"Take heed, therefore, to yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God."--Acts xx. 28.
If it be one of the marks of a great historian, that he should give in a condensed, though accurate form, the speeches of men by whom history is made; if it be his to bring before his readers by a few simple but life-like touches the scene and the man in some great crisis of his life--then few, I think, have excelled, or even equalled, St. Luke, in this description of St. Paul's farewell to the Elders of the Church at Ephesus. We can see it all--we can hear it all. Never, I think, does the great Apostle stand before us so vividly. Never do we see into the depths of his heart so clearly, as now when he gives his last charge to the men of Ephesus whom he loved so dearly. Dauntless he ever was; at Damascus, at Philippi, at Corinth, on the steps of the Castle of Jerusalem, before Festus and Agrippa, on the deck of the storm-tossed ship, at the last great trial "when none stood by" him; but never quite so dauntless as now, when he goes bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing what should befall him there--but face to face with that constant witness of the Holy Ghost "that bonds and afflictions awaited him." Men can and do rise to meet emergencies, but it was like the strength of Christ Himself, who "set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem," to go thus unhesitatingly to meet an unknown but certain evil.
And so, too, with his love. You feel it all through that marvelous address.
Not even in the pastoral epistles, where the aged Apostle comforts and strengthens his son in the faith, does it shine more clearly. It needs not that we should be told how it swayed men's hearts, as they rose from their knees after that last solemn prayer--and yet St. Luke's simple words are just what we want to emphasize our own thoughts:
"They all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words that he spake that they should see his face no more.
This was the end of St. Paul's ministry at Ephesus.
Brethren! you begin yours to-day. Can you have any better thoughts of that dauntless, loving servant of Christ: and with that memory, with the man as he was before your eyes, can you do better than listen to the solemn charge wherewith he warns and strengthens the men who were, as you are soon to be, overseers in the flock of the Church of God?
Let us then first note who it is that speaks, and to whom.
It is an Apostle, speaking to the men whom he had ordained, and whom he was about to leave in charge of his work. St. Paul is not preaching; he is not speaking to win converts; or to strengthen the hearts of the faithful. He has gathered to him the elders, and the elders only, of the Church at Ephesus. He is a ruler, speaking to men who will have to rule; a chief pastor speaking to pastors; a chief overseer, speaking to those who must also oversee. And more: he is speaking as one who must give account of his stewardship; who "is pure from the blood of all men;" "who has not shunned to declare unto them all the counsel of God." And he knows that they must give account also. "Take heed," he cries, "watch." He stands face to face with God; and He tells them that they stand face to face with God also."
It is the first great Apostolic charge ad clerum--the first, but it will last till the end of time. Brethren, St. Paul speaks to us--to you.
But now mark the title which he gives to those to whom he speaks. They are men whom the Holy Ghost has made "overseers," over or in the flock--which is the Church of God. I beseech you to mark the boldness of that title, which is, indeed, the charter of your ministry. It is not man, but the Holy Ghost, that makes overseers in the Church of God.
Time would fail me were I to trace out in detail all the proofs of this statement throughout the New Testament. You have doubtless learnt much for yourselves in your preparation for Orders. And you can find them put together with great clearness in such books as Canon Gore's "Church and the [1/2] Ministry," where you can read and weigh the passages for yourselves.
All I would point to here is the claim which St. Paul makes. We know from Acts xiv. 23, what his custom was when he founded a new church. We read there that on their first missionary journey St. Paul and Sty. Barnabas "appointed for the disciples elders in every city."
We need not stop to enquire how this was done or what the exact meaning of ceirotnein in that verse is.
It is sufficient to observe that St. Paul in the case of Timothy did certainly lay hands on him that he might receive the "Charisma of God."
"Stir up the gift of God which is in thee by the laying on of my hands." And as he here speaks of the Holy Ghost, it is most probable that as this appointment was "made with prayer and fasting" (Acts xiv. 23) so was it made also with laying on of hands.
But however made, the thing to be observed is, as I have said, what St. Paul claims for the overseers.
In the 14th chapter, it was St. Paul and St. Barnabas who appointed the elders--and what they did at Iconium and Lystra and Antioch St. Paul must have done in his three years' stay at Ephesus. Hemust have appointed these men elders, as they are called in the 17th verse; though in the 28th verse they are called overseers (episkopous).
