The Hour I Last Believed
Some years ago, I led a revival series that featured testimonies by church members. We used as our theme, The Hour I First Believed. This is a line from the famous gospel hymn Amazing Grace. That hymn grew out of the conversion of its author, John Newton. He was a captain on the infamous triangle, bringing Africans to America and taking raw materials to England and finished products to Africa. During one trip, his ship was caught in a terrible storm. Fearing it would sink, Newton prayed for deliverance and forgiveness. The storm subsided but the spiritual stirring in his soul had just begun. He counted March 10, 1748, as the day he first believed.
Do you recall the hour you first believed?
Many of us cannot, because from infancy, we have known the sacred scriptures, how they are able to make us wise unto salvation, to quote what Paul once wrote to Timothy. Paul mentions Timothy’s mother and grandmother were both followers of Jesus Christ as Lord. This is my story, and it may be yours.
But I do recall the revival meeting that stirred my heart; and I remember talking to my father and kneeling beside a bed to pray; and I remember the waters of baptism and what the pastor said before he dipped me under.
Do you remember the hour you first believed?
Paul said this about the people in Philippi: You have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. Not only did their minds and hearts get converted, so did their wallets!!
One person said as he entered the baptismal pool, Oh, I forgot to take my wallet out and he reached as if to pull it out and put it aside. But the pastor was both wise and quick; he said, No leave it in. It also needs to get converted!
Paul is effusive in his praise of the Philippians. Throughout the letter, he mentions their generous support of Paul’s gospel work and travels. In chapter two, he mentions Epaphroditis and writes, He was your messenger to help me in my need. At the end of the letter he writes, You Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this. Even when I was in Thessalonica you sent help more than once.
Paul celebrated the way the Philippians had been converted, thoroughly converted: their affections, their convictions, their habits, and their spirit of generosity.
Someone has said that the whole world population is divided into givers and takers. Either these ancient people were, by nature and disposition, givers, or their powerful and sustained encounter with Jesus the Risen Lord had taken their once stingy instincts and transformed them into habits of holiness and grace and generosity.
God loves a cheerful giver.
Paul wrote that to the church at Corinth. But he could have written it to the church at Philippi and also the church at Hendersonville. And he could have also written God loves a cheerful and generous giver. And so do we, don’t we?
From the hour they first believed, they were cheerful and generous givers.
One of the strange things about this sweet little letter is what is not included. Nowhere in this letter does Paul mention the events at Philippi as described in the Acts of the Apostles. He does not even allude to them in any way.
Two of the most famous stories from that first century of Christian living happened in Philippi, according to Acts. You will find them in chapter 16.
Paul and Silas leave Asia and enter Europe. They cross the Aegean Sea and find their way to northern Greece, to Macedonia, to the town of Philippi. They go to the river and there find Lydia leading a prayer meeting. Normally, prayers are offered in temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues. These are led by religious professionals and funded by gifts to the institution.
But here by the river in Philippi, people were praying. Perhaps they were reading and testifying and asking questions and probing for answers. We have no details, but we know only that the message of Paul, of Jesus risen from the dead, resonated with Lydia. She offered first her attention, then her allegiance, then her home. She was the first convert in Europe.
But there is no mention of her in this Letter to the Philippians.
Later, Paul cast out an evil spirit from a woman. The commotion that followed landed him in jail. Silas was with him, and the story in Acts of the Apostles describes them singing hymns at midnight.
Isn’t that a wonderful idea! Singing is a powerful form of Christian testimony, a splendid way to describe the wonder of God and the story of Jesus. That is one reason we have as our theme, Sing for Joy.
While they were singing, the earth quaked, shaking the building. The event struck fear into everyone. The jailer hurried to Paul and Silas and ask, “Can you save us? How can we survive?” The story says, Paul told them the good news of Jesus: sent from God, went about doing good, called us to repentance, love, generosity, and the kingdom of God wherein we are all neighbors. That man and his family heard the testimony, believed the good news, and asked to be baptized.
But there is no mention of this in the Letter to the Philippians.
It is reasonable to think both the praying woman named Lydia and the believing man who is not named were still members of the Christian community in Philippi, but neither is mentioned in this letter. There is no notice at all, no subtle hint, not even an allusion.
