June 5, 2016

Offer a Reason

I want you to call to mind this morning something that you are really passionate about.  It could be a hobby.  It could be a sports team.  It could be a particular cause.  It could be a political philosophy.  It could be a person.  Whatever or whoever it is, get that thing firmly in your mind for a minute.  Now, if I were to ask you to defend your passion for this thing, could you?  Could you tell me why you’re passionate about it?  Could you offer me a list of reasons?  Could you tell me why UVA is the best school out there right now?  Could you persuade me to become a goat-lover?  Could you put forward a convincing case that I should “Feel the Bern” or that I should want to “Make America Great Again”?  Because let’s be honest with each other for a minute: if you couldn’t do more to defend your passion than to say, “Well, I just like it,” I’m not going to believe that you’re really passionate about it.

For example, I could claim a passion for knitting, but I’m not going to be able to convince you of it.  I could talk at length about the calming effect of having those needles clink off of each other and the softness of the yarn and mindlessness of the movement and the thrill of creating new things, but you’re not going to believe me…especially if knitting happens to be something you are passionate about and thus you can see through my smoke screen with ease.  But if I were to talk to you about why you should be a Kansas fan or a Royals fan or how I’m married to the most amazing woman on the planet I’m good enough with words that I could probably convince you of it.  I could tell you about how Kansas is going to tie UCLA’s record of consecutive conference wins this next season and in a much more competitive conference than they ever had.  I could tell you about how in the last four years no team in Major League Baseball has a better winning percentage than the Royals do (who, by the way, got hot and landed back in first place after I showed that video a couple of weeks ago so I’m thinking I’m going to have to keep doing it).  I could tell you about how my wife has a gift for compassion that rivals anybody I’ve ever seen.  Her ability to empathize with other people in their pain consistently amazes me.  She has one of the best administrative minds I’ve ever encountered.  She consistently can see the best and most organized way to get something done.  Her dedication to the people around her and the organizations of which she is a part is second to none.  She always puts the needs of others above her own.  She is constantly on the lookout for ways she could do kind things or buy really thoughtful gifts for other people.  I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.  All that and she’s smoking hot.  But she’s mine and I’m not sharing.

The point is, when we are really passionate about something, we can explain why.  We can offer a list of reasons for our position.  What’s more, we’re ready to share those reasons at the drop of a hat; even without any prior solicitation.  So then, let’s just go ahead and ask the uncomfortable question here: If you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, could you give me any reasons for it?

In the final conversation that Matthew records Jesus having with the disciples before ascending to the Father’s right hand, Jesus gave them a pretty clear set of instructions.  You’ve probably heard these verses before.  They are found in Matthew 28:18-20.  “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  If you’ve been around the church very long you know that these verses are often referred to as The Great Commission.  Here Jesus was commissioning the disciples and through them us to spread the word about who He is and what He’s done.  At the end of Mark’s Gospel he records Jesus as telling the disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”  In Acts 1:8, Luke records Jesus as telling the disciples that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  We often assign a great deal of importance to a person’s last words.  Well, all three of these Gospel authors record Jesus’ last words on earth as being some kind of a call for His followers to tell other people what they had seen and heard.  The title by which this telling has become known is “evangelism” which comes from the Greek word “euangelion” which literally means “good news” and is the Greek root of our word “Gospel.”  This call to evangelism is one of the clearer commands of Christ regarding what following Him well should entail and also one of the things that puts more fear in the hearts of His followers than just about anything else.

You see that this creates a bit of a conundrum, yes?  You have on the one hand something that Jesus pretty clearly said His followers are supposed to be doing, and on the other hand something that leaves His followers shaking in fear.  If these were two different things we wouldn’t be spending any time talking about them.  But they aren’t.  They’re the same thing.  So…what do we do with this?  Well, as a general question for all Christians there have been and are a lot of answers available.  There are all kinds of evangelism training tools and church programs and campaigns and online resources and so on.  We could probably spend a whole year of sermons going through one evangelism training program after the next.  But at the end of that time you may or may not feel any more equipped than you do right now to go out and keep this command.  As a more specific question, we are going to spend this morning and the next couple of weeks addressing what I think is the root issue here: fear.  And from my observation…and experience…that fear comes from two primary sources.  The first is that many Christians don’t really understand what evangelism is.  We make it something bigger and more terrifying than it is or should be.  The second source of our fear is that we don’t have enough information to be effective in our witness.  Most of us are terrified—even if secretly so—that someone is going to ask us a question we can’t answer.

