This week we continue the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because… This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…It Made A Difference In My Life.

The Scripture text for the week is from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. In thinking about Scripture passages this week I turned to Paul. Paul is a fascinating figure, and one of the Biblical characters I most wish I could travel back in time to meet. Paul was capable of such lofty, beautiful rhetoric (I Corinthians 13 being the great example) but could also write very deep theology. I decided upon a passage from Philippians because it is so personal. Over the years, I have often turned to this New Testament book because of its positive tone and because Paul gets more personal in this letter than any of his others. Paul is in desperate circumstances as he writes this letter, but not in a desperate mood. He is a prisoner of the Roman Empire, awaiting his trial before the Emperor. As a Roman citizen, Paul had exercised his right to appeal a sentence handed down against him, and it was his right to appeal all the way to the Emperor if he chose to do so. Knowing as he most likely did that appealing to the Emperor could lead to his execution, Paul nonetheless insisted on being taken to Rome. The true goal of Paul, however, was not to appeal his case, but to get to Rome to preach the gospel, and to have the opportunity to preach to the Emperor himself. In fact, before sending him off to Rome, King Agrippa mentioned that Paul would most likely have been set free if he had not appealed his case (Acts 26:30-32 – 30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”) but Paul wanted to get to Rome to advance the cause of the gospel.

Paul was granted his opportunity to go before the Emperor, and he did lose his life as a result. Reading through the book of Philippians, however, it is impossible to detect even the slightest hint of fear or regret in the words of Paul. I greatly admire the courage and conviction that Paul demonstrated, as well as his absolute devotion to his calling. As he writes, he mentions Timothy and Epaphroditus, both of whom were very special to him. Paul wrote at least two letters to Timothy – both of which are in the New Testament – and spoke also about Epaphroditus. It is obvious that both men were important to Paul, and that both had made a difference in his life. Paul even says of Timothy, in verse 20, that he has no one else like him. Obviously, Timothy made a difference to Paul, especially as Paul was nearing the end of his life. As he was imprisoned, wondering about the churches with which he had worked, Paul was obviously grateful to have both Timothy and Epaphroditus to continue his work with those churches.

It is impossible to estimate the number of lives that Paul impacted through the many churches with which he worked. Paul founded numerous churches – and worked with many others – throughout his ministry and certainly influenced countless lives. I like to think that, upon his entrance into eternity, Paul became aware of the difference his life had made, just as we all will one day become aware of the lives we have impacted.

Follow along with me as I read from Philippians 2:19-30 –

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.

20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.

21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.

23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me.

24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.

25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.

26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.

27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.

28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.

29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him,

30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.

Churches do many great things for many people. Churches respond to disasters such as Hurricane Henry, they feed people, they provide medical care; there are countless ways in which churches reach people. As much as churches minister to groups of people, those groups of people are comprised of individuals, which we can never forget. Churches work best when they make a difference to people, and I hope and pray that all of us have a story of the way in which this church – or another church – has made a difference.

Of the numerous ways in which churches make a difference to people, I have chosen three of them this morning, because I think they are among the most important ways that the church makes a difference to people.

I Love the Church Because…the Church Made A Difference In My Time of Questioning.

Much is made these days of the group known as the nones (that’s nones, not nuns). The nones are often described as a group of people who have turned away from faith, but that is not true. For the most part they have not left faith. Most of them continue to have faith, but it is a faith that is no longer tied to any church or institutional expression. Among the reasons why many of them are no longer affiliated with a church, I believe, is because they were not given room to express their doubts and to ask questions. Therer are people who have a lot of questions, and in too many instances received judgment and condescension instead of patient and accepting listeners when they asked their questions. Faith is sometimes presented as a “package,” that is, it is a complete system of beliefs, Scriptural interpretations, and practices that must be accepted in total. If just one element of that “package” is dismissed, disagreed with, or set aside then the entire “package” seems then not to be valid. Faith was sometimes presented to me in this manner when I was younger. I recall trusted individuals saying that if “just one part is not true then none of it is true.” That is such a tragic way to present faith, because when an individual – usually someone with some questions – decides they cannot accept just one portion of the “package” that is presented to them, they simply set aside the totality of faith.

When I began seminary I thought I had all the answers. It mattered not that I had no idea what the questions were – I simply had the answers. I assumed most of my time in seminary would be spent learning the languages of the Bible, the history of Scripture, the history of the church, etc. I did not anticipate that a great deal of seminary would be spent defending my faith. It’s not that anyone was trying to undermine my faith, but my professors were very much committed to what Peter wrote – Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (I Peter 3:15). My professors believed I ought to know not only what I believed, but why. It was not always easy defending my faith and giving my reasons for my beliefs, but it was very good for me. I learned not to accept something without thinking about it and understanding how to defend it. I continue to be grateful for my professors, who helped me to ask questions, and also helped me to find answers to them, all the while building and strengthening my faith.

Asking questions is not harmful to faith. To the contrary, asking questions is how we learn! Imagine sitting in a math class and never asking a question when you don’t understand a problem – how will you learn (although I did not understand enough of math to even know how to ask a question)? To question is not to doubt, but to learn. The Scriptures themselves are not afraid to ask questions. Read through the psalms and you will find a lot of questions. Even Jesus (Matthew 27:46), on the cross, repeated the psalmist (Psalm 22:1) when he said, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

We should never, ever discourage people from asking questions or expressing doubts. When they do so, they are working to stretch their faith and to come to a great understanding of God and his ways of working.

