Sunday, May 29, 2011

Six Lessons on How to Share Your Faith

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Acts 17:22-31
At the risk of sending you all for the doors at the outset, I’ll tell you that today we’re going to consider how to witness for Jesus Christ.

I’ve found that most sincere Christians want to share Jesus with others. But things get in our way.

And the biggest of these is fear. We’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing.” We're afraid of offending people the way some Christians do with their high-pressure tactics and their judgmental attitudes.

The result is that we don’t do anything. We don’t witness.

But we need to challenge our fears about sharing Christ.

Penn Jillette, one half of the magician-comedian team of Penn and Teller, is an atheist. Not long ago though, he said this about Christians who allow fear to get in the way of their sharing Christ with others (please consider his words carefully):
“If you believe [he said] that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell—or not getting eternal life or whatever—and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to not [be a witness for Christ]? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Even a thoughtful atheist understands a responsibility shared by every baptized believer in Jesus Christ. We Christians need to understand that responsibility too.

Pull out one of the pew Bibles and turn to page 703, please. Look at 1 Peter, chapter 2, verse 9. It reminds Christians, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, God’s own special people.” Then Peter explains why God has made us these things: “That you may proclaim the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

Indifference to the eternal destinies of others is not an option for those of us who follow Jesus Christ!

You and I haven’t been saved from sin and death just so we can sit around at church luncheons and visit with friends with whom we share a common faith…enjoyable as that is.

All baptized believers in Jesus have been made priests. A priest has two jobs: to represent people to God through our praying and to represent God to people through our witnessing for Christ.

Witnessing is the job of every Christian believer.

Disciple making is the job of every Christian believer.

After 35 years as a Christian, I confess that I’m embarrassed by my lackluster performance as a witness for Christ. What about you? And what are both you and I going to do about it? How will we witness for Christ?

Look now, please, at our second lesson, found on the Celebrate insert, Acts 17:22-31. Here’s the scene: It’s about 50AD and Paul, a tentmaker by trade, has set up shop in Athens, Greece, as he had already done in other ancient cities previously, looking for the chance to share Christ with others. Like him, whatever our profession, our real job is to share Christ in word and deed.

After spending parts of his days talking with others about Christ in the marketplace and the synagogue, Paul goes to the place in the city where all the leading thinkers go to talk things out, the Areopagus. It had once been a place where judicial judgments were rendered and had become a place where people talked about and debated ideas.

Here then from Paul's time at the Areopagus, recorded in our first Bible reading, are six lessons to teach you and me how to share Christ with others.

Lesson #1: Be ready, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to witness for Christ. In our second lesson, Peter tells us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…”

Paul was ready!

Digging into God’s Word, as we’re doing through Read the Bible in a Year, and helpless dependent prayer to God, are two essential ways God prepares us to tell others about the hope that we have in Christ.

Jesus tells us that we can be bold witnesses even when we confront people with hard hearts who persecute us for our faith. When we need the right words, Jesus says, “the Holy Spirit will teach you…what you ought to say.” Study God’s Word and pray; you’ll be ready to witness for Christ.

#2: Never be hostile. In Athens, Paul experienced a city that held to values and beliefs very different from his own. The Athenians worshiped all sorts of gods and godlets, rather than honoring the one God of the universe revealed over time to Israel and, ultimately, in Jesus.

The Athenians also loved the latest fads and the freshest big ideas. They lacked the steady joy and stability that Paul had through the singular focus of all his allegiance and belief on Jesus Christ.

Paul could have upbraided the Athenians for their faithlessness and flightiness.

But instead, as the Eighth Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor), teaches Christians to do, Paul put the most charitable construction on the life and culture of the faithless city. Read his words in verse 22: “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’” Paul wasn't hostile. He was charitable toward the unbelieving, spiritually disconnected people he met in Athens. We should be too.

Most unbelieving or spiritually disconnected people you and I know aren’t sinister atheists joined with Satan in a knowing conspiracy. They’re people who haven’t met the real God the Father or the real God the Son, Jesus.

Your unbelieving friends are just like you: sinners in need of a Savior. They would like to know God. They just haven’t been introduced to Him yet.

You can be the one to do the introductions.

Never be hostile!

#3: Meet people where they are. That’s what Paul does in verses 23 to 28. He mentions a statue to an unknown god, no doubt erected there by Athenians fearful of the bevy of gods they worshiped, who, by and large, viewed human beings as play things to be toyed with.

