Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People

What Should the Church Be?

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What Should the Church Be?

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What Should the Church Be?

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What should the church look like? What should the United Church of God look like if it's going to accomplish its mission? Are we or have we a real vision of what this church should be, or what it should look like?

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Tomorrow one of the items the General Conference will consider in the business session is the Strategic Plan for 2012 and 2013. The plan they will consider is the culmination of many, many hours of work by the Council. Beginning in December and concluding in February, many times, many hours, many times we got together to consider the Strategic Plan that the Conference will look at tomorrow and, in fact, have looked at up until now. And tomorrow is D-day, decision day, for them to approve the plan.

Each year the Council of Elders looks at the Strategic Plan, and they fine-tune it. They see where changes need to be made. But every third year, it's a major review of the plan; and that third year fell this time. So there has been a major review of the Strategic Plan. There is one part of the Strategic Plan that is very familiar to all of you, and it's called the "Mission Statement." The mission statement describes the overall purpose of the organization. It describes what you do, what the organization does. So the mission statement we have in the Strategic Plan for the United Church of God describes what we do, what the United Church of God sets out to accomplish. You are very familiar with that mission statement, I would think. It says this:

The mission of the United Church of God is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God in all the world, make disciples in all nations, and care for those disciples.

It's shown in abbreviated form on the front of the lectern here, the plaque on the front of the lectern. You will see it in it's abbreviated form on our booklets, on many other parts of the work that we do; and, of course, it's been abbreviated very simply to "preaching the gospel, preparing a people." Those words have been taken, as has the mission statement itself, from the words of Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 24 and Matthew 28, where, if you join those comments together you get, "This gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations. Go, therefore, and make disciples in all nations; baptize them, teach them to observe all the things that I have commanded you."

And that's what the United Church of God does. That is what we do. We preach the gospel and we prepare a people; and as we heard in Mr. Holladay's message, there is a real purpose in what we do.

Another part of the Strategic Plan, which is perhaps not as prominent and not as noticeable as the mission statement, is another statement. In fact, it's the first statement you will see in the Strategic Plan; and it's called the "Vision Statement." A vision statement describes how the future is going to look if we achieve our mission. So a question I have for you today is, what should the church look like? What should the United Church of God look like if it's going to accomplish its mission? Are we or have we a real vision of what this church should be, or what it should look like?

The Council spent a lot of time on the vision statement. The previous strategic plans have had vision statements; but this time, we spent a lot of time on it and we changed it. We changed it from what it was. You might say, "Well, why? What was wrong with the previous vision statement?" It was a very, very good vision statement. I'll read it to you before we get into the new vision statement. This is what it said:

The vision of the church derives its inspiration, its motivation and sense of urgency from God's purpose for humanity—bringing many sons to glory. God's desire is that all be saved and live eternally in His Kingdom and in His family. Assisting in the fulfillment of that vision is the mission of the church.

A very effective statement; but when you think about it, it wasn't really the vision statement of the United Church of God. It was God's vision statement. So the Council spent a lot of time saying, "What should be the vision that the church should have for itself?" Yes, we see this transcendent vision, if you will. God's vision is the transcendent vision which overarches everything that we might do; but we thought that we really do need a vision statement that describes what we see ourselves being as a church when we accomplish the mission of preaching the gospel, or in effect, enabling us to accomplish the mission of preaching the gospel and preparing a people. So what should our vision for the United Church of God be? I'll come to a statement a little later in this split sermon that the Council of Elders really encapsulated what this church needs to be.

Now I guess everybody here has heard the saying that "hindsight is 20/20 vision." In other words, if you had the opportunity to look back at certain things that you've said or things that you've done, decisions that you have made, you would probably do things differently; and you hope that you will learn from what you have done in the past so that when you do make decisions and actions that you will have taken into account what you did in the past. The philosopher, George Santayana, put it slightly differently. He said this. This is not precisely what he said, but it is very similar to what he said. He said, "If we don't learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it." So you think, 20/20 vision. We look back to see what we've done, and we hope we don't repeat the mistakes. Yes, we repeat the good things we've done; but we hope we don't repeat the mistakes that we've made in the past.

I read something quite recently. It was a comment made by the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, at a memorial ceremony for the holocaust; and this is what he said. He called on humanity to, and I quote, "learn from the lessons of the holocaust and stand strong against existential threats before it is too late." I don't think the world has used 20/20 vision when it looks back—if it chooses to look back—at what happened to the nation of Israel, the people who formed the nation of Israel. So 20/20 vision is not always used.

