Sharing Jesus Gently

A sermon preached on May 14, 2023 "Sharing Jesus Gently" based on Acts 17:22-31 and 1 Peter 3:13-22
Paul had been run out of Thessalonica and Beroea and traveled a long way to reach Athens, first overland to the seacoast, then by boat down the coast. The city had been the capital of a large empire in its day, but it was now past its prime. Although he knew Greek, he spoke it with a different accent than the Athenians were used to. Paul was in a strange and complex situation, alone in a place with no friends or guides. To continue his mission of sharing the good news, he needed a way to connect with the Greeks that would relate to their current reality and share Jesus gently. He knew he had to tread carefully to speak without offending them, at least for long enough to get them to listen.
Paul looked around and saw shrine after shrine to a variety of gods made of gold or silver or stone. Each god was unique and created by people who wanted someone powerful who might respond to a large enough offering by keeping trouble at bay. The Greeks believed these gods interfered with their lives, often in destructive ways, acting more like cartoon super-villains that like gods. The shrines they built were designed to appease the gods more than worship them.  Paul also interacted with enough people to know that belief in the gods was shrinking, that they were being regarded more as myth and legend than as reality. He paid attention, did his homework, even reading Greek poetry.
Some people have a child-like habit of learning something, then becoming so sure they’re right that they can’t be talked out of it. It becomes a matter of pride, not a matter of logic. They often find it more important to be right than to be kind. Some people never outgrow that.
Other people who really want to know what the truth is will rethink what they learned before, unlearn what doesn’t work and relearn things in a new way that makes more sense. Doubting something we’ve long believed is uncomfortable. It takes a certain level of openness and maturity. It takes the courage to listen to something new and different without letting what you think you know get in the way of changing your mind.
Paul proclaimed the Good News for a while to individuals he met in Athens, both in the synagogue and in the marketplace. Some people called him a “babbler” in verse 18, which was a Greek word for a “country bumpkin” who didn’t speak the language well, an insult meaning they considered Paul a barbarian.
Athens was also a city known for the intellectual curiosity of its inhabitants. A group of philosophers invited Paul to the Areopagus on Mars Hill, a place set away from the bustle of the city where people held serious and deep conversations as a form of entertainment. Paul, a life-long Jew, had to think carefully about how to address an audience who nothing about Judaism, who had never known a unique all-knowing, all-seeing God who created everything and had rules about how to behave that held consequences for breaking them. They wouldn’t have recognized the words “grace” or “sin”, for example.
He could have started off by telling them they’d been wrong about God all along, but the Holy Spirit led Paul to be wiser than that. He chose to put the Gospel into a context they’d be familiar with. He complimented the Greeks on their commitment to religious ideas and worship, along with their ability to admit that they can’t know everything. He discussed the beauty and order of natural world, suggesting that it points to a single creator. And he proposed that God designed humans to search for Him, to realize that God is close by, and to want to live and move and have our being in Him. Explaining that we are God’s offspring led to the logical argument that God is not made of metal or stone, an image made by people, but a living being who made us in HIS image, loves us, and understands us. Such an incredible being cannot be contained in a statue or altar.
The Greeks were interested right up until Paul was bold enough to state his belief in the man God appointed who was raised from the dead. Then some of them scoffed.
To quote theologian Scott Hoezee, “To the Greeks, being raised back to life had all the appeal of a root canal without anesthetic. Escape from the body was the goal. So, the prospect of getting your body back by-and-by seemed less like a glorious reward and more like a cruel punishment.”
No matter what we do, some people will not be open to believing the Gospel. That rejection can be discouraging. But a few others were ready to rethink what they thought they knew and later joined the Christian community. Paul didn’t chase after the folks who sneered at him. He stayed with those who were open to hearing more.
Paul and the other early Christians took great risks to share their faith. Paul traveled extensively, spoke to some people who reviled him, but brought many to the Gospel who never would have heard it otherwise. He was gripped by the urgency of the message in a way most of us are not.
