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Mary, Martha, and Jesus

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

One night last year, Lauren and I were driving home from a gospel meeting, and she asked me, “Am I allowed to request sermon topics too?”  As all husbands know, there is only one possible answer to that question, and so here I am this morning, preaching a sermon on two of the most famous sisters in the Bible, Mary and Martha.

I think this is worth our time for two reasons.  First, as we learned last week, our theme for the year is “Living for Jesus”, so it’s appropriate to consider the way two women lived for Jesus 2000 years ago. 

Second, I think that Martha is in some need of character rehabilitation.  She tends to get a bad rap from Bible teachers.  There’s even a book out there called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.  However, when we look at what the Scriptures actually reveal about her and her sister, a different picture emerges.  Let’s turn our attention, then, to the interaction among Mary, Martha, and Jesus.

There are three stories in the New Testament about these two women, and the first of these is about MARTHA’S COMPLAINT.  Let’s read it, in Luke 10:38-42.  This is certainly the story that people think of first when they think about Mary and Martha.  In fact, for many brethren, it’s the only story they think of. 

The first thing this story shows us is that Mary is kind of an odd duck.  Today, we think nothing of a woman sitting and listening to a Bible teacher, but 2000 years ago, that simply was not done.  By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is not only declaring herself His disciple.  She’s halfway to declaring herself to be a man. 

The lesson here, I think, is that it’s OK to be a weird disciple of Jesus.  Some people have an easy time fitting into the conventions of society, and they can be wonderful Christians.  Others very much march to the beat of their own drummer, and they can be wonderful Christians too!  Being godly is a whole lot more important than being conventional.

Second, notice that Jesus rebukes Martha not for serving, but for criticizing Mary.  When Martha is bustling around serving while Mary listens, Jesus is perfectly fine with that.  It’s only when Martha complains that Jesus defends Mary. 

In life, some people are Marys.  They’re not so great at adulting, but they’ll sit and listen to Jesus all day long.  Others are Marthas.  They’re the ones who make sure that all the Marys are fed, clothed, and pointed in the right direction. 

It’s OK to be a Mary.  The church needs Marys.  However, the church needs Marthas too, and just like Martha doesn’t get to insist that Mary needs to become like her, neither should we insist that Martha needs to become like Mary!

The second of our three Mary-and-Martha stories is THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS.  It’s funny that we associate this story with Lazarus, but from beginning to end of it, he doesn’t say a word.  It’s Mary and Martha who do the bulk of the talking.  Let’s read about their part of the story in John 11:17-35. 

The first thing I see here is that in life, everybody gets their chance to shine.  In this story, the one who impresses is not Mary.  When Jesus arrives, she doesn’t go to greet Him, which is rude.  When Martha summons her to Jesus, she storms out of the house, goes to Jesus, accuses Him of being responsible for her brother’s death, and then collapses in hysterics at His feet.  Everything she does radiates mad and upset.

Not so with Martha.  Despite her reputation as the one who cares more about housekeeping than God, she is the one who actually has a meaningful conversation with Jesus.  In v. 21-22, even though she too holds Jesus responsible for Lazarus’ death, she expresses her conviction that He can make it right.  Jesus tells her and not Mary that He is the resurrection and the life.  She, not Mary, triumphantly concludes the conversation by expressing her faith in Jesus’ divinity and power.  I daresay that if we didn’t have the book of Luke, our narrative about Mary and Martha would be very different.

Second, though, let’s pay attention to the way that Jesus deals with Mary’s emotional outburst.  He’s not angry or condemnatory.  He’s compassionate.  Even though He knows what is going to happen in five minutes, when she weeps, He weeps along with her.

From this, we see once again that we don’t have to hide from God.  Sometimes, we feel like we have to put on our church faces when we pray, and that’s exactly the opposite of the truth.  If there is anybody we can be shockingly honest with, it’s God!  He’s big enough to handle our anger, our upset, our rage.  The problems come when we think we have to hide those things from Him (as if we could!) and end up turning from Him.

Our third story is the story of JESUS’ ANOINTING FOR BURIAL.  Let’s look it, in John 12:1-8.  By now, we should know what to expect.  Martha is doing Martha things, and Mary is doing Mary things. 