I Love the Church Because…the Church Made A Difference In My Time of Need.

I have been following the news about Lakewood Church in Houston – Joel Osteen’s church – and the criticism they received because of being slow to open their building as a shelter. I’m not a critic of Joel Osteen; I like him. Now, I need to add that I’m not at all a fan of the prosperity gospel and I don’t at all agree with Joel Osteen when it comes to turning the gospel into a means of financial gain, but when it comes down to it, we’re all proponents of the prosperity gospel to some extent, because we’re all looking to get something from God. We might not be out to get the amount of blessing that Joel Osteen has received, but we still hope to get something, don’t we? We want health for our families, a nice home, a decent car, a well-paying car, and health-car, and we would like God to provide them, and we will ask him to do so. I’m not sure how that is any different from what Joel Osteen is presenting. It might not be to the same degree, but it’s the same principle.

Should Lakewood Church have opened their doors earlier to provide shelter? If they could have done so, yes, they certainly should have. But the news story about their failure to do so overlooks the fact that scores of churches and scores of church members were already in action, reaching out to the people affected by the hurricane. Other churches were open, and other churches were very busy providing aid and assistance. In fact, churches are always among the first responders in disasters. When Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans and the surrounding area, and people were fleeing to safety, church groups were heading into that area, literally into the eye of the storm. Eight months after Hurricane Katrina I was in Waveland, Mississippi helping with rebuilding efforts. A church from Mobile, Alabama was in Waveland and had been organizing relief efforts since from the days just after the hurricane. The church had been working toward the building of a new sanctuary and had over one million dollars for the project, all of which they gave away to the people of Waveland, as they helped them to rebuild their homes, businesses, and churches.

The first ministry of the early church was feeding people in Jerusalem. That is why, in fact, the office of deacon was created. Deacons were appointed to oversee the feeding of people (Acts 6:1-7). Paul, on his journeys, was receiving a collection to help others in need. Making a difference in times of need is what churches do. It’s not news that churches spring into action when disaster strikes and when need is present; it’s only news when they don’t, because everyone understands it is part of the mission and purpose of the church to make a difference in times of need. In verse 30 Paul writes of Epaphroditus, He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. Epaphroditus was doing what the church and church people have done since the beginning – making a difference.

Here is how one person responded to the statement I Love the Church Because… as they wrote of how the church made a difference in their time of need –

I love my church for so many reasons.  I already loved my church before tragedy struck our family.  This is when I found out how truly special and loving my church was to us.   The Elders of the church came to our house in the middle of the night to comfort us. Our minister & church family was at our house 24/7 for almost 2 weeks to see us through the nightmare.  The church cooked for us, cleaned, watched my child and did whatever needed to be done. There are no words to describe the heartfelt thanks I have for each and every one of you.  God was present in all of you and you walked by our side for years to come. I will always be grateful for my church family and the love extended to us.

That is reaching someone in their time of need.

I Love the Church Because…the Church Made A Difference In My Time of Loss.

Here is how one person described what the church meant in their time of loss –

When I lost a family member we had to travel out of town, back to my hometown for the funeral. The funeral was in my home church, and when I walked in the sanctuary the first people I saw were from our church here in Kentucky. It took a few moments for me to realize they had driven the long distance to my hometown for the funeral. I was so touched that they would take the time to drive such a distance and come to the funeral. As I sat in the sanctuary I was so moved by the presence of people who had meant so much to my life. I was surrounded by people who had played such an important part in my faith. They were not only my friends and neighbors; they had been my Sunday School teachers and VBS leaders and church camp counselors. I often think about that day, and of how much it meant to me that others would come and be with my family in our time of loss.

Paul wrote this about Epaphroditus –

26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.

27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.

28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.

Paul and his friends and associates were blessed that their friend Epaphroditus survived his serious illness. The idea that they could lose their friend was an overwhelming thought to them, and his survival was something they wanted to celebrate! Paul said he was spared sorrow upon sorrow, and he wanted his friends to see their friend whom they thought had died. Imagine their joy to see someone they thought was gone, but was alive!

Death is a part of life, and it is the most challenging moment we face in life, when we lose someone we love, or when we face our own mortality. Now, I’m not trying to be depressing this morning, but it is something we all face, and in our culture we seem to be less prepared to deal with the reality of death. In fact, we are even beginning to lose the language of death, as we increasingly use synonyms such passing, passed, loss, and other words.

I stood in a cemetery a few days ago, officiating at a graveside service, and as I stood on the hill at the top of the cemetery, I looked around and saw many stones with names I not only knew, but I had officiated at their services. The hardest thing I do as a minister is funerals. It is hard to think that you are called upon to summarize someone’s life in a few minutes. I worry about saying the right words and I worry about saying the wrong words. I hope to bring hope, comfort, and peace to the family. This is where faith becomes so important. I am grateful for the difference that faith makes in this life, but I am very grateful for the difference that faith makes when it comes to eternal life. I want to know there is something beyond this world, I want to know that when my time in this life comes to an end there is something else, and I want to know I will be able to find reunion with those who have gone on before.

James writes that what is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:14). I don’t think that is intended to be discouraging, as it might be read, but as a reminder of how fleeting life is. Do we want meaning to our fleeting days? Do we want to know there is more to life than simply making a living or getting what we can for ourselves? I cannot imagine facing the final moments in life without the benefit of faith. Revelation 21:4 reminds us that He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I love the image of God wiping away the tears of mourning, and I love the promise that there will be no more death, because this is where the church has made the most difference!