With all of that in mind, while we will get to addressing the oft-perceived “evangelism knowledge gap” in the next couple of weeks, this morning I want to take a look with you at exactly what evangelism is so that we’re all clear on exactly what we have—and have not—been called to do.  We’re going to do that with the help of something the apostle Peter wrote to some believers who were in a situation that is increasingly not all that different from our own.  Before we get there, though, let’s make a few things about evangelism clear right out of the gate.

First, as we have already seen, evangelism is in fact something that we are called to do as Christians.  Sharing the Gospel is a command that we are expected to follow.  Jesus’ instructions to the disciples—and through them, us—were given as the one in whom all authority in heaven and on earth rested.  In case you’re not totally clear on this point: that’s a lot of authority.  When someone with that much authority tells you to do something…you do it.  If not…well…usually things don’t go very well.  In this case they won’t go well not because Jesus is going to come and get us—He’s not that kind of a God—but rather because someone whose life needed to be transformed by the Gospel won’t experience such a transformation.  That’s pretty serious business.

Now, while that is a lot of pressure, the second point here should help alleviate it at least a bit.  The life transformation that comes with an embrace of the Gospel is not our job.  While we should certainly pray for that and even take an active role in it, that is God’s job.  Our job is to bear witness and make disciples.  Okay, well what’s a disciple?  A disciple, simply put, is a learner.  We are commanded to call people to become learners after the way of Jesus.  Think about this now: Under what circumstances does someone generally become a passionate learner about some subject?  When did you become a passionate learner about whatever subject you called to mind a few minutes ago?  Was it when somebody stood over you and said, “Unless you become a __________ you are going straight to Hell?”  No!  It was either when you become convinced it was true, when you had your interest sufficiently piqued by it, or when you became thoroughly connected to a community that was already passionate about it.  Even more likely is that a mix of all three of those played a role.  Well, to get to the point here, in calling us to evangelism, Jesus did not call us to make converts.  He called us create these circumstances in which someone decides to start following Him.  While eternity is still at stake in our efforts here, the task before us is simpler than we sometimes want to make it.

Number three—and given our culture today this is as difficult for some folks to accept as it is important to accept—what we believe is true and what the “other guys” believe is not.  Let that one sit on you for a minute.  Culturally speaking truth is a bit of a moving target.  The world around us believes something can be simultaneously true for one person while false for another.  Philosophically speaking that’s nonsense, but people believe it all the same.  We’re sometimes taught to believe that there is a kind of Well of Truth out there from which every religion and worldview draws a bit of water while no one can actually see the source.  The problem with that argument is that it rests on the assumption that the person making it actually can see the source…because otherwise how would they even know to make such an argument?  The fact is: all belief systems are not equally true.  Most of them flirt with truth here and there, but on the whole don’t hit it.  As followers of Jesus, though, what we believe is true.  Entirely true.  Well, truth is a matter of life and death.  We may be able to treat some truths fairly lightly—for example, not wearing a raincoat after encountering the truth that it is raining—but to live lives that show no regard for the truth at all, lives that treat truth as if it really were a relative concept, is a dangerous business.  It sets us up for a run-in with the walls of reality that will not be pleasant.  Given, then, that we know what’s true and they don’t…why would we not share it?  We have a worldview that’s worth sharing.

Okay, but how?  How do we do that?  Well, while there are again lots of pre-packaged methods out there, I think we can turn to the Scriptures and find something entirely more simple and personal.  We can find this as I said a minute ago in the writings of the apostle Peter.  Peter’s first letter was written to a group of churches in what is today southern Turkey.  While this was an area of a fair amount of cultural and linguistic diversity, it had been thoroughly impacted by Greco-Roman culture and was right in the heartland of the Roman Empire.  In this part of the world at this point in history, Christianity was a very small fish in a very big pond.  Truth may not have been as a fluid a concept for them as it is for many people today, but they assumed on a certain amount of religious pluralism that made the truth claims of followers of Jesus deeply unpopular.  Had Christians in this context not been able to carry themselves with grace and live lives that were beyond reproach the whole endeavor would have failed.  Peter understood this well.  He also understood, though, that publicly living out the Christian faith in this context invited persecution.  Far from being a threat to the young movement, though, Peter knew that the persecution itself invited opportunities to defend the faith and turn critics into supporters.

