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Mar 19, 2017

True North | Sharing Your Faith

True North | Sharing Your Faith

Passage: Colossians 4:2-6

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

We are continuing our look at the different ways that we respond to the grace and love of Jesus that we have received and this week we are looking at how a people who have received this love and grace are called to go out and to share that good news, that gospel. Now, I would use the word evangelism, but that has baggage for a lot of folks, so I’ll use the euphemism, “sharing our faith with others.”

Of course, one of the people who has some baggage around sharing his faith is me. A couple of years ago when we talked about this same issue I discussed my life in high school and the struggles I had with donning “witness wear” shirts to school. I felt like I should wear them or I wasn’t being a good Christian and so I did, but I spent the whole day trying to cover up my shirt so that people didn’t know I was wearing it. Well, that same struggle continued into college. My first year I joined a group whose exclusive purpose was to go around and engage in evangelism with strangers. I can remember the first night we did an ice-breaker where you had 9 boxes with statements inside of them and you were supposed to go around and find someone who had done one of the things listed in the box and then check it off until you’d checked off all the boxes. The statements were things like, “I’ve lived in a country other than the U.S.” or “I have more than 3 siblings.”

One of them was “I’ve led someone to Christ.” Well, one young lady came up to me and pointed out that particular box and said, “Have you led someone to Christ,” in hopes that I could check off that box for her. I somewhat sheepishly said, “no,” and she said quite incredulously, “You’ve never led someone to Christ?!” Well, she was kind of cute and so I said, “Oh I’m sorry, I misunderstood what you said. Yeah, of course I have.” And checked the box. (I’m hoping that lying about having led someone to Christ is not an unforgivable sin!) Throughout that semester we would go to places like parking lots of country western bars (this was in Tennessee after all) and meander through the parked trucks trying to find someone who was sober enough for us to tell about Jesus. It was really, really, really awkward.

Now, the easy thing for me to say now is that that was a ridiculous thing to have done, and maybe it was. I also know though that there are some people who are really gifted at being able to strike up conversations with strangers about Jesus and do so in a way that is not manipulative or weird, but is really glorifying to God. In light of last week’s sermon I would say those are people who have been blessed with the spiritual gift of evangelism. It is a genuine gift that should be cultivated and encouraged. And it’s a gift that, at least at this point, I don’t have. 

This week I was listening to a talk by Michael Frost about our passage in Colossians 4 and he had an interesting take on this passage (one which I’m not completely convinced of yet, but I do find very interesting). He says that In verses 3 and 4 Paul asks the church in Colossae to pray for him and his team that God would open the door so that they could declare the mysteries of Christ, but that Paul doesn’t then immediately go on to say that he will pray for them about that as well. What Frost says is that Paul, obviously, has the spiritual gift of Evangelism and Paul’s asking that they pray that his gift would be used and that the reason Paul doesn’t say that he’ll pray for them in the same way is that they may not have that same gift of evangelism. Now, that could give us a reason to say, “Phew,” now we don’t have to go find random strangers and begin to preach to them about Jesus.

 

But then, well, it’s important to pay attention to what Paul does say that the church is to do, the whole church whether they have the gift of evangelism or not. And that is to conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders. In other words, don’t be hypocrites or living lives one way in the church and a different way when you’re around folks who aren’t in the church. He says that they are to make the most of their time, which as we’ve discussed a lot means to take time seriously. No one gets to the end of their lives and says, “Man, I really wish instead of watching 12 hours of television every weekend I would have watched 13 hours” or, “I should have worked 60 hours a week instead of just 55,” but they do reach the end of their lives and realize that they should have poured more time into their relationships or into serving or caring for others. So Paul says make the most of the time.

He also says to let your speech be gracious and seasoned with salt which means, of course, to be loving and caring in how you speak and, when you speak about God, to do so in ways that are interesting-not in some canned, dull fashion that makes watching sloths seem fascinating, but in a way that makes it clear that God is someone who is really alive in your life. And then he concludes by saying that this gracious and flavorful speech should be answers that you are giving people. And if you are giving answers it means that someone has…asked you a question. Which means, of course, that Paul is making the assumption that the way we live is going to provoke questions. Or, as Frost says, we should be living questionable lives.

So, before we exhale too much because we may not be called to continually strike up conversations with strangers, we have to ask ourselves whether or not anyone is ever asking us about why we live the way we do? Is anyone asking us why our lives look different than others?   Quite frankly, it might be a bit easier to strike up conversations with strangers in the parking lot of country western bars than to wrestle with whether or not our lives are questionable. Because for that to happen then we have to ask in what ways does our life look different? What I’ve noticed is that when it comes to the issue of sharing our faith, people frequently voice concern about not knowing what they would say about him or what they would do if someone asked them a question they didn’t know the answer to. But perhaps a better thing to focus on at first is not what we would tell others, but whether or not anyone really is interested in hearing from us about Jesus in the first place? What most folks want to know is not whether or not you can answer every biblical question they can ask, but whether or not this Jesus really makes a difference in your life and whether or not that difference is something they are drawn to.

In looking at how the gospel is spread, one of the fascinating things that scholars point out is to look at the letters of a Roman Emperor named Julian. Julian was emperor in Rome in the 4th century and was the son of Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. But, Julian was not pleased that Christianity had taken over and he wanted a return to the paganism of the past. And so he wrote letters to Roman officials in hopes of turning the tide away from Christianity. In his letters he asks these officials whether they are blind in their inability to see that because Christians were being kind to strangers, were caring for the burial of the dead, were living sober lives, were providing for the poor (and not just their own poor, but all poor), that Christianity was spreading like wildfire. In other words, he saw that the reason Christianity was growing so dramatically was because their lives were so different and people were drawn to that. In fact, he then begins to tell the governors that as pagans they need to start doing those same, what we would call Christ-like things if they wanted paganism to grow.

