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A peace that surpasses all understanding

Years ago, a young pastor did the right thing, despite one congregant’s advice not to

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Worshipers use hymnals and their voices to praise God Wednesday during worship at the Presbyterian Center Chapel. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

LOUISVILLE — These days the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III has a fancy title — director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

But at one time he was a young pastor embarking on his first call at a church in a town in Mississippi.

Jones talked about what happened next during his sermon on Wednesday as part of weekly worship at the Presbyterian Center Chapel.

On the day the young pastor and a church member were unpacking Jones’ books and placing them on shelves in his new study, Jones got a phone call. Would he consider serving on the board of Mississippi’s first Habitat for Humanity chapter? The new chapter needed a vice president, and the new Presbyterian pastor had been selected.

“Don’t you go,” the church member warned Jones. “It’s the Methodists’ turn. You need to pay attention to us.”

But Jones said yes, as did clergy members from area Episcopal, United Methodist, Church of God, AME and Assemblies of God churches. The chapter purchased a tract of land in a town nearby and applied to the town council there for a building permit, but the council turned down the application. “You are not building a house for black people in this town,” Jones said of the council’s rationale.

Jones and his fellow board members retreated, spending time in prayer and in the Scriptures. Their congressman told them, “I don’t think Habitat will work here.”

Finally, land in their town was donated, and a home was constructed using, in part, sweat equity from the family of color selected to own that first house. Habitat’s founder, Millard Fuller, was on hand for the home’s dedication ceremony. And that young pastor felt “an overwhelming sense of peace in my soul,” as Jones put it.

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism, preached during worship Wednesday at the Presbyterian Center Chapel. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

“Church, work on your stuff,” Jones urged during his sermon, “that the cause of the gospel we love will flourish and we will live lovers’ lives and make Christ attractive to all.”

On this day, Jones relied on Philippians 4:1-9 for his scriptural basis, a passage with plenty of familiar references from Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” and “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” and “if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

“Paul believes the faith community is all about expressing the love of God and making Christ attractive to the world,” Jones said. But residents of Philippi “were proud to call themselves ‘Little Rome.’ Yes, Jesus is great and all,” the Philippians were saying, according to Jones, “but it’s also about the empire.”

The Philippians discovered something that’s since been affirmed by countless members of the body of Christ: hearing and embracing the gospel has consequences. “It changes your life and mine,” Jones said, and working alongside others committed to the gospel has meant “my view of the gospel has become more expansive. It’s for all people, and we need every one of us to accomplish this work.”

Taking the gospel seriously “means we take stands, and we begin to make people at times angry and unsettled,” he said. “We are no longer content with some of God’s children not having enough food to eat,” nor with “structures that keep people bound in racism” which he said is “devastating for people of color and for white people. It’s not the identity for us. Our identity is in Christ.”

“Here’s the deal,” Jones said, “and I love the gospel because there is always a deal. Paul says, ‘Don’t be anxious.’ I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a little anxiety, including some about this coronavirus. I want to take precautions, but I don’t want it to keep me from serving.”

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology & Worship, helped lead worship Wednesday in the Presbyterian Center Chapel. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

Churches are anxious, too, and many have decided or are mulling not meeting in person for Sunday worship for the next few weeks. But many churches are anxious about more everyday matters, including those churches struggling to formulate a vision, “to get outside their walls and meet people in the neighborhood,” Jones said. Paul would tell those churches, “Get on your knees and pray,” Jones said. “Maybe we should stop this preaching from me and do just that.”

But Paul also urged the Philippians to let their prayer requests be known to God, so that God’s peace will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

“What does that mean?” Jones asked. He said he used to think that if he could just “attend the right conference on spirituality or if I had people praying for me, I’d get that peace.” What Paul is talking about is “shalom” in the Hebrew Scripture and “eiréné” in the New Testament — which includes right living, wholeness and justice, Jones said. “It’s saving me and the people around me — and it’s saving the world.”

“As I keep growing up, I’ve learned to ask questions,” Jones said. “I wish I had asked that day (that the Habitat chapter dedicated that first home), ‘Did you experience that peace too? That peace that is the cause of the gospel?’”

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