The history of the Church of God since 1934 obviously [indicates that the church] has made many mistakes. Actions have been taken that, perhaps, have not been wise. Actions have been taken that, maybe, were even wrong. So 20/20 vision exists within the church as well. We should be able to look back and see certain things that we have done, certain things that we have said, certain actions that have taken place that we strive not to repeat—things that we wish we could change, maybe, when we look back and say, "Let's not do that again."

The United Church of God has been through a difficult time, very difficult time, in the last two years (I guess we could say two years). But if you think about it, the church now stands at the threshold of being able to move forward in a way that will enable us to preach the gospel and prepare a people like we have never, ever done before. We still have the opportunity to learn from the past, to see that we didn't do everything right. We still have that opportunity to look back. There are many decisions and actions, maybe, we would like to change; but we can't. So we're looking forward. We're learning from the past, as we stand on the threshold of what is a...not a new organization—it's still the United Church of God—but it's a very changed organization to what it was a couple of years ago. Very much a changed organization in terms of numbers, and certainly otherwise; and certainly there is a different spirit that exists and permeates throughout this, shall we say, "new" or changed Church of God. That change that has taken place over the past 18 months, and particularly the last 12 months, has presented new and greater opportunities for everyone for service throughout the church. Far more opportunities, far greater opportunities for everybody in God's church, particularly in United Church of God, to contribute more to what this church does, going back to its mission of preaching the gospel and preparing a people. Everyone has an opportunity.

The context of what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 [17] Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [18] And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them; and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. [20] Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be you reconciled to God.
American King James Version×
may not be exactly the same as we're thinking about today, but I believe what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 [17] Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [18] And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them; and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. [20] Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be you reconciled to God.
American King James Version×
is very relevant because it incorporates where we've been, where we are, and where we are going. Built into Paul's words are, in fact, our mission and our vision. Consider when you read these words, look at it from the perspective of the church, rather than individuals. Of course, it's written to individuals, but see if you can look at it from the perspective of the United Church of God.

2 Corinthians 5:17-20 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 [17] Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [18] And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them; and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. [20] Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be you reconciled to God.
American King James Version×
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. And we have new challenges, but also new opportunities. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them...in other words, we can look back and see what we've done wrong, and we can put that behind us and move forward...and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God.

I looked up these same verses in Eugene Peterson's The Message, and I think you will find it interesting the way he expressed it. This is what he said—again, not thinking about the context of this from an individual perspective, but from the church's perspective. This is what Peterson had to say:

Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new, and we are on the threshold of a changed organization. We can move forward in many different ways. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and Him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with Himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what He is doing, preaching the gospel. We're Christ's representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God's work of making things right between them. We're speaking for Christ Himself now: Become friends with God; He's already a friend with you. (2 Corinthian 5:17-20, The Message)

I think Peterson put that very well. If you look at the key words that exist in the way Paul wrote it and the way Peterson renders it, key words like united, like reconciled, reconciliation, relationships; they're the areas we can learn from, perhaps, mistakes we've made in the past, when we haven't, perhaps, done as well as we might have. Clearly our future, individually—but also clearly our future as an organization, as the United Church of God—depends on our relationship with God, our relationship with Jesus Christ, and our relationships with one another. If we don't get those three things right, there is no way we will accomplish our mission effectively of preaching the gospel and preparing a people.

Up until now I have talked about the new vision statement, but I haven't given it to you. So let me read to you the new vision statement crafted by the Council of Elders, a very important part of the strategic plan.

Our vision is of a church led by God's Holy Spirit, joined and knit together by what every member supplies, with all doing their share, and growing in love to fulfill God's great purpose for humanity—to bring many children to glory.

Let me read it to you again [reread the vision statement]. That's how the Council of Elders sees the church. That is the vision the Council has for the United Church of God. It's a step on the way, if you will, the vision of the church, into the accomplishment of God's transcendent vision. But we needed something that related to us, right now, here and now; and the Council came up with that description. Of course, you recognize that it comes from Ephesians 4:11-16 Ephesians 4:11-16 [11] And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; [12] For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: [13] Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: [14] That we from now on be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; [15] But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: [16] From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body to the edifying of itself in love.
American King James Version×
. I'd like to read those verses to you:

Ephesians 4:11-16 Ephesians 4:11-16 [11] And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; [12] For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: [13] Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: [14] That we from now on be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; [15] But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: [16] From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body to the edifying of itself in love.
American King James Version×
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

God has called us as part of the United Church of God to be Christ's representatives on earth; and if you go back to Ephesians 4:1-3 Ephesians 4:1-3 [1] I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation with which you are called, [2] With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; [3] Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
American King James Version×
, you will see where Paul is exhorting and imploring us to be aware of the responsibility that is being placed upon our shoulders. He says:

