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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. As a kid I remember being thankful for the four f’s – family, food, free from school and football. But not necessarily in that order. I think I have a broader perspective now and a better set of priorities.

In our congregational meeting today one of the things you will be asked to do is list five strengths of our congregation. You will also be asked to list two weaknesses. The difference in number is intentional because we are much better as a church at finding our faults than in seeing our strengths. At least, this is my observation in various conversations I have been in or heard. But we also need to acknowledge and give thanks for those things that God has blessed us with as a congregation. And these will help us to see, I believe, what God wants to do through us. Perhaps as I share today, this will prime the pump for your sharing later in the meeting.

To set the tone, we begin by looking at –

Paul’s congregational thanksgivings

In his letters to various churches he almost always has a thanksgiving section at the beginning where he talks about some good things in the congregation. These are things he gives thanks for as he prays for them. Let’s look at some of these.

Romans 1:8 – “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” He goes on to talk about his desire that there might be a mutual sharing of faith between them, if he can come and visit with them.

1 Corinthians 1:4 – “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.” He seems to be thinking in particular about various gifts or abilities that God has given to them.

Ephesians 1:15-16 – “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you.” He is grateful for their faith and  also their love for fellow believers.

Philippians 1:3-5 – “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” They were faithful givers to support him as he did his mission work. This is what partnership means.

Colossians 1:3-4 – “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints . . .” This is very similar to what he said in Ephesians, a focus on faith and love.

1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 – “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here we have the familiar faith, hope and love. There is an emphasis on their work of faith and labor of love, and their continuing hope in Jesus despite being persecuted.

2 Thessalonians 1:3-4 – “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.” Here the emphasis is on the increase in both their faith and love, and also again their steadfastness in trials.

So Paul knew of their weaknesses and he dealt with these in his letters. But he was also constantly giving thanks for these congregations and their good qualities in his times of prayer. And we should also be focused on seeing the good and giving thanks to God for how God has blessed us. So let me share with you today some of –

My congregational thanksgivings

1. Like Paul, I am thankful for our faith in Christ. As I have been a shepherd here I have seen a number of you go through some really difficult times. And I have been encouraged to see your faith expressed and acted on; to see you endure and stay strong in your faith.

I have also heard some of your life stories and testimonies and how you have trusted God’s promises and how God has come through for you. In our personal conversations and in our praise time, I so often hear of how your faith is strong and growing and I thank God for this.

2. I am grateful for the love that we have for one another. God has given us each other to encourage and support one another and to care for one another; to lift each other up and carry each other’s burdens.

And we do this. Time and again when needs are expressed people respond and rally around to help – taking a meal, working on projects to bless a family, visits, checking in on each other, praying for one another, encouraging one another. What a blessing it is to be in a group that share’s Christ’s love with one another.

3. I give thanks for hard workers in our congregation. So many people with servant hearts, who are willing to work behind the scenes.

I have been in churches where there are few workers and it is difficult. Do you understand how truly blessed we are in this way? Let me mention just a few names. Jeryl, our treasurer, takes care of our finances and does an excellent job. Alvin who is almost always here early working in various ways with sound, power point and other things. Gene and Fern who come early and make coffee and bring snacks. All our children’s Sunday school teachers and leaders Melanie and Cindy. Our trustees, Les Martin, Al Shands, Mike Martin who do a ton of work behind the scenes. And our food committee who has been busy of late, and is making a meal for us today – Dorothy Hoover, Linda Martin and Amy Zinn.

These are just a few. I am very grateful.

4. I give thanks to God for good leaders among us. I don’t carry the whole weight of the congregation. We have many very fine leaders who I work with. We have much wisdom and leadership skills on our Elder team, our Deacon team and our church council. And this is a blessing. And we have always had a good rapport.

Along these same lines I am grateful for our youth leaders and also the former pastors who are a part of our congregation.

5. I praise God for our worship team and all our musicians and singers here – whether you are on the worship tead or only do special music or prelude. God has blessed this congregation with musical gifts. I have been a part of churches where this was not so. And although God loves a joyful noise, it is also nice to have beautiful praise to offer up to God.

We have people who are gifted in leading worship and in putting together worship services that lead us into the presence of God. And the worship team puts in a ton of work coming an hour early every Sunday and also have extra practices from time to time.

6. I love it that we are an intergenerational congregation. We have people of all ages here. So we have the wisdom of the older generation and the energy and life of the younger generations. We can get input from each other and help each other out. And this gives us balance. We aren’t just focused on one group, but have a place for anyone to fit in.

7. I am grateful that God has blessed us with resources. Yes, I am talking about finances. God has blessed many of you in your jobs and businesses and you have been generous.

Our building is paid off. We made it through the recession intact. And I am blessed that you support me full-time. Thank you! We also have resources to put toward the work of the kingdom as we think of the future.

8. I thank God for the stability of this congregation. You are steadfast and even keel. You don’t get too excited about things or too nervous when there is a problem. Being a pastor here is not like being on a rollercoaster. You have deep roots and deep relationships.

So I share all this to get us started thinking along these lines for our meeting today. But also, along with all the other things that you give thanks for this thanksgiving, include your thanks for this congregation that God has given to each of us.

William Higgins

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Next week is our baptism and recovenanting service! And as a part of this I am highlighting two different parts of our church covenant. Reminding us what we have and are committing ourselves to.

  • Last week we looked at Christian fellowship, how we are related as a family in Jesus and then how we are to relate to each other, to care and support each other, and how this takes an investment of our time.
  • Today our topic is Christian work, using our gifts and talents to serve God and do the work of the kingdom.