Except this: those two episodes established a tradition of generosity and hospitality that carried on. Both the praying woman and the seeking man invited the apostle into their homes. These qualities reflect the spirit of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, the presence of Jesus. These qualities—generosity and hospitality—make for a congregation of people filled with the Spirit and walking in the Way. Generosity and hospitality were in the DNA, we would say today, of what Paul describes as the holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus.
That is the kind of Christianity that is compelling. That is the kind of church that is attractive. That is the kind of human community that pulls people in and shapes them into those who love God and love their neighbor. That is the kind of congregation where people are eager to tell the story of the hour I first believed.
But today it is not the hour I first believed that makes the headlines but the hour I last believed.
People are giving up on religion, church, Jesus, and God.
A few years ago, a Houston man published a book entitled Goodbye Jesus. His name is Tim Sledge. He was a seminary-educated minister. He was pastor of a Baptist church. For 30 years. But then life got complicated and church life got uncomfortable and Christian life became unbearable. He quit church. He quit Jesus. He quit God. I interviewed him in The Meetinghouse. You can listen to our 48-minute podcast at themeetinghouse.net. It is his testimony of the hour I last believed.
Tim Sledge is one of many.
Scholars tell us that millions of people have given up on God. The percentage of unbelievers in the United States has gone from 19% of the population to 29% of the population in ten years. And for the first time in American history, fewer than half of the population are connected to a house of worship of any kind. During the pandemic, worship attendance has declined by 30%.
Yes, some people have pulled away from church because of the pandemic. We have encouraged you to protect yourself. Stay home from anything and everything if you do not feel safe. We offer this broadcast to keep you connected to church, to friends, to Scripture, to prayer, to Jesus.
Yes, other people have pulled away from church because community life with people is messy. People are not easy to know and love. Some people, even some believing people, are toxic. They are self-centered and unhappy.
Some people in the Philippian church were like that. Each of the four chapters in this little letter addresses some element of the difficulty of staying in fellowship with people. In chapter one Paul mentions jealous people. In chapter two he warns us of selfish people. In chapter three, Paul calls some people dogs. In chapter four, he names two people and asks them to settle their disagreements.
Church life is tough. All of us want to give up from time to time. “I am tired of dealing with those people,” we have all said at one time or another. We think: I can call it quits at church but keep loving Jesus. I understand that mood.
Yes, other people have given up on Christianity. I have said to myself more than once, “If that is what it means to be a Christian, count me out.” This past week we remembered the great insurrection of January 6, 2021. Standing out in our memory were those capital insurrectionists who carried Bibles and waved the Christian Flag and led in prayer when they took control of the House of Congress. It made us sick, didn’t it? We want to run as fast as we could in the other direction.
Still others have been unable to manage the swelling doubt in their minds, or balance their faith with their habits and desires, or understand why their prayers are unanswered, why their friends remain sick, and why they do not feel the faith, hope, and love they profess. They finally give up and drive away.
Occasionally, I run into people who say, Yes, I remember the day I finally quit. You think they might be talking about smoking or working or drinking. But what they mean is, believing. They woke up one morning and realized they no longer believe.
Paul begins this wonderful ancient letter with these words, Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with great joy.
Our theme, Sing for Joy picks up one element of this statement. But I want to grab hold of the rest of that sentence, Whenever I pray, I make my requests for you.
I pray that your love for God will never dissolve in the acids of organizational tension.
I pray that your faith in Jesus Christ will never disappear in the fog of uncertainty.
I pray that your joy in the Lord will never be drowned out by the chaos and confusion of life.
You know what else I pray?
I pray that your delight in serving the Lord and loving your neighbor and speaking words of hope will never be overshadowed by the darkness of disagreement or the irresponsibility of fools.
I pray that the memories of the hour you first believed will never be lost in the stories of human meanness or the struggles of misunderstanding.
I pray that the day you last believed never comes, that the hour you first believed will grow every more precious to you, ever more important to your life, ever more central to who you are as a person.
I pray you feel deep in your bones this wonderful, good news, that mercy there was grace and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me. There my burden soul found liberty, at calvary.
I pray you will always give thanks that somebody told you about Jesus, that some body or some book described the love of God in ways that made you want to believe, and trust, and follow.
I pray that you will always be glad that some minister took you into the water of baptism and dipped you all the way under and brought you up dripping wet.
I hope you will always be able to sing …
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come, Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.