Paul meets the Athenians where they are, saying that this unknown God had been revealed for all to know. He’s the God of all creation, first revealed to the Israelites and now plain for all to see in Jesus. Meet people where they are, so you can help them see all that God is and the life-giving relationship He wants to give to them.

#4: Enter the worlds of your unchurched friends. Paul, we see, had spent time listening to and reading the Athenians’ own poets and philosophers. He was interested in them.

We need to show an interest in our unchurched friends. (And by the way, if you don't have any unchurched friends, do what Paul did: Make them!)

We have to be interested in others. One of the things that impresses me in reading the story of evangelist Billy Graham's life is that when he went to Wheaton College, where he might have been expected to major in Religion or Christian Ministry, he chose to major in Anthropology. He felt called to share the Gospel around the world and to do so, he wanted to understand people from around the world.

Paul was confident that the God revealed in Jesus was (and is) the one true Creator and Savior of the universe. But he was not arrogant. He entered the world of these unbelieving people with an appreciation of their value in the eyes of the God Who had died and risen for them.

God inspired my friend, Pastor Steve Sjogren, to create modern servant evangelism. Through practical outreaches like giving cold water or Coke to people at busy intersections, re-upping nearly expired parking meters, or giving away coupons to be redeemed at filling stations, all in the Name of Jesus, the stereotypes of churches as places of judgment that just want people’s money are undermined.

One of Steve’s outreaches involves cleaning toilets in places of business: bars, restaurants, filling stations, convenience markets. (He trained me in this outreach and later, the youth of my previous congregation used to go with me to do this.)

It’s an eye-opener when a harried clerk is told by two people holding cleaning kits, “We’re here to clean your toilets” and when the clerk asks why, hearing, “We’re trying to share God’s love in a practical way.”

Steve tells about what happened at one business where he and another church members did this outreach. As he cleaned the toilet in the men’s room, the clerk approached him and asked, “Why are you doing this again?” Steve said, “We just think that if Jesus were walking on the earth today, He probably would be cleaning toilets for busy people like you.”

The man said, as tears formed in his eyes, “That’s the kind of thing I think He would do today, too.”

Jesus is God Who entered a sinful world to share His life with people in desperate need of Him. As Jesus’ ambassadors, we need to be willing to enter the worlds of others and love them into relationship with Jesus.

(Later this summer, by the way, we’re going to do some kindness outreaches here in Logan so that we too, can share Jesus in practical ways with our unchurched neighbors.)

#5: When the time is right, make sure you convey the way to reconciliation with God. Look at verse 30. Paul says, in the Daniels paraphrase: “OK. You’ve been ignorant about this unknown God until now. But now, you know. He calls us all to experience oneness with Himself by repenting for our sins and entrusting our lives to Jesus Christ.” Paul also says, you see, that there will be a judgment day. All people will be judged, but those who have been made righteous (that is, made right with God) by believing in Christ will be with God forever.

And, he points out, the guarantee for that has been sealed by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We need point people to repentance and faith in Jesus as the way to reconciliation with God.

#6: Don’t go on and on. (This is something Ann has been trying to teach me for years!) Paul’s words about Jesus’ resurrection raised controversy. He chose not to argue. Instead, he left, willing to let the Holy Spirit use the short speech he had made to nudge people toward faith in Christ.

This is what social historian and pastor Leonard Sweet calls “nudge evangelism.”  The quickest way to turn people off to God is through long harangues.

It’s best to give people something to think about so that the next time they encounter you or another Christian, they’ll want to know more about Jesus.

People are always nudged to Jesus; they are never dragged to Him.

The Bible tells us that it’s the Holy Spirit Who makes it possible for people to believe in Jesus.

And Jesus says that it is He Who will build His Church, not us.

But, if we will ask God to help us to be faithful witnesses, God can and will use our witness to nudge people to faith in Christ.

So, these are today's six lessons on how we can be faithful witnesses for Jesus Christ to the unchurched and the unbelieving:
  • Through Bible study and prayer, be ready.*
  • Never be hostile. 
  • Meet people where they are. 
  • Enter the worlds of the unchurched. 
  • When the time is right, make clear the way of reconciliation with God, which is repentance for sin and faith in Jesus Christ alone. 
  • And don’t go on and on.
Now, I’ll follow my own advice, refraining from going on and on.

But, by all means, as you leave here today, go determined to share Jesus Christ with unbelieving and unchurched neighbors with boldness, love, and humility. Amen

*Of equal importance is regular worship with fellow believers, active engagement in church life, and regularly receiving Holy Communion. More on these things another time. They're all assumed here as this was a sermon given to a congregation of people who do these three things.

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