Let’s begin by remembering a foundational truth –

We are the body of Christ

So we are working with an analogy here, between the church and the human body. The human body is one, but is made up of many parts. In the same way the body of Christ is one, but is made up of many parts. This analogy shows up in Romans 12:4-5 – “4For as in one body we have many members . . . 5so . . .” with the body of Christ.

Christ is pictured as the head. Ephesians 5:23 says, “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” And we are the members of his body. 1 Corinthians 12:27 says, “now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

We learn several things about working for God from this image of the body of Christ:

1. Each one of us has gifts

Just as a body has an eye that sees, a foot that walks, an ear that hears, a mouth that speaks – so in the body of Christ we each have a place, a function, a role to play.

By creation we all have natural abilities – music, leadership, creativity, social skills, business expertise ands so forth. And then beyond natural talents we all also have spiritual gifts – ways that the Spirit can work through us, given to us by God at our conversion.

Regarding these spiritual gifts, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul names some of these in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. “For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”

Each one of you has a gift or gifts from God, to use to do his work.

2. Our gifts are different

As Paul says, “the members (of the body of Christ) do not all have the same function” – Romans 12:4. And he says, we have “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” – Romans 12:6. Each one of us in unique.

3. All the gifts are needed for the body to work

Sometimes we focus on certain gifts and say, “Oh, I don’t have that one – I’m not needed; I’m not a part.” But for any body to function, all the parts need to be working.

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12:14-19. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

Your gifts are needed; your contribution is crucial. Think of a human body – when parts stop working, it’s not a good thing! So it is when we hold back, or don’t contribute in the body of Christ.

Here’s a question to ponder. Are there any age restrictions on contributing to God’s work? This is what I tell the young people I work with, if you’re old enough to be baptized, you’re old enough to work for God. And I would say this to those among us who are older, if you’re young enough to be of sound mind, you’re young enough to work for God.

As long as we are able, we are to do our part.

4. All the gifts need to be working in unison for the body to work

With all of our differences in gifting, we need to work together, not separately, for the body to function.

Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 12:20-26. “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

We are a team. And all are to be honored for their contribution – the one up front and the one working behind the scenes; the one in leadership and the one not in leadership. Because without all of us working together, the body loses its capacity to function.

So my exhortation to you today is –

Use your gifts and do God’s work!

Romans 12:6 says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” This is the whole message today. Let us use our gifts to do God’s work. We want to be a church where everyone uses their gifts; where everyone is doing God’s work.

So find what your gifts are and put them into practice. Find what gives you energy and life; what brings joy to you as you do it. And focus on this in your work for God.

But also just doing things that need to be done. You don’t have to have a gift or a calling to wash dishes, to wash dishes, when the dishes need to washed. You don’t have to have a gift or a calling to pick up trash on the church grounds, to pick up trash, when the trash needs to be picked up.

To use the language of Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might . . .”

Now, if you are already busy doing the work of the kingdom – blessings to you!!! Thank you!!! May you find joy and satisfaction in it now and may the Lord say to you on that day, “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your Master” – Matthew 25:21

But if you have some room in your life to work for God, or to do so even more, I invite you to consider several possibilities here at Cedar Street right now. . ..

William Higgins

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 Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We are coming near to the end of 1 Thessalonians and today we launch into Paul’s final section of instructions to them. He has already dealt with:

  • Sex, or how we are to control our own bodies in holiness and honor.
  • Mutual love, or how we should give generously to the needs of others. And how we ought not take advantage of such generosity to become idle busybodies.
  • The resurrection of the righteous and how the dead in Christ will not be left out, but will come with Jesus when he returns to be resurrected.
  • And then last week was the day of the Lord, that is, the judgment that will come upon the world when Jesus returns. And how for those who are ready for his coming it will be a day of deliverance and salvation.

Let’s take just a moment to look at this last set of instructions –

 Overview of 5:12-22

These verses might seem like a grab bag of instructions, with no rhyme or reason, short sentences on numerous different topics, but this isn’t true. For instance our verses today, 12-14b, have to do with relationships within the church:

A. With leaders – We ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

B. With each other – Be at peace among yourselves.

A1. With those who struggle – And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.

The rest of the material, also has an order to it:

  • Relationships with everyone (including outsiders) vs. 14c-15. We are to be patient with all and do good to all.
  • Relationship with God: vs. 17-22, talking about praise and prayer, and prophecy in the congregation.

Let’s look now at our verses, where Paul addresses three sets of relationships within the church. He tells us first of all to –

Respect Christian leaders

“12We ask you, brothers and sisters to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

Paul is talking here about those who were functioning as elders among them. (Perhaps better proto-elders since the church is so new. These were likely leaders of households, who had leadership experience and who were also devoted to the cause of Christ. We even have a name for one of them – Jason, as we read in Acts 17:5. The use of plurals shows that there are several leaders in Thessalonica.)

And we have in these verses a good description of what Christian leaders or elders do.

  • They “labor among you.” This word “labor” means hard work or toil. It is often used by Paul for the work of ministry (1 Corinthians 15:10; 16:16; Romans 16:12; Colossians 1:29).
  • They are “over you in the Lord.” The word here can be translated as “rule, lead or manage you,” or also as “cares for you” or “gives aid to you.” These dual meanings present a nice description of the role of a shepherd, one who leads and also cares for those in their charge. “In the Lord” means they are leaders in the Christian community.
  • They “admonish you,” which has to do with teaching, correcting and warning when someone is on a wrong path.

  It’s easy for there to be tension between leaders and church members.