If, after our visit to Luke 10, we still had any doubt about whether Jesus was OK with Martha serving, this should dispel it.  She’s not plopped down in the floor next to Mary.  She’s bustling around making sure everything is in order, just like she was before. 

That’s perfectly fine.  Indeed, it’s always right for a disciple to tend to the needs of others, whether they’re male or female.  In the very next chapter, Jesus Himself is going to perform a humble act of service to teach His disciples a lesson.  In the Lord’s body, the people who paint the auditorium are just as important as the people who preach sermons in it, and we must never forget that.

Also, notice Jesus once again sticking up for Mary.  Once again, this is a strange thing she has done.  The only thing like it that we see in the gospels is the sinful woman in Luke 7 wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as a sign of her repentance. 

This is also a very expensive thing for Mary to do.  In our terms, this is about a $50,000 perfume job!  However, whether Mary knows it or not, this is also the right thing for her to do.  She comes nearer to the meaning of the moment than any of Jesus’ other disciples do. 

As a result, when Judas condemns her, Jesus defends her.  In fact, He defends her so strongly that Judas gets offended at Jesus’ rebuke and ends up betraying Him to the chief priests.  I think Martha’s motives were a lot better than Judas’s, who only wanted his cut of the 300 denarii, but Jesus is willing to protect Mary from Marthas and Judases alike.

I think that all of us find ourselves rolling our eyes at our brethren occasionally, but we must remember that the quirkiest Christian in the assembly is someone whom Jesus loves and values.  We all take some bearing with, and some of us take a lot of bearing with!  However, God put us all here for a reason, and just like Mary did, each of us has something unique to offer.   

Instruments of Music in Worship

Friday, January 03, 2020

Today, it’s time for me to return to what has been my theme throughout 2019:  preaching on sermon topics requested by members.  On this occasion I want to take up a topic requested by one of the sisters here—the use of musical instruments in our assemblies.

I think this is a worthwhile subject for a couple of different reasons.  First, it’s something that stands out about our services as compared to church services elsewhere.  Visitors to our assemblies are nearly guaranteed to notice that we only sing together, that a praise band or a piano is nowhere in sight.  It’s useful to offer them an explanation of why we do things this way.

Second, if we want to continue our tradition of a-cappella singing, we have to continue to teach on that tradition, to explain why it’s an important aspect of our obedience to God.  It’s easy to assume that everybody here gets it, but too often, that assumption is unjustified.  With these things in mind, let’s examine instrumental music in worship.

From a Biblical perspective, I see four main problems with the practice.  The first is that IT DOESN’T FOLLOW THE PATTERN.  For evidence of why this is important, look at 2 Timothy 1:13.  Here, Paul tells us that his instructions to Christians aren’t random and unique to each individual.  Instead, when we put them all together, they constitute a pattern, a coherent system of worship and service that Timothy, and indeed all Christians, are supposed to follow. 

Because this is so, whenever we want to know if something is acceptable to God or not, all we have to do is look at the pattern.  If it’s part of what we see in the New Testament, we should do it.  If it isn’t part of what we see in the New Testament, we shouldn’t do it.

Within the New Testament, there are about half a dozen passages that talk about singing praise to God as part of worship.  Some of them we’ll look at this morning; some we won’t.  However, they’re there, and they make it clear that a-cappella worship is part of the divinely ordained pattern.

By contrast, when we search through the New Testament, we never find anything said about Christians using musical instruments in worship.  The instrument isn’t part of God’s pattern for us.  Of course, there are plenty of churches that pay no heed to this and use instruments in worship anyway, but that isn’t for us.  In this congregation, we don’t want to follow ourselves.  We want to follow God.  We want to be Christians simply, and to be simply Christians.  That means that we leave the instrument to others.

Second, instrumental worship is problematic because IT DOESN’T TEACH AND ADMONISH.  Here, consider Colossians 3:16.  According to this text, one of the main reasons that we are to sing to one another is because we learn from our song worship.  It builds us up in the faith.  In fact, it’s possible for someone to be taught the gospel merely by listening to our singing.  On the other hand, no one ever learned the gospel from an instrument.

