This is a time of beginnings.  It is my first Sunday with you and the beginning of a new church year. For Ruth and me, there are other beginnings too: a new home, a new church, and a new community.  We have been here for just a week now.  We have already met many friendly people who have welcomed us to St. Paul’s and to Brighton.

During Advent, we think about the coming of our Lord to this earth – his first coming – to the manger in Bethlehem.  But we also think about the Second Coming promised in the Scriptures.  And St. Paul gives this assurance: Jesus will “strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.The Greek word translated “blameless” means “unimpeachable” … “beyond reproach”.  It “implies not merely acquittal, but the absence of even a charge or accusation …” (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, I, 131; cf. Romans 8:33).

Only by the grace given to us in Christ is this possible. "Grace” means “unmerited favour.”  We receive it; we do not earn it. We welcome it; we do not work for it – although as we welcome God’s grace, we work.  I am impressed by the work that you do.  I had a look at your Narrative Budget.  This is a great way to understand the work you are doing by the grace of God.  It is beautifully set out.  It describes what you do – and also what you would do, if you could do more. The exhortation on the front cover summarizes the goal: “Let us BE the church.”  Let us be who Christ wants us to be!

“God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

God is faithful.  He will strengthen us to the end.  And by grace, we will be blameless because of what Christ has done for us on the cross and through our faith in him.  And even that faith is a gift from God.

I have been reading a book by John Bowen, Associate Professor of Evangelism at Wycliffe College.  The book is called Growing Up Christian, Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church, and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church. In this book, Bowen presents the results of a survey.  He sent a survey out to a large group of people who had grown up Christian.  The questionnaire asked, “What would you say are the main factors that have enabled you to stay within the Christian faith?”He offered seventeen possible answers, plus an opportunity to write down other reasons he had not thought of. Here are some of the suggested reasons:

Having a church that was supportive and helpful.

Having models and mentors for the Christian life.

Finding helpful answers to the intellectual questions of Christianity. 

Having a personal relationship with God.

Having friends who are Christians.

Finding help to resist lifestyle pressures …

Wanting to follow the example of parents, and so on.

When the surveys were tallied, the #1 reason for staying with their faith was this: their personal relationship with God.

As we would expect, Christian mentors and friends were also high on the list. Bowen quotes some of the respondents. 

A 38 year old believer says, “No matter what circumstances I have experienced (especially in the last few years), nothing would make me run from God or turn my back on God.  On the contrary, it is to God I run in times of trouble.”

Another person says, “During the separation period before my divorce, I seriously questioned my faith and what it meant to be a Christian.  Do I turn my back on God or cling to him with all I’ve got?  “The answer, obviously, was to cling to God.  After that decision, life started to make sense again and I started making a new life which has turned out to be far better than before …”.

A 25 year old says, “I’m a Christian because I know that God is real – because I know him.  That’s the kind of truth I could never really ditch, even if I wanted to.  That’s not to say I have always been super close to God.”

A 27 year old says, “The church/God’s people are broken, but we must not let that brokenness interfere with our picture of a loving, righteous, and faithful God.”

And that brings us back to what St. Paul said. To finish now, here it is again: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Who called us?  God called us. What did he call us into?  The fellowship of his Son. And having called us into the fellowship of his Son, God will empower us to participate in that fellowship, indeed to foster that fellowship – if we surrender our lives, our wants, our needs -- to him. That is what is required: that we walk humbly with our God. For God is faithful.  Amen.