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Sermon for August 27, 2023 – Proper 16

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5040 | Personal Salvation
Greg Williams

You have probably heard some form of the statement that Jesus is your personal savior. But have you considered that being personal is more than being an isolated individual?

What does it mean to be a whole person? Persons, biblically understood, are not isolated individuals existing autonomously apart from relationships. To be a whole person requires one to be in relationship with all of creation and certainly with other persons. There is no escaping that established reality. We can’t even come into existence without the relationship we have with a mom and dad.

Being saved personally means that we are being restored for relationship with God, others, and all of creation. We are being made whole in every facet of our being.

The language in Psalm 124 is personal but personal in terms of being a community. Notice all of the pronouns in the passage are plural. There is no recounting of God’s salvation that does not speak in terms of the community as a whole.

“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side– let Israel now say–if it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.

Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped! Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
Psalm 124:1-8 (ESV)

We are often tempted to believe that we are isolated and detached individuals whose identities are rooted in some internal and autonomous existence. But that runs counter to what it means to truly be persons created in the image of God. If it were possible to picture a completely autonomous individual existing detached from all relationships, including God, others, and creation, we would not have a picture of the perfect human and God’s intention for humanity.

Thankfully, we already have a picture of what it means to be truly human, to be persons living in perfect harmonious relationship with the Father, other persons, and all of creation. And that picture is Jesus Christ our Savior. Praise God for our personal Savior who is the savior of the personal.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 124::1-8 • Exodus 1:8-2:10 • Romans 12:1-8 • Matthew 16:13-20

This week’s theme is individual and communal callings. The call to worship Psalm is a communal thanksgiving song in response to God’s deliverance. The Old Testament reading from Exodus recounts the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians, and the beginning of God’s deliverance with the birth of Moses. The epistolary text in Romans carries the three themes of our relationship with God, our relationship with the world, and our relationship with fellow believers. In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we read of Peter’s revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus’ revelation that Peter is the rock the church will be built on.

Mercies of Freedom

Romans 12:1-8 (ESV)

Today for our lectionary passage we encounter a shift in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul has spent eleven chapters in his letter talking about who God is and the grace he has for us. It’s from this buildup that Paul will “appeal” to his brothers and sisters on account of God’s mercies to be a “living sacrifice.” That’s why our passage begins with a “therefore” statement. Everything Paul wants to say in this section rests on what he previously established in his letter. That is an important pattern in scripture to be aware of. The commands and admonitions found in scripture always rest on a foundation that supports them. Namely, the heart and character of God is the foundation of all the commands we see in scripture. It is on the basis of who God is and what he has done for us that we obey him.

So, we see that God’s commands are not arbitrary or given to us to rob us of joy and life. Quite the opposite. God’s commands are invitations to live out the life of love and joy that he is giving us in Jesus Christ. When we come to see who God is in such a way that we can put our full trust in him, we find obeying him to be a joy and delight. Why would we not want to listen and follow the words of the one who loves us best and gives us everything? He is not an ogre God to avoid, he is the author of life to embrace.

Notice the passage begins with the words, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God.”

Paul has already listed these “mercies of God” in the first eleven chapters. He has already argued that justification comes by grace through faith. God has done something in Jesus Christ that sets the world on a whole new basis, and it’s not something we did, or could ever have done, on our own merits. It is all by God’s mercy. To state it in simple terms Paul has concluded that by God’s mercy we have been set free to live in righteousness.

Before this act of mercy in Jesus Christ, we are slaves to sin and its power. And slavery is not something you free yourself from. It is something that requires rescue. Paul holds freedom central to what God’s mercies have rescued us from:

  • Romans 5 – we have freedom from death.
  • Romans 6 – we have freedom from sin.
  • Romans 7 – we have freedom from the law. (This freedom from the law gave rise to some criticism of Paul’s teaching that accused him of promoting an anything-goes type of morality.)

Starting with today’s chapter and beyond, Paul will show these accusations to be a misunderstanding of what it means to be set free. And we should keep in mind a few other arguments that Paul has made before we proceed. As we set out to live in the freedom God has given us, we do so, not on our own, but in union with Christ.

  • Romans 8 – we receive the gift of the Spirit and see God’s plan to bring believers to conform to the image of his Son.
  • Romans 11 – we are reminded of God’s faithfulness to keep his promises.

So, we are not in a situation where God has set us free to live apart from him. That would not be the freedom we were created for. We have been freed in Jesus to be in relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit, a freedom that will set us free in all our other relationships as well.