Let me give you an example.  Back when I was in law school, I was leaving my apartment one day when I heard somebody playing a flute.  I listened for a moment, and I recognized the melody as the tune for the hymn “Something for Jesus”.  The flutist was very good.  They did a beautiful job.  However, if somebody who didn’t know Jesus had heard them playing, that beautiful melody would have taught them nothing.

As Clay taught us last Sunday evening, when we sing, we’re supposed to listen to the words.  We’re supposed to take the meaning to heart.  A-cappella singing is perfectly suited to accomplishing this goal.  By contrast, no instrument ever created can add to the meaning of a hymn.  It can only be a distraction from it.

The third problem with using instruments in worship is that IT UNDERMINES “ONE ANOTHER”.  Let’s spend some time reflecting on the words of Ephesians 5:18-19.  Notice that as described here, the Biblical model of worship isn’t a bunch of Christians passively listening to a performance.  It’s ordinary Christians singing to one another.

In many ways, this resembles the Bible’s teaching on ordinary Christians studying the word and figuring out God’s will for themselves.  This teaching is so important because most of the religious world believes that ordinary Christians can’t do it themselves.  They say that we can’t figure the Bible for ourselves, so we need a priest or a pastor to tell us what it says.  Similarly, the practice of instrumental worship implies that the singing of ordinary Christians isn’t good enough, that we need an organist or a praise band to do it right.

Brethren, I don’t believe either one of those things!  When I’m in one of our Bible classes, what I hear is ordinary Christians figuring out the word for themselves.  Maybe we aren’t great Bible students by ourselves, but when we come together, the class’s comments reveal great wisdom and insight into the Scriptures.  We don’t have clergy here because we don’t need clergy.  God’s word is our birthright.

In the same way, during our song worship, I hear God’s people doing a great job of praising and glorifying Him.  Maybe by ourselves, we aren’t great singers.  I’m sure not!  However, when we come together, our combined singing is beautiful and edifying. 

That’s God’s plan for us.  He wants us to be a people of song.  His worship is our birthright too.  Whether they realize it or not, people who want to bring in the instrument want to take that birthright away.  They want us to sit quietly and let the professionals do it for us because the professionals do a better job.  I think that would be a terrible shame.

Finally, instrumental worship DOESN’T HELP THE CHURCH GROW.  I want to explore this topic by way of analogy, using Psalm 33:16-17.  This passage highlights another way in which the Israelites wanted to be like the nations around them.  Those nations won their wars with warhorses and chariots, so the Israelites wanted warhorses too.

The psalmist warns, though, that warhorses were a false hope for victory.  The Israelites couldn’t succeed by imitating their neighbors.  They needed to succeed by being different and trusting in God.

Sadly, there are many Christians today who look at things like the ancient Israelites did.  They look at these big denominational churches that use the instrument, and they argue that if we start using instrumental music, we’ll grow and become big like them.

However, that way of thinking is a false hope.  If you’ve got horses, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the war.  After all, the other guy has horses too!  In the same way, if we were to adopt the instrument, that doesn’t mean that our church would get super-big.  After all, many other churches in town have the instrument too.  It only would put us on the same footing as them.

In fact, it would put us on a worse footing.  Those other congregations are bigger, so they can afford a better band and a more impressive show.  They have decades of experience in the spectacle of instrumental worship that we don’t have.  How in the world are we going to grow by doing the same thing they’re doing, only worse?

Like the Israelites, we don’t succeed by becoming like those around us.  We succeed by continuing to be different and trusting in God.  We show that trust by obeying His word, by worshiping Him with our voices and nothing else.

This Jesus

Friday, December 27, 2019

This morning, all of us are aware that this Wednesday, December 25th, is Christmas, a day on which people across the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Most of us also are aware that there is nothing in the Bible that says that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated on December 25th, or, indeed, on any other day.  Nonetheless, it is true that at this time of year, more than any other, people are talking about Jesus.

What’s the big deal?  What’s so important about a baby born in a stable in a backwater of the Roman Empire that we should still be talking about it 2000 years later?  Certainly, the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin is impressive, but if that were the most noteworthy thing that Jesus ever did, He would be nothing more than an obscure historical footnote.  This morning, then, let’s turn to the Scriptures to see why we should care about this Jesus.