As a result, he wrote this starting in 1 Peter 3:13: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled…”  Are you with him so far?  The reason for at least the first part of v. 14 there is because most of us…and most of Peter’s audience…could think of all kinds of people who would harm us for being zealous for what is good.  In a perfect world, no, there wouldn’t be anyone.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  As a result, if we do happen to suffer somehow because of our stand for Christ we need not let it get us down.  We will experience a blessing for it.  We will experience a blessing because we will be standing in the same place as Jesus and that always brings a blessing with it.

In any event, in what comes next Peter tells us what we need to do instead.  Check this out at v. 15; “…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”   So what’s he saying?  He’s saying that the best response to persecution as a result of living the Christian life faithfully is evangelism.  Wait, wait, wait!  So when someone is giving us a hard time about being a follower of Jesus and because of that living in a manner that is out of sync with the broader culture we’re to respond by asking them to sit down and talk about Jesus?  I mean, that’s what evangelism is, isn’t it?  No!  We’re very simply to be prepared to make a defense or give a reason for the hope that is in us.  That’s it.

If we are living the life of Christ faithfully, we are going to attract attention from the culture around us because we’ll stand out like sore thumbs as different from them.  Sometimes this attention might be positive, but if we’re honest, it’s mostly going to be negative.  Regardless of the nature of the attention, but particularly when it is negative, we are to respond by offering a reason for the hope that we have.  Hold on another minute: I thought we were supposed to be talking about Jesus?  Why this focus on hope?  Well, why would we commit to living in this attention-attracting way in spite of the often negative nature of that attention?  Because we have hope that our efforts are going to prove to be to our benefit before everything is said and done.  And why would we hold out such a crazy hope as that?  Because Jesus told us it would pay off.  And who is Jesus?  I’m glad you asked.  Let me tell you who He is and what He’s done for me.

Do you see what Peter does here?  He didn’t talk about following some program or using a particular method.  He didn’t speak of any specific information we are supposed to impart.  He didn’t even say we have to worry about answering their questions.  He simply said that we are to be prepared to offer a reason for the hope that we have.  Be prepared to offer a reason.  That’s it.  That’s not programmatic, it’s personal.  Our primary tool (after prayer anyway) when it comes to evangelism is the story of our own hope.

We can actually see this played out in the Gospels.  In Mark 5 after crossing the Sea of Galilee and blowing the disciples’ minds by stilling a storm on the way, Jesus and His crew are confronted by a man possessed by a whole party of demons.  Jesus heals the man in rather dramatic fashion which terrifies all the people in the local towns.  They are so scared, in fact, that they ask Jesus to go away and leave them alone.  Not wanting to stay with this crowd, the man begs Jesus to go with Him.  Mark tells what happens next starting in 5:18: “As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.  And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’  And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.”  Jesus’ instructions to this man were exactly in line with what Peter wrote years later (almost like Peter was influenced by Him).  He was to go and share the reason for His hope, namely, everything the Lord had done for him.  The result of this was that when Jesus returned to the region a few months later He was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd who now hung on His every word.

Similarly, in John 9 the apostle records the time when Jesus healed a man born blind.  This created enough of a stir that he was eventually hauled in before the religious leaders of the people.  They wanted to find out exactly what had happened in order to properly assign Jesus either the credit or the blame, depending on whichever lowered Jesus’ standing in the eyes of the people more.  They interviewed him for a while, interviewed his parents (who offered him basically no support whatsoever), and finally brought him back in again.  And in this moment when he was being rather directly challenged over what had happened to him he responded by saying: “Whether he is a sinner I do not know.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  He didn’t go through the Four Spiritual Laws, or How to Share Your Faith without an Argument.  He simply gave a reason for the hope he now had: He was blind, now he could see, and Jesus was the reason.  Simple.  If we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus, we need to be able to do the same thing.  We need to be ready and able to offer a reason for the hope that we have.  Be prepared to offer a reason.