And yet he does not hesitate to say that not he, but the Holy Ghost, had made them overseers.
The commission is not human, but divine. With prayer and fasting man was to choose. He was to note qualifications, observe character, exact conditions. St. Paul lays all this down in the clearest and most emphatic way, both to Timothy in this very city of Ephesus, and to Titus in Crete. Nay more, man was responsible for the choice, at least this seems to be the more generally received interpretation of the well-known words to Timothy which are incorporated in our Ember Prayer: "Lay hands suddenly on no man." And yet it is the Holy Ghost who makes. "The Holy Ghost has made you overseers."
And this is to go on. New cities are to be won, new churches founded. Titus is to do in Crete what his master had done at Antioch and Ephesus. Wave upon wave, ripple upon ripple in ever widening circle, the Church is to spread and grow.
The ministry cannot cease unless the Church cease also--the overseer must be there unless the flock of Christ is gone and vanished. Has the Church ceased--has the flock vanished? Are there none still to be added to the Lord? No, brethren, as we know full well the conditions are the same as ever. The Church, the flock, remains to be tended, the heathen world remains to be won.
But if these conditions are the same, the others must be the same also. The grace of order, the carisma tan qean the appointment of the Holy Ghost must still be given, because the work of the Holy Ghost has still to be done in the Church and flock of God.
Not vainly, then, but in earnest, simple faith, does the Church ask her deacons the solemn question:--"Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this office and ministration?
Not blasphemously, but with the strong faith of St. Paul himself, does the Church sing the Veni Creator over her kneeling sons, and then bid them go in the name and with the power of the Holy Spirit of God to the office and work of a priest in the Church of God.
Brethren, for one moment look upwards. Purge your eyes, and purify your hearts that you may realize this divine thing.
It is not we that send you, but the Spirit of God Himself. He knows you. All your faults, your weakness, your past sins, your uncertain purpose, all, everything; "are naked and open before the eyes of Him with whom you have to do."
But He needs you, He calls you. He hears that whisper which your heart must make as you feel the awfulness of your calling. "Lord, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." He hears it: He knows it. But if that cry is real and true (and if it is not fly from this place ere it is too late); if with all your hearts you are seeking to serve Him; then the fire on the altar burns still, and the angel of God will touch your lips as he touched the lips of Isaiah, and you will hear the voice of the Lord saying: [2/3] "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" and you will cry: "Here am I, send me."
Look upwards that you may be strong, and then look inwards.
Take heed to yourselves, for you have work to do. What work? To feed the Church of God, to take heed to His flock.
Again, mark the boldness of St. Paul. He applies to these Elders of Ephesus the very words of our Lord to St. Peter. poimainein. It is the Lord's own Commission. The Good Shepherd hands it on.
poimainein. Brethren, you who go to some rural parish, learn there what that word means. You are not to be the shepherds that the poets sing of, who pass their time with pipe and song and soft dalliance. That is not the type of the shepherd of the flock of Christ. Take rather the shepherd of some bleak mountain farm. Follow him as he makes his way through mist and snow, and with numbed and bleeding fingers prepares the scanty food which careful forethought has prepared to save his starving sheep. Ask the lads who come to your night school some cold winter's night how they have shepherded their sheep that morning; ask the man whom you meet riding ceaselessly from morn to night on some Yorkshire wold (I met one such the other day as I went to shepherd his dying daughter), and then you will know the full significance of the world. Then you will know the self-denial, the patience, the watchfulness, the labour which make up the shepherd's life.
Can we do less than they? Can we do less for their souls, than they do for the animals entrusted to them?
Our Lord drew His lessons from life in Palestine, and thief and robber, lion and bear, were no far-fetched similes of the dangers which beset the pastors of the early Church. Nor are they now, in many of our mission fields. It was but yesterday that I heard of one of my old colleagues, well-night besieged in his Christian village, wakened at night by a poisoned arrow piercing the curtains of his bed, and now prepared to go alone to the inland villages whence his enemies came, to try and pacify them for the sake of his work--or else to die.
But here in England, though these things are not, there is much that is harder; there is ceaseless drudgery, there are crowded cities, there is ignorance which shuns religion, and infidelity which hates it; and far worse than these, there is temptation in every form to seduce you from your work, to make you listless in it, temptation to seek out pleasant places, and to shun the hard ones. Yes, brethren, we need now, as ever, St. Paul's warning, "Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, to feed the Church of God."