– Leaders make decisions, all of which are not popular.

– Leaders give direction, which not all will agree with.

– Leaders have authority, and not all like it that some have authority.

– Leaders teach and even correct, and this can make some mad.

 And, of course, there are many stories of grumbling and the undermining of leadership in the Old Testament.

There isn’t any indication of tension in Thessalonica. It’s just that Paul knows these things can happen, and so Paul deals with this forthrightly. As church members they are to “acknowledge,” or it can be translated, “respect” their leaders. They are to acknowledge their leadership and position of authority. And they are to “esteem them very highly” – to think highly of, or hold them in the highest regard. 

Why? Not because of their personality, their social status, or wealth, or worldly accomplishments. The reason is “because of their work” laboring in the Christian community. And this is to be done “in love.” Not as a tedious  obligation, but based on Christian love between believers in Christ.

So Paul give us instructions for relating rightly to Christian leaders. And, of course, this applies to me as well, since I am a part of an elder group here, and I also have leaders over me on the Conference level.

But let me ask, how is your relationship with your Christian leaders? And yes, I mean at Cedar Street. Is it governed by what Paul says here?

For my part, I would say, if you have concerns you can always talk to me or the Elders. And then we can work at whatever issues concern you. And remember, we cannot always tell when someone has a concern – so please communicate! Maintain good relationships with your leaders here.

Second, Paul tells us to –

Live in peace with one another

As Paul puts it here in v. 13 – “Be at peace among yourselves” as fellow church members. This same admonition can be found in different forms in lots of places in the New Testament. Here are some other examples from Paul:

  • Romans 12:16 – “Live in harmony with one another.
  • Romans 14:19 – “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building.
  • Colossians 3:15 – “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”
  • 2 Corinthians 13:11 – “live in peace”

Just as there can be tension between members and leaders, so there can be tension between members. We can easily offend or hurt one another. And this leads to several temptations. One is to be angry and break off the relationship. Another is to withdraw and be hurt within. And another is to sweep things under the rug and pretend that everything is OK (because you know that you are supposed to live in peace with one another).

But Paul is saying, actually have wholesome, healthy and good relationships with each other. I use this language, because the biblical idea of peace means wholeness and well-being, not just absence of conflict. So this means we have to deal with issues that arise in good and Christian ways. We must deal with hurts, disagreements and conflicts as they come up. Paul is saying maintain your relationships with one another.

Are you living in peace with your fellow believers? Think about this for a moment. Who do you not have peace with? Let me encourage you to act on Paul’s words this morning. Work toward peace with that person. In a spirit of love and forgiveness, seek healing in the relationship.

Finally, Paul tells us to –

Help those who struggle

“14And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.” Now although this verse may seem to be particularly directed to leaders, in terms of what they do, it is really directed to the whole congregation. All are to be involved in these activities.

  • Admonish the disruptive idle. As we saw in chapter 4:11-12 some were not working but were living off of the generosity of others. And since they didn’t work, they became busybodies getting into the affairs of others and being disruptive of the community. The Thessalonians are to teach, correct and warn these because they are out of line. (We have Paul’s example in chapter 4:11-12 – “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs and to work with your hands . . . and be dependent on no one.” He is even more direct and blunt in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 – recommending church discipline for those who don’t listen.)
  • Encourage the fainthearted, those who are worried, discouraged, fearful and in danger of giving up. Paul has already told them to encourage those who are grieving excessively those who have died (4:13) and those who have excessive fear of the day of the Lord (5:11). And certainly given their persecution, life would have been difficult – social rejection and economic difficulties because of their faith. Whatever the reason, they are to encourage them to be strong, to not give up, to keep moving forward!
  • Help the weak. This is very broad. It could be physical weakness, social or economic weakness or spiritual weakness. Whatever the case, they are to help their brothers and sisters in the Lord in whatever way possible. They are to give of their strength to strengthen them.

Let me ask you, do you help those who struggle among us? We too are to admonish those who are on the wrong path, whatever that might be. We are to help them by teaching and warning them.

We too are to encourage the fainthearted. Do you keep an eye out for those who are down or discouraged to lift them up and help them move forward?

Do you help the weak among us?

Let me end by saying that this passage reminds us once again of the importance of our relationships with each other in the church. Today Paul gives us strong encouragements to tend to our relationships and to keep them healthy, whole and functioning – with our leaders, with each other and with those who struggle. May God give us the courage and the wisdom to do just this.

(The teaching of Jesus found in Mark 9:33-50 is most likely being alluded to in these verses. Jesus talks about those who are the greatest – the 12, the leaders. Their work is to humbly serve even the lowest among them. And he also talks about “little ones” with a concern about their stumbling and being lost. These need special care. And it ends with the command to be at peace with one another – Mark 9:50.)

 William Higgins

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Now, my title today isn’t meant to refer to what will happen when we eat our fellowship meal today. I’m talking about growing deeper in our Christian lives and as a church body.

As your pastor I carry a very real concern for our congregation. I think and pray hard about the direction we are moving, our health as a congregation, our ministries and our faithfulness to God. And I will confess that thoughts about such things are never far from my mind and heart. You know, How are we doing? What needs to be focused on? Where are we weak? Where are we strong? What needs to change?

As I reflected this week several things came to mind in terms of areas of emphasis and areas of growth for us. And I thought it would be good to share these with you and to invite you to pick up the challenge to move forward in these areas, so that we can grow as a congregation. So here we go.

1. Let’s grow in our love for one another

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13:34. Paul said to the Romans, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” Romans 12:10. Peter said, “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” 1 Peter 1:22.