Ephesians 4:1-3 Ephesians 4:1-3 [1] I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation with which you are called, [2] With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; [3] Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
American King James Version×
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

I think you can appreciate why the Council decided to base its vision statement for the United Church of God around these words that Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus because if we can become, literally, a group of people, a church, which is as described here in Ephesians 4:11-16 Ephesians 4:11-16 [11] And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; [12] For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: [13] Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: [14] That we from now on be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; [15] But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: [16] From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body to the edifying of itself in love.
American King James Version×
, we will get that job done. We will achieve our mission. God will be so strongly behind us that we will get that done; we will preach the gospel effectively, as far and as wide as God wants us to; and we will care for those that God chooses to call to be a part of His church in these latter days.

So, how are we doing in that role? In that responsibility? How are we doing as Christ's representatives? Are we demonstrating the humility, the gentleness, the patience, the understanding, the peace and the unity that is implicit in our calling? It's a question we need to ask ourselves individually; but also we can ask that collectively, as the United Church of God. How do we perceive ourselves, individually? How do we perceive ourselves? How do others perceive us when they see us, as part of this United Church of God? We can ask that question of ourselves as individual Christians; but also, we can ask, how is the Church of God? How is the United Church of God perceived? Can we look at Ephesians 4 and say that really does describe the church that I am a part of? That really does describe the United Church of God, because that is our objective. That is our vision. We want the church to look just like Paul described in the scripture there.

Paul continued in V. 4 of the same chapter:

Ephesians 4:4 Ephesians 4:4There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling;
American King James Version×
There is one body and one Spirit...

One body and one Spirit. Do we see within the United Church of God compelling evidence of one body and one Spirit that is driving us, that is uniting us, that is enabling us to get the job done that God has given us to do? Remember what we said and read in V. 15-16. Let me repeat them to you:

Ephesians 4:15-16 Ephesians 4:15-16 [15] But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: [16] From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body to the edifying of itself in love.
American King James Version×
...but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

The vision we should have of the United Church of God is to see that achieved in this body, to see it achieved in the United Church of God. You can see why the Council chose these words. We are to be bound together, reconciled to one another, of one Spirit, of one body, working together to achieve the purpose, the wonderful purpose, the high calling that God has placed firmly and squarely on our shoulders. That is our responsibility. Paul exhorted us to get on with the job, and we must get on with the job.

If we just dissect these verses, V. 15-16, and see what they really mean:

1. speaking the truth in love means that our words must be honest and sincere and our actions reflect the dignity and the integrity of Christ.

2. grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ – Our desire is clearly to take on the mind of Christ, to become more and more like Him in every way; and in so doing, be more effective contributors to this church.

3. from whom the whole body, joined and knit together – We are called as individuals but we are not to stay that way. We are called to be a part of the body of Christ and, particularly, for this particular part of the body of Christ, the United Church of God. We are to become part of the body. We don't become individuals. We meld and become part of a beautifully patterned garment, and we're all part of that pattern.

4. by what every joint supplies – We retain our individuality when we are called to be a part of the church. We keep our personalities. We all have different gifts, we have different abilities, different talents, different experiences, different training; but every one of us can take our talents, our abilities, our experiences, our training, and they can be put to good use within the body of Christ, if we are, in fact, that one body and have that one Spirit that is driving us along.

Romans 12:4-8 Romans 12:4-8 [4] For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: [5] So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. [6] Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; [7] Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teaches, on teaching; [8] Or he that exhorts, on exhortation: he that gives, let him do it with simplicity; he that rules, with diligence; he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
American King James Version×
are interesting scriptures. I think it's well put here. I'm going to read this to you from the New Living Translation.

Romans 12:4-8 Romans 12:4-8 [4] For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: [5] So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. [6] Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; [7] Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teaches, on teaching; [8] Or he that exhorts, on exhortation: he that gives, let him do it with simplicity; he that rules, with diligence; he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
American King James Version×
Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ's body. We are all parts of His one body, and each one of us has different work to do. And since we are all one body in Christ, we belong to each other; and each of us needs all the others. God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well, and that is certainly true. God has given us each the ability to do certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out when you have faith that God is speaking through you. If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If your gift is to encourage others, do it. If you have money, share it generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take responsibility seriously. If you have a gift of showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

So you see, within those verses there is an opportunity for all of us to exercise the talents, the abilities, the skills, the compassion, the understanding that we have, within this body—this unified body, unified by the Holy Spirit—so everyone may contribute to the success of us achieving the mission of preaching the gospel and caring for those that God calls.

