Words

Part 1 of the Sermon Series “Sharing Faith in a Pluralistic World
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 13, 2011
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Matthew 28:16-20

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 • Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 • For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Matthew 28:16-20 • Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I. BEGINNING

Time was, one out of every four Americans was a Methodist.  Twenty five percent of the US population was Methodist. It was with numbers like that that church leaders felt no qualms about naming their national university “American University”.  Back then, the two words meant practically the same thing.

Today, the eight million United Methodists in America make up only 2.6 % of the American population.  About a tenth of where we last were.  The religious landscape of the United States has changed a lot since the late nineteenth century.  It has become a great deal more diverse.

Today, only 78% of the US population identifies as Christian. Another 4.7% belong to other religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on.  And about 16% are unaffiliated altogether: a smattering of atheists and agnostics, and the bulk of them “nothing in particular”.[1]

This shift has not simply been a demographic shift about the percentages of religious believers in a society.  It has brought about with it a theological shift.

II. THE GREAT COMMISSION

In former times, it was easy to imagine going out into the world to convert the world to the One True Faith. (I wish to make it clear that I am no longer talking about Methodism here, I mean Christianity).  It was easy to get up a full head of steam to go off to convert the “Jews, Turks, and Infidels” who lay outside of God’s chosen people.  (I am still not talking about Methodists).  That’s probably because the number of Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths was so small in this country, and therefore in most people’s experience.

But that has changed and continues to.  In my own life, I went from a high school that was predominantly Catholic with a fair showing by various Protestant groups to a university fifteen miles away that was 40-50% Jewish.  From there I moved to a city that had large representations of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and dozens of other religious groups.  And at every stage, I encountered good people, godly people, people of faith who cared about the same things I did; who loved their friends and family, as I did; and who saw their faith as important in their lives, as I did.

A similar journey is taking place across the country.  More and more Christians are encountering other people of faith and discovering them to be good, godly people of faith who share common values and aspirations.  A recent poll indicated that a majority of Evangelical Christians now believe in universal salvation, a definite sign of increasing exposure of Christians to non-Christians and developing relationships with them.

Against this rapidly changing demographic landscape, the words of the Great Commission stand out as a particular challenge.

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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

For here we have this call to evangelize the whole world, to bring people to Christian faith and as we enter into an increasingly pluralistic world, the idea of trying to convert people whom we know as faithful members of others faiths seems less and less appealing.

III. PREACHING THE GOSPEL

In fact, the idea that we’re supposed to do this can even seem downright embarrassing to many.  Perhaps that’s because our model for this kind of witness hasn’t always been the best one.

A few months ago, I was having lunch with one of our alums downtown and as we were walking, we passed a man with a bullhorn standing on the corner shouting out things about Jesus.  I was really tempted to ask this guy how many converts he’d gotten that day. Something makes me think he didn’t get very many.

And then there was the guy (also with a bullhorn) at the Inauguration a few years ago berating people and telling them that unless they accepted Christ as their savior, they were going to hell.  It didn’t look like he was getting a lot of converts either.

No wonder people are reluctant to evangelize, let alone to identify themselves as “Christians”—we’re not seen as keeping very good company.  In fact one of my professors in seminary once said, “It’s almost getting to the point where I am embarrassed by the word ‘Christian’.  One of my parishioners said to me ‘Oh, we’re putting our child in a Christian school’ and I thought ‘Why on earth would you do that?'”

Of course, there are others forces at work as well.  When I was a kid, maybe this happened to you too, we had to do fundraisers for our school class by selling magazines.  There was nothing I hated more than having to go door to door trying to sell things.

But the idea that we have to be traveling salesmen for God is an uncomfortable idea for many of us.  It’s bad enough having to go door to door to sell magazines.  How much more awkward must it be to go door to door selling Jesus?  “Hello, can I talk to you about Jesus?” Slam.

And so, we become reluctant to speak.  We become reluctant to proclaim our faith.  We like sayings, like that of St. Francis, that we should “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary: use words.”  And we are comforted with the idea that we can preach the Gospel with other ways and content ourselves with that.  No need to be the noisy, obnoxious, insensitive, ineffective, preachy Christians that the world is accustomed to seeing.

But what about those times when words are necessary?  What about those times when it turns out we actually do need to say something. Sometimes, it’s important to come right out and say what you believe.  Sometimes, people even ask about your faith.  What then?

IV. KERYGMA

So many of our models for this behavior are so preachy that we sometimes forget altogether what the biblical models are for the kind of witness we make.