Paul said to the Thessalonians, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another . . . But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.” 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10. I like this last phrase. You have love for one another, but do this “more and more.” In the same way, we do have love for one another here at Cedar Street, but we are to do this “more and more.” We are to grow in our love for one another.

What do I mean? Let’s work at getting to know each other more. Let’s build our relationships with each other. Branch out beyond those you already know. Do things together.

I mean encouraging one another, praying for one another and helping one another. I mean being kind and gentle with each other. And outdoing each other in showing respect and honor to one another.

Here are two specific suggestions: If you don’t already, come to Sunday school. This is a place where you can get to know others. And also, if you don’t already, be a part of a share group. We have four right now, but if needed we can always start another one. This is a place where you can build relationships, and get support.

2. Let’s grow in our maturity in handling our differences

We are held together by our common faith in Jesus and our commitment to follow him, and this is summarized in our church covenant.

Paul says it this way, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-6. Notice the seven “ones”: We are all a part of one body of Christ, the church. And we all share in one Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We have one hope, one Lord, one faith in Jesus, one baptism and one God the Father.

Yet, all congregations have differences also. Certainly we do. And this is perfectly normal. We have different gifts and callings that give us different things to focus on. For instance if you are an evangelist, you are gonna focus on evangelism and want everyone to do this. Or, if you have a gift of worship, you are gonna want everyone to make this the focus. And so on.

We have different levels of maturity and understanding among us. We have generational differences. This impacts all kinds of things, for instance how we might prefer to worship.

We have different personalities, which affect how we approach everything we do. We have differences of opinion on all kinds of things, including politics, which if we focus on will lead us all in different directions.

We come from different backgrounds – city, rural, suburbs – we have it all. And we have different church backgrounds, some were raised Mennonite, some have no church background and everything in-between.

So what do we do with all this? It can discourage us, weigh us down or even tear us apart. But it doesn’t have to. We need to learn to discern what God requires – and then be flexible with the rest. We need to be able to tell the difference between Gods’ will and just what we prefer or want, as opposed to others who see things differently. And in the part that God does not require of us, we can learn from each other and try different things.

Here’s an example. Some prefer it when we use flat bread for communion. The Lord’s supper, after all was a Passover meal with unleavened bread. And it is nice to use the same kind of bread that Jesus used. But some prefer to use regular bread, the kind that we call “bread” in our everyday lives. It has a different feel to it and breaks differently. So we can learn from each other here, and be flexible by using both, taking turns.

And then, when we can’t seem to agree on an issue, or come to an easy resolution, we need to be mature Christians about it, as we have been, and are learning about in our conflict resolution class Sunday school class. Right?

  • Don’t pull back and just drift off if you are in disagreement about something, grumbling like the children of Israel in the desert.
  • And also on the other hand, don’t strike out and tear down others.

Rather, we are to love each other, look to God for help and work toward peace. As Jesus has taught us, “Be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:50.

3. Let’s grow in owning and using the gifts that God has given us

Paul said to Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have . . ..” 1 Timothy 4:14. He also said to him, “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you . . ..” – 2 Timothy 1:6. We are to discover and use the gifts that God has given us.

Just like in the realm of physical health, it’s not healthy to be a Christian and not be active, doing nothing. Don’t be a pew potato! Don’t just come and sit here once a week and feel like that’s what it’s all about.

Exercise your gifts. Be active and engaged in serving God. We have focused on this before, but I am reminding you here again today.

I think there are two really big obstacles here. The first is time. We live overcommitted lives. We are overbooked, overscheduled and overwhelmed. And often it is serving God that gets cut out as we try to make time for all else that there is to do today. We are trying to do too much, too many good things, and we end up making idols of these things as we devote ourselves more to them than to serving God and working for the kingdom.

The second obstacle is that you might feel you have nothing to share. Maybe you think you are too young. Or maybe you think that you have already served God and are “retired” now. Well, the truth is that everyone has some way to serve God. Paul says, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 1 Corinthians 12:7. And this is not restricted by age.

So, find out what your gifts are and use them! Next year we plan to have a Sunday school class focused on this. But, you don’t need to wait, try some things and see what you enjoy, see what you do well. And if you need help, talk to me and I will plug you in somewhere.

4. Let’s grow in our emphasis on outreach and hospitality

It’s easy to be comfortable as Christians. Comfortable with just hanging out with other Christians. (Some don’t even know unbelievers very well.) Comfortable with just talking to those we already know when we are at church.

But Jesus calls us to something more. He said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10. This is why he came. And he calls us to follow his example, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19.

Now, I am certainly grateful for all those working in the areas of outreach and hospitality in our congregation, using their gifts, but these are things that each of us need to grow in.

And I’m not talking about being artificial or forcing things. I mean just being a Christian in your everyday relationships and looking for opportunities to share what God has done. I mean being friendly and welcoming to those who are new to the congregation. That’s all.

In our Sunday school coming up soon, we will have chance to focus on the outreach part of this. And I hope this will spur us in this emphasis.

5. Let’s grow in our desire for more of what God has for us

I want to instill a yearning for more in each of your hearts.

We can see what God wants for us by looking at the picture of the church in the New Testament, especially the book of Acts. They had great love for one another, the Spirit moved in power among them, they willingly suffered for their faith, they shared deep fellowship with each other, they boldly witnessed for Jesus.

As we look at this, we can see that God has so much more for us. We talk about revival and renewal, well this is what we are talking about – getting back to this.

And the problem is not on God’s end. Instead of being satisfied with where we are, we need to be seeking this. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8. James said, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” James 4:2.

