PEOPLE OF THE SPIRIT: Parting Words to a Beloved Congregation
Acts 1:4-8; Philippians 1:3-11; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Today is Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on faithful believers empowering them to be witnesses to the good news of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ. It’s a reminder to us that the church always functions and serves best when it is Spirit-inspired and Spirit-directed. The church is not a monument to the past but a living organism giving witness to God’s mighty acts in Christ and affirming that it’s still the power of the Spirit that changes lives to glorify and serve God.
This is also my last official Sunday with you as employed Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church and my day of retirement from full-time pastoral leadership of a church. I will return, of course, to baptize all those who requested baptism who were part of the last members’ class at Calvary Baptist Church and I will do that in consultation with whoever the supply or interim pastor is and I will do the baptisms when it is safe to do so and we will inform the candidates as to how we’re going to safely baptize them.
I am the second longest serving pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, having served almost 19 years by the grace of God. Tom Harris served the longest for 25 years and Lloyd Kenyon served for 12 years. The congregation had just welcomed our blended family in September of 2001 when the terrorist attacks on our nation took place on 9/11. And now my ministry with the congregation officially concludes during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. What strange bookends to ministry!
During my ministry with you, it was a joy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the church in 2003, the 60th anniversary in 2013 and the 65th anniversary in 2018. It was also a joy when the church surprised me on the 40th anniversary of my ordination in May of 2019.
In these last almost 19 years we welcomed 253 new members into the church, 112 of whom are active, 75 have moved to other communities because of work or retirement and transferred their membership due to those moves. I performed 105 baptisms, the youngest of whom was 10 years of age and the oldest was over 90. I officiated 121 funerals including these 7 charter members of the church:
James Bell, Melvin & Katherine Funk,
Lorraine Reinert Miller & her mother, Mary Jane Rothrock,
Naomi Vasko, and Mary Amelio.
We honor the memory of all of these charter members who had a vision for a church that would be located at a crossroads, easily accessible to people and an excellent base to launch a mission for Christ into the wider community.
It was a real blessing to guide several of our members through the ordination process for ministry, all of whom attended different seminaries. David Van Brakle who entered pastoral ministry having attended Colgate Rochester Crozer Seminary and who earlier this year came on staff with the ABC of NJ as an Associate Regional Pastor; Sara Wiegner who served as an American Baptist missionary and then heard the call to attend Lancaster Theological Seminary and now serves as a hospice chaplain; Hani Khouri who attended Moravian Seminary and who has made a major impact in the Arabic-Christian community; and Jacob Kilikpo who attended Palmer Seminary and has leadership with the Immigrant Church and the Liberia Inland Mission. It was also a blessing as Haley Warner, one of our former members of the youth group, heard the call to ministry, attended Messiah College and now serves as Director of Youth Ministries at Trinity United Methodist Church in Northumberland, PA. It’s also a joy to see Christopher Cocca in ministry. He is a graduate of Ursinus College, Yale Divinity School, and the New School, and is pastor of Christ’s Church at Lowhill in New Tripoli, PA.
I was glad to be part of the CO::LAB process that we engaged in as Calvary Baptist Church which resulted in the new mission statement of
“GROWING LIVES BY EMBRACING EVERYONE IN THE LOVE OF CHRIST.”
We determined values as a congregation, highlighting the value of DIVERSITY, believing we are called to provide an environment where all are welcomed as children of God.
We added the value of CARING and being an INSPIRATIONAL and MISSIONAL CHURCH. And we developed a STRATEGY for growth that helps people grow through WORSHIP, CONNECTING with others and ministries, GROWING through ministries of spiritual support and education, and SERVING with the gifts God has blessed them with. We also came up with personal MEASURES OF GROWTH and commitment that people can use to gauge their progress in going deeper in the Christian life.
I could talk about many things & many experiences in these last 19 years that have touched my heart in the midst of ministry with you, a beloved congregation who I hold dear to my heart....from the music ministry to the ministry of the Sunday School to the ministries engaged in through all of the boards and committees of the church, the Lay Ministry through the years, the personal ministry and relationships I have been privileged to be a part of with you all and the wonderful experiences of a growing multiculturalism in the church. To hear the testimonies and life journeys of so many from other countries has been a blessed experience. We have much to learn from each other in the wider community of faith.
I want to thank all of you for being there for our family in our times of need. When my father passed away, and my wife’s father, and when our grandson, Oliver, faced so many medical challenges you were there with your loving support and prayers and we shall never forget that! You were there for me when I went through my medical crisis as well and I shall forever be grateful for your love and concern and prayer support. When I was sorting through all my papers and files and books in my church office I came across countless cards and letters I had saved, sent by you and included in these were notes from children, youth and shut-ins of the church.
