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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Obstacles to Sharing

1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Matthew 10:16-20

1 Corinthians 2:1-13 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’ —
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

Matthew 10:16-20 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

The last two weeks we’ve been talking about how we can do a better job sharing our faith in Christ with the people around us. First we talked about how we needed to be intentional and deliberate about that sharing, first because we are stewards of the greatest news in the history of the world, and second because God has chosen us to be the bearers of that word to others. Last week we talked about boiling down the good news to its essence, and I proposed a sentence from the Baptist preacher Will Campbell: We’re all (jerks) but God loves us anyway. This week I want us to confess that we really stink, for the most part, at telling other people the good news about Jesus. So let’s look at someone in the Bible who was the least likely candidate for sharing the good news, and how he became the greatest evangelist in history: St. Paul.

All we know about St. Paul is the little bit he says about himself in his letters in the New Testament, and stories about him in the book of Acts. He was probably about ten years younger than Jesus, and was raised in the city of Tarsus, which is on the south-eastern coast of Turkey. Tarsus was a Roman city, so being born there conferred Roman citizenship, but Paul – whose Hebrew name was Saul – was the son of a Pharisaic Jew. The young Saul also became a Pharisee – which was a kind of back-to-the-Bible denomination within first century Judaism. Pharisees were reformers who were trying to restore faithfulness to Jewish law. In other words, they were fundamentalists.

When some Jews in Israel began to proclaim that an executed carpenter from Nazareth had been resurrected from the dead and was the long-hoped for Messiah, Saul became part of a group who hunted down these heretics and used violence to try to force them to change their ways. Saul is present for the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Saul even killed Christians himself.

It’s also clear that Saul was not a compelling speaker. Once, when he was preaching, a young man named Eutychus went to sleep and fell out of a second story window. Paul admitted that other early apostles were better preachers than he, and some scholars believe the famous “thorn in the flesh” he wrote about might have been a speech impediment. He was stubborn, opinionated, and arrogant. He had no problems telling people who didn’t agree with him to go home, and could stand up to Peter and the other original disciples without batting an eye. I suspect that Paul moved around a lot because frankly, he wasn’t the greatest houseguest.

But on the road to Damascus to hunt down Christians, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him, blinded him, and told him to go into Damascus and find a man who would heal him. Stunned, the blind Saul found his healer, confessed his faith in Jesus, and was baptized. The he went into the desert for three years to pray. When he came back, he had changed his name to Paul, declared to the original disciples that he, too, had spent three years learning from Jesus, and that they were wrong about only sharing Jesus with other Jews. Jesus had chosen him, he said, to share the story of Jesus with Gentiles – non-Jews. Peter and James, he said, were wrong – people didn’t have to become Jewish to become Christian. And off he went to change the world. You and I and almost every Christian for the last two thousand years is a believer because of this violent, stubborn, arrogant, lousy preacher from Tarsus.

If God could use such a person to spread the good news – not to mention liars like Abraham or cheats like Jacob and Rebecca or snotty brats like Joseph or adulterers like David or cowards like Peter – then you and I aren’t off the hook. In this morning’s first lesson, Paul gives us the key to what made his sharing of the gospel successful. Open your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 2 and look at this with me.

First, Paul says, he did not come sharing the gospel with lofty words or wisdom. That’s the number one excuse Christians give for not sharing their faith with their friends and family: they just don’t really know enough about the Bible or about obscure theological issues to answer questions from others. Last year I discovered in an antique store, entirely by accident, a pristine copy of a famous 1920 book by the great Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones: The Christ of the Indian Road. Stanley Jones said that when he got to India in the early years of the 20th Century, he was dismayed to discover that Indian people wanted nothing to do with Christianity or the Christian church. Christians, after all, were the people who had been killing and enslaving and subjugating them in the form of the British Empire for hundreds of years. Jones could make no headway trying to convert Indians to Christianity. But, he discovered, people were absolutely fascinated with Jesus. So Stanley Jones gave up trying to spread Christianity – he just told people about Jesus, because they wanted to follow him.

We’re in exactly the same place today. Thanks to the Westboro Baptist Church and financial and sexual scandals in churches everywhere, people aren’t interested in church and in Christianity. But virtually every person who says they don’t believe in organized religion (to whom I say, then come to our church – we’re pretty disorganized) says they really like Jesus. Now look at what Paul says about how he came to introduce the gospel in Corinth: When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. That’s the message. Not why God allowed some awful thing to happen in their lives – the answer, by the way, is I don’t know, but I’m so, so sorry. Tell me about that. The heart of the gospel is that God has entered forever into the life and suffering and death of humankind, and when you and I weep with people in pain, then they discover in us the presence of love in the midst of their own crucifixions. Tell people about a God who knows what it’s like to lose his son – that that’s the God you believe in. Don’t use lofty words and wisdom – tell people about Jesus, and about his death.

Second, Paul says I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. Paul, who was as arrogant and belligerent as they come, came to Corinth confessing his faults. Paul became transparent, so God could shine through Paul’s weaknesses. I am no Paul, but I realized some time ago that perhaps the most important thing I ever do as your pastor is show you how to be wrong right. I make lots of mistakes. And when I say, I don’t know, or I did that badly, or I was wrong, please forgive me, I model for you that life goes on pretty well despite all our mistakes; that God loves us in all our imperfection; that the community of faith is a place where we can be wrong and be forgiven. Nothing turns unbelievers off more than Christians who have all the answers, or whose lives are perfect, or who never know how to ask for help or for forgiveness. Unbelievers don’t want any part of that kind of Christianity, and, frankly, neither do I. If the church is a museum for saints, I don’t belong. I need a hospital for sinners – and so does the rest of the world. So, don’t say my life is far from perfect, so I really can’t talk to anybody about my faith. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, when we are honest about our own fears and faults and failings, then God’s strength can shine through us.

Third, Paul says, we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit. On our own, we can’t share the gospel. God designed it that way. On our own, all we do is share ourselves. That’s why there can be no genuine communication of faith in Christ except by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you say, I just don’t have it in me to talk to other people about Jesus, you’re exactly right. Only the Holy Spirit can give you that power, that courage, and those words. In the Gospel lesson this morning, there’s only one circumstance in the entire Bible when Jesus guarantees us the presence of the Holy Spirit to speak: when we are called to testify to Jesus. So, start praying for the Holy Spirit to direct you, and to speak through you with words and love and actions that are beyond your own abilities. I promise you, God wants to use you as a vessel of the Holy Spirit. But God wants us to cooperate. So, as you pray for the five people God wants you to share your faith with, ask God’s Holy Spirit to speak through you beyond your own courage and words and ability. And you will be amazed at what God through you.

· It’s not about us – it’s about Jesus, and Jesus crucified.

· Be transparent about your weaknesses, so God can shine through.

· You can’t do this on your own – but the Holy Spirit will speak through you, if you’ll just let him.

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