Acts 17:11, 12
(All Scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated)
My first church was in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, a town that often had a bad smell because it was home to a large paper mill. Paper mills had a reputation of stinking up their localities! First Baptist Church of Johnsonburg was a small church of about 60 active members, 45 to 50 attending for the Sunday morning service. I served as their pastor for four years, 1972 to 1976. Johnsonburg was a Roman Catholic town for the most part, about 80% of the residents claiming the Catholic faith as their own.
I was invited to a Bible study led by a young man who was a candidate for the priesthood. He served at Saint John’s Catholic Church in town, and the Bible study was for the young adults in the parish. It was held in the rectory next to the church. The young priest (not yet a priest, but I can’t remember his name, so I will call him a priest) welcomed me. As he led the study, he was promoting a system of works for salvation, climbing up to God a step higher with each good deed. I was a ‘thorn’ poking him and those in attendance that evening because every time the priest would emphasize salvation by works, I would come back with, “No! It is not of works, but by grace, faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross!” I quoted several times Ephesians 2:8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” One of the young men in attendance was Earl. He later told me that he went home that evening and went to bed. But Earl couldn’t sleep! He kept hearing me say, “No! It is not of works, but by grace, faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross!” He said he could get no peace until he finally got out of bed, knelt down and asked the Lord to save him!
That young priest and I became friends. I don’t know if he embraced salvation by grace through faith, but I hope to meet him again in heaven. One day he came to me with a request. He was being ordained as an official priest, and then he would be reassigned to another parish. He had asked the three other priests at Saint John’s if they would take over his young adult Bible study, but no one was interested to add more work to a busy schedule. So he asked me, a Baptist minister, if I would take over the Bible study! I told him yes, I would love to!
The head priest was infuriated when he learned that half a dozen of his young adults were now meeting at the Baptist parsonage for Bible study each week! But what he never could understand was, instead of losing them to Saint John’s, they became more active in that church…such as leading CCD classes and working with youth in other ways.
A couple of young adults from First Baptist joined the Bible study, and we became a close knit group, studying the Bible together. The group reminds me of what Luke wrote of the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey in Macedonian Greece. He escaped a mob riot in Thessalonica (see Acts 17:1-9), and fled southwest to Berea. There, he received a more heartening reception, for it says of the Bereans in Acts 17:11, “…they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures…to find out whether…[the things Paul taught] were so. Therefore many of them believed….” Yes, many of them believed in our Johnsonburg Bible study!
I can’t remember all the names, but…
- Earl was a faithful participant and became a good friend!
- Linda started attending regularly, another close friendship developing! We still keep in touch 45 years later! I remember a week of evangelistic services at First Baptist with Bob and Peggy Boyd. At the invitation one evening, Linda came down the isle with the biggest smile on her face…ready to announce her decision to accept Jesus Christ as her Savior!
- Cathy, Linda’s cousin (I think), was another Catholic young adult who regularly attended our Bible study and who opened her heart to the Lord!
- Clifford, not a member of First Baptist or Saint John’s, started coming every week. He grew in his faith, and even preached one time in my church!
- Ceile was already on fire for the Lord when she arrived back in Johnsonburg after being out west for a couple of years. She bopped back into town, a barefoot hippie! But, oh what a blessing this young nurse was! She went back to the wild parties of her younger days, but now to rescue those from the drug culture she used to be in herself!
- Jerri was Ceile’s sister. I remember her sitting on our couch during a Bible study, and suddenly exclaiming, “I got it! I got it! It makes sense now!” Another person born into God’s kingdom!
- Donnie was a few years younger than most of us, a teenager. But Donnie opened his heart to Jesus and became a strong Christian!
- Leslie was another who regularly attended. She, at one gathering, expressed her desire to accept Jesus as her Savior!
- Bonnie was part of the group. She is still walking with the Lord!
- Bob was from First Baptist and was one of the originals of the Bible study when it moved to the Baptist parsonage. I stayed in contact with Bob, and he is walking with Jesus, as is his family!
- Kathy came to me one late afternoon in tears. She said she had talked to several ministers about the heavy burden she felt because of her sins. I explained salvation by grace through faith, and she opened her heart to Christ! She was now free of her sins and full of joy! She attended the Bible study as often as she could from then on.
It was always an informal study, with questions raised by those attending, and those questions guiding the direction the study would take. We even celebrated Communion! Sitting on the living room floor of the parsonage, we shared the bread and cup. I’m sure the priests as Saint John’s would have a fit if they knew! I even baptized a couple of the Catholic young adults in the Clarion River! The priests, if it got back to them, would have an even bigger fit!
There were others who came and were blessed, either accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and growing as a Christian, or already as a believer and maturing in their faith! As I said, I can’t remember all the names, but I think the highest number of attendees one evening was 21!
I loved those of the Johnsonburg Bible study! And I still do in my memory of the commitment and growth of those precious people. I may not meet most of them in this life, but I will see them in heaven!