Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Reaching out in a secular culture, 8.4.13

Acts 1:1-8
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 17: 14-34
14Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. 15Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him.
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)
19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
The pattern we see over and over is that Paul and his partners reach a new city and begin their ministry in the synagogue. Paul makes his case for Jesus based on the prophets his audience would be familiar with, because Jesus is the Messiah God promised through the prophets. Some people believe and some do not. In some places Paul is persecuted, locked up or even attacked with stones.
            In Athens, things are a little different. Paul does begin in the synagogue, but Luke doesn’t say much about that at all. Instead, the focus is on where Paul goes next, which is into the streets. Now the streets of Athens were famous for a few things: art and philosophy. Apparently, throughout the city there were statues, especially of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. For the Athenians, these images were symbols of their religion and their artistic achievements.
            The other thing that happened in the street was philosophy. One of the important movements in philosophy in Paul’s time was stoicism, which focused on self-control. The name actually comes from the fact that the main teachers of stoicism taught in the street. The streets and marketplaces were full of people and ideas. People swapped news and stories, argued about philosophy, and generally engaged with each other. Paul steps into that mix with the good news of Jesus Christ.
The key to sharing our faith with other people is that we have to understand where they are coming from first. Before he starts preaching, Paul does some research. He looks around the city and examines the statues he sees. His first reaction as a committed Jew is to be upset about all the idols, but he doesn’t let that reaction get in the way of understanding and caring about the people of Athens. So he pushes through his first reaction to try to see the idols in a better light, which we see when he starts talking to the crowd.

Instead of attacking them for idolatry, which would put up walls against the message, he looks at the statues like they do, as a sign of their religious curiosity. So when he starts his speech, he starts by saying that they are a very religious people. Instead of seeing them just as misguided, he sees their statues as evidence that they are looking for God. That search for God is a good place to tell them about the God he knows about. Paul starts with what they share, a quest for truth and for God, and he works from there to explain the message of the gospel.

Paul assumes that whatever differences there are between him and his audiences, they share enough in common that the message will matter to them. Sometimes we think about the things that separate us from the culture around us. We lament the fact that people don’t go to church like they used to. The truth is, people still need the gospel and people still search for meaning in their lives. What unites us is greater than what divides us; we just need to find ways to make the connections between what people are looking for and what the gospel offers the world.

Paul explains his message in a way that will make sense to his audience. When he’s in the synagogue Paul talks about the Bible and uses prophesies about the Messiah to explain who Jesus is. In Athens, he needs to do things differently because his listeners don’t know the prophets or the law or the story of Israel’s relationship with God. Instead he talks about creation and different ways people have tried to find God. Instead of the Messiah, Paul talks about God’s calling; instead of scripture, he uses quotes from Greek poets. Paul adapts his message to his audience so it will make sense to them.

            When we share our faith we have to keep in mind that, like Paul’s audience in Athens, many people don’t know the story of the Bible. We live in a pretty secular culture so we can’t assume that people have a background understanding. The things that are obvious about Christianity for us if we’ve grown up in the church, are not obvious to those who haven’t. What’s even more challenging is that, unlike Paul’s audience, many people in our culture have negative impressions of Christianity we need to overcome to allow them to hear the real message.

Recently, I was out with a few friends. One guy said that most religious people he had encountered tried to push religion down his throat. He said talking with me made him want to learn more about Christianity because I didn’t do that. He likes that I listen to his questions and answer them without getting defensive and without trying to talk him into anything.

That’s not really about me; it’s also one of the greatest gifts a church like ours has to offer the world. We are open to lots of ideas at Laurelton. We don’t all understand the faith in the same way and we aren’t trying to force people to see things our way. Instead, we create space for people to read the Bible and be part of a welcoming community where we can learn together what it means to follow Jesus.

For a lot of people when they think about Christianity they think about judgment, condemnation, rules and hypocrisy. That’s not fair, it comes from people’s experiences. When we talk about our faith the most important thing we can share is that God loves us. For many people their experience with Christianity is all about what you can’t do or what you have to do without enough focus on the big picture. The big picture of Christianity is love, grace, acceptance, forgiveness and community. Everything flows from that. The more people hear that, the more they might want to hear more.

When we share our faith, we need to start with our audience. We need to have a sense for what is important to them so we can connect that to the message of faith. To share faith effectively we have to know the person we’re sharing with. We have to understand them, to know what their fears and hopes and priorities are. That doesn’t mean twisting the message to make it fit, but it does mean looking for points of contact between our audience and our faith.

Most of all, we have to care about the person we’re sharing with. Sharing our faith with other people isn’t about building a bigger church, it’s about inviting people we care about into a relationship with God. The other key is why faith matters to us. Why do you come to church? Why do you care about faith? If you think about that and about the person you’re talking with you will do a good job sharing.

Of course, the most important way we share our faith is by living our faith. When people see us living good lives, they are more likely to want to find out why we live the way we do and more likely to believe what we tell them.

It’s OK to be scared. Anytime we share anything as personal as faith, it’s scary. The only way through that is practice. So, I want to give you some homework. This week share your faith with one person. Pray about when to do that and look for an opportunity. I bet if you look for an opportunity with prayer, you’ll find the right person. Maybe a friend or coworker. You don’t have to share faith in any particular way, but however you do it, listen to the other person and connect that with why you find meaning in religion. As you do that this week, I’d love to hear how it goes, so feel free to email or call me during the week to share the experience. Any questions about the “assignment?”

As we share we grow, and God can use our simple story for amazing things.
Thanks be to God.

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