Sunday, February 28, 2016

9 Reminders for Reaching "Outsiders"

[This was shared this morning during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Acts 26:17-18
Today, I’m going to depart from the appointed lessons for the day, because yesterday, during my Quiet Time with God, God impressed something on me I feel compelled to share with you, especially in light of conversations I've had with some of you over the past week.

Yesterday, I read Acts 26, in the New Testament. In it, Luke recounts the interrogation of the apostle Paul and the witness he gave for Jesus Christ before two powerful men, Festus and King Agrippa. Acts being the first book of the Bible I read through after I came to faith in Christ when I was 22 years old, this chapter has always been a favorite. But, at the prompting of my Navigators coach, Bill, I decided to read the passage in a paraphrase/translation I don't ordinarily use for my devotions, The Message.

In Quiet Time, I ask God to show me a new truth or, at least, a truth I haven't thought of for a time in the passages I read.

Probably because of the unique spin that The Message's author, Eugene Peterson, gives, my attention yesterday morning was drawn today to Acts 26:17-18. There we read:
[In a recalled conversation, the risen and ascended Jesus meets Paul, then Saul, on the road to Damascus, speaks to Paul, a persecutor of the Church] [Jesus said;] "I'm sending you off to open the eyes of the outsiders ["Outsiders" here refers to Gentiles, non-Jews, most previously in on God's salvation plans for the human race.] present my offer of sins forgiven, and a place in the family, inviting them into the company of those who begin real living by believing in me."
There are so many things going on in this passage that I can almost feel the synapses of my brain pinging all over the place!

But the thing that the Holy Spirit impressed on me most yesterday morning was this: I, Mark Daniels, personally need to make it my business to go to "outsiders," with the aim of offering "real living" (life with God, now and in eternity) through repentance and belief in Jesus.

I need to be Christ’s witness.

And even pastors are called to spend most of our lives outside the walls of the church and outside the fellowship of the Church, out there in the real world, where we're Christ's agents, field representatives, ambassadors.

I asked God: "Lord, how can I do this practically? Show me what I need to do to be reaching, interacting with, befriending, and conversing with the ‘outsiders,’ those who aren't yet in on the real living that comes to those who believe in Jesus?" And then I remained silent. (Do you know how hard that is for a preacher?)

Here are nine things that crossed my mind as I prayerfully considered these two questions. All of them are, I believe, rooted in God's Word, the Bible:

(1) My interaction with "outsiders" must be on their turf, not mine; where they're comfortable, not where I'm comfortable. God wants me to move outside of my "comfort zone." That's where the "outsiders" are.

Think of how Jesus did ministry. He went to notorious sinners, dined in the homes of unbelieving, extortionist tax collectors, touched lepers he met on the streets and highways, and answered the prayers of foreigners He encountered in the public square. These were all people who had been “outside” the faith, but through Him, became believers, entered into the kingdom of God.

If no one was too bad or too far from God for Jesus to go to, then how can a sinner like me think I’m too good to reach out to outsiders?

(2) These encounters must be directed by God, as we see here it was for Paul. We can neither force encounters with outsiders nor should we run away from them when we see that God is creating them. Paul did and said what the Holy Spirit led him to do and say.

(3) I must be willing to accept being weak, in the eyes of the world, in the face of some outsiders' power. This is part of playing on their turf.

In Acts 26:17-18, Paul was in chains!

But he didn't see this circumstance negating God’s call and command that he invite outsiders to new life through repentance and belief in Jesus.

Paul accepted his weakness. Paul elsewhere says that we Christians should never lament our weakness. It is is our chief asset!

In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Paul talks about how God refused his repeated prayers for the removal of some unspecified thorn in the flesh. He quotes God as telling him as he prayed, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ [Then Paul tells us:] Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

When we are stripped of all pretense of being powerful, we can get out of God's way, people can see God and our dependene on Him in us, making our witness for Him stronger!

(4) I must have an understanding of my faith, as well as an understanding of where "outsiders" are coming from. This doesn't mean we must all go to seminary.

Thank God! In fact, I often feel that my seminary education gets in the way of my witness. Too often, we pastors go to seminary and learn what some people call religionspeak, the native language of a land where nobody lives.

What this fourth point does mean is that we must all be in a living relationship with the Lord, enforced by daily prayer, reading of Scripture, and fellowship with Christ's Church, on the one hand.

And it means, on the other hand, being a willing listener to the values, needs, aspirations, and personalities of our "outsider" friends. We must never forget that as Christians, other people are never our enemies! [Ephesians 6:12 says: "...we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." The people who don't follow Jesus aren't our enemies; they're people with whom we're called to share Jesus in words and actions and love!]

(5) As alluded to earlier, I must have a sense of humor. One of the worst things that often happens to Christians is that we become too solemn. ("So heavenly minded that they're no earthly use," as the old phrase puts it.)

Paul says later in Acts 26, in verse 29, to King Agrippa that he would have the king become just as he is--a believer in Jesus--and then adds "except for these chains." (Or as The Message renders it, helping modern readers to understand that Paul is making an ironic joke, "except, of course, for this prison jewelry.")

Paul’s humor reflected his humility. He didn’t take himself seriously, only his Lord.

(6) Don't be afraid.

(7) Own past sins and mistakes. Christ came to save sinners. I need to own the fact that I'm one who needs Christ's saving!

Otherwise I'm a holier-than-thou terror like Paul had been before Jesus encountered him on the road to Damascus.

This doesn’t mean we should tell people all of our sins. God spare us the emotional striptease that often passes for openness these days.

It does mean acknowledging our imperfection.

(8) Be honest. This relates to two earlier points, forthrightness about my powerlessness and my sin.

Honesty is not as easy as it may seem. Honesty is not natural to we descendants of Adam and Eve, who hid from God and tried, without success, to conceal their rebellion.

There are some things that need to be concealed, of course, things like confidences, surprise birthday parties, Christmas gifts.

And we may all have repentance to make for revealing things that should have been kept concealed.

But sometimes we think that we have to conceal things from others that we need not conceal. Some things we may need to conceal, for example, for professional reasons, things that ought not be concealed from everyone, especially from friends.

One of the bitterest regrets of my life involved concealing something from dear friends. I thought the professional practices I had been taught at seminary should prevent me from sharing some news with them that they really needed to know. I didn't take into account the depth of our friendship.

When I finally revealed the truth to them, they were bitter, angry, and hurt that I hadn't shared with them earlier.

They were right to feel the way they did. I had allowed a human creation, a so-called "professional practice," to take precedence over the simple call to be honest with people I loved.

A lack of honesty can harm friendships and also harm our capacity to reach the outsider. Be honest.

(9) I must go wherever Jesus calls me. Paul, I'm sure didn't aspire to be in chains. But he did aspire to be faithful to God's call to proclaim Jesus wherever God sent him.

Paul was sure that his call was to go to Rome to proclaim Jesus, to invite more "outsiders" to experience real living through repentance and belief in Jesus. If that led him to being chained or killed, so be it.

Often in my own life, I've thought I needed to be "someplace else," rather than where God had put me: parties that bored me, doctors' examination tables, working on production lines in factories.

But wherever God has called me to be is the place where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I can nudge outsiders lovingly toward new and everlasting with Jesus.

I can do it by being a friend or a friendly acquaintance who is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, "ready at all times to answer anyone who asks [me] to explain the hope [I] have..." (1 Peter 3:15).

These are the nine things I sensed God telling me yesterday.

Part of my prayer then, yesterday was simple: “Help me to enact all of this in my everyday life, Lord. Show me when and where to help 'outsiders' to know and follow You.”

I pray the same thing for you today.

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