The Good Sense of a Witness and 1st Peter 3:15

You get past your anxiety, step out of your comfort zone and share your faith with someone. Then come the objections: “But how can you know that you are right and everyone else is wrong? But doesn’t science show that we don’t need a Creator? Aren’t the stories in the Bible just myths? How can you be sure the Bible is reliable?” and on and on we could go (and on and on some do!). So now what?

There are two roads open before us in the face of objections:

  1. Say something like, “don’t overthink it, just believe.”
  2. Say something like, “Good question, one I have thought about too, can I share with you some thoughts on that?” or “Good question, one I have not thought about before, perhaps you will allow me some time to think that through”

What would the New Testament apostles do in the face of objections, would they discourage thinking, or encourage it? The following passage gives us a good indication of what they did:

Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” (Acts 17:2,3 NET)

There are quite a number of similar passages where Paul ’explains and demonstrates’ the truths of the Jesus and his Kingdom. There is one Greek word behind ’explains and demonstrates’ which according to standard lexicons could be translated with ’discuss, contend, argue, address, reason with.’ We do not get the impression that Paul or any of the other apostles would say anything like “do not think about it, just believe.” Instead they helped people think it through, they appealed to good sense. To the Jewish audience they would argue from the Scriptures (the Old Testament at this point), that the resurrection of Jesus makes good sense. To the Gentile audience they would argue that the Jewish hope and the resurrection of Jesus make good sense, far better sense in fact than pagan myths or Gentile philosophies. When the apostles proclaimed the Gospel, they appealed to good sense.

But doesn’t the Bible teach us to be leary of worldly wisdom, so ought we not to be careful in appealing to ’good sense’. We might quote Colossians 2:8 with this objection: “Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”(Colossians 2:8 NET). However, this verse and others like it refer more to philosophical systems that could be named and were popular at the time, such as Stoicism, Hedonism, Epicureanism,and the like. It is not referring to logic and reason which are gifts of God, indeed part of what it means to be created in his image. That two plus two equals four is true for the atheist, the Buddhist, the Muslim, and the Christian alike, it is a logical statement without reference to any system of thought. In our day the Christian will want to be wary of naturalism, existentialism, communism, and many other isms, but we will always want to appeal to good sense, using the Godly gifts of logic and reason. In fact the Bible teaches us to appeal to good sense:

But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you. (1 Peter 3:15, 16 NET)

Being ready with an answer means being ready to share why it makes sense to you to hold the Christian hope. Are we ready to share the reason we are Christians?

We should note here that saying something like “I am a Christian because my parents were Christians and their parents were Christians, and so on” will do nothing to help someone come to faith in Jesus. This is not being a witness to what is true about Jesus, it is being a witness to what is true about your family. If we were brought up in the Christian faith, can we go further and explain why we have chosen to accept and affirm the tradition handed down to us? I once heard a story about a woman who in cooking her first turkey put the turkey in the sink and put the dish rack upside down over it. Her mother asked why she did that and with the response “because you always did,” said “don’t be silly dear, you don’t have a cat.” A tradition can begin for a reason, but when the reason for its existence vanishes does it make sense to carry the tradition into our generation?

It has made sense for me to carry faith in Christ into my generation and endeavour to pass it on to the next. I can point to the experience of Christ in my life, I can point to looking more deeply into Christianity through the lenses of ethics, history, literature, science and so forth. Whatever angle I have come at it, it has always ended up making sense. I have thought it through and am happy when I can help others think it through too.

When you witness to someone and the objections to Christianity start flying, are you ready to walk with them on a thoughtful path? They are worth the effort! To do so just makes sense.

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Is Religion Still Poisoning Everything?

Recent world events have brought to my mind a quote made famous by the the late Christopher Hitchens:”religion poisons everything.” With deadly bombings at a church in Pakistan and devastation at a mall in Kenya, both of which saw members of one religion targeting members of another, you have to wonder if Hitchens is correct. Additionally, while the West condemns Assad of Syria, many Christians living there long for a return to the status quo under his rule. At least his regime provided protection for religious minorities like their own, saving them from violence at the hands of other religious people. All this seems to lend support to another famous quote from atheist Victor Stenger: “science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings.” So are Hitchens and Stenger proven correct?

First, recognize that nothing is as simple as it seems and there are often other factors at work. Being originally from Northern Ireland I am particularly frustrated when I hear people referring to The Troubles as a religious conflict. It is a political conflict about governance, not a religious conflict about creed. The people who attend Bible Studies and are actively seeking to be better Christ followers, whether better Catholics or better Protestants, are not the people who set off bombs. As we observe religious conflict and sectarian violence in the Middle East we can expect to see a complex mix of politics and religion. Take the religion out of a religious war and you will still have a war.

