the Primitive Baptist Church down the road stopped speaking to us for awhile. But it didn’t last. Dixie was pregnant, and Annie and Will had good hearts, and soon Annie was speaking to Dixie again. And there were other hard times. But the Revival Week came; Sammy preached; and we integrated.
But that wasn’t how that charge really began to overcome racism. The real first steps to overcoming racism took place not with the Oak Hill church Revival, but at the Pisgah church—the one that I thought too difficult even to try. What happened was that a couple of my church members were living in an Assisted Living Facility. Ms. Janie Gilstrap was in her early fifties, but suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis. She couldn’t walk; her body had wasted away; someone had to pick her up to move her; it was even difficult for her to clutch a spoon and feed herself. But Janie was filled with kindness, and I never visited her that I didn’t feel that the visit did me more good than it did her. As for Ms. Terry, she was much older, maybe her mid 80s, and had reached a point in life where she spoke her mind and didn’t care much what other people thought. Ms. Terry’s son was our Charge Lay Leader.
What happened was that about a month or so after that Revival, Ms. Gilstrap died. And for her funeral at Pisgah, Ms. Terry arranged for a bus-load of Janie’s friends from the Assisted Living Home to attend. Some of the workers from the Home came—and the nurses and therapists and aides and cooks were Whites and Blacks. And many of the residents came—and they were Whites and Blacks. They loved Janie. Love wins. And then, for some succeeding Sundays, Mrs. Terry brought Janie’s friends back—Whites and Blacks. Love wins.
And Eben Taylor’s words to me came true—were true: real integration will come, he had said, when United Methodists worship together and build relationships with one another—Whites and Blacks. A community of love eradicates racism.
Conclusion. The Face of an Angel.
The oldest physical description of Paul comes from a second century writing entitled The Acts of Paul and Thecla. It describes him as short with crooked legs, a receding hairline, bright eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a large nose—not necessarily a movie star’s description. But then, that ancient writing adds: “Paul’s face shone like an angel’s.”
Earlier, I had mentioned a conversation I had in the summer of 1966 with my Uncle Will about the War in Vietnam. I mentioned that he had graduated from the Citadel, South Carolina’s military academy. But at the time of our conversation, Uncle Will was a United Methodist minister. In fact, he and my Aunt Agnes spent most of their long lives as missionaries to diverse parts of the world, often working with the very poor, street children, destitute people. They were amazing. Their everyday message was, “God loves us; and we can love too.” And they lived their theology.
Uncle Will died a few years ago, in 2008. And during the last month of his life, when Dixie and I would visit with him, he would tell about an angel that was in the room with him. He said that the angel sat by his bed. The angel was his friend and would accompany him on his journey into his next life. Uncle Will would speak with conviction.
Now, Aunt Agnes died just this past year. She was 98 years old. Although her mind remained clear until the very last days, her body wore out to the point that she was moved in and out of Hospice several times. And on one of our trips from Virginia down to Greenwood, SC, to see her, I decided that I was going to ask Aunt Agnes about angels. Did she see angels too?
Now this particular conversation occurred maybe the second time Agnes was admitted to Hospice. Many people had come to see her. Strange to say, but true because of Aunt Agnes’s wonderful life, the mood was festive. The family had gathered for a covered dish meal at the facility. Her many great-grandchildren were playing. One of her granddaughters, Sarah, had just had the twins, and the babies were there being passed from arms to arms. Friends were there; one, all the way from Brazil. Agnes’s sons were laughing and kidding with each other. Elise, a grandchild, and BJ, a daughter-in-law had propped Aunt Agnes up in a big chair.
So I found my moment and asked Aunt Agnes about angels. “Have you seen angels, as Uncle Will did?” At first, Aunt Agnes laughed and shook her head. I loved her sense of humor. Then more seriously, with a smile, she pointed at the people who had gathered and said, “Yes, I see angels everywhere. We’re surrounded by angels.”