There is no one in this room who doesn't have something that they can offer to the United Church of God. No one! And there is no one watching this cybercast, tuned in in some way, there is no one who cannot contribute something, small as it may be, to the effective working and the achievement of the mission of the United Church of God.

Coming back into those verses again [continuing the dissecting of Ephesians 4:15-16 Ephesians 4:15-16 [15] But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: [16] From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body to the edifying of itself in love.
American King James Version×
]:

5. according to the effective working by which every part does its share – We will not be successful as a church, as a body, as the United Church of God, unless there is a cooperative, collaborative spirit present in each and every one of us. Even though we have different talents and different abilities, different skills and different experiences, there must be a willingness within each and every one of us deep within our hearts, a willingness, to be able to contribute to the achievement of our God-given task of preaching the gospel and preparing a people.

6. causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love – We all want to see United grow. We want to have more people as a part of United. We want to do the work more powerfully, more effectively. We want, in fact, to just grow, to be able to do much more than we are at this present time. But, you know, in these words Paul is not necessarily referring to growth in numbers—in other words, more people in the church—although that might follow. God's not going to measure the church by numbers. We all know that God Himself is the one who calls people to be a part of the church. We don't call people, but we are given the responsibility of preaching the gospel, of getting the information out where people can read it, can understand it; and God might, then, choose to call them to be a part of His church in these latter days. Now, that's where the growth numerically will come from; but the growth we are talking about is growth in body and Spirit as part of the United Church of God and part of the greater Church of God.

I read Matthew Henry's commentary on those words, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love, and this is what he said:

We may understand these words two ways. Either that all the members of the church may attain a greater measure of love to Christ and to one another or that they are moved to act in the manner mentioned from love to Christ and to one another. Mutual love among Christians is a great friend to spiritual growth. Let me just repeat that for you: Mutual love among Christians is a great friend to spiritual growth. It is in love that the body edifies itself...it's in the relationships that exist within this church, the personal relationships that exist that this body, this United Church of God, will indeed be edified. And then he concludes by saying...whereas a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

Unfortunately, we have seen that happen in the history of the Church of God, down through the years. Christ Himself told us that "the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few," so in God's time, He will add laborers to the harvest; but really, we have to be an organization, we have to be a church, that God is willing to add those people to. I think that is obviously very clear.

So what do we know? Well, first, we know that our personal examples may be used by God to draw people to Christ. We know that we're not just individuals, but part of a body, part of the church, part of the body of Christ. We know that the church has responsibility to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. We know that God can use the church and will use the church to draw people to Christ. We know that God has set the benchmarks for individual and collective behavior, and we know that individual and collective behavior will determine the success of our mission, how effectively and how well we will preach the gospel and prepare the people.
A few years ago, a council member at the time—I'm not sure whether he was the chairman at the time; he may well have been—Bob Dick gave a sermon entitled, "We must BE a work before we can DO a work." Some of you may recall that sermon. In fact, to this day, it has been firmly fixed in my mind, for quite a number of years now. There is a clear responsibility for us as part of the body of Christ to BE a work so that the church can DO the work. The church collectively must BE a work before it can DO a work, and being a work is our responsibility as individuals collectively jointed into the body of Christ. Ephesians 4 that we have spent some time on this afternoon is devoted to describing how that will be achieved; and those verses that we read are really, if you will, a work description stating what we must do if we are to fulfill that.

It's a challenge to us to function as the living body of Christ on earth—a great challenge, but we have God behind us, we have His Holy Spirit to guide us and direct us; and we can do that, but we must be the body of people that God can look at and say, "They are truly striving to do what I have asked them to do."

The theme of this year's annual meeting is "Transforming lives through the Spirit and word of God." Bringing Ephesians 4 to full expression within United Church of God is part of the foundation that will enable it to be achieved. This is why the Council of Elders changed the vision statement, to bring it more in touch with us. The statement we had, that transcendent vision statement was fine; but we needed something that we could relate to ourselves, to bring it down here. What are we going to be? What do we see ourselves being? What sort of a body of people is this? What sort of church are we? What is our vision? So we came to this vision statement which really does describe what we must be. We must be that now, as we do strive to achieve our mission of preaching the gospel and preparing a people; and going beyond that, when we have completed that task, we still want to be able to say, the vision of the church is this: It's a church led by God's Holy Spirit, joined and knit together by what every member supplies, with all doing their share and growing in love to fulfill God's great purpose for humanity—to bring many children to glory. That's the vision of the United Church of God. May we all be diligent participants in the achievement of that vision and, ultimately, see the fulfillment of God's transcendent vision.