This edited version of yesterday’s sermon wasn’t especially biblical. For the second week in a row, I did not drill down into one passage but instead borrowed liberally from a few of Jesus’ interactions with people in both Matthew and John.
And it wasn’t overly theological. I neither scaled the heights or Romans nor plumbed the depths of Hebrews nor even, as many of my Methodist siblings do, follow the path of J0hn Wesley.
No, my great prayer was that this message was thoroughly practical. I hoped to take a subject and a proposition — the concept of personal evangelism! — and make it much more scalable, repeatable, and do-able. All week, I prayed that this message would empower the people of the church to take the tools, thoughts, and the question away from church and into their lives.
Let me know how I did.
And this message isn’t about how to dress for church and it isn’t even necessarily about church, but it IS about how every life counts. Regardless of what you can afford to put on your feet. And it IS about how people who believe in Christ and represent his church interact with and converse with those who don’t. How do we put together words and actions, prayers and persuasions to invite not just all people but actually ONE PERSON into a living relationship with Jesus Christ?
Because face it: you’ve gone one person. Those of you in this room this morning who DO follow Christ and HAVE trusted him for salvation, you’ve got ONE PERSON (at least) who pops into your mind when I speak of those who don’t yet know Christ and aren’t yet connected to his body. For some of you it’s your child, the one who is now a young adult and you raised them to love Jesus but then they went to college, got exposed to doubt and now they are too sophisticated to believe. Or it’s the sibling who never really could be bothered. Or the parent who had some early negative experiences with religion and it hardened them against the Gospel until this very day. Or it’s even your spouse who loved Jesus all the way to the wedding altar . . . but now can’t be bothered. Or it’s the guy at work who is Hindu. The gal in the next cubicle who is atheist. And so it has crossed your mind to share something of your faith in a non-combative way, but you have no idea how to go about doing it. We talk about “sharing the gospel” as part of a living relationship with Jesus Christ & you’re glad some big stars do it in stadiums because you darn sure aren’t doing it in your personal life. That thought fills you with fear.
And then I know that there are people in this room today and you don’t have one person; you ARE the one. You’re not sure where you stand with Jesus – or you’re pretty sure you don’t believe in him – and what I’ve said so far is vaguely offensive. The idea that anyone at all would somehow “target you” or even pray for you to begin to believe like they do seems so . . . arrogant. And I understand that. I used to feel that way myself. But I also just want to invite you to turn that understanding on its side a bit. We don’t think this way or talk this way out of superiority but because we have tasted how good the gospel is every day and want to share that “food” with you. We believe that what you do with Jesus is decisive for eternity and, given the choice, we’d rather spend eternity with you than just about anybody else. So if you don’t have the one but you are the one, I’m glad you’re here and get ready to “overhear” some of the way Xns talk to each other.
But back to that earlier idea – you who follow Jesus have that one person who comes to mind and yet you have NO IDEA how to go about influencing them towards Christ – it’s interesting: it’s less on what you do, less on what you say, and more on what you ask. Yeah, I believe that helping that person recognize that their life counts and counts eternally in Christ’s heart all has to do with a question you ask. Because the most interesting pattern imerges from Jesus’ interactions with people. Look at Matthew 9:5, where in explaining how he has healed a man with paralysis, Jesus asks a pointed and potentially explosive question:
5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
Then look again at Matthew 16:26, where he puts one of his most emphatic declarations ever in the form of a rhetorical question:
26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Even though you KNOW what the answer is, he still wants you to formulate it! Or at Matthew 21:25, where Jesus asks the religious leaders the perfect question:
25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’
It’s so perfect from Jesus’ perspective because he leaves them no right answer! However they answer, SOMEONE will end up mad at them. Almost like taking a vote at a church board meeting! And then one more in John 5:6 where Jesus asks a question that at first seems patronizing or insulting but on reflection is actually genius:
6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
He puts the burden of healing back on the man and makes him articulate & affirm that “Yes, I actually am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It turns out that Jesus is a master at asking people questions as a way of making them take ownership of the issue at hand, as a way of having them express what they want to say, as a way of honoring their opinion as valid and their individuality as powerful. For all of his well-known SAYINGS, Jesus could also be known for marking his questions as well.
