The Blazing Fastball That Gives Us Confidence
The Blazing Fastball That Gives Us Confidence
On July 15, 1986, Roger Clemens came to bat in his first Major League Baseball All-Star game. Roger was the sizzling right-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and he had been named to the American League All-Star team as the starting pitcher. In the second inning, the time came when it was his turn to bat. But that was something Roger Clemens was not used to because the American League had the designated-hitter rule—someone else always batted for him. But here, in the All-Star game between the American League and the National League, they alternated each year between the rules of the two leagues. This particular year, they played by National League rules—pitchers had to bat for themselves. So Roger Clemens found himself coming to bat for the first time.
Clemens took a few uncertain practice swings in the on-deck circle, and then he stepped into the batter's box at home plate. Out on the mound was the best pitcher in the National League—Dwight Gooden. The year before, Dwight had won the Cy Young Award—the award given to the best pitcher in all of baseball. A pitcher who never batted was facing the best pitcher in all of baseball.
Dwight Gooden wound up and threw a white-hot, streaking fastball that blew by Roger Clemens. Roger stepped out of the box, blinked his eyes a few times, and turned to the catcher behind him, Gary Carter. "Gary, is that what my pitches look like?" Clemens asked. "You bet it is!" Gary said.
Roger Clemens stepped back into the box, and he quickly struck out. But when he went back onto the pitcher's mound to pitch for his team, he threw three perfect innings—nobody on the other team got a hit. He was voted the game's Most Valuable Player. And from that day on, he would tell people he had a greater confidence in his own pitching. Once he understood how powerful his own fastball was, he pitched with all the confidence in the world.
How could we as a church get that same confidence that God is working in us to win people to the Lord and build them up in the faith? What could we see, what could we visualize, that would tell us that God is working in us, making us a church that would offer people a place of Bible teaching, joyful fellowship, and spiritual growth?
We look at ourselves and see that we're small. We don't have our own building. Some of our ministries have few people in them. What would give us the confidence that God is working in us? Like Roger Clemens, who saw that white-hot fastball blaze by him, what could we see that would give us confidence that God is working in us?
It's not just a question for a church, but also for individuals. What would give you confidence that God is genuinely working in you? What would give you confidence that he's part of your life, that you belong to him, and that all of his thoughts are centered on you? What tangible, objective thing could you point to that would give you absolute confidence that God is part of your life?
One day, while sitting in prison, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a small church. In that letter he wrote, "I'm confident that God has begun a good work in you, and I'm confident that he'll continue that work until it's complete."
What made him say that? What can give us confidence that God is working in us and that he'll carry it to completion?
Partnership in the gospel is evidence of God's work.
Let's look at that letter Paul sent from prison to a small church in the city of Philippi. There we'll see what makes us confident, what makes us know for sure that God is working in us. Notice Paul's confidence that God is working in them in Philippians 1:6: being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul is confident God is at work among the Philippians because he sees in them an unwavering, sustained concern that others learn about God, a concern that shows up in very specific, objective ways.
You can be confident that God is at work and that good things are ahead when you see some very tangible and ongoing things being done to make him known to others.
Let's read the opening paragraphs again to see that this is what gives us confidence that God is at work in us. Paul writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel." There it is—your partnership in the gospel, your joining with me in making Christ known to others. I'm thankful for your partnership, for all the tangible, concrete things you've done so that others can hear about God.
And this tangible partnership has been ongoing. Notice what he says next: When I think of you, I think of your tangible partnership in the gospel "from the first day until now"—from when we first met until just this last week. It's been a sustained, ongoing partnership. It's not only been concrete, it's been consistent over the years. It's been a partnership in the gospel over a long period of time, from the first day until now. This tangible and ongoing partnership is what makes me confident that God is working in you. The things you do so that others can learn about God make me confident about you. Your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now makes me confident "that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Your tangible and ongoing partnership in the gospel, makes me confident God has started something in you and he's going to carry it to completion.
I'm justified in having such a confidence about you, Paul says in verse seven, because I love you and I know your history. I know that all of you share in the ministry God has given me, regardless of my circumstances. My friends, I'm so thankful for you, and so confident of you, "God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus."
Paul is confident that God is working in them because he sees they have concretely and consistently committed themselves to getting the gospel to others. We can be confident that God is at work when we see tangible and ongoing things being done to make him known to others.
Hospitality is evidence of God's work.
How had the Philippians shown Paul their commitment to partnership in the gospel? From the very first day he met them, one of them immediately made their home available as a regular meeting place. Paul was confident that God was at work because the first person that got saved in the city immediately opened her home for everyone else so that there would be a place to meet. That's probably the first thing Paul has in mind when he refers to the Philippians' tangible partnership. He's likely remembering his first week in the city, and how the first person to accept the gospel tangibly made it possible for others to also hear the Good News.
We know about this immediate opening of the home from the book of Acts. Acts 16:11-13 describes how Paul first connected with these Philippians and what he's remembering about them. While Paul was on one of his missionary journeys, he came to the city of Philippi. There were no Christians in the city. It fact, there weren't even enough Jews in the city to have a Jewish synagogue. The best Paul could find was a small Jewish prayer meeting, composed mostly of women, which met under some trees by the river. He joined them, began to speak about Christ, and the Lord opened the heart of one of the ladies there. This woman, Lydia, owned her own import business and had a large house. Lydia believed the gospel, and immediately she made her house available. She begged Paul, "If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house." She wouldn't take "no" for an answer.