One of the earliest commandments to the people of faith is to pass on the faith they have received.  In the book of Deuteronomy, the People of Israel are given their great confession of faith:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The great confession of faith followed by the great commandment to love God.  But then it is followed by commandments to proclaim this confession of faith:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The children of Israel are told not just to accept and believe that God is one, or just to love God.  They are told to recite, talk, bind, fix, and write these words. It is not enough for the Israelites to have a personal relationship with God, they were required to publicize it.  In fact, pious Jews to this day affix those words on the doorposts of their houses with a little container called a mezuzah, in which those verses of scripture are contained.  But from the very beginning, the people of faith are told to hand on what they have received to others.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is doing exactly that.  He writes to his Corinthian congregation:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

What is so interesting to scholars about this passage is that in it is contained the original core of Christian preaching which is called the kerygma.  For in these six short verses, Paul relates the basics of Christian faith, that he received and that he in turn passed on to the Corinthians.  These are the ‘bullet points’ of the Gospel message:

  • Christ died for our sins
  • He was buried
  • He was raised on the Third Day
  • He appeared to Peter and the Twelve
  • He appeared to many, including James and the Apostles

It doesn’t get much more basic than that.  That’s the story in a nutshell.  Received and passed along.

But Paul does something else.  Something important.

“Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

He appeared also to me.  Paul doesn’t leave the Gospel story in the realm of the past or the arena of doctrine.  Paul is not sharing a catechism alone, something that must be memorized and repeated.  It is not a creed he is sharing only.  He shares an experience.

He doesn’t give it quite the dramatic flair that Luke does in the Book of Acts.  There’s no story of blinding lights and voices.  But he says with directness and simplicity: this story that I passed along to you is something that I, too, have experienced in my own life.

And there is the secret. See, sharing our faith is not preaching in abstractions.  It is not handing out tracts to people to get them to sign on the dotted line and ascribe to our dogmas.  It is about sharing the experience of God that we have had in our lives.

In effect, that is what the people of Israel were commanded to do.  To share their faith as part of their own story.  Paul does not simply pass along faith; he shares his story.

V. THE POWER OF NARRATIVE

Indeed, telling our story is one of the most powerful things we can do.  And narrative has a power that conveys truths in ways that ordinary lecturing cannot.

See, I could tell you that we have to take a leap of faith that God has a plan capable of using the weakest people, the humblest, even the most wretched people to accomplish her aims.  Or I could tell you a story about Frodo Baggins and the One Ring.

I could tell you that obsession and thoughts of vengeance can lead a person to ruin. Or I could tell you the story of Captain Ahab and the White Whale.

I could tell you that given the opportunity to see the humanity in the person of someone toward whom we’d had prejudiced thoughts, our own hearts and judgments might be transformed.  Or I could tell you the story of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the Mississippi with a runaway slave named Jim.

I could tell you that faith in transformation and loving self-sacrifice in the face of evil can transform the lost and renew relationship.  Or I can tell you the story of Luke Skywalker and his final meeting with Darth Vader.

I can tell you that God intends to renew the world and will not leave us subject to the forces of injustice, death, and decay.  Or I can tell you the story of the Crucified One, raised on the third day to new and everlasting life.

Which would you rather listen to?  Which one do you find more meaning in?

We can talk about God in the abstract or we can talk about how God has been active in our own lives.  We can talk about grace in the abstract or we can share stories of God’s grace that we have experienced in our own lives.  We can talk about the importance of coming to faith or we can talk about the changes in our own lives that we have experienced because of our faith.

But there is another point worth mentioning, too.  This is the perfect method of sharing faith in a pluralistic world.  Because it doesn’t seek to beat people over the head.  It doesn’t disrespect other people’s experiences.  It doesn’t criticize or make value judgments.  It doesn’t threaten with hellfire and damnation.  It simply tells our story.  But in so doing, it leaves room for the Spirit to enter.  The opening of the heart that happens when we are drawn into a story, creates a space for the Spirit to come and dwell.

VI. END

Three years ago, we thought it might be good to offer participants in our worship an opportunity for testimonies.  We also knew that the word ‘testimony’ would likely frighten a few folks.  And so we called them God Sightings instead.  They have been an important part of our community worship life and have been one of the places that our services have communicated the most power.  For in those few moments each week, members of this community stand up and share an experience of God in their lives.  How God has touched them in some way.  It is not a coincidence that it has been those moments the most likely to provoke tears and smiles in the congregation.  Telling our story is powerful.

Jesus has called us to go into the world to make disciples.  We are not called to go to make converts, but disciples.  And we go in the same way that the early disciples did.   We tell the story of the one who came to us in humility, sharing God’s love with all, who suffered unjustly, and in whose resurrection we have our hope.  We share how that event shaped the lives of those who experienced it and the witness they made throughout the world. We share how throughout history, people’s lives have been transformed by their encounter with the One who represents new life from death. We can share about how we, too, have known this grace and this power, in community, in relationship, in our hearts.

The world is an ever more complex and diverse place.  We live and move among peoples of many different faith, many different cultures and beliefs.  People whom we love.  People with whom we have solid relationship and we don’t want to do violence to that relationship.

But we also have a story to tell.  Our story.  The story of how God has been at work in our own lives.  A story not told in violence or in judgment.  A story told in humility and in wonder.  Inviting others to share in the narrative that we have known: a narrative of God’s love and grace for all people.  A story that opens people’s hearts to wonder—and to the entry of the Spirit of God.


[1] religions.pewforum.org/reports

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