But this poimainein implies not only toil and labour, it implies knowledge also. May we not turn once more for illustration to what goes on around us to-day? It is no casual feeding that is allowed in the high farming of our time. Science is pressed into the service, chemistry is ransacked to discover what may tend to produce the best and most nutritious food, distant lands send their products. And besides all this, there is the most watchful care of individual life. The good shepherd watches all his flock, and treats them according to their individual needs. And above all, the young are watched and tended with the most jealous care. Men do not hope for fine and well-grown flocks, who leave the young ones to grow up as they may.
So much it be with us. We have to feed, but we must know how to feed. Remember, brethren, this is your profession, and it behoves you to learn it.
You have to draw from the great storehouses which holy and learned men of old have laid up, food that will sustain and nourish men's souls.
You must understand your Church and her teaching, not running off on this or that hobby of your own, but applying all her stores, her Sacraments, her Bible, her prayers, her ministrations, so that men may live and grow in grace by your ministry.
And on the other hand you must study character, so that you may be able to read souls, know their wants, detect their weakness, feed their strength.
And above all you must do this for the lambs of the flock of Christ. We know not what is in store for the education of England. The balance [3/4] trembles, men's hearts are sometimes failing, and some are counseling that we should surrender in despair. But this we do know, that Christ's own command is "Feed My lambs," and a priest is never more doing his duty than when he is tending the little ones who the Lord loves.
Believe me, no harder duty than this lies before you. Men think it easy. Men think that anyone can teach a child that which he knows himself. The State does not think so. In nothing does it so far excel the Church, as in the care with which it trains its teachers to teach.
You may have the knowledge; but can you apply it? Can you make your scripture lesson go home to the children's hearts? Can you invoke their interest or elicit their keenness as the teacher who succeeds you will invoke it over some simple lesson of geography or history?
Yes, brethren, you can if you make it your business as they make it theirs. You can if you believe that the seeds which you are sowing will burst ere long into the flower and fruit of noble lives. You can if you believe that no preparation, no pains, no earnestness are thrown away; if you have stamped ineffaceably in the heart of one little child but one truth which our Saviour came to teach us of one God.
Who is sufficient for these things? Why do we incur this toilsome service--this awful responsibility?
The love of Christ constraineth us. May we not take this with a double meaning? Christ's love to us; our love to Him.
Our Love to Him. He calls us by His Spirit. Can we forbear to do Him service? Shall He come down from Heaven to earth and find none to follow Him in His ministry of Love?
Christ's love to us. Ah, brethren, that takes away the fear. He calls. He chooses. He sends. It is not we who rashly venture on a work beyond all human power; but we go because our Master bids us go, and we know that He will be with us to the end. We are not all alike--all have not the same powers; "there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit, differences of administration, but the same Lord. There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all and in all." To each man "the self-same Spirit divideth severally as He will."
But one thing He does not divide. And that is His own blessed influence, the grace which He gives us for the work whereunto He calls us. It is there, ours to grasp, to use, to stir up in St. Paul's own strong expression. Without it we could not dare to go; with it, we dare, because we go not in our own strength, but in His. And you will find that just in proportion as you remember this, and lean on Him, so will you be strong in your ministerial work. For the greatest of all agencies which wins and keeps souls for Christ is personal holiness, and that holiness is assured to you if you stir up the gift that is in you by the laying on of our hands. Do not mistake me. Like all else of grace that comes from God to human souls, you may neglect, quench, lose it. You may be outwardly an ordained minister of Christ, while the fire of the divine Charisma is dead within you. Like every other divine gift, it depends on you what use you make of it. But none the less it is there, the all sufficient grace which will make you good and faithful servants of our Heavenly King.
Resolve then ever to stir it up by constant watchfulness. Live with Christ by prayer and meditation, that the Christ-like life may be seen in you. Fear, lest you should neglect so great salvation; and if you fear that, you will fear nothing else, for that fear will lead you ever to the strength of God.
St. Paul sums up all that I have said in his last blessing to the Elders of Ephesus, and with no more fitting words can I send you forth to receive the great commission.
"I commend you to God, and to the Word of His Grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among them that are sanctified." Amen.