We need to ask for this, seek and knock. Life isn’t long! What are you waiting for? This is our chance. We can be a community that embodies Jesus and serves him in powerful ways.

Don’t be satisfied with what we have, as good as it might be. Let us press on for more of what God has for us.

William Higgins

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are wrapping up our series on being at peace with one another, based on Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9:33-50. So far we have looked at three different relationship problems that can happen in the church:

1. Competing with each other for status – the disciples were arguing over who’s the greatest.

2. Excluding those who are different than you – the disciples tried to stop someone working for the kingdom because he was not a part of their group.

3. Causing little ones to stumble – acting in ways that would cause those who are weak in faith to fall into sin or lose their faith in Jesus.

Today we look at the last part of this passage – vs. 43-50, a section that brings home this point – we need to get serious and work hard at having good relationships with one another.

Jesus begins by giving –

Three amputation sayings

They are all quite similar, one concerning the hand, the foot and the eye. (Just a note, in case you are wondering. vs. 44 and 46 are not in the oldest manuscripts, so they are not included in most Bibles today. They say the same thing as v. 48, however.)

v. 43-48 – “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the un-quenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”

First, a couple of observations. Jesus talks about the resurrection in several different ways here, twice as “to enter life,” as in eternal life, and also “to enter the kingdom of God.”

But he talks even more about the opposite of eternal life, which is hell. Now this is not Hades, the place of the dead. This is “Gehenna,” the final place of punishment for the wicked. Gehenna literally means the “valley of Hinnom,” which was southwest of Jerusalem. It was once a place of idol worship, including human sacrifice, but later was made into a garbage dump. As such, it became an image of the final punishment of the wicked.

In v. 43 Jesus describes hell as the “unquenchable fire.” In v. 48 he quotes Isaiah 66:24 as a description of hell (via the Isaiah Targum) – “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” This comes from the original garbage dump imagery where there would be worms and fire. The idea is that the worms will always be eating away and the fire will always be burning. A gruesome picture.

There also seems to be a progression from v. 43, that simply says, “to go to hell,” to vs. 45 and 47 that says, “to be thrown into hell,” a more forceful phrase.

The focal point of these verses, however is Jesus’ concern about stumbling. We talked about stumbling last week in connection to how our words or actions can cause someone else who is weak in faith to stumble. Here the concern is what might lead you to stumble, not someone else. There is a shift of focus.

A stumbling block is what causes someone’s downfall, or what trips someone up so that they fall. Again, there is a metaphor here of the Christian life as walking on a path. And so you are walking with Jesus, but something trips you up and you fall into sin and stop following Jesus. So we certainly need to beware of such stumbling blocks.

But what is Jesus telling us to do?! Well, he’s not suggesting that we literally cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye. After all, this wouldn’t help us keep from falling into sin. No, these are proverbial sayings that warn about the dangers of stumbling blocks to sin, in rather drastic terms.

What they mean is simple, get rid of anything that might lead you to sin.

And this is so serious that you should get rid of the stumbling block even if it is as precious to you as your hand or your foot or your eye; even if it is as painful as cutting off your hand or foot or tearing out your eye. Better to come to the resurrection having made painful sacrifices in this life, than to have stumbled and fallen into sin, so that you are thrown into hell, the place of unending worms and fire.

So this is a strong admonition to separate from whatever might cause you to trip up and fall into sin. Don’t just get rid of the sin, get rid of what might lead you to sin. And notice that Jesus wants us to get this point. That’s why he says it three times.

Now, this warning can refer to stumbling blocks that lead to any kind of sin. (Jesus uses this language in reference to adultery in Matthew 5:29-30). But in context, the point here is more specific. Cut off anything that might lead you to tear apart the peace of the church. Deal with any issues you have that might lead you to damage relationships and people in the church.

He is talking about getting rid of anything that would lead you to do what he has already talked about in this passage:

  • competing with others for status
  • unnecessarily rejecting others just because they are from another group or are different
  • or causing little ones to stumble

And the warning part applies to this as well. And it is clearly stated. If we don’t do this, and tear apart the church, we will be thrown into Gehenna. (See 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 for a similar warning about what will happen to those who tear apart the church.)

In Luke 17:3 these amputation sayings are paraphrased like this, “Pay attention to yourselves.” Jesus is saying, look at your own life to see what might cause you to do one of these things – and get rid of it.

Well, this raises the question –

What do you need to amputate?

What leads you to sin in general? What causes you to give in to your weaknesses? Here are some examples of such stumbling blocks:

  • If you struggle with alcohol addiction, this could be a person or a place that encourages you to give in to your weakness.
  • If you struggle with pornography, unfiltered access to the internet could be a stumbling block.
  • If you are a new Christian, hanging out with old friends who pressure you to forsake Jesus would be a stumbling block

Let’s get more specific – what might lead you to damage the peace of the church? Being too competitive? Always wanting your own way? Allowing yourself to hold on to some bitterness? Not dealing with conflicts, because you don’t like to do this? Being so comfortable with the way things are, that when someone new comes who is different, you get upset. Feeling superior to those who don’t know as much as you? Any of these things might well lead you to damage relationships in the church, and so if they lead you to this you need to separate from them.

In relation to all these stumbling blocks, there may be sacrifices, but the reward is more than worth it. We will enter eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Next Jesus gives us –

Three salt sayings

The first is in v. 49 – “For everyone will be salted with fire.” This is difficult to make sense of. There’s not much to go with. Our help comes from the context just before. It is connected to verse 48 by the theme of fire and judgment.

