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The Stewardship of Sacred Ministry: Proclaiming the Riches of the Glory of Christ

Sermon by Jon Payne on May 18, 2014

Colossians 1:24-29

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Beloved, I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to Colossians chapter 1. Colossians chapter 1 verses 24 through 29. And, as you’re turning there, I do want to give you a word of greeting from your sister church in Charleston, South Carolina. This morning, Pastor David preached on the partnership that the apostle Paul had with the Philippians and the partnership in ministry which ran deep which was a gospel partnership. And, this is the case between this church and our church in Charleston. We did not exist a year ago and the Lord has raised up a church—a growing church in Charleston, South Carolina, that’s committed to the same gospel and ministry that you are. And, so we give thanks to you for that. 

Also, if I can give a personal word. It’s a blessing to be with you on this joyous and momentous occasion in the life of your church. David and I met back in 2001. He was a student at the Free Church College in Edinburgh. I was a student at the University of Edinburgh New College. And, we quickly became friends there and have been friends ever since. And, David and I have walked in close friendship for over thirteen years. And, this was through student days, through two pastorates, through many conversations and times of fellowship. And, I can say without hesitation, that your new senior minister is a man of deep integrity. He is a man with a profound piety. He is a man who loves God and loves the church and it’s infectious. You couldn’t have called a more qualified or more faithful man to be your next pastor, nor a more family to serve alongside of him. And, so we rejoice with you this evening. And, what a blessing to know that the faithful ministry that’s been carried out here under Ligon Duncan for the past seventeen years will continue and also grow under the leadership of Pastor David Strain. 

So with those words, let us turn our attention to God’s Word. Please stand with me for the reading of God’s Word. Colossians chapter 1 verses 24 through 29:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Here ends the reading of God’s Word. Let us pray:

Our loving and merciful heavenly Father, we humbly ask this evening that we would not receive the Gospel preached tonight in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. Your Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. So may the wisdom and truth of your Word fill our hearts and minds and lead us once again to put all of our faith and all of our trust in your beloved Son, who is the light of the world, who is our crucified and risen Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s in his masterless name we pray these things. And all of God’s people said, Amen. 

You may be seated.

A Desperate Need for the Recovery of Biblical Ministry

Beloved, if there was ever a time that the Christian ministry needed to be defined and recovered, it is now. It is now. For there is much confusion in our day over the nature and the task of Christian ministry and of the Christian minister. In many places, the American evangelical church has wandered off the old paths of Christian discipleship and courageous preaching and are now more concerned with felt needs, cultural accommodation and numerical success. Scores of books are being published that actually undermine God’s ordained tools, his appointed means of ministry, making them a mere footnote in this pragmatic narrative that they are erecting. Amusement, not sober, God-centered discipleship is shaping our churches. David Wells in his landmark book No Place For Truth writes this: “That the stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now damned by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself. The older orthodoxy was driven by a passion for truth. And, that is why it could express itself only in theological terms. The new evangelicalism is not driven by the same passion for truth and that is why it is often empty of theological interests.”

He goes on to write, “We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth and less capacity to speak the word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks.”

Beloved, the only sure way to recover biblical ministry—or in the case of First Presbyterian, to continue biblical, faithful, gospel ministry—is to look to God’s Word for wisdom, to look to God’s Word for instruction. For apart from God’s Word, we are only left with ourselves. We are only left with ourselves, with our wisdom, with our thoughts, with our words, with our own imaginations. And, to be left with that is to be left in a dangerous place, in a place where there surely will be drift from our biblical and confessional moorings. 

So, let’s consider for a few moments this evening God’s words at the end of Colossians 1 and this sacred blueprint for Christian ministry. There are five points that emerge from the text. They are these: the gospel minister’s calling, the gospel minister’s suffering, the gospel minister’s message, the gospel minister’s aim and the gospel minister’s labor. His calling, suffering, message, aim and labor. And, may this message not only be to encourage David’s soul, but to encourage you to understand what it is David is going to be doing in the coming weeks, months and years, God willing, of Christian ministry.

  1. The Gospel Minister’s Calling

First of all, verse 25. Look there with me again. Paul writes that he became “a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you to make the word of God fully known.” In this section, the apostle Paul expounds on the statements that he made in chapter 1 and verse 1 and also in verse 23. That is that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God and a minister of the gospel. In defense of his calling as an apostle against the false teachers, Paul makes clear that his calling and stewardship were not from men but was from God. Paul became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to him for the sake of the church. Well, there is so much that could be considered in these words. Let’s think for a few moments about this idea of gospel stewardship. Paul often described himself, did he not, as a gospel steward. For example in 1 Corinthians 4:1 he describes himself and the apostles as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” In Ephesians 3:2, he refers to the “stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me.” What does Paul mean by this? Why is he describing himself in these terms? 

