When was the last time you cried? Ok, so admittedly beginning like this does sound a bit like one of those ‘touchy feely’ weekend supplement celebrity interviews.
In fact, perhaps for you it’s all too easy to answer the question. Life is hard right now. At the other extreme maybe you’re struggling to think of an incident even in the last year that moved you to tears.
I want to hazard a guess that if we asked the apostle Paul the same question, he’d struggle to answer – not because he never wept, but rather because crying was so inseparable from his day to day ministry.
Now I imagine that Paul the Weeper is probably not how we often think of the guy who wrote that beastly theological tome to the church in Rome. Compassion and tears? If anything, isn’t that Jesus’ department? As Pub Quizzes are forever reminding us, the shortest verse in the Bible is: “Jesus wept”? And we’re used to that – after all, it’s such a Jesus-kinda-thing to do.Embed from Getty Images
But Paul on the other hand? We’re talking about the Apostle-with-Attitude himself; supposedly woman-hating, doctrine-making, emotion-forsaking. Hard as nails and as cold as ice; the original Gospel Machine. He probably wouldn’t even weep watching the Lion King, right?
And then Acts chapter 20 lands in your lap, and it’s like: Boom. We were looking at it in a class the other day and I was struck afresh. This is what Paul says to the Ephesian elders at Miletus:
“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
… 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
… 36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him.
In terms of understanding Paul’s ministry life on the ground, this gives us a fairly clear flavour. And that flavour is tinged with the saltiness of tears. Paul ministers through tears. No doubt tears of pain and tears of heartache and tears of love.
Now, we may want to speedily add in our cultural caveats here. We may protest that being British puts us in a different camp from these weepy Mediterranean types. We may particularly argue that if we’re a bloke then society expects/shapes/needs us to ‘stand strong’ and just ‘man up’. Anyway, wasn’t Paul an apostle? Doesn’t that make him unique? Superspiritual?
Well, maybe, to some extent. But isn’t there something about Paul here that illustrates for us what it means to take the gospel seriously? The precious truths of salvation and sin and grace and repentance should be connecting with our emotions. Why? Because they’re also connected to real people whom we care about. Evidently people mattered to Paul. And that meant he cried with them and he cried over them and he cried for them.
Presumably he cried with gratitude for the way God had poured out his saving and transforming grace. Presumably he cried with burdened heart for those who would not turn from their sin to Christ. Presumably he cried with joy in parting company with brothers and sisters in Christ who had become so dear to him through Jesus.
And so I find myself asking: ‘when was the last time people’s spiritual growth and health made me cry?’
Obviously, we’re not meant to read this and suddenly start trying to cry more. This isn’t a call to start engaging in a bit of onion-cutting before we preach every sermon or go out to home-group.
But if I’m never moved to tears over people, perhaps this passage gently challenges me to ask ‘why not?’. Do these people matter to me? Whether or not I’m a set-aside-paid gospel minister, am I so detached from the people in my church?
On the other hand, if I do find myself feeling gutted, overwhelmed, or even ecstatic, as I invest in others then encouragingly this passage shows me that I’m not just a ‘big girls blouse’. It’s not weakness to be emotionally bound up in the salvation of others. It’s not shameful to be cut up when someone drifts into hardened unrepentance. You’re not a wuss if you ‘well up’ when you watch someone get baptised.
Yep, Paul wept. Do you?