Wednesday 20th May
O the beauty and pathos of the scene: St Paul and his spiritual children kneeling together in the sand, their faces, streaked with tears, turned to heaven even as they pray with voices cracked and broken with sorrow.
The elders of the church in Ephesus had said goodbye to Paul before, but never without the hope of seeing the beloved apostle again. This time they knew it was to be the final farewell.
And for Paul himself, how difficult this parting must have been. He’d invested nearly three years of his life in Ephesus, a time which was so productive in the proclamation of the good news of Christ that, according to Acts 19.10, ‘all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.’
He also knew that, after he was gone, the young church would have to deal – alone – with ‘savage wolves’ who would attempt to devour and destroy their tender faith.
Now, with breaking heart, he knew it was time to leave them all behind and meet his destiny in Jerusalem.
It was Paul himself who exhorted fellow believers to ‘be imitators of me as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11.1). Even as Jesus ‘set his face toward Jerusalem’ and would not be deterred by the pleas of the disciples to save his own skin, Paul was implacable in his resolve to go to Jerusalem and confront the persecutions – and opportunities – awaiting him there.
If Jesus had been savaged by doubts as he knelt in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, how much more would Paul have been assailed by temptation to ignore the clear – but narrow, steep and lethal – calling of God and instead to continue his successful missionary career in what we now call Turkey, Greece and the southern Balkans?
Thankfully Paul was not found wanting. God honoured his prayers and enabled him to reach the finishing line of his earthly calling. Though it ended in imprisonment and death in Rome, the Gospel flame Christ had entrusted to him was unleashed in a holy wildfire that changed the world forever.
I don’t want to be beheaded, or catch coronavirus, or even be put to shame and discomfort for my faith. But I must imitate Paul, even as he imitated Christ. You too must imitate his obedience, even if the path leads away from green pastures and quiet waters toward dark valleys of uncertainty and fear. How difficult that choice will be if there is the devilish mirage of a wide road that leads nowhere but endless circles in the soft fields of comfort and familiarity?
May God give you and me, and his church in Wigan, the same hunger for union with the Lord, the same revelation of Christ’s glory, as he did to our brother Paul. And may he give us courage to set our face toward the Jerusalem he is calling us to.
Reflection by Neil Cook