A Stewardship of the Word of God

First century readers would have been more familiar with this language than we are today. You see, every noble household in antiquity would’ve had a household steward. That is someone who was hired to manage the household, to manage the children, to manage the land, to manage servants, to manage the food, to manage finances. The head of the family would literally entrust the stewardship and care of his entire household to this person. It was a tremendous responsibility. Now, Paul is saying that he and all gospel ministers, all gospel ministers are stewards of God’s household. That is, called, set apart and equipped by God to exercise spiritual oversight in his church and dispense the riches of God’s grace primarily—now hear this, primarily—through the proclamation of the word of God and the administration of the sacraments, God’s appointed means of grace. That is through the gospel ministry that has been entrusted to the minister. One commentator describes the minister’s office as “administrator of spiritual riches.” I was thinking this morning as I was sitting and feasting on the Word of God as David was preaching that he was administering the spiritual riches of God’s grace in Christ. 

Again, Paul writes in verse 25 that he became a minister “according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you,” now look there, “to make the word of God fully known.” The stewardship from God is not for the minister’s selfish gain. It’s not for elevated status. No, it’s given to the minister for the sake of the church. This, tonight, is for the sake of the church. Pastor David’s ministry is for the sake of the church, to make the Word of God fully known. And, here, we have this clear and indisputable mandate for every Christian minister, namely to preach the whole counsel of God, to courageously preach all of Scripture, every book, every chapter, every verse, every glorious theme that is set forth in the Word of God. “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for the people of God unto every good work.” As Paul was saying his tearful farewells to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he declared, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Beloved, he held nothing back. Paul ignored no doctrine, even the less culturally palatable ones like sin and judgment and hell. The divine stewardship that was given to Paul and the divine stewardship that is given to every gospel minister is first and foremost to make the Word of God fully known. That is David’s primary responsibility. That is what you ought to pray for. that is what you ought to come expecting to hear every Lord’s Day morning and evening: the Word of God. 

This Word is to be preached with historical context. It is to be preached to give its true meaning, its specific application, not muddying the waters with endless personal anecdotes and cultural commentary. That is not preaching. The gospel minister is called to preach the Word of God. By doing so, he feeds and nourishes Christ’s flock and, by way of extension, carefully shepherds the flock that Christ purchased with his very own blood. My dear brother, David, if I can encourage you: You have been given stewardship from God for the sake of this dear church. This stewardship focuses on the care of this congregation, the care of this congregation. And as a humble steward of this congregation, remember who it is that has called you. Remember, you are his humble servant. Remember, that this is His household. One commentator I read said that we as ministers are merely “holy underlings in the household of God.” That’s what we are, mere servants serving God in his church.

  1. The Gospel Minister’s Suffering

Secondly, remember that this was given to you not for yourself but for the sake of the church as Paul mentions here. To lead them to the verdant pastures and to the living waters of God’s grace in Christ. And also, remember to dispense that which God himself has given you, namely his Word adding nothing to it, taking nothing from it for it is efficacious to save his elect and it is all-sufficient to justify and to sanctify and to glorify his people. Let us do this. May you do this even at great personal sacrifice. And that leads to our second point this evening: the gospel minister’s suffering. Look at verse 24 with me. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. And in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” As was mentioned this morning, Paul is writing from prison. His opening word “now” is referring to his present circumstances. But, it’s not his circumstances or his present suffering that’s controlling his attitude. No. Look what it says. It says Paul rejoices. How, how can he rejoice in these circumstances? How can he possibly rejoice as a persecuted prisoner uncertain of his future, facing the possibility of execution? Paul can rejoice because he rejoices in the Lord. He rejoices in the Lord, the One who has not moved, that Rock. Circumstances may change. Suffering will enter our lives, but the Lord is unmoved and his promises are always sure. And he’s trusting in those promises knowing that his sufferings are being used by God in the advancement of the kingdom and the encouragement of his own soul. Beloved, God’s purposes aren’t hindered by our sufferings. On the contrary, his purposes are often accomplished through our sufferings. 

