July 25, 2021
- Rev. Gail Coulter, Proclaimer
Today we are witnesses to a happy 20th anniversary of Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville! Next month our preacher, Dwight A. Moody, will preach at the celebration of the 125th anniversary of a church in Owensboro, Kentucky where earlier he was pastor. This church now is the church home of our own Chaplain Debbie Werhan Bradley Smith. But, for us, twenty years is remarkable for the character and work of Providence, particularly in this location.
First, today we celebrate the eternal God who has provided all these days, all these ministries, all these wonderful people, all the goodness and grace of 20 years. With joy we celebrate being the presence of Christ in Hendersonville and all the places and people touched by Providence Baptist Church. We also celebrate the future of this Christian witness led by the Holy Spirit.
In these last days I have reveled in images of incredible people who have served and grown in their spiritual lives within this community of faith. Their love and faith and spirits impacted us and many others. Wherever they are now, the influence of lots of these folks continues to draw people near to the eternal God. Join me just now, in a kind of thanksgiving prayer for their gifts among us. If you feel comfortable, say aloud with thanksgiving and celebration the name or names of such people you recall from our past… Amen, Amen!
I wrote a little paraphrase of parts of the poem given by Amanda Gorman at the recent inauguration in Washington. As she addressed a nation at a very low point I saw connections to the history of this church. The words are like this: we are the successors of millennia of devotion to Jesus Christ. We are the successors of a time when a grandmotherly woman minister-preacher accepted the dream of five Asheville area ministers for a new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church in Hendersonville. She saw herself followed in professional ministry by two exceptionally gifted women ministers. Even after twenty years, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a congregation that is perfect, we are striving to forge a fellowship of believers with purpose to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to live it, to compose a fellowship committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of humanity.
In this we are a bit like that Ephesus church. The prayer from Ephesians read by Holly was most likely written after Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Folks in churches were seeing leaders martyred and dying out. “What is the future” they probably asked–just like we do. In spite of their spiritual growth, addition internal evidence points to disunity and lack of acceptance of difference in the church. Providence history is somewhat similar– We began with a struggling but positive beginning and growing into a healthy diverse community of learning, questioning, worshiping, praying, ministering, giving. Gradually weakness set in–partly precipitated by families moving away, by Covid, but sadly also by our attitudes. Now after lots of soul-searching, asking forgiveness, repenting, we are starting the hill climb out of that depression. The movement is not all smooth nor in a connected fashion–but, in my opinion, we sense, or we get good glimpses of God’s work in our midst.
But at this junction, this transition, “it’s us, it’s us, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” How very special and changing and, at times, empowering to be prayed for! Rev. Mary blessed us just now with her deeply thoughtful anniversary prayer. Then, this lectionary scripture prayer shows up for the readers at Ephesus and other early churches–as well as for Providence church. You know there are many prayers in the Bible, but this one is ours for today.
Imagine that this prayer is called “the prayer for Providence and guests.” Have you been prayed for? Maybe on a church prayer list–maybe within the family–maybe in reading a prayer from the Bible or some other source–or in a hospital bed when a chaplain prayed over you. Did you not feel a kind of power or strength or courage or peace for your situation? Just now let me invite us all to imagine that is what is going on right now. Together we are with the writer as he/she kneels and offers this prayer for us as individuals as well as for this church body and all who worship here just now.
As the sermon continues, open to God, alongside the Ephesians writer, being immersed in the accepting, understanding, loving and caring presence of God who can enable the answering of this prayer for this congregation. Just being in this attitude and work is the beginning of the answer to this Ephesians prayer and our prayers.
Let us join this pray-er–who probably was not the apostle Paul but a person near to him. This person was in utter awe and awareness of how richly God’s glory encompasses all groups, tribes, races in heaven and on earth. So let us join him/her in a sense of awe in being aware of God’s presence. Hear as the prayer-er asks God for strength ruling in our inner beings–our guts, our core, our hearts, our wills–strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit.
