Ministry of Encouragement

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This evening we’re back to our long running Spring series on Acts called ‘To The Ends Of The Earth’. Our passage is Acts 20.1-16My title is ‘Ministry of Encouragement’. What I want us to think about is: first, the apostle Paul’s travelling; then secondly Paul’s teamwork; and thirdly Paul’s talking.

But before we get on to that, are you aware that last month something remarkable happened over the river at HTG – Holy Trinity Gateshead, our daughter church and partner in the gospel?. David has written about this in the vicar’s note in the Newsletter that came out last weekend. He reports:

[A] team of 14 from Moore College, Sydney, helped lead a mission. This resulted in more people in Church services than ever before since its start. With 50,000 homes receiving flyers, leaflets given out each morning at the Gateshead Metro Stations and door-knocking in the area, there were sign-ups for Christianity Explored; 200 (and many visitors) at a BBQ with live music …; a curry night where the Restaurant could not accommodate the crowds; 10 teams for a 5-a-side football tournament; great numbers at the Saturday Spring Spectacular for families …; and other culturally-natural ways in the which the good news of Christ, the Cross and the Resurrection was communicated.

Those men and women from Sydney travelled half way across the world, at their own expense; they worked their socks off doing evangelistic ministry as a team in partnership with the local team here; they took every opportunity to talk to as many people as possible about Jesus; they ended the week exhausted from their efforts; and in the process they provided massive encouragement to the whole HTG fellowship.

And it seems to me to be no exaggeration to say that there’s a direct connection between what that Aussie team were doing and what was going on in Acts 20. The travelling, teamwork and talking by the team from Sydney was directly inspired by the same Holy Spirit who was driving the relentless activity of Paul the apostle and those around him. He is the same Holy Spirit who inspires and drives us as well – and we need more and more of that inspiration and drive as under God we seek to make our lives count for the Kingdom in the years ahead.

Let’s take a look, then, at what’s happening here in Acts 20. In a word, Paul is engaged in the ministry of encouragement. Verse 1 speaks of Paul “encouraging” the disciples. Verse 2 describes how Paul gave “much encouragement” to those he visited. That was his purpose. And there were three key aspects of how he engaged in that ministry of encouragement. So:

First, PAUL’S TRAVELLING

Let’s track Paul’s journeying here, picking out the travelogue sections. Acts 20.1-3:

After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. (Acts 20.1-3)

Then on to verse 6:

but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. (20.6)

And jump again to verse 13:

But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. (20.13-16)

It’s pretty exhausting just listening to that. You can look up the detailed itinerary of this historic missionary journey at your leisure. Suffice it to say that Paul is cycling around – not on a bicycle, you understand: perhaps I should say doing circuits – around his earlier evangelistic and church-planting hunting grounds we now know as Greece and Turkey.

From Ephesus, in modern Turkey, where he starts out, Paul went to Macedonia in the north of modern Greece. Philippi is there, and Thessalonica. Then on down to southern Greece – presumably including Corinth. Then a planned crossing to Syria is aborted and he heads back up to Macedonia. Then a sailing across to Troas on the coast of modern Turkey. Then south and east along the coast to Assos, Mitylene, Chios, Samos and on to Miletus. Paul trims his journey and plans his stops around his intended target of getting to Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Pentecost.

But of course travel then was dangerous, physically demanding and slow. You had to think in terms of seasons rather than just days or weeks.

Mind you, it’s really not so long ago that this began to change. Even in the lifetimes of the older brother and sisters among us travel has been totally revolutionised. We easily forget how much easier and quicker things are for us, and what opportunities and therefore gospel responsibilities that gives us.

There’s a great section in Martin Goldsmiths book ‘Get a Grip on Mission: the challenge of a changing world’ – which, by the way, I recommend to you as an inspiring overview of developments, issues and opportunities in world mission. He points out – and this is particularly relevant given how many of you are Chinese – that the first European missionaries to China had to travel for over two years to get there, and many died en route. And he goes on:

My wife Elizabeth’s great-grandfather sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to work in India as a missionary in 1846. By his time, sailing ships were more advanced and he was able to reach India in only four months. This made the call to mission just a little easier. When Elizabeth and I went to Singapore in 1960, the Suez canal had long been open and ships travelled more quickly. So it took us only three weeks to reach Singapore – to the amazement of Elizabeth’s old father, who had needed many weeks when he went to China as a missionary in 1913.
Now, in the twenty-first century, Elizabeth and I have the privilege of a travelling ministry in which we are invited to speak in a different country once each month, on average… How easy it is now to flit from London to Africa or Asia or the Americas!

For mission work now, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that the whole world is open to the whole world. Mind you, it’s not always easy. If you’d like a taste of the hardships that mission travel can still bring, read the mission page at the back of this month’s newsletter. That has extracts of the prayer letters recounting Paul Wright’s recent epic journey in tough terrain and a worse than dodgy four wheel drive.
All of which makes the point that the gospel ministry of encouragement involves costly travel. Paul was the pioneer. We follow in his footsteps.

And of course, when it comes to mission, we’re all called to a different path. Some are called to travel – perhaps far – and to keep travelling. Some are called to travel and then stay. We arrived here all the way from the south of England nearly 25 years ago, and here we are still. Some are called to stay put, but, as it were, to travel locally and to reach into the lives of those living around them. Both travelling and staying are vital. Without travelling, the gospel and the church will not spread. Without staying, the church will not survive.

