• Steven Marsh

Giving With Gratitude Because of the Unconditional Love of The Triune God–Forgiveness. God’s G

I began my 38thyear of ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) August 15th. I have served seven congregations prior to Geneva as a pastor and Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas as a professor. There is one theme that is similar in both church and college…institutions remain committed to paths that can lead to their ultimate demise, unless they wake up and realize death is not a good thing.

Jesus told us that the Church will never die, “But churches have and are dying.”[1]Long term church members remember times of rapid growth in their church, but resist recognizing the beginning of the slow erosion in church membership. Why is that? Thom S. Rainer in Autopsy of a Deceased Churchwrites, “This slow erosion is the worst type of decline for churches, because the members have no sense of urgency to change. They are in church on a regular basis; they don’t see the gradual decline that is taking place before their eyes.”[2]Slow erosion in church participation and membership must be addressed.

More often than not, participation and membership in churches erodes, because people are not experiencing the unconditional love of God. Of those who exit our churches, many begin a journey of being lost. Who are the lost? Anyone who doesn’t know Jesus as Savior and Lord; anyone who is hurting; and anyone pushed to the fringes of existence. Many of the lost, in whatever category, walk out the back door of the church because they don’t feel loved. Jesus asserts that those who experience being loved by God should always be looking for the lost. It is God’s continual initiation of love toward us that awakens us to be found and to find others.

The texts in 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15:1-10 speak to being lost and found. Each validates the practice of forgiveness, a gift we receive from God and others and can give to others. Paul, in 1 Timothy, states his experience of God’s love, rooted in God’s forgiveness of him, in this way: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service.”[3]It was only through God’s forgiveness of him and in-turn his reception of forgiveness from others that Paul could be unfettered from his past. The prophet Jeremiah encourages us to admit the consequences of withholding forgiveness and not to plea for mercy. When the Temple was destroyed and the people found themselves in exile, they needed to seek the forgiveness of God and one another in order to be set free from God’s judgment and a “judging, critical” spirit toward others. The text in Luke 15 informs us that God’s initiating love, mercy and grace is freely given to all. This is what encourages the lost to be found. To know they are loved and forgiven…unconditionally. The two parables point out that Jesus, unlike the Pharisees and scribes, believed that one should have compassion for the lost. The text in Luke gives us two examples of the lost being found and the resulting celebration. First, in Luke 15:3-7, one sheep goes astray, and the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes to find the one lost sheep. The shepherd returns with the one and gathers around all the other shepherds and his friends and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” In Luke 15:8-10, the woman in this parable has ten silver coins and loses one of them. The one coin was most likely a drachma, which was worth the price of a sheep or one-fifth the price of an ox. In this instance, the woman takes a lamp and searches diligently for the lost coin. She did whatever was necessary to find the coin. And after finding the coin, she like the shepherd, called together her friends and neighbors and said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin I had lost.”  Jesus redefined the meaning of community by encouraging the found to seek out the lost.[4]

Jesus loves you and me so much. He is asking us to seek the lost. As Christians, we identify with the found. The point of the parables of the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins or the lost sheep and the lost coin must not be missed. The point of the parables is how we, the found, treat the lost. Who is the lost? Who is seeking the lost? Are you lost or found?

Decline is everywhere in the church. Many of us don’t see it. My friends, God is passionate about loving people. Are you passionate about loving God and others? Therein lies the necessary insight to recognize decline and begin to do something about it. God’s initiative of salvation, reconciliation, forgiveness and peace with God come through what God has accomplished for humanity in Christ. God did for us what we could not, cannot do for ourselves. Asking forgiveness from God and forgiving one another is key to turning decline around. It is essential for being found and finding the lost.

[1]Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church(Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 7.

[2]Ibid., 13.

[3]1 Timothy 1:12

[4]In this paragraph, I have benefited from the thinking of Joseph J. Clifford, Allie Utley, Robert W. Wall, Magrey R. DeVega, Donald K. McKim and Lynn Japinga in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery and Cynthia L. Rigby, editors, Connections, Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 303-305, 306-307, 311-313, 313-315, 316-318 and 318-319.

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