Now, come on, power for tiny little Providence? But–it could be that from the riches of God’s glory the Holy Spirit gives a kind of power— God’s kind of power. Some pilfering from Amanda Gorman’s poetry might touch some power appropriate to Providence now. It takes power to do this: So let us build a church better than the one we knew, with every breath from our pounding chests and praying hearts, we, following Christ’s leadership and the Holy Spirit’s imagination, will raise our part of this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will have influence from Cuba to Bosnia to India and other parts of the world where we are able to participate in proclaiming the Gospel. We will have influence proclaiming the Gospel as we are the presence of Christ to those who come to our doors on Sundays and other days asking for our help. Our fellowship will emerge battered and beautiful, when the day comes we will step out of the shade aflame and unafraid…for Christ is always light if we’re only brave enough, strong enough, to see him–if only we’re brave enough to see him.
In Ephesians chapter one the power theme emerges as the writer prays that the audience would know “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe, according to the working of God’s great power“. God showed this power in the resurrection of Christ and here it is in us believers–power to keep our eyes on Jesus as we, fueled, infused in God’s resurrection power, build a better church than we knew before.
Can you believe resurrection power within you? Well, it is. Can you believe resurrection power within Providence Baptist Church? Well, this ancient writer prayed for such long ago and the text prays this (resurrection power) for us on this very day. Do you feel prayed over?
This is the first petition: that we all be strengthened with power in the Holy Spirit.
Petition Number Two: that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. Love, of course, is the ground basis of life in Christ. God loves us–you, you, me, all in the world. Ecclesia Baptist Church, about our size, in Asheville has a motto: “You are loved and there is nothing you can do about it.” Say with me: “I am loved and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Thus, out of God’s love, swallowing us up, we love and struggle to love the lovely and the unlovely. As we allow God’s love to shower over and in us, that love can permeate and spill out of our own living. Love is ground zero. The prayer is for us to be grounded in love. Do you feel prayed over?
The petition for us to love goes on: That we may have the POWER to comprehend, to deeply understand, with all saints in this and the worldwide community of believers, including those in Cuba, Bosnia and India that we have acquaintance with– understand– understand what? Listen to this, the text says: understand the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love in Christ–total dimensions of God’s love. That we can come to deeply understand God’s love shown to us in Christ. The text prays for us that this magnitude of understanding of God’s love will become our understanding. Only God’s kind of Power will help us begin to understand the magnitude of God’s love prayed of all of us!! You are prayed over!
Then– there is an AND. And “to KNOW the love of Christ (not know about but KNOW, experience always, live and move in) the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with ALL the fullness of God.” Have you ever met someone whom you sensed was truly immersed, in Christ’s kind of love? Not self-righteousness –but one who looks like the beatitudes–poor in spirit, peacemaker, pure in heart, and so on–maybe even some adjectives of our own–compassionate, generous with good things, maybe even someone in this congregation? They seemed to reflect the depth of God’s love as they lived among us.
So that whole petition for us: that Christ may dwell in our hearts in true faith as we are being grounded in faith and love. That we may have the power to comprehend the breadth and length, and depth and height of God’s love for all people.
Then what? That like it seems we are filled with ALL the fullness of God.
Do you sense you are prayed for? for strength with power from the Holy Spirit?
prayed for Christ to live, permeate, dwell in us as we are grounded, rooted in love?
prayed for power to comprehend in community, together, this all-encompassing love of Christ–that goes beyond head knowledge to being filled with the fullness of God? Well, we that is what is prayed for us! What happened to that Ephesians church after this was prayed over them. In 431 a church council of leaders from all over the near east gathered in Ephesus. So they were around and vital several hundred years later.
What would happen as God answers this prayer for God’s power for Providence? God’s presence and love within us is the beginning of the answer. Are you willing to begin there? Be aware, too, that we have been prayed over such that God’s power will be evident in this church.
We might be willing to go there when we don’t have to do it alone. The Ephesian conclusion: The Holy Spirit within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or think or imagine. Folks, in the past we experienced leaning into the imagination of the Holy Spirit at work. What the Spirit has done in the past, the Spirit will do again–in new and fresh ways–ways only in the imagination of the Holy Spirit. So let us be on tip-toes, and deep in prayer and love for the “what’s next.” Why, we are even prayed over about this.
And–whatever it is–“to God be the glory, and to Christ to all generations forever and forever. Amen.”