Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11-14, NRSV)
Paul was a leader in the early church. At one point he wrote a letter of encouragement to his young associate named Titus. We just read together a marvelous section from the middle of that letter. Let me summarize what Paul is saying here.
God’s love and forgiveness are now available to the entire world. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, salvation has been extended to everybody. This is good news. The best news! News that everybody is meant to hear. And Paul says that those who believe this news, those who trust God, will find themselves transformed into new people. Christ is renovating the heart and life of every person that comes to him. People who used to live godless lives where their own selfish desires were once at the center of things are now coming, by God’s grace, to live God-filled and God-honoring lives where the desires of Christ are now at the center of things.
Better yet, this is not a life we have to wait for. It’s happening now, Paul says. We can experience it today! The church, in fact, is a community of people who are together experiencing this transformation, a community of men and women and children who are even now being made into new people. Dark and rebellious lives are becoming good and pure lives. And as this happens we get to taste, and we give those around us a taste, of the sort of world God is making. Now, that world hasn’t arrived completely, of course. Not yet. It’s still in the oven, you might say. But the scent of it is everywhere, especially in the church, and it is whetting our appetite for what is to come in fullness one day when Christ returns.
A Christian writer and philosopher named Dallas Willard once wrote, “[The church is the community] of Jesus’ people who are called out from the world to become a touch point between heaven and earth, where the healing of the Cross and the Resurrection can save the lost and grow the saved into the fullness of human beings in Christ.” That is a beautiful description of what the church, by God’s grace, is meant to become. As Paul puts it to Titus, Christ has saved us “for himself as a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
This morning I want us to celebrate what God, in Christ, is doing in and through this particular gathering of God’s own people known as Faith Presbyterian Church of Sacramento. God is ceaselessly at work all around this world, especially in and through the church. God is also at work in very specific ways in this part of the world and in this particular gathering of the church.
Our church’s vision statement reads as follows: We are a community loving Christ, building disciples, serving all. These words describe both who we are as a church and what we are to become as a church. The statement, of course, will never perfectly describe us because there are always ways we can become more so this sort of community. There will always be ways we can grow in our love, our discipleship and our service. As many of you know, in fact, our Session has recently articulated three steps we want to take towards becoming more so this kind of community.
You might say, therefore, that God has transformed us and is transforming us at the same time. We are already this sort of community and we are not yet this sort of community. This morning I want to celebrate the already, the ways we have already seen God work to make us a people of his own.
Last week I invited you to send me stories and examples of how you have seen God at work in this church. Many of you did. Thank you. Some of you gave me permission to share your stories and this morning I want to let them speak for themselves. I wish I had the time to share everything that was sent to me. At least you’ll get a taste.
Many of you told me about how you see God drawing people into this community and transforming their lives.
There is the story, for example, of a woman who was invited here some years ago for a Christmas service. She never left. After being here some time, one Sunday God gave her the courage to come up for prayer after the service was over. Quinn, one of our pastors at the time, was there waiting there and she asked Quinn to pray that God would help her quit drinking. Quinn prayed exactly that. That was April 9, 2008, and this woman will tell you today that has not had a drink since.
One week later this same woman came up to pray again and Quinn was there waiting for her again. This time she confessed that she was a closet smoker and needed God’s help to quit smoking. Right then and there Quinn took her last pack of cigarettes from her, and then, laying a hand on her shoulder, she prayed for God to help her overcome this habit in her life. That was April 16, 2008 and this woman will tell you today that she hasn’t smoked since.
Nowadays she reflects back and sees clearly how God is using her past experiences to encourage and help other women who face similar struggles. In the meantime, she has met women here at Faith who have been a deep blessing in her faith. She has committed to reading scripture every night. She told me she doesn’t sleep through my sermons anymore (which was a bit of a shock because I didn’t know anybody was sleeping through my sermons!) She has seen amazing healing happen between members of her family. Above all, she knows that God is transforming her into the woman He has always meant her to be.
Several of you emphasized to me this last week how the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in this community is leading to transformed lives, to a closeness with Christ. People, for instance, regularly hear God speak to them through sermons. Somebody told me that the gracious words God spoke to him recently on a Sunday morning were like cool water being poured on raging fire that was burning within him.
Many of you thank me because on Sundays, no matter who is giving the sermon, you often experience God speaking to you through the preaching here. And while I always appreciate such words of kindness, I think I speak for Jim when I say that thanking us for God speaking to you through a sermon we give is a bit like writing a thank you note to the mailman after a good friend sends you a generous birthday gift. People’s lives are, indeed, being transformed by the preaching of God’s Word in this place but all the glory, all the thanks, goes to God. It’s his Word after all, not mine.
Some parents in our church wrote me this week to recount to me how God has worked through this community to transform the lives of their children. Among the many examples they gave me, one which stood out was the commitment two men in our church made some years ago to each of their sons during confirmation. Each of these men dedicated an entire year to prayer, guidance and fellowship with their sons and, from their view, God used these men to have a lasting, even eternal impact on their son’s lives.