The first week of January I was asked, “How is the church plant going?” My response, “I think I have to pinch myself because everything is going so well. We have unity. There’s very little suffering in the church. God is blessing. We’re growing rapidly. It’s wonderful.” Then, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and a week later a daughter of the church, 22 years old, was killed in a car accident and then there were others things (I won’t mention here) that took place. All of a sudden, it was a world of suffering that entered our church. What do we do with that? Where do we turn? Where do you turn when this kind of affliction comes into your life? Well, here we have precious promises. Paul to the Philippians as you’re going to soon here preached—he speaks about his imprisonment, that the Philippian church was worried about him. And, he wanted to quell their concerns and he said “No, don’t worry about me.” “No,” chapter 1 verse 12, “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel so that it has been made known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all of the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” And furthermore, he says, “Most of the brothers have become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment and are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Therefore as a result of Paul’s suffering this elite Roman guard is hearing the gospel preached, people are being converted and also preachers in Rome are being emboldened to preach with greater courage. That’s why Paul could write in Philippians 4:4 “rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice. Do not be anxious about anything.” Paul models for us here, as a minister, faith, the promises of God and he knew thorny trials. He knew thorny trials: stoned by his own countrymen, persecuted by Gentile Pagans, beaten and left for dead, flogged, shipwrecked, imprisoned, continually slandered and, not to mention, the care of all of the churches. But, Paul rejoiced in his sufferings for the sake of the church confident that God would ultimately use it for his own glory and for the blessing of the church. 

Suffering and Union with Christ

Charles Simeon, who was a great 18th/19th century Cambridge preacher, who for decades was persecuted by a large portion of his own congregation. In the old days, there were family pews and they had keys and they would lock them and unlock them and church was in and out. The congregation didn’t want Charles Simeon to be called but the bishop appointed him to this flock and a large portion of the congregation locked their pews and would not come to church. And people couldn’t sit in the pews. And so literally, for ten years, pews were locked and people sat in the aisles of the church. A friend wrote him in the latter years and said, “How did you make it through all of those difficult years receiving so much persecution even within your own congregation?” He said this, quote, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake. When I am getting through a hedge and my head and shoulders are safely through I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy head has surmounted all his suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow him patiently. We shall soon be partakers of his victory.” 

Paul trusted in the promises of God in the midst of his suffering. Suffering as a minister would also help Paul to identify with his suffering people, enabling him to show greater compassion and empathy to his people as he ministers to them. And this is true as it relates to every gospel minister. John Newton once commented that “God appoints his ministers to be sorely exercised both from without and within that they may sympathize with their flock and know in their own hearts the deceitfulness of sin, the infirmities of the flesh and the way in which the Lord supports and bears all who trust in him.” But, Paul’s suffering has an even deeper meaning—doesn’t it?—as it does for us all. Notice in verse 24 where Paul writes that through his suffering he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body his church.” Now, this in no way means that Christ’s atoning work is some way deficient, that his blood only partially redeemed us and that our suffering and the suffering of other Christians somehow helps pay for our redemption like some treasury of merits. I sat next to a Roman Catholic on the plane ride here and I asked him about this verse and said, “What do you make of this?” And I tried to preach the gospel to him even as I was trying to explain that there is nothing deficient in the work of Christ. And, he scratched his head said, “I don’t know. I’ve never really looked at that verse before.” I said, “Good, go look at it,” I encouraged, “think of the Gospel here.” 

Identifying with Christ in Suffering

Hebrews 10:12 says, “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins and he sat down at the right hand of God.” So if it doesn’t mean that Christ’s suffering is somehow deficient, what does it mean? Well, Paul is referring here to a close and profound identification that Christ has with his people, a fruit of mystical union with Christ so that when they suffer somehow and in some way they participate in the sufferings of Christ. It is not meritorious, but it is real. It’s a consequence of the believer’s union with Christ. Do you remember the Lord’s words to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Our union with Christ grants us the privilege of participating in the sufferings of Christ and thus humbling us, making us more dependent on him, making us more like him, and putting us on that glorious pathway that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ walked, namely the pathway from suffering to glory, from humiliation to exaltation. And, this is the way that we should think of our suffering, our sharing in the sufferings of Christ in this life is the prelude of sharing in his glory in the next. For Paul writes in Romans 8:17 that “we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him.” And any suffering that we do in this life is but a light and momentary affliction of the glory that awaits us. So be encouraged, suffering saint, whatever it is you’re going through. Be encouraged, Pastor David, whatever suffering you may face in the future, and there will be suffering. May you take heart. And, may you look to Christ for suffering certainly deepens our love for Christ and weans us off of this passing age, this world. 