Travel; travel and stay; or stay. Which is it for you? What is God calling you to do, for the sake of bringing the encouragement of the gospel of Christ to a church and a world in need?

Where can you go? Be inspired by Paul’s travelling.

Secondly, PAUL’S TEAMWORK

Paul was a ministry team-player through and through. Take a look at verses 4-5.

Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas… (20.4-5)

“Us” being at least Paul himself and Luke, our author.
What a fantastic little window that is on to Paul’s mission team. Note that this is effectively a multi-national team – though all their nations had been swallowed up by the Roman Empire. But what this looks like is a highly intentional mission training plan on Paul’s part to identify one or two guys from each church planting location and to recruit them on to his mission team.

They got trained. Paul got support – he never liked working alone. They modelled teamwork in the situations they visited. The home churches had a living and direct link through their own representative on the team to this pioneering spread of the gospel and to these other churches that most of them would never get the opportunity to visit in person.

These team members were tried and tested in the heat of mission activity – sometimes through traumatic experiences. So for instance Aristarchus, the Macedonian from Thessalonica mentioned in verse 4, has already featured back in chapter 19. He’s a member of Paul’s mission team in Ephesus at the time of the anti-Christian riot there. 19.29:

So the city was filled with the confusion, and [the mob] rushed together into the theatre, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. (Acts 19.29)

It’s clear from the fact that he’s still on the team in the next chapter that Aristarchus survived that experience. But being on Paul’s team was not a cushy number. It was more like being in a military front line patrol probing enemy territory than being on the holiday of a lifetime. I do worry that life is so comfortable for most of us in the West that we’ve forgotten how to live sacrificially for the cause of Christ.

Teamwork in ministry is crucial for effectiveness. Paul was crystal clear about that both in his teaching and in his missionary practice. That conviction flowed from his own understanding and experience of how the church worked.

He famously develops the analogy of ‘the body’ as a metaphor for the life of the church. 1 Corinthians 12 is his classic discussion, and we need to have read, marked, learned and inwardly digested it. Paul, for all his apostolic gifts, could not have done what he did on his own. One part of the body cannot function without the others. Hands and feet have to work together.

Musical groups give another picture of that. For instance, on Easter evening here we had a great little brass group accompanying and leading our singing. A tuba is massively different from a trumpet. But put all the varied instruments together and the sum is so much greater than the parts.

Praise God for all the ministry teams that make up the life and work of this church so far. If we’re going to multiply our ministry to reach more and more people as we hope and pray will happen, then we need to be deeply convinced of the crucial role of teams. And each one of us needs to be ready to search out, find, and get stuck into whatever team roles God has equipped us for.

First. Where can you go? Be inspired by Paul’s travelling.

Second. What’s your ministry team? Be inspired by Paul’s teamwork.

Thirdly, PAUL’S TALKING

It’s very kind of Paul to ensure that each of these crucial mission activities begins in English with a ‘T’. Travelling; teamwork; and now talking.

Paul’s talking is implicit in verses 1-6, and becomes very explicit in verses 7-12. Here’s that section. The team has reunited with one another and the local believers in Troas. Like the Aussies at HTG, they’ve just completed a one week mission there. Verse 7:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third storey and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted. (20.7-12)

Just an aside here. This part of Acts 20 is one of my all time favourite Bible passages. I love the fact that here is someone falling asleep in the middle of a sermon by none other than the apostle Paul himself. As I look across your sea of faces from up here, I have had to learn to avert my eyes from those of you who are clearly lost in a deep Eutychian slumber. So Paul’s ministry of encouragement even extends to having someone fall asleep on him – and giving permission for Luke to include it in the mission diary. I have found great solace in this story over the years.

The real point here, though, is a simple one. Paul’s ministry of encouragement is above all a talking ministry. He speaks the word of God to God’s people. And that strengthens them, encourages them, and equips them. What he says is not always comfortable. As he puts it to one of his team mates here, the young Timothy, when he later writes to him:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3.16-17)

The encouragement that Paul’s gives by teaching God’s word is not designed to send people to sleep, but to equip them for war – the spiritual war in which we’re engaged, fought with spiritual weapons of faith and prayer and the gospel.

Paul’s extraordinary raising of Eutychus from death, in what amounts to a quick midnight break in his sermon before he gets going again for the rest of the night, is paralleled in the Old Testament in a way that’s illuminating. We heard the passage earlier, from 1 Kings 17. The prophet Elijah raises the widow’s dead son by stretching himself over him in prayer and then takes him in his arms and says, “See, your son lives.” And the account ends (17.24):

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17.24)

This account of Paul raising Eutychus is here to reaffirm that Paul’s teaching, that makes up a large part of the New Testament and that is full of the most profound encouragement, is in fact the very word of God. He is a man of God, and the word of the Lord in his mouth is truth.

So if we’re going to learn the ministry of encouragement, then we have to learn to teach what Paul taught, confident that the word of the Lord in his mouth is truth.

Here, then, are simple but profound challenges if we want to change the world for Christ, as I pray we do.

Where can you go for Jesus? What’s your ministry team with Jesus? Who can you be talking to about Jesus? Let’s be inspired by Paul’s relentless travelling, teamwork, and talking.

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