There have been times in our history, such as the Crusades, when people got tired of trying to convert with gentleness and respect and substituted the use of force and power. But that’s a selfish, evil response, one that contradicts the message of Christ. God is the one who brings people to faith. We are only a tool, and one that only works when used gently.
Part of what makes sharing our faith now so challenging now is that our current culture is based on the scientific method. If you can’t prove it, it isn’t real. Values are relative, because you can’t prove any of them are right. For folks like that, no proof is enough. There are many idols, including consumer goods, military power, and technology. But for those who are open to the idea that more exists than we can perceive or prove, descriptions of our own faith experiences can be persuasive.
I’m reading a book by Greg Laurie called How to Share your Faith. He said that 95% of all Christians have never led someone else to Christ. We’re afraid it won’t work, or we’re not sure what to do if it does work. It’s a risk. But true conversion is something only God can do. Knowing that takes the pressure off of us.
Because I believe that God is love, I was uncomfortable to read that Laurie believes that everyone who doesn’t accept Christ is going to burn in hell for all eternity. He doesn’t recommend saying that, and I’m sure telling people this as part of trying to lead them to Christ comes off as a judgmental and off-putting approach. This led me to the PC(USA) website to find out what Presbyterian leadership says about this.
PC(USA) writer Rev. Aimee Moiso writes, “Though sin separates us from God and one another, God desires the salvation of the world, as Jesus says in John 3:17: ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Salvation is God’s gracious act toward us, one that we neither earn nor achieve through our own actions. God’s redemptive power is not confined to what happens to us when we die; it includes reconciliation with God and our neighbors in this life and eventually the restoration of the whole creation.
“Of course, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we affirm that Jesus is a unique revelation of God, and we point to Christ as the source of our salvation. The PC(USA)’s 2002 statement 'Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” says, 'No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of ‘God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ [1 Tim. 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”
Personally, I believe that hell is absence from God’s presence, and a lot of people live in hell even before they die.
Laurie does have some helpful suggestions. He recommends listening to people before bringing up the topic of Christ, waiting until they mention something you can relate to your faith journey first. Just as Jesus took different approaches with different people, there is no one-size-fits-all way to talk about our faith. When with someone who loves to shop, you might touch on the idea that they have a spiritual hole that goods won’t fill. Don’t be drawn into an argument. Be tactful. Telling your own faith story demonstrates your hope, and it’s something they can’t dispute. Share Jesus gently.
In our reading from 1 Peter, we are encouraged to be eager to do what is good, and reassured that even if we suffer for doing what is right, we are blessed. There are times when our belief is demonstrated by how we behave in hard situations, how we show the hope we have in Christ. When people react badly to that, we can be ready to defend it with a prepared testimony delivered with gentleness and reverence. We need to know what the Bible says and how it relates to our own experiences as well as those of the person we’re talking to.
In our current culture, we don’t get asked about our Christian faith very often. Our standard of living is high enough compared to Bible times that most people take the good life for granted. When you have most everything you need by earning it with your own efforts, there is less need to believe in someone more powerful than yourself. All more reason to have thought through what exactly makes your personal faith and beliefs important to you, worthy of the commitment to live for Christ.
People also think of Christianity as a familiar part of the background and assume they understand it already. When someone pokes fun at us for our belief in a long-dead man from the Middle East being God’s Son, it’s tempting to respond in kind with sneering and mean words. Being angry and defensive when attacked is a natural human reaction, but not one that serves God.  It’s not enough to be able to say what we believe. It’s also how we say it that will make a big difference in how Christianity is perceived. We are ambassadors for Christ, not children trying to prove a point.
Jesus preached, but his anger was only unleashed on the Jewish hypocrites who claimed to love God but oppressed the people they led with their judgmental attitudes. He’s our example. Loving your non-Christian neighbor as yourself includes patience, persistence, and sharing Jesus gently.

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