Powers and Principalities

COVID-19 - Church Building and Ministry Update
PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT FROM DR. MATTHEW RICH


Our Second Reading for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verses 1-11. Of all the different genres and forms of writing we find in the New Testament, the letter is perhaps the most interesting. Here we have words of encouragement, admonishment, and advice written by Paul and others to the very first Christians. By reading over the shoulders of our Christian ancestors, we learn much about the struggles and joys that have always been a part of life together in the church, and we hear God’s Word afresh to us today.

Eighteen years ago, as I was preparing to leave my first call as pastor at the Salem/Pageland Presbyterian Church, we were studying First Corinthians in a weekly bible study. One of the members of the Pageland church, Calvin Thaxton, mentioned in passing that once I left, I could write them letters of advice just like Paul had done for the Christians in Corinth. I decided that for my final sermon in Pageland, I would take up Mr. Thaxton’s idea and write the church a letter. On my final Sunday at The Presbyterian Church of Lowell and then again at First Presbyterian Church in Lumberton, I shared a letter with those congregations. And so, in that same spirit, and the spirit of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the sermon today is my letter to you. But first, and most importantly, let us hear the Word of God.

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Reid Memorial,

Grace to you and peace. I write this letter out of love and with great thanksgiving to God for all of you. Every time I remember you, I thank God because of all the times we have shared in the gospel, from the first day until now. On that first day, did you have any idea where God would lead us? Did we even know that we were on the way? Perhaps you did, but if so, you had greater insight into God’s will than me. Truly we have witnessed God at work in this place, we have seen the resurrection here and now, and I am confident of this: the God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Yes, as I have shared with you before, God is not finished with Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church yet.

As I have thought and prayed about what I would write to you today, I was reminded of an essay by pastor Eugene Peterson that I read a few years before God called me to join you in ministry. It changed the way I viewed my calling, especially, my calling here at Reid Memorial.

Peterson wrote that the understanding of “church” that he grew up with was of a “badly constructed house that had been lived in by renters who didn’t keep up with repairs, were sloppy housekeepers, and let crabgrass take over the lawn.” The pastor’s job was to do major repair work, renovate the church from top to bottom, and to clean out decades, maybe even centuries, of accumulated debris so that the church could make a fresh start. Maybe it was with glorious visions from the scriptures or the latest market research, but there was a house for God to be built, and it was the pastor’s responsibility to get the job done.

Yet it wasn’t long into his ministry before Peterson’s vision began to sour and so he set out on a search for “church.” He was led first to the book of Acts and then to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. What he discovered was that just as the miracle of Jesus had been “in the form of a helpless infant born in poverty in a dangerous place with neither understanding nor support from the political, religious, or cultural surroundings,” the miracle of the church was also “in the form of the powerless, the vulnerable, the unimportant. [The church he found in Acts or Ephesus] was not so different from any random congregation we might look up in the yellow pages of our telephone directories.”

With this insight, Peterson discovered that a pastor’s job is not to fix or renovate a congregation. No, the pastor’s calling is to love a particular group of people - a mixed bag of humanity for sure: saints and sinners, those who are there every time the door opens and those who just barely attend from time to time. These people, flaws and all, are the church. And so, Peterson’s advice to pastors was to embrace the church God gives you, to love these people. Not for who you think they might become or for who you believe you can turn them into. No, you just love the people God gives you.

Now, you know that the history of Reid Memorial contains some troubled days. In addition, my general inclination in life is to be a fixer. And yet, I want you to know that it was never my intention to fix this congregation. I am very grateful for the ways in which God has been at work in this church and I take very seriously the ministry of revitalization, of allowing God to breathe new life into this church, which we have undertaken together. But as I write to you today, I want you to know and remember two things which are far more important than fixing anything.

First, I want you to remember that since 1878 or 1879, depending on how you do the math, this particular gathering of people has been loved by God. You have shared in the gospel from the first day until now. And the good news of the gospel is Jesus. Yes, God so loved the world that he came to earth to be born, to live, to teach, to welcome, to embrace, to share, to call, to die, and to rise again so that we might have life in Jesus. My friends, it’s all about Jesus. You know this good news; you have shared in the gospel from the first day until now. But it is easy to forget and make church about so many other things. So, first, I ask you to remember what you have known from the first day until now: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Yes, you are loved by God.

And second, while it was never my intention to fix this congregation, it was always my intention to love you. As the apostle Paul shared with the Philippians, “you hold me in your heart.” What a marvelous image that is - to hold one another in our hearts. My friends, I didn’t love you because of who I thought you or this church might become. I didn’t love you or this church because of what I believed I could turn you into. No, we love one another, we hold each other in our hearts, because God first loved us. We know that God loves us just as we are and yet that love does not leave us unchanged. As we love one another, as we hold each other in our hearts, we grow. Yes, as we are loved and as we love one another we grow more and more into the people God created us to be. As we are loved and as we love one another we discover who God intends us to be. As we are loved and as we love one another, we become more like Jesus. And that is the only goal.

As you know, it is often hard work to love one another in the way that God loves us. Growth is not quick and easy. And yet, it has been such a gift and joy for me. I write to you today as we have reached this stop on the way. My friends, there are many steps ahead as you walk this way with Jesus and as you continue to grow in love.

So, my prayer for you is the same as Paul’s prayer for his beloved congregation in Philippi: That your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again,

Thanks be to God. Amen and Amen.