The point is that everyone will be judged. Just as salt is sprinkled or poured out, so will the fire of judgment come upon all, even if you are one of the twelve. So the amputation warnings apply to them and to all disciples.

Now, the righteous will not experience the fire of Gehenna. But a refining fire is connected to what the righteous will experience on the last day in Malachi 3:2-3. So both the righteous and the wicked will experience fire at the final judgment. (On salt and judgment – Genesis 19:24-26; Deuteronomy 29:23; On fire judging the work of Christians – 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. This text is also connected to breaking apart the church – 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.)

v. 50a – “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again?” Salt had many uses: preservation, seasoning, fertilizer and more. It had real value. As Jesus says, “Salt is good.”

Here the disciples are the salt, who have been made salty by living out Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:13). But there is a warning. If you lose your saltiness, that is, you are unfaithful to my teaching – how will you be made salty again? If we don’t practice Jesus’ teaching we aren’t worth anything as disciples. Salt is good, but un-salty salt isn’t.

In Matthew 5:13 this saying is coupled with a clear statement of judgment. For such salt “is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

The application of this can be broad, to any teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 14), but here it is focused on whether we are living in peace with one another in the church.

9:50b – “Have salt in yourselves . . .” Here the salt is simply Jesus’ teaching. He is saying, take to heart my teaching. Put it into practice. Again, specifically focusing on relationships in the church.

And then finally, 9:50c – “. . . and be at peace with one another.” This is the summary message of the whole of Mark 9:33-50, which begins with arguing and ends with this exhortation to peace.

Let me end with a question –

How salty are you?

Are you putting this teaching of Jesus into practice?

  • Lowering yourself to serve others?
  • Accepting others from groups that are different than yours?
  • Helping little ones who are weak and susceptible to falling?
  • And in general, living at peace with one another?

If you are putting Jesus’ teaching into practice, you are salty salt and you are useful for all kinds of good things in the kingdom. Let us all put this teaching into practice.

William Higgins

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are continuing on in our series from Mark 9:33-50 on relationships among disciples in the church, and Jesus’ instruction to us to “be at peace with one another” in v. 50.

First, we learned that we are not to seek out status, you know, arguing over who is the greatest, or competing with each other in various subtle ways. Rather we are to lower ourselves to serve. We are to give up status to help others.

Last week we learned that we are not to reject other Christians who are doing work for the kingdom, just because they are from another group or just because they are different than us. Jesus taught us that if they are not against us, we are to see them as for us. We are on the same team.

Today we learn about how to treat “little ones” in our community. If in our previous two lessons there was something the disciples did or said that Jesus responds to as a way of teaching them something important about relationships, our lesson today has no such prompting. Jesus simply takes the initiative here to give us –

A word about causing “little ones” to stumble

(In the other two examples Jesus concludes by giving a “whoever” saying. Here we only have a “whoever” saying.)

v. 42 – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

This short verse raises three very specific questions. And the first is who are these “little ones”? The full phrase is, “one of these little ones” and Jesus uses this several times. [Although the “these” does not always have an antecedent (Luke 17:2)]. In line with its use in Zechariah 13:7, where “little ones” refers to God’s people, Jesus uses this as a way of talking about his disciples. (And Jesus alludes to this verse in Mark 14:27, making the 12 the “little ones.”)

Jesus calls his disciples children in other places (Mark 10:24, Matthew 11:25) and this is another, similar way a referring to them.

As we see in our verse, these “little ones” are people “who believe in” Jesus. Again, he is talking about disciples. [More: The phrase “who believe in me” points toward disciples, not simply children. In Matthew 10:42 they are called disciples. Matthew 18 points to a disciple who has joined the community and made commitments of accountability. It is a church discipline context.]

But this phrase also seems to focus on a certain subset of disciples – those who are new, weak, immature or unlearned, and thus vulnerable. That’s why there’s such a concern about their well-being in our verse, that they not stumble. (The 12 are seen in this light as they scatter when Jesus is arrested – Mark 14:27/ Zechariah 13:7)

This same special concern is found in Matthew 18:10 where Jesus tells the apostles, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” God has a special concern for them.

In our Scripture today, the phrase most likely refers to the one who gives the 12 a cup of water to drink. Jesus had just talked about this person in v. 41. This person is “little” because he only gives assistance to those who are out proclaiming the Kingdom, as opposed to being an apostle, following Jesus around, knowing more or being more gifted.

The second question is what does it mean to stumble? Some translations today render it as “cause to sin.” But the word does literally mean “to cause to stumble.” It can also be translated to cause someone’s downfall or to trip someone up so that they fall.

The picture is of someone who is walking along and then trips over an obstacle and falls. It is seen metaphorically as applying to the Christian life. You are walking with Jesus on the path, but something trips you up and fall – and stop following Jesus. [Perhaps this is rooted in the literal command about stumbling blocks in Leviticus 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:18.]

The end result is that the person falls into sin or gives up their faith in Jesus. In Matthew 18, where Jesus talks about this, it is connected to a little one “going astray” or “perishing.”

The third question is how do you cause someone to stumble? Let’s take the hypothetical situation that I think Jesus is working with – someone offers an Apostle a glass of water because they want to support their ministry of preaching and healing.

But the apostle, because he thinks he is so important, and this person so insignificant, communicates condescension and contempt through his words and actions and makes the person feel inadequate, discouraged and shamed. The little one is crushed. He thinks, “One of the 12 thinks I’m not good enough to be a disciple of Jesus. The best I can do isn’t good enough.” And so the little one gives up following Jesus. The apostle has caused this little one to stumble.