On that note, we will explore this passage by looking at three relationships that God has set us free to live out: our relationship with God, our relationship with the world, and our relationship with fellow believers. On account of God’s mercies setting us free to live out the freedom God has given us in Jesus Christ, we can see in Paul’s exhortations an invitation to live as God intended, not as slaves, but as his beloved children.

Relationship with God.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)

Only on account of what Jesus has done can we have such paradoxical statements such as “living sacrifice.” Shouldn’t a sacrifice be dead? Being a living sacrifice is Paul’s way of speaking of our response to the overwhelming grace and mercy held out to us in Jesus Christ. In Jesus we have been embraced and included in the very life of the triune God. For Paul, worship is embracing this embrace in every aspect of our everyday lives. Or we could say, worship is living in the true freedom of what we were created for. And notice that this life of worship is carried out in bodies. If slavery can be defined by one major hallmark it would be the loss of control over one’s own body. A slave’s body was the property of their owners. On this ground, a master could use a slave’s body for labor or profit. Slave owners could treat the bodies of slaves with assault of any kind without repercussions. Slavery to sin also takes place in an embodied existence. Have you ever found yourself doing things with your body that you wish you hadn’t? Paul spoke of his own experience of this in chapter seven. That’s the power of the slave master of sin. That’s what the mercies of God has freed us from.

Now, on account of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are free to “present” our bodies in all that we do in worship of God. That is the way we were created to relate to God. To worship God is to enjoy him and truly live in freedom. And this worship entails sacrifice. But this is not a sacrifice that amounts to death but rather is a way of “living.” Paul is clearly using the word sacrifice in an entirely new way. The normal religious sacrifices of the day would amount to death as the body of the sacrifice was cut into pieces and the blood was drained. Not much chance that any life will come from that. The way Paul is using sacrifice implies living sacrificially. Jesus’ teachings were pregnant with the same admonition. Jesus spoke of laying down one’s life for a friend, and he told parables such as the Good Samaritan that had much of the same theme. Memorable statements like, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” may come to mind. The sacrifice we now offer is dying to the sinful, self-willed self and living for another, namely God, which leads into living sacrificially towards others. We are free from living in the prison of having the world revolve around our wants and needs. There is incredible freedom to turn our inward gaze outward to others, seeking their best in light of the gospel, and using our bodies in ways to bless others and glorify God.

Relationship with the world

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)

Embracing the life we have in Jesus means we will be free to think differently. Our minds must go through a renewal process. Before Christ, our minds were captured by “this world.” And to be clear, the word for “world” here is better translated as “age.” It is referring to the present evil age and the ways of thinking that pertain to it. Perhaps we can envision the “pattern of this world” as a box of bondage that Jesus climbed into in order to set us free. If our thinking conforms to this box, we will find ourselves hemmed in by the walls of fear, guilt and anxiety. But Jesus has destroyed these walls and has set us free to think outside the box. As our minds are renewed, we are transformed to live out the life of Father, Son, Spirit, a life that scripture articulates as faith, hope and love. This is the mind of Christ and the life he is sharing with us in the Spirit.

What marvelous freedom we have to move from conforming to transforming. We no longer let the world set the agenda. God’s word to us in Jesus Christ is our new calling and mission. As we are transformed by this Word, we will be better equipped in testing and discerning what God is up to, freeing us from the evil snares set before us in our world. In this discerning we are set free to relate to the world in a way where we can be a blessing. We serve as a witness to the world by not conforming to its walls of fear, guilt, and anxiety; rather, we live a transformed life of faith, hope, and love. Our witness can point to the good, acceptable, and perfect Lord and Savior who has set us free to relate to the world with the mind of Christ.

Relationship with the church

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:3-8 ESV)

From here Paul speaks of the church – still referring to how our thinking must change. Paul points out that instead of aspiring beyond one’s gift, believers should recognize each member is part of the body and functions in collaboration. We are “not” to think in ways that exalt ourselves over others. That would not be the freedom Jesus has brought us into. This is a thought life of faith, hope, and love where relationships with one another flow out of the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. As believers who embrace his embrace, we live out this life in community with others as one body with many members. Paul goes on to speak of spiritual gifts that are given to the individual members in the body. The phrase,  “the measure of faith that God has assigned” does not indicate our faith can be measured or quantified; nor does it indicate that God predetermines and limits our faith to a measured amount or degree.   Understanding this phrase in context shows it refers to the spiritual gifting that has been measured out according to grace, whether that gift be in speaking, serving, teaching, giving, or comforting others. God has so shaped the church in her mission to the world that it must work from the ground of relationship that it is called into. There are no Lone Rangers in the church. No single member has all the gifts needed to fulfill God’s mission through the church. We are gifted in such a way as to share our gifts one with another in order to engage in the mission of proclaiming the Good News to the world. If the life of relationship found in the triune God has been poured out on God’s children, it is only fitting that the proclamation of this Good News would be heard from a body of believers who are living in relationship.