I had the idea for this sermon about six weeks ago, when Mike Young preached for us on Acts 2 and the first gospel sermon.  As I was following along in my Bible with him, I noticed something I’d never seen before.  At least in the ESV, the phrase “this Jesus” occurs three times in Peter’s sermon, and the three uses of the phrase highlight the most important things about Jesus’ life.

The first “this Jesus” phrase points out that He WAS CRUCIFIED.  Let’s read together from Acts 2:23.  There are three things in this verse that I want us to focus on.  The first is that Jesus was killed on the cross.  This might seem like a duh point, but believe it or not, there are plenty of folks who want to argue about this.  Muslims believe that Jesus only appeared to be crucified and was brought up alive into heaven.  Many skeptics argue that Jesus only passed out on the cross and came back to His senses in Joseph’s tomb.

Not so.  As Peter says here, and as everyone in Jerusalem at that point knew, Jesus died.  He breathed His last on the cross, and he was taken down dead from the cross.  Even extrabiblical writers like Suetonius and Josephus confirm that Jesus was killed.

Second, Jesus was delivered to crucifixion and death by the plan of God.  Around this time of year, people like to put up nativity scenes, and even though I don’t think that the shepherds and wise men came to visit Jesus and Mary at the same time, there they all are, gathered around the manger. 

Though of course it wouldn’t be historically accurate either, I think it would be thematically appropriate if all those nativity scenes also included a cross, because Jesus was quite literally born to die on that cross.  Indeed, the Bible tells us that even before the world was created, God had determined that Jesus had to die.  His death was the culmination of a plan that was older than the universe.

Third, let’s pay attention to “you”.  None of the people in the crowd that day were directly involved in Jesus’ death, but Peter tells them that they were responsible anyway.  This morning, I want us to consider our own responsibility.  Before anything else existed, God looked into the future and knew that He would have to send His sinless Son to die, and it was our sin that made His death inevitable.  We didn’t nail Jesus to the cross either, but neither can we walk away from our share in His suffering.

The second “this Jesus” statement in Acts 2 reports that He WAS RAISED UP.  Look at Acts 2:32.  Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge how extraordinary a statement this is.  In my time as a preacher, I’ve preached many funerals and attended many more, but never once have I seen the body in the casket come back to life.  We know that dead people don’t rise from the dead, but Peter here is insisting that Jesus did exactly that.

In order to back up this extraordinary statement, Peter says that “we all are witnesses.”  There are a couple of senses in which I want us to consider his words.  First, he is obviously talking about himself and the other apostles who are standing next to him.  They saw the risen Jesus, they talked with the risen Jesus, they ate with the risen Jesus, and they even touched the risen Jesus. 

They were so sure that Jesus had risen that they spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that He had, and many of them even died because of their testimony.  Indeed, our word “martyr” comes from the Greek martus, which means “witness”.  Because they were willing to go to torture and death rather than take back their testimony, we can know that they were completely convinced Jesus had risen.

However, besides the human witness of the apostles, Peter’s sermon points out two other kinds of witness.  The first is the witness of prophecy.  Just before v. 32, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, which is only one of many prophetic passages in the Old Testament that foretold that God would raise His Holy One from the dead.  Today, we know that weather forecasters can’t correctly predict the weather next week, but the prophets of the Old Testament looked into the future and predicted the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Christ, right down to the tiniest detail.  This proves that both the prophecy and its fulfillment are the handiwork of God.

The third witness in this text is the witness of miracles.  The apostles confirmed the word they preached with signs and wonders.  In Acts 2, they display the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages.  Other miracles that are even more impressive appear throughout the New Testament.  If somebody says they saw a dead man come back to life, you can safely ignore them.  If they claim that, then raise a man from the dead themselves, then you’d better start listening!

Our third “this Jesus” phrase reveals that He WAS MADE LORD AND CHRIST.  Consider Acts 2:36.  Let’s begin by talking about what “Lord” and “Christ” mean.  “Lord” is straightforward.  God put Jesus in control of everything.  “Christ” is less so.  I suspect that most Americans believe that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.  It isn’t.  It’s a title, like “King”.  It means “Anointed One”, and it carries with it the idea that Jesus is God’s anointed prophet, priest, and king.  In short, Jesus was the fulfillment of everything the prophets had told the Jews to expect.