All that is to say that I believe there is one question to ask that one person who popped into your mind so that you might help them take one step closer to Christ. Do year hear that? One question for one person to take one step closer to Christ. I’m not asking you to evangelize the world. Most of you would understandably disregard that. I’m not even asking you to feel like the entire salvation of that one person rests with you; more than likely you are part of a larger process that God is already putting together for this person. God is bringing a number of people and a number of influences into his or her life. So if you help this one person go one step closer, that’s fabulous.
And there’s more: that one person – daughter, sibling, colleague, parent – they count to God forever and he has likely brought you into that life for a reason. You are part of a series of divine appointments that God is making. So . . . since there is one question for one person to take one step closer to Christ . . . then just what is it? What’s the question? Well . . . it’s NOT “if you died tonight where would you go?” That’s important, we will need to answer it, it’s just not the FIRST question you ask. It’s not even, “will you come to GS with me?” Now that’s one of my favorite questions, but these issues are larger than this particular congregation. It’s not even “who does your hair?” as important as that is to know. No, it’s – you ready? – this: What do you believe about spiritual things? That’s it. Not church, not God, not Jesus, but spiritual things. Repeat.
Do you see what that does? It’s open ended and so your friend or loved one has to clarify & express what they truly believe. It honors them, values their opinion. Their starting point matters. Approaching people in this way lets them know they are a person and not a project; that this is a conversation and not a confrontation. It gives them the dignity of a belief system that matters and paves the way for you to share a faith that means everything. It’s a bit like the guy who years ago had started coming to this church – actually, began accompanying a girl he was dating – and he comes up to me at an event and says, “I just wanted you to know I’m Jewish.” “Great! I said. So was Jesus!” “I also wanted you to know that I’ve been here for three months and I kept waiting for the Jew-bashing sermon and now that I haven’t heard it, I’ll be here awhile.” Turns out the guy was super sharp, loved the people of this church, and married that woman he was dating. He got involved in some classes, we had him teach the OT section (he’d been bar mitvahed, after all!) and embraced him in the community. His beliefs were valued, ours were clear, and it was healthy.
And then two years later, he says, “I’d like to be baptized now. In the name of Jesus.” And so he was. A Jew baptized into the faith of a Jew. But we never would have gotten there had the first question been: “where are you going when you die?” Or even “why do you reject Jesus?” Much more subtle that that! A conversation, not a confrontation. A process and not a project. I believe this is a very 21st Century way to approach the subject. You who are Xns don’t tower over people with all the answers – fairly or not, people already feel that they’ve had more than enough of Xns doing that – you enter on equal footing. And shy people: it’s a lot easier to ask a question than to make a declaration, isn’t it?
And you know how a lot of people will answer the question what do you believe about spiritual things?? With something along the lines of I want to believe, I sort of believe, I just don’t know how. Voila! That’s where we jump in. Now some will be defiant and others distant, but in all you got the conversation going. Just like Jesus did. REFRAIN
And then, and then, here’s what you hope: that they return the favor. And here’s where you’ve got to know and then explain two things: 1) You’re called NOT to be a Susan B. Anthony dollar. Huh? (AV). Yea, it’s worth a dollar but it looks like a quarter so no one has any. Too many Xns are actually worth a dollar but living like they worth a quarter. So their witness is compromised by moral & ethical choices they’ve made. All that to say, your words will only be believable if your Xnty is first see-able.
2) As you begin to speak, don’t get distracted in all the things about faith & the bible you DON’T know; be captured by what you DO. You don’t need to know the dates of the exile, the names of all 12 apostles, or even where Cain’s wife came from. Here’s what you do need to know: the beautiful intersection of His Story and yours. His story? HE ROSE FROM THE DEAD! And because that resurrection didn’t just happen, it continues to happen , there is some way in which he was raised you to new life as well. Some place in you that was dead that he has made come to life. How was it? The addiction in recovery? The marriage restored? The depression overcome? The simple assurance of eternity? When your ONE PERSON returns the favor and asks you about what do YOU believe about spiritual things, oh please, know that place of glorious intersection; that locale of on-going resurrection. Know it and then tell it. Your life counts as you help them realize theirs does, too. REFRAIN.
You know why this subject matters to me? A lot? There are people whom I know and love who have never given Jesus a chance because people in the church have been all about the perfect speeches or heroic actions or even condescending attitudes and not about asking the right question. We need to do better than that. We must do better than that. We leave this place asking that one person the one question to help them take one step to Jesus . . . whether they are wearing shoes or not.