April 24, 2016
A friend of mine pointed out to me that when you read the book of Acts… you don’t see a lot of red letters… you know, those letters in some Bibles that indicate when Jesus is speaking. And being the friend I am, I checked it out… I flipped through my red letter Bible and he is right. In Chapter 1 before his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come (Pentecost) to them… and that they are to be his witnesses from Jerusalem, to Judea and to the ends of the earth. In Chapter 9, Jesus speaks and knocks Saul off his high horse… Saul who had been persecuting Christians and who had cheered on the crowd when Stephen was stoned… Jesus asks Saul why he is persecuting the Christians… and by the end of the story, Saul has been converted and becomes Paul… the Paul we meet today. This was Paul’s powerful, life changing story… that he would repeat in Chapter 22 and Chapter 26 as he offers his testimony.
The only other time Jesus speaks in Acts is in today’s passage:
“One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, ‘Don’t be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people”
Don’t be afraid,
Don’t be silent,
because I will be with you and lots of other people will be with you too.
Sometimes I forget it wasn’t easy for Paul, or Silas or Timothy or Priscilla or Aquilla either… I guess I always thought Paul and the others were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they went around with boldness… but today the text says to me, that speaking out was hard… And when I look back at what Paul went through, I understand…The worse we face is fear of embarrassment—they faced imprisonment, beating, even death.
Before coming to Corinth, in Athens, when Paul spoke out, the intellectuals laughed at him as he shared his story and the story of Jesus… Speaking out was not easy for Paul or any Christian.
Read about Paul’s missionary journeys, and you find a common pattern…
He comes to town, he goes to a local synagogue where he will teach and argue for days about Jesus being the Jewish messiah… some convert but many do not…
In our story today, Titius Justice who lived next to the synagogue became a believer… as did a leader of the synagogue—who heard Paul speak… he and his household became believers! Many of the Corinthians responded positively…
But many did not… and many became angry with Paul and the other believers… to the point of physical violence…Sometimes, if you came upon Paul in town, his face looked like a boxer’s face… he was beaten to a pulp… Sometimes, if you were to lift up his shirt, sometimes you would see it was covered with stripes and scars from the whipping that took place… he spent more than a few nights in jail for speaking out…
I don’t know where I ever got the idea that speaking out was easy for Paul or anyone else. No wonder he needed a word from the Lord!
Today it is still true you know. In some parts of the world, if some of our brothers and sisters speak out or even just go to church or say they are a Christian… their lives are in real danger… and if they are not killed, they are thrown out of town… out of their country… losing everything- their house, their friends, their safety and security… Everything. Simply for being a Christian…
Not so much for us… Our fears about speaking out deal with things like embarrassment… ask someone to share their faith in almost any group and there is usually a long silence—cricket sounds…
Why… Not sure. But I suspect fear is at the heart of it: fear of what people will think of us… will we sound too fundamentalist if we talk about matters of faith?
So, we’d rather talk about the groups we belong to or the activities we participate in—“I love ASP… I love singing in the choir… or advising the youth… or going to Helen Wright or working in the garden”…which is nice… but that is not sharing faith as much as giving our church resume. Sometimes God isn’t even mentioned.
I know, I know, If we ask some of you to speak out in church, we worry about fears of public speaking… and I get that—I hate speaking before the Presbytery… and not everyone is called to be a public speaker… ask someone to share their faith in church and you can almost see the fear come to the face… but what about one on one… or teaching a class…sharing faith there…
I wonder if you have ever been asked to teach our children or youth… I was talking with Amanda and I learned something interesting: Do you know the number one reason Amanda tells me that people say they cannot teach our youth?
It is because they are afraid of the youth. Afraid!
Really? Really? Isn’t it interesting the role fear plays in keeping us from being witnesses … of sharing our faith stories…
It is difficult to speak out… I acknowledge that. It’s hard, especially it seems if you were raised in a mainline church or the Catholic church…
And that was okay for those of us who remember being raised in communities when almost everyone belonged to a church and almost everyone was Christian… The only question was if you were Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc…
But that world no longer exists and the time may have come for us to find our voices once again. Especially in a secular, pluralistic, and multi-faith world.
One of the things I’ve learned through my friendships and interfaith conversations with Muslim and Jewish friends is this: they want to know about my faith… our faith… I’m always impressed how well they can articulate their faith… and what it means to them…And when I’m talking with them, they want to know what we believe and why we believe what we do about Jesus…
I remember being in a home of a Muslim in Turkey… Jesus came up… He is their prophet… I began talking about “My Lord Jesus”… and we had a conversation about Jesus and his teachings. After dinner, on the way home, my Muslim guide and friend Fahid tells me, “you need to share more like that!”
I find it interesting that Muslims and Mormons and nondenominational congregations many other of the fastest growing religions and denominations in the world are religions where people are encouraged to share their faith… they learn to testify.