Second, notice that Peter says that we can “know for certain” that Jesus is Lord and Christ.  This is the consequence of the witnesses we talked about in the last section.  If you accept the eyewitnesses, the prophecies, and the miracles, you also must accept the pre-eminence of Jesus.  As the next verse shows, the people who saw these things certainly were convinced!

That, in turn, is a belief with consequences.  We can’t accept that Jesus is Lord and go on living the way we used to live.  That would be like acknowledging that we live in the United States of America, yet refusing to obey any of its laws.  Like the Jews in v. 37, we also have to ask, “What shall we do?”  Sometimes, the answer is the answer of v. 38.  We have to obey the gospel.  We have to become Christians through baptism for the forgiveness of our sins.  Always, though, the answer must be that we will devote our lives to the One we call “Lord”.

Stepping Up in Discipleship

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A few weeks ago, I preached a 20,000-foot view sermon on 2 Timothy, in which I spent a lot of time reading and a little time highlighting main themes.  The brethren here seemed pleased with that, so this evening, I’d like to return to the concept.  Let’s see what Philippians can teach us about stepping up in discipleship.

Let’s begin by reading PHILIPPIANS 1.  Here, Paul teaches us to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  Paul could have been depressed about his situation.  He was imprisoned, and his enemies were cynically using the gospel to make him look bad.  However, because he had learned Jesus’ perspective, he was able to see good in both of those things and even rejoice in them.

Next up is PHILIPPIANS 2.  This text calls us to show Christ’s humility in the way we treat one another.  It’s so easy for worldliness and selfishness to slip into the thinking of even mature Christians.  Let’s say, for instance, that the coming auditorium remodel doesn’t turn out exactly to our taste.  Are we going to be upset that we didn’t get our way, or are we going to rejoice because others in the church got theirs? 

PHILIPPIANS 3 offers us another valuable spiritual lesson.  It tells us to be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus.  As a Jew, Paul had it all, and he gave it all up for Christ.  What’s more, it was a trade he was glad to make.  All of us are called to give up things in our lives too.  Usually, these things are minor in comparison to what Paul gave up.  Do we cling jealously to them anyway, or, like Paul, do we gladly forfeit them for Christ’s sake?

The epistle concludes with PHILIPPIANS 4.  This chapter calls us to find the solution to our problems in Christ.  If we are anxious, we can find peace in Christ.  If we are tempted, we can find strength by meditating on the things of Christ.  If we are suffering, we can find contentment in Christ.  If our hearts are set on Him, there is nothing we cannot overcome!

Racism: a Biblical Perspective

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

I am willing to preach on any Biblical topic, no matter how fraught with controversy it may be.  However, I must admit that even my spirit quails a little bit at the thought of preaching one of the sermons that has been requested—a sermon on racism.  It’s both a very simple and a very complicated topic, and the complications come from our personal and national history with race.

To illustrate this, let me talk about the complications of my own history.  Don’t let the lack of accent fool you.  The roots of my family tree are firmly in the South!  The man in the picture on the screen is my great-great grandfather.  His name was Thomas Jefferson Tynes.  Though the picture is of him as an old man, in his youth, he fought for the Confederacy.  In 1862, at age 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the 6th Virginia Cavalry.  For the next three years, he fought with Robert E. Lee and rode with Jeb Stuart.  During the Gettysburg campaign, he was wounded.  I believe that he fought bravely, as did countless thousands of others who fought for the South.

However, it is also true that my great-great grandfather came from a family of slaveowners.  He benefited from and probably participated in cruelty and injustice wreaked upon the innocent.  Closer to home, I don’t have any trouble thinking of older relatives of mine who loved me and were good to me, but also were as racist as they could possibly be.  They thought and did wrong, but these are my flesh and blood.  These are my people, and that makes it complicated.

I say all this for several reasons.  First, if you’ve got complications in your backstory too, I totally get where you’re coming from.  Second, when we encounter those who speak passionately from their own history and experience, let’s remember to respond with understanding and grace.  If somebody looks at my family and says, “What a bunch of evil oppressors!”, I get where they’re coming from too. 