You can see the core issue here, a disregard for the well-being of those who are not as mature or knowledgeable or gifted, or experienced as you are. You aren’t concerned with how your words and actions affect them. And this comes from a sense that you are better than these little ones.

This is why Jesus tells the 12 in Matthew 18, “do not despise one of these little ones.” Don’t look down on them, don’t treat them like they are worthless or expendable. [Not only are we not to cause them to stumble, when they do go astray for whatever reason, we are to go after them Matthew 18:10-14.]

Just because you are an apostle, or whoever, does not mean that you are more important than one of these little ones.

The last part of our verse shows us that this is really serious! This is a stern warning to the disciples and to everyone, to be careful how they treat little ones. If you cause one of these little ones to stumble, Jesus is saying, “. . . it would be better for you if a great millstone were put around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

A millstone is a rock that was used to grind grain, so that you can make bread. There were two of them together and they grind against each other. There was the hand-held kind and then there was the much larger kind that required a donkey harnessed to it to make it work. Here, Jesus is referring to this second kind. One of these stones could easily weigh several thousand pounds. It would be similar to having “cement shoes” as we say today. You would go straight to the bottom of the sea. Not a pretty way to die.

But the point here is that this would be better than the judgment you will receive, if you cause a little one to stumble. This is how important “little ones” are to God.

Now let’s shift the focus to us and how this applies to us –

Who are “little ones” among us?

It certainly applies to new Christians who have just begun walking with Jesus. Also immature Christians, who are older in years, but haven’t grown much. Also to unlearned Christians, who still don’t know much about the Bible and the Christian life. And it applies to weak Christians. We can all fit under this category because we all have specific weaknesses and under the right pressure might stumble.

But let’s also stretch this out a bit to cover Christians with mental health issues, who because of this are more fragile and thus vulnerable. And perhaps we can also include here Christians with developmental disabilities, whose faith is sometimes more elementary, and children with childhood faith, who are still coming to an adult faith.

This category really covers everyone whose faith is more weak and thus more susceptible to being tripped up.

How can we cause little ones to stumble?

This can happen in many ways, here are just two examples.

1) Use of alcohol. You feel comfortable drinking wine in moderation. You know that people drank wine in the Bible and that the line the Bible draws is drunkenness.

But there’s a new Christian in your church who has struggled with alcohol addiction. And you have him over for dinner. And even though you have heard of his struggle, you serve him wine to drink. Why not, you are free to drink it? And God can help anyone overcome temptation.

Well, he sees you drinking and even though he knows it is very dangerous for him to drink, he thinks, “Well you are a mature Christian who knows the bible well so it’s probably all right.” And so he partakes.

And sure enough his resolve is weakened by this and he begins once again a pattern of alcohol abuse. For you drinking wine is not an issue of sin. But for this person drinking any alcohol leads to sin. Instead of thinking of his need, his weakness, instead you are focused on your freedom and strength in this area. But you have caused him to stumble into sin. What is the obstacle that tripped him up? You, your words and actions.

2) Church snobbery. A new believer comes to church and is eager to learn. She is full of questions and is curious about a lot. Well, you are the Sunday School teacher and are get annoyed after a while. She never seems to shut up. And she don’t understand the most basic things. You are frustrated because you can’t get through your lesson plan.

One day you complain to a friend at church, “Did you hear that she asked today? She wondered where they put the 10 commandments on Noah’s ark! Can you believe it? She doesn’t know the differenced between Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant! She’s so ignorant she should just keep her mouth shut. How embarrassing!”

Well the woman overheard this and she was crushed. She looked up to you as the teacher and thought you liked her curiosity as a new believer. She thought Sunday school was where you come to learn about the Bible. But she clearly heard your contempt and condescension. She was so upset that she never came back to church. And when others later tried to get her to return she said that she would never go to a place that would say something like that. She stopped following Jesus. What is the impediment that tripped her up? You, your words and your actions.

Again, this kind of thing can happen in many different ways. Anytime the weak and vulnerable are looked down on, instead of being helped there is an environment where this kind of thing can happen.

Let’s listen now to –

Jesus’ word to us

“Be at peace with one another – Mark 9:50. If you are strong, mature or a leader, don’t see this as an opportunity to look down on little ones and act in ways that have no regard for their well-being; that cause them to stumble. See it as an invitation to care for the weak, the fragile and the vulnerable. If you are strong, if you are gifted, if you are knowledgeable use these things to help the weak to grow and be strong. This is why God has given you these things.

An important part of what Jesus is teaching us in this verse is that every disciple of his is important. The 12 are important, but so is the one with the cup of water. Leaders are important, but so are those who are brand new Christians. Those who have much knowledge are important, but so are those who barely know anything yet. Those who are gifted are important, but so are those who don’t have flashy gifts.

All disciples of Jesus are important and we all need to live in peace with one another acting in each other’s best interests. We need to love and care for one another.

William Higgins

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are looking again today at the larger passage of Mark 9:33-50, focusing in on relationship problems that can happen among followers of Jesus in the church. As we saw last week, the point of this whole passage is found at the very end in v. 50 – “Be at peace with one another.” Jesus wants his people to live in harmony with one another.

You have your handout again today, so you can see the bigger picture of the series we’re in. Last week we talked about arguing over who’s the greatest. And Jesus taught us not to seek after recognition and status. Rather we are to lower ourselves below even those with no status, so that we can serve them. We learned that this is what true greatness means in the kingdom of God.

Today we look at not rejecting disciples who are not from your group. Our text is Mark 9:38-41. This is the story of –

The unfamiliar exorcist

v. 38 – “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’”

So the situation here is that a person, who was not a part of the twelve, is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He is doing real ministry because the demons are being cast out, and people are being set free.

