Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Paul Problem

Acts 9:1-19

Religion is a very personal thing that reaches down to the center of our being. Because it’s often hard to put what we believe into words, telling our faith stories can often be difficult. Not only that, but sometimes we can be intimidated by other people’s much more dramatic conversion stories.

Charles Colson has it easy – after all he went from being a notorious political hack who ended up in prison to being a major religious leader. Then there’s St. Paul. Now, he had a story to tell. He started out as a major heresy hunter, breathing down the necks of Christians from Jerusalem to Damascus. That is, until the day Jesus knocked him off his horse and blinded him with a bright light. That’s a story that’s hard to beat. What are you supposed to say if you’ve been a Christian all your life, or even if you came to faith later in life, your story still isn’t as dramatic as Paul’s? Besides, since religion is personal, why can’t I just keep it to myself?

1. Witnessing – A Value to Embrace.

Part of the answer to that question can be found in our own congregational core values, which we discerned at our Congregational Retreat. One of those values calls on us to be a “witnessing church.” This core value goes well with our calling to become a missional congregation. To be missional involves going into the neighborhood, wherever that neighborhood might be, and begin sharing the good news of God’s love with our neighbors in both word and deed.

St. Francis said: “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.” I like that statement because it reminds us that our lives are signs of God’s presence, but sometimes we forget that words are often necessary. This is especially true today, when so many people in our neighborhood know little about God. So, using words is becoming increasingly necessary if we’re to be faithful witnesses.

2. Why Evangelism?

This morning we began a special Lenten emphasis. For the next six weeks we will be exploring evangelism in small groups, in sermons, and in our daily devotions. We will be reading and discussing Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding Your Heart. Gay Reese’s book, which forms the basis of our effort, addresses our hesitancy, as mainline Protestants, to share our faith with others. There are a number of reasons why this is true. Part of our hesitancy is due to our belief that faith is personal and therefore private. Another reason why we may not say much is that many of us grew up believing that most people were religious and therefore all we had to do was put up a church and the seekers would find us. But there’s another reason – many of us have been put off by hard-nosed evangelists, like the ones who knock on our doors or push tracts in our hands as we walk down the street. It’s hard to shake that example, and we’d rather not do anything that would offend our friends and neighbors. Hey, I sometimes feel that way, and I’m a pastor!

As you read Gay Reese’s book, you’ll discover that evangelism can be and should be a natural part of our relationship with God. If you have a vital and life-changing relationship with God, even if it’s not dramatic, you have something wonderful to share. It’s just like with other areas of our lives – we talk about the things that are most important to us. For instance, when Brett was born, I was so excited that I told everybody I knew about my new son. I even took a little packet of pictures with me wherever I went, and I would show them to friends, colleagues, and sometimes even to strangers. I did this because Brett’s birth was so life changing that I couldn’t help but let everybody know that I was a new father. If you’re a parent, you understand. If you’re a child, please forgive us your parents, and someday maybe you too will understand!

3. What Difference Does Jesus Make?

Ultimately evangelism is simply telling our faith stories – telling friends and neighbors how Jesus changed our lives. And if, as I expect, your church has played an important role in your faith development, it’s natural to invite people to share in that experience with you. Each of us has our own story to tell. Some of us may have exciting stories, but most of us probably don’t. Still, if we have a vital relationship with God, we have something to share.
One of the problems we face as a more progressive mainline church, is that we often don’t have a great sense of urgency about telling our stories. You might call it a lack of fire in the belly. That is, since we don’t embrace a “fire and brimstone” theology, or insist that we alone have the truth, it’s sometimes difficult to get going and share our message. If, however, we believe – as I do -- that the God revealed to us in Jesus, is a God of love, mercy, and compassion, a God who forgives us even when we don’t show any real remorse, then what will motivate me to share the gospel? I think the answer goes back to our relationship with God. If it’s important enough, I’m going to say something!

For example – I’m a San Francisco Giants fan and I don’t have any trouble talking about how Tim Lincecum was voted Cy Young Award winner. I’m even open to talking about Barry Bonds. So, if I’m so willing to talk about a sport’s team, why not talk about God?

Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking a lot about both prayer and evangelism. We’ll be thinking about our own faith stories and how we might better share them. You’ll even be hearing testimonies from members of this congregation. They will tell their stories in their own words. Each story will be as different as the person telling them.

I’ve invited Elmer Morehouse to be the first person to share his story of faith. In fact, I asked him to speak to a very specific issue – how he and Joanne passed on their faith to their children, grand children and now great grand children. We like to joke about how the Morehouse clan makes up nearly half the congregation, but the fact that we can talk that way says a lot about Elmer’s and Joanne’s faith. They have instilled in each generation a sense of faithfulness that we need to honor and celebrate. So, I introduce to you the patriarch of the Morehouse clan! [Show and Tell – Elmer Morehouse] Thank you Elmer!

4. Taking those first steps of evangelism

Stuck inside Paul’s conversion story is the account of Ananias, a believer living in Damascus, who had a vision. In that vision he learned that he was supposed to go and witness to Paul. Now, like most of the Christians in his community, he’d heard about Paul and his mission. He was a bit unsure about going to Paul, because it could be a trap. Still, despite his hesitancy, he went to Paul, prayed for his healing – both physical and spiritual. And, Luke says that Paul’s blindness disappeared and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was baptized in the name of Jesus. Ananias took a big risk, and yet because he trusted in God, he got to participate in Paul’s call to take the message of Jesus to the Gentiles.

Sharing our stories isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be sort of risky! But, as the examples of Ananias and Elmer remind us – there is great benefit when we share our stories – with family, with friends, with co-workers, and yes, even strangers. As we begin our journey together, I hear a question forming in our minds: Where is Jesus sending me today?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
February 22, 2009
Last Sunday after Epiphany

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