Third, though, as present as the past is when it comes to racism, we can’t allow the past to define us.  Rather than being conformed to history, we must be transformed by Christ.  With this in mind, then, let’s consider racism from a Biblical perspective.

From this perspective, I see three problems with looking down on someone else because of their race.  The first of these is that GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY.  Look at Acts 10:34-35.  The context here, of course, is Peter preaching the first gospel sermon to the Gentiles.  Why is he doing this?  Fundamentally, because everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

The usual racist argument, by anybody against anybody, is that Race X is better than Race Y because members of Race Y aren’t as smart, aren’t as moral, etc.  I have two issues with that.  First, I don’t think it can be proven.  For instance, lots of racists like to point to standardized test scores as evidence, but I suspect that test scores do a much better job of measuring wealth and educational opportunity than they do of measuring intellectual ability. 

Second, it’s ungodly to measure anybody’s inherent worth by their ability.  Jesus didn’t just die for smart people.  He didn’t just die for people who are good at math.  He certainly didn’t just die for white people!  He died for everybody, regardless of ability, regardless of race, and if Jesus looked at somebody and said, “He’s worth dying for,” who am I to argue? 

We have no right to assign to anybody a value different than the one that Jesus assigned, and to Him, everyone is precious.  When we consider how to treat others, we’re not supposed to take our cue from our families.  We’re not supposed to take our cue from the world around us.  We’re supposed to take our cue from the Lord, and His love allows no room for racism.

Second, racism is problematic because IT BELONGS TO THE OLD SELF.  Look at Colossians 3:9-11.  In this context in Colossians, Paul is talking about the spiritual transformation that Christians are to undergo.  There are attributes that Christ calls us to put off, and there are attributes that He calls us to put on.  We aren’t to be our old selves anymore.  We are to become new creations in Him.

As this text reveals, one of the characteristics of unregenerate humankind is that it assigns different values to people in different categories.  We think of racism as a uniquely modern and American problem, but in reality, it’s as old as the tower of Babel.  2000 years ago, there were all sorts of labels that the people of the ancient world liked to assign to each other.  You were a Greek, you were a Jew, you were a barbarian, you were a Scythian, you were a slave, and so on.  Typically, you sought out the company of people who shared your label, and you sneered at the ones who didn’t.  Many of the ancient Roman plays were filled with racial stereotyping.  The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Paul says, though, that such a labeling mindset is part of the old way of thinking.  Just as Christians are to put aside anger, lying, and dirty jokes, they are to put aside the labeling of racism.  Racial labeling is evidence of a mind that has not been renewed in knowledge after the image of God.  We’re not supposed to look at people and see skin tone and ethnic background.  We’re supposed to look at people and see souls, because that’s what God wants us to see.

The third issue with racism is that WE ARE ONE IN CHRIST.  Consider with me Galatians 3:27-29.  As Christians, it is wrong for us to evaluate anybody according to characteristics that have no spiritual significance.  It’s doubly wrong for us to evaluate one another that way. 

I know you’ve heard me tell stories about O.J., a black brother who was part of the Joliet congregation and a dear friend of mine.  Sadly, during my last few years in Illinois, O.J. developed brain cancer and died.  The man who preached his funeral was John Meyer, one of the former elders there, a man who is as white as I am. 

O.J. was an important man in the black community in Joliet.  The funeral home was packed, and the only white people there were members of the Joliet church.  John began his eulogy by saying, “O.J. was my brother.  I’m sure you can all see the resemblance.”  He brought the house down!

The thing is, though, I can see the resemblance between John and O.J.  They didn’t look a thing alike, of course, but they both loved God, loved His word, and earnestly desired to be more like Jesus.  In the things that matter, they were and are brothers, and they loved one another as brothers.

This is how we must be.  As I said at the beginning, blood is important.  Family ties matter.  However, the most important blood in our lives must be the blood of Jesus, and the most important ties, the ties that bind in Christ.  Perhaps overcoming racial division is impossible in the world, but it is mandatory in the church.  Only when we find unity with one another can we find unity with God.

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