Imprisoned in Aberdeen in 1637 for his gospel witness, Samuel Rutherford wrote the following words to his friend John Stewart. Describing his persecution, he writes this: “Oh, sweet, sweet is his yoke. Christ’s chains are of pure gold. Sufferings from him are perfumed. I would not give my weeping for the laughing of all fourteen prelates. I would not exchange my sadness with the world’s joy. Oh, lovely, lovely Jesus. Oh if all the three kingdoms had part of my love feast and of the comfort of a caressed prisoner. My heart is taken up with this that my silence and suffering may preach.” Dear brother, may your suffering as a gospel minister preach Christ so that it will preach Christ in the lives of your own congregation. 

  1. The Gospel Minister’s Message

Thirdly, the gospel minister’s message. The gospel minister’s message. What should be the main message of the minister? What should be at the very core of his preaching ministry? Well, according to Paul, according to the apostles, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and it has definition. It has content. This is the good news that Christ accomplished redemption for sinners by fulfilling all of the requirements of God’s law, also by satisfying God’s justice on the cross by bearing the very wrath of God in our stead, and by rising victoriously from the dead and one day returning to gather his people. The gospel is truth. It is a proposition. It is a declaration. It is an announcement. You are not the gospel, no offense; you are not the good news. I am not the gospel; I am not the good news. The good news is that Christ came and died for sinners. Look with me again in verse 25. Paul’s preaching this gospel. Paul writes that a stewardship was given to him from God in order to make the word of God fully known “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you the hope of glory. Him we proclaim.” 

Proclaiming Christ

The apostles preaching is characterized by the proclamation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Notice what he says: “Him we proclaim.” Not moralism we proclaim. Not politics we proclaim. Not therapy we proclaim. Not cultural transformation we proclaim. Not ourselves we proclaim. But him! Him we proclaim! Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh who lived a perfect life for thirty-three years under the law and who died on the cross. Him we proclaim. The one that bled and died for our sins and who rose victoriously from the dead. Him we proclaim. Summing up his preaching ministry to the Corinthians, Paul wrote this, “And when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It’s the offense of the cross that he preached, that the apostles preached. Paul preached the mystery hidden for ages now realized in Jesus Christ, the mystery that Gentiles too would be partakers of this glory, the riches of the glory of Christ and by engrafted into the covenant people of God that they, too, would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that holy deposit, that guarantee of future glory that they too would have the hope of glory at the return of Christ.

My dear brother, may the beginning and the middle and the end of your ministry be characterized by the proclamation of the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. Let not one sermon go by, not one Lord’s Day go by without the clear proclamation of Christ because that is what we need. Those who are unconverted need it. Those who are converted need it. May this church continue to hear it. Charles Spurgeon once told his students that “we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings in our preaching.” Pretty nothings. He says, “This is the sum. My brethren, preach Christ always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices and word must be our one great all comprehending theme. We are not called to preach philosophy and metaphysics, but the simple gospel. Man’s fall, his need of a new birth, forgiveness through an atonement and salvation as a result of faith. These are our battle ax and weapons of war. 

  1. The Gospel Minister’s Aim

And, this brings us, fourthly, to the minister’s aim. Did you notice that the minister’s aim in verse 28 is not simply to make converts or to gain church members. No, it is to make mature disciples. In fact, we see this in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples. Make disciples of all nations.” Once again, Paul states, “Him we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” That’s the goal, beloved. That’s the goal: to make everyone mature in Christ from youngest to oldest. Paul’s aim in ministry is not simply to point people back to their justification without any real concern for their growth and godliness. No, his aim is to point people to Christ alone for their redemption and to teach them to walk according to his commands. He does not say that you must do these things in order to be a Christian. He says do these things because you are a Christian saved by grace through faith in him. You see, he calls Christians to holiness. And, holiness when understood properly in no way, shape or form negotiates the gospel. In fact, Paul calls the Colossian believers in chapter 1 verse 10 to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord fully pleasing to him bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” And, again, in 2:6 he says, “Therefore as you received Christ Jesus the Lord so walk in him.” And all throughout the book of Colossians there are scores of imperatives in no way undermining the gospel, but saying this is how we live in light of the gospel. These imperatives do not in any way compromise the gospel, but as our confession says when understood properly they “sweetly comply” with it. 