That someone else was casting out demons is not that exceptional, for instance there were Jewish exorcists who were sometimes successful in casting out demons (Matthew 12:27). The focus here is that he was doing this in Jesus’ name, that is, he has taken it on himself to act on behalf of Jesus or as Jesus’ representative. [This story is different than Acts 19:13-17. This person is a real follower of Jesus.]

Now Jesus had a number of disciples beyond just the 12. There are the 72 that are sent out in Luke 10 and we learn about a number of other disciples in the Gospel of John. And this fellow is one of these, although maybe Jesus himself had not met him. Perhaps he is a convert of one of these other disciples of Jesus.

From the point of view of the 12, however, this man, whoever he was, was different than they were. He was not, as they said, “following us.” He was not a part of their group. So they tried to stop him.

(Were the disciples envious since some had just publicly failed to cast out a demon Mark 9:14-29)? (Also, see Numbers 11:26-30 for a similar story.)

v. 39 – “But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him . . ..’” He has a very different take on this situation. And he gives two reasons why the man should not be stopped.

Reason #1. v. 39 – “. . . for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.’” Here we see a bit more of why the 12 are trying to stop this man. They thought that he had a crowd from casting out demons, he might end up saying something bad about Jesus.

There is a real “name focus” in this passage, with several instances of the phrase “in Jesus’ name” being used (v. 37 just before, vs. 38, 39, 41). Here the disciples are concerned for Jesus’ name, as in his reputation. They don’t want this man, who might seem like a loose cannon to go off and slander Jesus.

Jesus’ response to this is simple. No one who is doing a mighty work such as casting out a demon in his name, is going then to speak evil of him. How can you see how powerful Jesus is and the freedom he brings – right in front of you, and then turn right around and say something bad about him? This is no guarantee of the future for this man, but it would be hard, Jesus is saying to put these two things together at the same time – seeing one thing and saying another.

Reason #2. Next, Jesus lays down an amazingly inclusive principle for this kind of situation. v. 40 – “For the one who is not against us is for us.”

Usually people think like this – You are either with us or against us. And if you’re not on my side you’re on the wrong side and an opponent. It is true that Jesus does have a saying like this. In Matthew 12:30 he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” This has to do with being with or against Jesus. And you do have to choose here.

But when it comes to relationships between disciples, or different groups of disciples – things are different. There’s a different rule.

As long as the person is “not against” you, you should see them as “for” you. That is, on the same side. As long as they are not opposing you, undermining you, or persecuting you – accept them as fellow disciples.

With Jesus there is a clear, black and white standard. But with fellow disciples the standard is much more open and inclusive.

In this particular case, Jesus is saying, even though this man was different from them, not a part of their group, he is not opposing them. In fact, he is “for” them because he is doing the work of the kingdom – casting out demons. He is not the competition, he is an assistant. A fellow worker for the kingdom. Therefore they should not try to shut him down and get him to quit.

A final thought. v. 41 – “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” [Note: The Greek after “to drink” is a bit convoluted. It says literally, “in the name because you are Christ’s.” I am following the NIV that translates “in the name” as a variant of “in my name.” The rest is ESV as usual.]

Jesus is helping them put things in perspective here. The phrase, “truly I say to you” means this is really important, so listen up. If a small act of help, like giving them water because they are working for Jesus is rewarded, then surely what this man is doing, casting out demons will be rewarded too. He too is giving them assistance in the work of the kingdom. They are on the same team.

How do we do reject other disciples?

There are many differences between various groups of Christians today; a bewildering variety.

  • As groups we have different histories coming from different places and with different stories.
  • We have different human traditions about how we worship, how we organize our communities, how we do mission, and so forth.
  • We have different beliefs on any number of issues. We don’t agree on all things. And we even emphasize different things where we agree.

How then do we look at these other Christians groups? Those who are not “following us”? Christians who are different than us? We are from the Mennonite tradition here. But what do we think of the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Catholics the Eastern Orthodox?

Now, I’m not talking about false teachers. I’m talking about people who are real disciples of Jesus who are doing real ministry in his name.

  • Do we think we are the only real Christians? There are still Christians who think their group will be the only one to make it.
  • Do we put these other disciples down? You know, if they only knew more and were more committed, they would be just like us!
  • Do we dismiss their ministries? Ridicule them? Rejoice in their failures? Hope they will stop?

This is unnecessary exclusiveness. We are all, after all, the people of Jesus. And although concerning him you are either for him or against him, that’s not how it works when it comes to our particular Christian groups.

I’m not saying that these differences aren’t important. They can be really important! This is not a call to look down on having strong beliefs. It’s just that we need to realize our differences are not as important as our common connection in Jesus.

Let’s listen to –

Jesus’ word to us

Don’t reject disciples who aren’t from your group. Don’t try to keep them from ministering in Jesus’ name. Rather, “be at peace with one another” – Mark 9:50.

Just as in the episode before this, we were taught to receive or welcome the lowly one who has no status, so here we are to welcome disciples from other groups who are doing ministry in Jesus’ name.

We’re on the same team! And they are helping out in the larger task finishing Jesus commission to us, which is too big for any one group by itself.

Imagine if the church had followed this teaching of Jesus through the centuries, so that we lived in peace with one another – instead of fighting, persecuting and killing each other. What if we didn’t try to dominate each other so that everyone has to believe and live like we do? What if we had listened to Jesus. What a witness it could have been.

But it’s never too late to start. May the Lord help us in this.

William Higgins

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