Korean Presbyterians get this… the fastest growing Presbyterian church in the world values sharing of faith… I remember visiting a hospital in Korea, years ago, called Jesus hospital. And while I don’t advocate what happened as a practice, I suggest it reveals the importance they place on sharing faith. I was in a hospital room with two patients. The nurse was giving one patient a hard time. I asked the missionary, “What is going on?” He said, the nurse is giving the patient a hard time about not sharing his faith with his fellow patient. It’s in their culture.
The rest of us in the mainline and Catholic church seem to be out of practice … or we seem to have lost our voice…. And it is difficult for many to share their faith…
sometimes there is great resistance or fear…
Paul would understand… he faced it in every town he entered… which is why the Lord gives Paul a little pep talk… because after what he has been through, it is not getting easier to share the faith… and to share his story… So the Lord says to him,
“Don’t be afraid, speak out… I will be with you and so will others”
So today, I want to encourage you to learn to speak out and not be afraid.
Many of you are already doing that and you don’t even know it… there are the teachers of children, youth and adults who through their teaching, speak out every week… there are people singing… the message of faith is often conveyed through song… I grew up in choirs and often God has spoken to me through choirs or soloists… And I’d love to hear why a song touches your life…not just that you like it… it is in the “why” where the faith story is told.
When I look back on my life of faith, I realize that many of the most important turning points came to me because someone shared their faith in church, on retreats, in Sunday School, among friends.
Today, I want to encourage you to speak out… and to face your fears… and don’t use the usual excuses like, “I don’t use words, I speak by example”…
And I’m always glad to hear that… but honestly, sometimes it sounds more like an excuse not to speak and maybe that was enough in a previous age when most of our culture was already Christian… but that is no longer the case…. This is 2016 and not 1956…
Unless our actions are paired with words every now and then, people won’t know why you live the way you live. People will have little clue about the role of faith… of God in guiding your life.
More than once I’ve preached on the topic of “If you are going to talk the talk, you are going to walk the walk…” And I will keep preaching on that. But I’m thinking I also need to start preaching more on, “if you are going to walk the walk, you are also going to have to talk the talk” if you want anyone to understand the faith behind your walk.
One of the things I’d like to have us learn how to do at the Kirk is to share our testimony… our stories with on another… In the Session, I am asking elders to share their testimony this year. I am also wondering:
What would that be like if you did that as part of your Sunday School, Small Group, mission activity? Would you not grow closer to one another and empowered by the stories of others? What if you shared with one another before you participate in any ministry or mission asking questions like, “What is it in your faith that motivates you to do this? Or where do you see God at work here?” Something like that.
We all have a story to share… I also know we may need to learn once again how to share our stories… which oddly begins by listening first… by listening to our lives.
Frederick Buechner wrote: “Listen to your life… If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks… God addresses us through the events of our lives…”
So before you share your testimony, I encourage you to stop and listen first… listen to your life and how God is speaking to you…
And if you need some prompting on how to do that, I have shared in this bulletin a number of questions designed to help you listen to your life…and how God may be speaking in your life. I encourage you to use these questions as part of your devotional practice… maybe one question a day or per week. Questions like:
Can you think of a time when your faith in Jesus made a difference in your life?
What Bible verse, passage or story is important to you because it is an expression of
What is the most profound spiritual moment in your life? (Maybe you have had a road
to Damascus experience, maybe not… but that doesn’t mean you haven’t had
Who has been the most important spiritual influence in your life? (I love the story of
Timothy who came to faith thanks to his mother and grandmother- that is his
Can you recall for a moment those people and events (good and bad) that have had an
impact on you… that have made Jesus an important person in your own life?
And let’s not forget: how have you experienced God in our lives through your
participation in the life of the church—fellowship, mission, teaching, learning,
caring for others… serving on a committee or the Session… God is in every one of
those places, how have you experienced God there?
By encouraging you to look at these questions, you know what I’m doing? What I’m trying to help us do is to listen… God is speaking in your life… Listen…
Then speak out… share your story… share the story of where and how God has spoken in your life… Use the opportunities that come your way.
I have to tell you that some of the most powerful things ever said in this sanctuary are not what are said by the preacher, but by people offering their testimony…
Why? Because God stories change lives…
I was watching Religion and Ethics weekly and a story about an Episcopal church in Richmond caught my attention. They have a Celtic worship service where about 200 people attend on a late Sunday afternoon each week. It is a contemplative service but, instead of a sermon, at the beginning members of the church share their stories. That is powerful.
Friends, if the Episcopalians can do this, so can you! So I want to encourage them and encourage you to share your stories with one another… knowing it is not easy…
And when the fear begins to get in the way I want you to hear the word of the Lord that came to Paul is God’s word to you:
Don’t be silent.
Don’t be afraid.
Because I will be with you
And lots of other people too.
After all, who knows? Yours may be the story God wants to use to change someone’s life… to be the means by which God will reach out to another person… One day, when someone is asked to share their story… your name may be the name they share… to talk about how God used someone to change their lives… or help them…
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? T
he only thing standing in the way is our fears… and should that be true for you… I hope you will hear the voice that says,
Don’t be silent.
Don’t be afraid.
Because I will be with you
And lots of other people too.
Listen to that voice… and share your story with the confidence that the God who was with Paul and the others… will be with you as well.