Here in chapter twelve Paul has certainly not lived up to the accusation that his teaching on justification by grace through faith amounts to a lackadaisical or immoral lifestyle. On the contrary, by showing what we are set free from and set free for, we are given a supremely high calling to live out. It’s a calling that demands our bodies and minds be completely devoted to the Lord. It’s a life turned to God in worship and turned to others in service. There’s no room for self-justifying or self-serving agendas. We are set free to live in Christ. This is the life of freedom for which God’s mercies have set us free.

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August 27 — Proper 16 of Ordinary Time
Romans 12:1-8, “You Belong”

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Program Transcript

His Mercy Is More w/ Jeremy Begbie W4

Anthony: Our final passage of the month is Romans 12:1-8. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 16 in Ordinary Time on August 27. Jeremy, read it for us, please.

Jeremy: So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

Anthony: We’re in the season of Ordinary Time on the Christian calendar, and I see it as a season of response empowered by the Holy Spirit. And it’s in relationship to the new creation, we are inaugurated by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

And if we take new creation seriously, what does it mean? And what does it look like to respond as a living sacrifice in few of God’s mercy?

Jeremy: Huge, indeed, cosmic question. New creation is what God is bringing about and what—and this is the crucial thing—that he has already brought about in Jesus Christ and supremely in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.

A phrase I use more and more now is the “already-ness” of the Christian faith, or the “already-ness” of the new creation. When we think new creation, it may be—apart from that verse 2 Corinthians—that we jump to Revelation 21. We think of new heaven, new earth, the world being recreated, remade, redone.

But we need to—as far as the New Testament is concerned, it’s already happened in Christ. This is the “already-ness” of the new creation that’s been sealed, forged in the raising of Jesus from the dead. And it was Tom Torrance that helped me see this.

Actually, one of the very first Christian books I read was Tom Torrance’s Space, Time and Resurrection. (I recommend it to you.) There was so much I didn’t understand in terms of the detail, but the vast cosmic sweep of that book, just took my breath away. I remember Tom Wright telling me, N.T. Wright telling me that he was in tears by the time he got the end of that book; he was sobered by this.

Because it’s this extraordinary vision that Christ has already defeated the powers of darkness, the powers of evil, which ruin our lives, and ruined the created world as a whole. The end is assured. It’s happened in him. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he took, so to speak, a bit of creation and he remade it as a promise of the great remaking to come.

So, the “already-ness”—it’s already happened in Christ—is crucial. And I think although he’s not quite spelling that out, not at this point, we get plenty hints from Romans 8 and elsewhere in Paul (2 Corinthians). But it’s there, nonetheless.

Then of course, it’s not just already in the past in Christ, it’s  there in the future. The recreation, the great cosmic makeover as in Revelation 21 and in Romans 8 and elsewhere, God bringing all things together and God’s people in the center of the new world, honoring the lamb on the throne.

But then this addresses the last part of your question. What does that mean? Of course, new creation is accessible now through the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s worldview, it’s the Spirit who comes from the future and the Spirit of Jesus Christ who comes to turn our lives inside out, so that if anyone is in Christ (2 Corinthians 5 new creation), it’s the Spirit who makes all this possible.

What does it mean? Fundamentally, it means we can, of course, say Abba Father, we can call God, Father. It means that we now belong to a new community called the church. We have brothers and sisters for eternity. We are loved to the very depths of our being. And therefore, it means that everything in our lives will be magnetized by the love of God. Everything will point to God ultimately.

Okay. When I was talking about music, when I came to faith music became so much more interesting because now I could think about ways in which it could magnify God and stop being an idol, stop being something I worshiped.

Now related to that. A very interesting thing about Romans 12. And it was my colleague here in Cambridge, Michael Thompson, who pointed this out to me. Indeed, he wrote a whole dissertation on it called, Cloth in Christ. What he noticed was, if you go back to Romans 1 where Paul, among other things, is outlining—more than outlining, painting in very lurid terms, the effects of idolatry.