It’s like everybody reached out....and that’s the way this church has always responded, as an expression of God’s love to others.
Turning to the Word of God, I lift up for you words of thanksgiving and encouragement from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi. This is the most positive of Paul’s Epistles. He had a wonderful relationship with this congregation and his letter consists of his parting words and encouragement to them. I feel the same way about you, the beloved members and friends of Calvary Baptist Church, so I highlight these phrases of Paul starting with verse 3 of Philippians chapter 1:
I thank God every time I remember you.
In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you
will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about you,
since I have you in my heart... (Philippians 1:3-7a)
I titled my message to you: People of the Spirit: Parting Words to a Beloved Congregation. I always love what Rick Warren preaches: “Without the Holy Spirit, we’re a mess. With the Holy Spirit, we’re a message.” The church of Jesus Christ must always be Spirit-led and Spirit-driven more than any program. People sense that or not when they visit a congregation for the first time. Visitors come with an unspoken question: IS THERE ANY LIFE HERE? What drives the ministry and decisions of this place I have entered? So I just want to offer the encouragement that through intentional prayer everyone makes certain that any decision in the church or even for a particular ministry is Spirit-driven and not personal-agenda driven. That takes a certain degree of humility but we are always on the right track when we open ourselves to the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and in full awareness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all matters.
It’s noteworthy that Paul doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit in the first 11 verses of Philippians chapter one but the ministry of the Holy Spirit is certainly implied. For instance, the ministry of remembrance is a ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings to remembrance people and events and learnings.
Praying with joy because of partnership in the gospel is also Spirit-driven. Jesus taught that the joy of the Holy Spirit is like a spring of living water welling up from deep inside of us. Paul shared that joy in the Spirit with the Christians of Philippi and they returned that joy to him.
The Holy Spirit is also the one who maintains the partnership of ministry by keeping people unified in the mission of Christ. Jesus often talked about the unity in the Holy Spirit and the unity he has with the Father and the Spirit and how they work as one because they are one. I grew up with the hymn “We are one in the Spirit, We are one in the Lord” and when that spirit of unity, of oneness drives us as members of the Body of Christ, wonderful things are accomplished.
The Holy Spirit also begins a good work in us and carries it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit drew us into the circle of God’s love and led us to make our confession of Christ as Lord and Savior and we were baptized on that confession, having begun our Christian journey as disciples of Jesus Christ.
But the Holy Spirit continues to minister and our job is to allow the Spirit to teach us and to encourage us to continually grow deeper in our faith. Too many short-change the Spirit and stop growing in their faith and don’t allow themselves to be stretched or challenged. I encourage you to support every effort at Christian Education by participating yourself in the opportunities the church provides.
We, of course, pray, for the day the church can be open again and for the day that victory can be declared over COVID-19 with a vaccine. But there are many on-line opportunities for Christian growth for those of you with computers. There are also a lot of growth opportunities through the mail (Bible correspondence courses). When my mother entered the Lord’s presence and we were going through all of her belongings we found countless certificates of completion where she was honored for having graduated from another Bible course. She wanted to be well-prepared for all the women’s Bible studies she led in her home and for the youth she taught in Sunday school.
Moving on to verse 9 of chapter 1 of Philippians where Paul writes:
And this is my prayer:
that your love may abound more and more
in knowledge and depth of insight,
so that you may be able to discern what is best
and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ
to the glory and praise of God.
One of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit is love, and in Romans 5:5 Paul wrote: “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” As we grow in the love of God and the love of Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we are put into a position to make best decisions...“able to discern what is best.” The deeper we grow in the love of Christ the better the decisions we make.
Love is at the center of who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ. The world will know we are followers of Christ by our love. Jesus himself said that: “The world will know you are my disciples by your love for one another” (John 13:35). We can never stop growing in love when we daily take up our cross and follow Jesus....a cross of compassion and concern, a cross that identifies with human need, a cross that is willing to bear the burdens of others because Jesus, in sacrificial love, bore a burden for us to bring us salvation and redemption.
We continue in prayer for Calvary Baptist Church in the search for a new pastor. The church has an excellent search committee. Please uphold them daily in prayer as decisions are made for pulpit supply, interim pastor and, ultimately, full- time pastor. I believe the Holy Spirit is at already at work preparing the one whom God is calling.
I thank you all again for your love and care and countless acts of kindness through the years. I also thank you for your patience with me and demonstrating grace for my times of need. My wife and I hold you all close to our hearts. Relationships don’t end, and we shall continue to nurture them. May God’s grace be upon you all and may God’s peace dwell deep within. And may the love of God in Christ continue to inspire and direct you today and into God’s future. And may the Holy Spirit continue to empower you to share your story of God’s saving love. God be with you till we meet again!
With love and gratitude,