Presenting Everyone Mature in Christ

The gospel minister must aim for the spiritual maturity of everyone. Everyone. Did you notice this word that’s repeated in verse 28? Three times he repeats the word “everyone.” It’s emphatic here in this verse. Spiritual growth and maturity, beloved, are not for some elite portion of the congregation. Pastor David prays that every one of you will grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. First and foremost, that you will believe the gospel and be saved. But, then, to grow in Him. And the whole counsel of God faithfully preached sets forth both indicatives and imperatives. So let us beware preaching a Christ that justifies sinners but does not progressively sanctify them. 

John Girardeau—I couldn’t help myself but quote a Charleston theologian—John Girardeau, the great 19th-century Southern pastor from the South Carolina Low-Country once penned a poem on this very theme. “Nothing to do? No, not to procure a heaven by infinite blood may secure but all things with labor and sweat of the face to honor my Savior and magnify grace. What of the law, its thunders were stilled against my poor soul by the blood that was spilled. But the hands which were nailed to the wood of the tree now wield its commands to be honored by me. What am I writing for? Spare me a while to tell of thy love to a sinner so vile. Then take me to heaven which is not my due and give me the crown of fidelity too.” The gospel minister therefore aims for the spiritual maturity of every soul within her ranks. He is called to courageously warn his flock of the dangers of the trinity of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. Notice that the gospel has both warnings and instruction and this what will come from this pulpit to you. It is gospel ministry at its very core. It is for this that the gospel minister toils and struggles.

  1. The Gospel Minister’s Labor

And, here, we come to our final point: the gospel minister’s labor. Look with me, finally, at verse 29. “For this I toil,” he says, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Here is how Paul carries out his gospel stewardship. Here is how he able to rejoice in his sufferings. Here is how he is able to boldly and faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ from all of Scripture. Here is how he makes disciples and seeks everyone’s maturity and perfection in Christ. He toils and struggles for it in the strength of Christ. How can any minister do these things? Who is sufficient for these things? It’s the strength of Christ that fuels the ministry. You see that Paul says elsewhere that he can “do all things through Christ who strengthens him.” Let us notice here also that Paul is a hard worker. He’s a hard worker for the sake of the church. No one can accuse him of being a lazy country parson or a worldling in minister’s dress. The Greek verb that Paul employs here is agonidzomai. It’s where we get the English word “agonize.” Paul is agonizing in the ministry. He is toiling. He’s laboring and agonizing to the point of exhaustion over the spiritual condition of God’s people, preaching the Word, shepherding God’s people, praying for them, loving them at times to sheer exhaustion. 

Faithful, God-Glorifying Toil

Spurgeon was asked or told, “You need to get some rest, sir.” And he said, “I will rest in heaven.” This should be the heart of every minister to labor and toil over the flock. This laboring over the flock flowed from a vigorous personal piety, a sincere love for God and his people. It was not blind to the dangers of pride and lust and worldliness and ministerialism. Ministers are not beyond these things. And so one must have a true, vigorous personal piety. See, Paul ran from these things, from these sins and so must we as ministers. And he never lost sight of the fact that he was a Christian first, a child of God first and then a minister. And David I exhort you to remember the same. You are first and foremost a child of God, a Christian saved by grace. And I encourage you to remember your chains. Remember where you were in Glasgow off sinning and rebelling against God with no thought of him in your mind except to curse him and he saved you. Remember your chains. Remember the chains that once held you and the grace that redeemed you. 

Paul’s toilsome labor and suffering for the sake of the church was motivated and fueled by his love for Christ and so he could write “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul would’ve agreed with the young 17th-century preacher from your hometown of Glasgow, Andrew Gray who expressed that, quote, “One moment of the enjoyment of Christ is worth ten-thousand eternities of the enjoyments of the choicest things of this world. What comfort shall the choicest I’ll afford you in the day when you shall be standing before the tribunal and judgment seat of Christ.” Dearest church, I encourage you in this new season, in this new chapter of ministry, to encourage your minister, to grow in the grace and knowledge of your Lord Jesus Christ under his ministry. That will be the greatest blessing to Pastor David knowing and hearing that you are growing in the Lord. And, David, know that our prayers will be with you and that we’re so delighted that the Lord has called you to this new place of ministry. 

Let us pray for that. 

Our Father and our God, we thank you. We thank you for this clear word in the Scriptures concerning the gospel ministry, teaching us of the gospel minister’s calling and stewardship, of his suffering, of his message and his aim in ministry for the maturity of his saints, and of his labor in your strength. Would you bless this word and bless this pulpit ministry to the glory of your name here in Jackson and throughout the world. We pray all of these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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