The rest of Acts 16 describes how Paul stayed in the city for some weeks or months, including his time spent in prison due to some trumped-up charges. By the time he was let out of prison and decided to go on to the next city, Lydia's house had become a regular meeting place for the believers.
When Paul remembers their tangible partnership in the gospel, from the first day until now, he has in mind that a home was readily available as a place where God could do something.
That's one way you can be confident that's somebody's committed to the work of the Lord-they make their home available.
Obviously, not everybody's home is large enough for some gatherings. That was true in Philippi, and it's true with us. Lydia was in the import business and made enough money to have a home that would accommodate others. Not all of us have that kind of home. But when someone does have a suitable home, and they quickly open it up for others, that's a sign that God is working in them, because it shows that they're committed to helping God do something with other people. They're very willing to go to the effort of vacuuming the rugs, straightening the furniture, cleaning the windows, mowing the lawn, making refreshments. You can be confident that God is working in them because you see a tangible desire to help his work take place.
On the other hand, when somebody can't be bothered to make their home available, it may be because the work of God is not central to their lives. Their attitude is, "Go to church on Sunday, but after that, get on with life, and don't put yourself out any more." God is not at work there. You can be confident that God is working when homes are quickly available so that others can benefit.
What else does Paul remember when he says the Philippians' partnership gives him confidence that God is at work among them?
Standing up for the truth is evidence of God's work.
He not only remembers the home being opened, he also remembers they were willing to take some heat for their faith and to stand for righteousness. They had to pay a price in their culture when they became Christians, and they paid it willingly. Philippi was a unique city that had a special government status. It was connected to the Roman emperor in ways other cities weren't. As a result, it was important in Philippi to be politically correct, and that meant worshipping the emperor as if he were a god. Paul remembers that his Christian friends in Philippi were willing to pay the price of refusing emperor worship. He'll say a little later in this letter: You're going through some of the same stuff I had to go through; you're suffering some of the same things I did because of your Christian faith.
We'll see him compliment a couple of women in the congregation in particular. He'll address them by name in the letter, "I remember how you contended at my side for the sake of the gospel." Their tangible, sustained partnership showed in their willingness to pay a price for their Christian faith.
You can be confident that God is at work in someone when you see that person standing up for the truth and being willing to take some heat for it.
A young mom will no doubt feel the heat when she raises the question in a PTA meeting: "Do we really need to have alternative lifestyles introduced into our 4th grade class; I'm not sure I want my 10-year-old daughter to read a book called 'Johnny Has Two Daddies' or 'Both My Mommies Love Me.'" When you see her stand for the truth even though it may mean being booed or hissed, or called homophobic or narrow or prejudiced, you can be confident that God is working something good in her life.
Similarly, it takes courage for an elderly widow and an elderly widower to get married. If both of them were living on Social Security, simply moving in together would allow them to receive both of their checks. But if they did the righteous thing and got married, our government would cancel one of their Social Security checks and they would have to live on half the money. When you see someone take a stand for truth and righteousness and pay a price for it, you can be confident that God is doing a good work in his or her life.
When someone won't take a stand for the truth, risking some consequence for the sake of righteousness, it's probably because God is working in them. Their attitude is, "Never mind what God wants, I'm gonna look out for myself."
Paul says: I remember your homes being available and your willingness to stand for the truth. And I'm confident that God has started something in you, and he's going to take it to completion.
Generosity is evidence of God's work.
There's one last thing that Paul remembers. There's one last thing he saw, and it's probably the biggest one, for it's the one he spends the most time on. They gave money. Tangibly and consistently and generously, they gave money.
More than once these Philippians had sent money to Paul to support him in his travels and preaching. In fact, this very letter he's writing is partly a "thank you" note for their latest gift that had just arrived that week. He seems to say: I'm grateful because this shows me more than anything else that God is at work.
In Philippians 4:10 Paul says, "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it." He understood that the Philippians would have responded sooner if they could have. So he wants them to know it means a lot to receive the gift now. He goes on to say that it's not so much that he needed the money. Paul had learned to manage with whatever means he had. But he was thankful that they sent him support because it told him that God was working in them.
From the first day until the time Paul wrote this letter, the church at Philippi was the only group that consistently gave to the work of the Lord. "This," Paul says, "is to your credit."
When somebody gives his or her money generously and consistently, you can be confident that God is working in that person's life.
When someone won't give—or when they give just a few bucks to sort of play the part instead of the real percentage of their income that God asks for—it's probably a sign that God is not in their lives. When God has begun a work in you, and you sense his reality and his presence, you want to honor him, you want to thank him, you want give at a level that says, "I want others to know you, too." When God is real and working in somebody's life, they give generously and consistently.
Paul writes to this small church: I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. I remember the tangible and ongoing things you do to make God known to others. I remember your homes being opened, your stand for the truth, and your consistent and generous giving. And I am confident that God has begun a work in you and will take it to completion.
My friends, we can share that confidence. God has also begun a good work in us. We can point to the same things. Not a streaking fastball, but the tangible and ongoing things that God's people do: opening their homes for prayer, for youth, for meetings; taking a stand for the truth; and giving—lovingly and generously—in order that God's work would be strong.
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.