Remember, earlier in Colossians Paul is telling the church to clothe themselves in compassion and mercy and kindness and love and when they do so, it will catch the attention of others. And in the 4th century people were beginning to notice, beginning to ask questions, and the gospel is spreading. Not because every Christian then had the gift of evangelism, but because they are living lives that are curious, strange, questionable and because of that Jesus’ name is being heard. 

Or I’d be remiss if two days after St. Patrick’s Day I didn’t mention the incredible work that Patrick did in Ireland and the way in which his work there spread the gospel in a remarkable way. I know it may be hard to believe this, but Patrick’s main goal in Ireland was not the gospel of the color green or to tell people about the mysteries of a little leprechaun or to help people experience what it’s like to drink copious amounts of beer. I mused to myself how fascinating it would be if Patrick walked into the tent set up this past Friday at the Friendly Tavern. Wouldn’t you want to see his reaction?

Patrick, of course, was a missionary in Ireland who my guess is, if he had taken our spiritual gifts inventory, would have scored high on evangelism. But when we look at how Christianity spread in Ireland it wasn’t necessarily because Patrick could be in all places at all times, he wasn’t God, but it was because he helped encourage a faith that was easily translated. For one, there was a real communal focus to the faith that they shared. George Hunter points out that some of the tenants of this fast growing church were that the people supported each other, prayed for one another, worked out their salvation together and lived out the faith with each other. Remember what we’ve said which is that throughout his letters, when Paul describes what the church should look like, the attributes he gives (like forgiveness and love and humility) are all components that are critical for building long-lasting and unified community. Community, I might add, that is distinct from the world around it. Communities that are highly questionable because they seem strange, odd. When communities, when churches, are acting in this way the gospel will spread, make no mistake about it. 

But, the Irish church that Patrick helped to cultivate, and that was spreading in dramatic fashion, was also one that celebrated how faith touched on all aspects of their lives, not just what happened in a particular building and not just what would happen in the world to come. It’s cool to read some of the old Celtic prayers and to see how they touch on how God intersects with normal, everyday life. One prayer that is said in the morning when the first fire is being lit says:

I will kindle my fire this morning
In presence of the holy angels of heaven,
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall…

In this prayer there is this connection between the physical fire and up to God and then back to the neighbor and even to the enemy. There is this beautiful weaving together of the physical and of our faith and our call in the world to love. Think about it, Jesus makes a difference even in how they light a fire. That doesn’t mean that there is a unique “Christian” way to light a fire, but it does mean that lighting the fire for them reminded them of God and in so doing it reminded them of God’s call in their life so that all aspects of their lives were shaped differently. It is when we think in these non-segmented ways, that our relationship with Jesus begins to make a real difference in how we awake, in how we understand God, in how we interact with others. It leads to a life that intrigues people, that causes them to wonder what might be different about the way we live and about why we live the way we do. It leads, I think to a more questionable life. 

Sharing our faith begins, it seems to me, not with having all of the Bible figured out or with having the right number of tracts to hand out or with our having the gift of evangelism, it begins with our actually responding to God’s grace by living out our faith in ways that people can see and experience. It most often does not begin with a brilliant comment about Jesus, but with people seeing the way you as an individual and we as a church and thinking, “Something is different about them, something that I want to know more about.” 

All that said, let me be clear, it still will require us to speak about Jesus. Paul assumes, not only that our actions will provoke curiosity and questions, but that we will need to talk about God with others. In fact, he puts a bit of pressure on us when he says that this talk should be flavorful, interesting. I don’t think that means that when we talk about God to others that we need to insert jokes at the appropriate time so that we can make sure people are listening. I think actually that the best way to make sure that our conversation about Jesus is interesting is to make sure that it comes out of a place of someone who is continually experiencing Jesus in new and fresh ways. 

It’s a bit like the Indy 500. A few years ago if you had asked me to tell you about the Indy 500 I would have given you a summary that would have put you all quickly to sleep. It’s watching a cars go around an oval track again and again and again until finally they’ve reached 500 miles. Wheeeeee! But then, I’ve had a couple of chances in the last three years to go see it in person and man, when you hear those engines and see how fast they’re going and feel the power and experience the crowds, it is a completely new thing. Last year I got to go and I finished up here, changed, drove down, and ran over a mile just to make sure I got there before the first lap. I was pumped and if you ask me about it now, while I couldn’t tell you all the ins and outs about pitting and gassing up and carburetors and anything else, but I could certainly tell you with some excitement, some flavor, what it feels like to be in the presence of the Indy 500.

I think the way to make sure that our talk about Jesus is not dull and canned and something that feels lifeless is to make sure that we are experiencing Jesus. And so often, we experience Jesus when we are doing what? Well, the same things that we do that intrigue about Jesus. When we, like the early Celtic church, are a community who prays together and worships together and serves alongside one another and forgives one another, we experience Jesus. When we see how the small things we do throughout the day connect us with God and when we give praise God for that, we will experience him in deeper ways. When, like the 4th century church we are kind to strangers, caring for those who are grieving, taking care of the poor, then we will experience Jesus in deep ways. And as we do that, people will notice, and they will wonder what makes them different, questionable, and they will want to know and if we are doing those things guess what? We will have an answer for them.

We do this, we act like this, because we have experienced the good news of the gospel, that Jesus has welcomed us and loved us and so we now go out and do the same. It doesn’t take a theology degree or a gift of evangelism to spread the faith, brothers and sisters. It takes a willing people who have been loved by God and long for others to experience that love and then to join us in helping to share that good news. Let us live questionable lives that others may experience the love and grace of God.