Another person spoke to me with amazement about the commitment to pray which she sees God has instilled in so many in our church. She reminded me that when prayer concerns are regularly sent out on our prayer chain, so many people diligently lift up those concerns. I’m told that many of you keep the concerns of others in a prayer journal, praying over them many times until God provides an answer. And God does. Prayers are being answered here, often in astounding and unexpected ways.
I could go on. God is transforming lives here through thoughtful classes and retreats, inspired music, unexpected conversations, and on and on. And God is not only transforming individual lives in isolation; God is transforming this community in ways that make it unique, even peculiar, in our world today. Specifically, the unity and the love which people experience here is often unlike anything they have ever experienced before.
Many years ago a couple in our church faced a difficult season as one of them went through a very serious health crisis. At the time, they had no church family and, in their words, it became one of the “lowest and loneliest points of their lives.” That trial, however, became the catalyst God used to lead them back to himself and to the church. Ten years later, this same couple faced another season of great crisis but this time, now a part of this community, things were different. This time they immediately found themselves surrounded and lifted up by life group members, deacons, and others in this church who were committed to making sure they did not go through this alone. In the end, as they put it, though their current crisis was just as critical as before, this time they experienced joy and gratitude instead of despair and depression. Christ himself lifted this family up through a group of his people who were zealous for good deeds.
It should not surprise us that Christ seems most real to our community here in times of pain and struggle. And as we have been reminded of yet again this week, no pain and struggle is as great as what we experience when we lose a beloved brother or sister in this family. This week somebody reminded me of the astounding amount of love and care she received during the illness and subsequent death of her husband some time ago, love and care which did not stop after he was gone but continues to this day. She told me that sometimes that love is often expressed in simple ways. Somebody, for example, will come to sit next to her in worship, next to her in the place where her husband used to sit. As hard as this sort of loss can be, several of you this week told me that it was during these sorts of painful experiences when you most tangibly experienced the loving presence of Christ in and through this community.
Another couple wrote me remembering the time when they agreed to provide a ride to a family in church they did not yet know. This was a family who was not only new to Faith but new to America. That one simple offer of a ride turned into an enduring friendship. A benefit of this friendship has been that this couple has been an enormous support to this new family as they try to navigate their new life and their new home. As they see it, however, they are the ones who have been blessed and inspired by the ways they have met Christ in this family.
Let me paraphrase what they told me: “Our eyes have been opened by these people who are themselves so open to what life puts before them. At their core their lives are about loving God, loving family and nurturing all around them. Our experiences with them have encouraged us to share more of what God has given us, both monetarily and in the ways we support others. In this relationship, we are the fortunate ones.” Just one more example of how we see Christ at work in one another.
I had a few people write me this week who are very new to our church. Now, I know that I am certainly not always as welcoming as I know I could be and perhaps you feel the same way. In other words, perhaps not everybody has always felt welcomed here at Faith. In these instances, however, these people felt like they experienced the genuine hospitality of Christ the very moment they walked in the door. One of them used these sorts of words and phrases to describe the community she has recently found here at Faith: “Generous.” “Trusting of a stranger.” “Positive energy.” “Language which is gentle and courteous.” “Hearts that are marked by service.”
Speaking, I think, for others who have come new into this community, she summarized her experience this way: “Since coming to Faith I have seen love, generosity, hospitality, and edification in action. I have witnessed the body of Christ working together with each unique person’s spiritual gift endowments. I saw people’s heart to serve the Lord, and I experienced more of God’s love. I also saw more of God’s beautiful creations, artistic masterpieces, and His glory. I feel inspired to join the fellowship and service I have seen here at Faith.”
And before you think that the hand of God at work is only evident inside the walls of this building, many people this week reminded me of how they have seen Christ calling us to follow him out into the world to join him in the things he is doing all around us.
I was greatly moved by several stories people shared with me. I want to repeat two this morning.
One of our members works out in our community teaching an ESL class for adults who have immigrated to this county. At one point she mentioned her work in passing to a couple of other women here at Faith, telling them about how what these students most need is practice speaking English. To her surprise, both these women immediately volunteered to drive across town every Thursday night to have conversations with these men and women who are learning English. In her words, these women are motivated “simply by the love of Christ they have in their hearts”. She told me that the impact they are making is tangible. The practice these students get is invaluable. Their comfort level with the language is growing by leaps and bounds. And in the end, it is not lost on these students that these women are doing this not because they have to, but because they want to. In the words of this teacher, “Everyone needs love and acceptance, but it’s often hard to come by when you’re an immigrant. I am amazed each time these two women walk into the classroom to help my students.”
A second story.