That is, we worship the creation rather than the creature. And he spells out this awful downward spiraling of idolatry. What’s really interesting is by the time we get to Romans 12, and this is after Paul has spelled out the whole kind of logic of salvation, election, all whatever, now he’s saying to the community, not just to individuals, saying, how are you going to live?

And my colleague Mike has shown in this book, that point by point in this section of Romans, Paul is answering Romans 1, that now you don’t have a worship of the creation rather than the creature. You have the worship of God. Present your bodies as living sacrifices as wholly and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly—it can be translated there—worship.

Now everything you do can glorify God, so you don’t have to be trapped by this awful running down that idolatry brings, when you just worship creation, then you worship yourself and you just disappear down an idolatrous [inaudible] hole.

So, it’s a fascinating thing. What you have now, because of Christ in the Spirit, you can have the reversal of idolatry. Now God can be honored above all, and not the human self, not the human sinful self. So just a bit of background there. Reread that and you’ll see he’s talking about the mirror opposite of what he talked about in Romans 1.

Anthony: You mentioned N.T. Wright, and my wife and I have been journeying through his daily devotional called, On Earth as in Heaven. And you can see hints of Torrance in his thought process. But one of the things that comes emerging so beautifully out of that book is we too often think of what is to come. And we think of it in terms of escapism. We just can’t wait to get away from this place. But God has remade it in himself, and it is unfolding before our very eyes. And what I hear you saying is, how can we get in on that? How can we actively participate in that reality that is already true in Jesus Christ?

Jeremy: And I think that the arts are one very powerful way in which that can happen. The arts, at their greatest, are not just creative, but recreated. That is, the artist, musician, whoever, can take the very worst and remake it.

There’s a wonderful sculpture. It used to be in the British Museum, no longer there now, but it was called, The Tree of Life, which of course comes from Revelation 21. And it’s from Mozambique and it’s a large sculpture of a tree. But the whole thing has been made out of decommissioned weapons from the Civil War in Mozambique, so that the you’ve got AK-47s and pistols and every conceivable kind of armament. And out of those dreadful things comes the tree of life.

I think every church ought to have something like that in it. Something where the very worst has been taken to the very best, because that’s what God is about, ultimately. It’s what he’s already done with Jesus raising him from the dead. And now it can begin to happen in and through us. And the artist, at their best, I think can witness to that, can be making things in a way that shows that things can be remade, that nothing need be discarded. The ordinary, the banal, or not just evil people, but awkward people and the people we’d rather have around, God’s in the business of remaking them. That’s what it means to participate in the new creation.

Anthony: Yes. We look to the artists, the poets, the singers, the musicians, and it gets to something that I think C.S. Lewis and Tolkien understood, that you can get at a truth, a theological truth in a way through fiction or storytelling or artistry that you can’t, with just logic all the time.

It just gets to your soul without you knowing it happened.

Jeremy: Absolutely. Which is a beautiful thing, which is why of course so much of the Bible is in metaphor and parable and simile. We need the direct statements. Of course, we do. We also need this, the imaginative flourishes that you’ll find in Paul.

2 Corinthians is full of it, wonderful parallelism and rhetoric, and so that you’re capturing the imagination with the possibility of new creation.

Anthony: My personal opinion, Jeremy, is that we often have an anemic understanding of what it means to belong to each other. As Paul proclaims in verse 5.

I’m just curious, do you think the same way, and if so, how so? And how does our belonging to Christ inform our belonging to each other?

Jeremy: Here I get a bit uncomfortable because I think my love for others in the church is very weak a lot of the time. And I do what I think many of us do, that is we tend to like and love the people that we like.

And we then have a church where people choose each other. I think the great thing about the Christian church is that we don’t choose each other. And God puts us right—or ought to put, or we ought to let him, rather, put people next to us who we would never choose in a million years. And they come with a gift tag on which God writes the message, this person is for you and your sanctification.

So, it’s the idea that election means that God will choose the most unlikely people and he will bring you together in a way that only he can and that only the cross could achieve. I often say to myself and to others too, either the cross is God’s answer to the sin that divides us, or it isn’t.

And we’ve got better ways of holding ourselves together through common interest groups or common likes or class or dress or locality or whatever it is. Now church witnesses to a kind of togetherness that isn’t—if we really believe in the crucifixion and living in the Spirit—a kind of togetherness that isn’t actually possible anywhere else. And if there’s nothing in our churches which shows that, we have to ask, maybe there’s a kind of sickness here?