This is the crux of evangelism.  This is what can take away the first part of the fear so many of us have when it comes to thinking about sharing our faith.  Evangelism at its core is not some terrifying undertaking, it is simply sharing the reason we have hope in Jesus.  But—and this is pretty important—there is an assumption lying just under the surface here.  Sharing the reason for our hope in Jesus means knowing the reason for our hope in Jesus.  You understand why that’s worthwhile, right?  Just like your defense of whatever passion you thought about a few minutes ago, if you can’t give someone at least a couple of personal reasons why you have hope in Jesus and why developing such a hope themselves would be in their best interest it is an entirely open question as to whether or not you really have that hope in the first place or are simply going through the motions of faith for one reason or another.  In fact, if you could not in a few minutes write down a few reasons you have hope in Jesus, my challenge to you is to figure that out.  Sit down this afternoon and two or three times this next week and spend some time thinking through it.  What is it about Jesus that makes you want to follow Him instead of someone else?  Why do life Jesus’ way instead of another way?  Why risk cultural judgment and harassment for the sake of someone who lived 2,000 years ago rather than playing it a bit safer?  What is the reason for your hope?  If you are going to be as fully committed to following Jesus as I know you want to be, you need to be prepared to offer a reason for it.  Be prepared to offer a reason.

And just to drive home how important a point this really is, this reason needs to go beyond the fact that you “merely” have faith to the fact that it is true.  If your response to the question of why you have hope is that you just have faith, then you haven’t yet taken ownership of your faith.  You are simply parroting what your parents or your friends or even your church community have given to you.  It’s time to think a bit deeper about your faith and take the necessary steps to really own it.  Ask yourself questions like these: Is what I believe really true?  Do I believe it is exclusively true?  Are there any other worldviews that seem true to me?  What is it about those that strike me as true?  Are those more true than what I believe now?  If those other views are more true or even just as true as what I believe, why not believe them instead?  What are some of the experiences I’ve had with Jesus that have led me to follow Him instead of someone else?  Don’t just think through these kinds of questions, but write down your answers.  Gradually sketch the outlines of your story such that you can share this with someone else.  When that time comes and you have an opportunity to share a reason for your hope, having done this preparation ahead of time will make a huge difference.  It will help you be prepared to offer a reason.

There’s just one more thing here.  How you offer that reason matters.  A lot of folks have fallen into the trap of thinking that as long as you offer the reason you have done your job.  When I was in college an evangelist came on campus one day, set up in a common area right outside the Student Union Building and got to work.  He had big signs that proclaimed everyone who didn’t believe in Jesus was going to hell.  He ranted and raved about how evil most of the students’ lifestyles were.  He condemned pretty much everybody.  Even the most of the Christians I knew on campus were made pretty uncomfortable by this guy.  He did more to harm the evangelism efforts of several different campus ministries than he did to help them.  He was offering a reason, but he was doing it in such a way that nobody was willing to accept them or him much less the God he was proclaiming.  He was keeping most of Peter’s command here, but he was leaving out the really important final phrase: “yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  When you go and offer a reason for your hope, you have to keep this in mind.  I haven’t always done this and have alienated at least one friend as a result.  If we don’t demonstrate the character of Christ when we are talking about Christ, then people aren’t going to be nearly as likely to come to Christ.  God can draw people to His side in spite of us…but He’s rather do it because of us.  Be prepared to offer a reason, but make sure to offer it with a spirit of reasonableness.

Evangelism does not need to be nearly as scary as we so often make it out to be.  It doesn’t need to be scary because talking about something about which we are passionate isn’t scary.  Especially when that conversation happens with a friend.  But even if it doesn’t, if we’re sharing our personal story of what Jesus has done for us, we don’t have anything to fear because that’s our story and nobody else can touch it.  We need only be prepared to offer a reason.  Still, though, sometimes we need more than just our own personal reason.  We need good information.  If you’ll come back next week and the week after I’m going to give you some really good information that will give you a lot more confidence in your witness so you can always be prepared to offer a reason.