A friend of mine here told me this week about a time, last winter, when he noticed that a homeless man in his neighborhood, a young man maybe 25 years old, was pulling a shopping cart and going through the blue bins on the curb looking for recyclable cans and bottles. In spite of the cold temperatures, the man was not dressed for the weather. Moved with compassion, my friend went to speak to this man. He found out that the rain had left him cold, wet and hungry. He knew that going through people’s cans was illegal, but he knew of no other way to survive. At once, this man from our church went inside and made him a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and got some bottles of water. He then helped him fill up his cart with bottles and cans. Finally, he promised that he would begin saving his cans and bottles and leave them for him behind a tree in the front yard. As the man pushed his cart away he turned and said to my friend. “I’m a recycler, you know.” At once, my friend knew that the man was simply trying to put some dignity into his life and into his actions.
The face of this young man continued to tug on the heart of my friend. He began to save his bottles and cans and that next week the man he now thought of as “the recycler” came by and picked them up. The weather was warmer that day and as he handed him more sandwiches, some water, and some clothing this time, he noticed that the man was looking a little warmer and a little better.
Here’s the rest of the story in his own words.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw him. I continued to collect bottles and cans for the next month, even went looking for him in the neighborhood, but never ran across him. In the past ten months, I have thought about him many times, prayed for him, and I have shed tears for him. He was a very nice young man that apparently ran into some very hard times, and I can only hope he has been able to lift himself up. After all, he’s a recycler, you know.
This and the other illustrations I have shared this morning are just a few of the countless examples which could be shared of how God is at work in the lives of the people of this peculiar community, at work not only here in this place but beyond these walls wherever we, the church, are led. I love it that so many of you are clearly on the lookout for God to show up in unexpected ways and places. I thank you for sharing with me and others the times when God does show up.
In the end, accounts of God’s faithful work here always leave me grateful. That’s how I felt this week as I read story after story; I felt grateful. And it occurred to me that this is a particularly good season for gratitude. In fact, you might say that the fall season, which culminates with Thanksgiving, is the season of gratitude. For thousands of years, right up to today, harvest season has been characterized as a time of giving thanks, a time when communities have realized all the ways they have been blessed. Of course, the natural response when you are blessed is to give thanks.
From Old Testament times, one of the main Jewish holidays has been the Festival of Tabernacles. Long ago God established that his people should take eight days every harvest season to remember that at one time they lived in tents and wandered in the wilderness. As they remembered the difficult past, they would then be grateful for the present. For now they lived in permanent homes, on a land they called their own, with bountiful harvests to enjoy year after year. So on each of the eight days of the Festival, the Israelite people were to make offerings to God, offerings that were to be motivated by their gratitude for God’s goodness and grace in their lives.
It is not by accident that it is during this season when we as a church do something similar. Now, if you are a guest with us this morning, we are really glad you are here but know that we have no expectation that you will participate in this with us. The rest of us, however, we who have made a commitment to this community are being asked this morning to bring a grateful offering to God. Specifically, we are all being asked to commit a portion of our financial resources in 2014 to the work of Christ in and through this congregation.
As many of you know, this is something God commands that we do. In fact, God is specific. In scripture we are told that we should take at least 10% of the material wealth God puts in our hands and give it back to him through the church. It’s true, God commands this. But duty, however, is not the only reason we obey. Don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with dutiful obedience, even dutiful obedience when we don’t feel like dutiful obedience. But duty is not our only reason for making such a pledge. We give not only out of duty but also, maybe even more so, out of gratitude. We give because we are grateful people, grateful for all that God has done and is doing in and through this community. God is at work here in powerful ways, blessing us so that we can be a blessing.
A friend of mine here told me that she was recently walking out of the worship service one Sunday morning when she suddenly felt compelled to turn and look back. She believes that as she did God gave her a vision. As she put it, in that moment everybody in the church was suddenly beautiful and radiant. Everyone, even the people she had never seen that way before. At once she knew that it was the Holy Spirit reminding her that this is how God sees his people. As Paul put it, there were “redeemed from all iniquity and purified for himself as a people of his own who are zealous for good works.”
Chuck Bell, a member of our church, wrote me these words this week. I thought they were brilliant and I want to close with them.
I think of the Church as God’s family vineyard here on Florin Road, and the members and worshippers as faithful workers in that vineyard. It’s an ongoing project, just like a vineyard. We’re planting, pruning and tending the vines, picking the grapes, and Jesus is turning the fruit of the vine into fine wine.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Titus 1:11-14. What stands out to you?
Speaking of the church here, Paul writes in verse 14 that Christ is “redeeming us from all iniquity and purifying for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” What do you think of this description of the church?
Dallas Willard describes the church as “Jesus’ people who are called out from the world to become a touch point between heaven and earth, where the healing of the Cross and the Resurrection can save the lost and grow the saved into the fullness of human beings in Christ.” What does this mean to you?
Have you seen examples where the church has been this sort of “touch point between heaven and earth?”
What is one way Jesus Christ has transformed your life as you have been a part of this community of Faith Presbyterian Church?
What is your dream for Faith Presbyterian Church? Where do you hope God is taking us in the future?
How do you think we should be praying for our church these days?
How has Christ made you grateful today? Spend time in prayer, telling God how you are grateful.