And the consumerist culture just pushes against that at every stage, unfortunately. You go to the church that’s going to cause you the least pain. It’s just, no, I’ll just go somewhere that will get me through the week and with people that I like.

That is just a very—as you say, anemic is a very good word for it—anemic understanding of belonging. God makes possible a kind of belonging that cannot be created anywhere else. Now, as I say that, it stings at me because I go to a very sort of associational, pretty monochrome, like church. And they’re wonderful people. And I’ve learned a great deal.

But I sometimes I wonder, my goodness, if someone walked in here, would they say, how on earth is this lot together? Would anyone say that? And I think that’s the challenge of the cross and the resurrection.

It was Les Newbigin who helped me see that more than anybody else. I think he saw that and was appalled by the consumerism that had taken over, particularly the British church.

Anthony: It’s like you said, the local church is made up of people that would probably not be friends otherwise. But as Ephesians 4 tells us, that’s a work of the Spirit who has provided the unity. And Paul asks us to work at it, to maintain it, to live into that reality that we do belong to each other. We’re unified each other through Christ, even if you wouldn’t have naturally chosen them to be your friends.

Jeremy: [inaudible] work out your salvation with fear and trembling, that’s not addressed to the individual to pursue their salvation. He’s writing to the community there.

He’s saying, you’ve got to work at being together, folks, because you’ve lost what it means to be servants to each other. Hence the great servant hymn of Philippians 2. So that’s tough stuff he’s saying. It’s not going to be easy, but as long as you keep your eyes on Jesus and the cross, it’s the only way you can really go.

Anthony: Yeah. It reminds me of what Karl Barth wrote, and I paraphrase, but Jesus is the Lord of all, and he’s the servant of all, and in him, we do likewise, don’t we?

Jeremy, I thank you so much for being a part of this podcast. It was rich and it’s beautiful, and I know the listening audience will benefit greatly from it.

I want to take a moment to thank our podcast producer, Reuel Enerio, who’s been crushing it, doing a great job, as well as our transcriber, Elizabeth Mullins, who is just doing a smashing, smashing job. We couldn’t have this podcast without them.

Jeremy, it’s our tradition here at Gospel Reverb to invite our guests to close in prayer. So, would you please pray for us?

Jeremy: I’d be delighted.

Thank you very much, heavenly Father, for this time together. We give you thanks for the extraordinary calling that you have given us, whoever we are, whatever we are. For the way in which you have adopted us, unworthy as we are, not because we are better than anybody else, but because your Spirit, you’ve opened your heart to us, and opened our hearts to you.

Thank you for that miracle, for the miracle of grace. Challenge us to see the cost of unity within the church and what you have made possible. We thank you for Paul’s dogged determination with the Jews and the Gentiles in churches, quarreling full of pride, full of division, and yet he keeps returning to the cross, to the death, and to the resurrection of Jesus.

We ask all these things in his glorious name. Amen.

Thank you for being a guest of Gospel Reverb. If you like what you heard, give us a high rating and review us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast content. Share this episode with a friend. It really does help us get the word out as we are just getting started. Join us next month for a new show and insights from the RCL. Until then, peace be with you!


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • How did you understand the statement that Jesus is the savior of the personal?
  • In your own words how did you understand the video’s description of what it means to be a person?
  • What are the dangers of viewing personhood in terms of autonomous individualism.

From the Sermon

  • Discuss the importance of grounding the commands in scripture on the foundation of who God is and what he has done for us.
  • How is “freedom” often understood in our culture? Compare and contrast the freedom we have in Christ with the concepts of freedom in the world.
  • Discuss what Paul meant by being a “living sacrifice.”
  • Discuss Paul’s emphasis on the body in his exhortation to be a living sacrifice.
  • How would you explain worship being a sacrifice?
  • What are ways our minds can be renewed?
  • Can you think of any examples of not conforming to this world?
  • How do the various gifts to believers free us to live in relationship as a church?
  • Share any final thoughts you have on what freedom truly means in light of Paul’s teaching in Romans 12.

2 thoughts on “Sermon for August 27, 2023 – Proper 16”

  1. Sirs, Thanks for the diligence with the RCL readings.
    I’m confused with the statement found in your translation of Matthew 16:18 that Peter is the Rock that the church is built on. I have read in other scriptures that Jesus is the Rock. Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church.

    Thank you for your response.

  2. Jesus is the rock, the cornerstone, the head of the church. However, it was Jesus who said Peter was a rock. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

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