Second, admit that religion really can poison everything. It seems that non-religious Canadians tend to either give no religion the benefit of the doubt or, perhaps more so given our multi-culturalism, every religion the benefit of the doubt. But are all religions created equal? The fact that some religions in the past required child sacrifice should be enough to convince us that religions are not equal in their benefit to the adherent or to society and that, contrary to popular opinion, they do not always lead to similar values or morals. Yes, religion really can poison everything. Now someone will object that religion is not the problem, but the fundamentalists within the religion. But isn’t the fundamentalist the one who holds best to the religion’s core fundamentals? If you want to see where a religion leads a devout person, look to the beliefs and actions of the fundamentalist of that religion. If poison is found there, expect a level of poison everywhere.

So why is a Christian pastor, from all appearances a religious person, seemingly assenting to a statement like “religion poisons everything”? For one thing, the greatest example of a fundamentalist Christian is Jesus Christ. Following His example, a Christian will be led not to violence but to sacrificial and generous love. While religion might fly you into a building, following Jesus will lead you to bear a cross, forgiving and giving grace and mercy. One person doing that will accomplish far more in our world than flying to the moon ever could. Proper Christian faith leads to healing, not poison. For another thing, it is reasonable to believe that Christianity is not a religion we came up with, the Church is not an organisation we created to spread our own poison. Christianity is a response to God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, the Church is a body He created to spread His love. Finally, study the Bible and you will find that it teaches something remarkably similar to Hitchen’s assertion, that is “idolatry poisons everything.”

(Written for Northumberland Today)

The Excitement of a Witness and Luke 5:27-32

When we become excited about something it is the most natural thing in the world to want to share our excitement with others. On the birth of each of our children it was my task to go home and phone family and friends with the news, and while leaving the hospital was never fun, sharing the news was always a joy. In my teen years I was somewhat of an ambassador for sailing and would often share with my friends who had never been sailing the many reasons why they should give it a go. Now I am somewhat of an ambassador for motorcycles, particularly small motorcycles, especially with the price of gas these days. And don’t get me started about Apple gadgets. Whatever we are passionate and excited about, we find we can share with others most easily and naturally. Given that, we have some good news for those who may find ‘the task of evangelism’ challenging: there is nothing more exciting than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The most exciting events of our lives will pale in comparison with the day we find ourselves with God in eternity if we have trusted in Jesus. The most exciting truths in our lives pale in comparison to the truth that God loves us and worked His plan of salvation for us. Our anticipation of any upcoming event fades to nothing compared to the anticipation of Christ’s Kingdom coming. Given that we have much to be excited and passionate about ‘the task of an evangelist’ morphs into the natural testimony of a witness. Ours is not a catechism to dump on people who are already on information overload, but a real hope to share with those who really need some hope. So where do we begin?

Here is one idea: Our church family will be participating in an opportunity to share our hope with Billy Graham’s MyHope initiative in the fall. The Billy Graham Association has put together a video which will be shared on network television in November coinciding with Billy Graham’s ninety-fifth birthday. This will provide us with an opportunity to invite people into our homes to watch the video and share with them our own testimony, or to invite them to a viewing at the church. We each start with praying over a “Matthew List” which is a list of people we particularly want to introduce to Jesus, people in whose lives we think God may especially want us to be witnesses for Him. Why are they called “Matthew Lists” you ask? Let’s take a look at Matthew (also known as Levi) in Luke:

27 After this he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi [Matthew], sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32 NRSV)

Matthew, who as a tax collector was giving up a more lucrative profession than the fishermen-turned-disciples to follow Jesus, was excited enough about Jesus that he threw a party to introduce his friends to Him. This was a very natural thing for him to do and there are four things we can notice about this:

  1. While his friends are invited, it is really about Jesus. This was not a party that Matthew was going to have anyway, so why not invite Jesus along. This was a party intentionally given for Jesus (verse 28), Jesus was the guest of honour, the guest it would be an honour for every other guest to meet. It is a great honour to be invited to meet a great person. Perhaps we fail to introduce others to Jesus because we believe we will be imposing on them or “ramming religion down their throats.” But we fail to recognise the great honour it is for someone to be introduced to Jesus. Indeed there is no greater honour we could bestow on another human being than to introduce them to Jesus. Nor is there greater apathy than to fail to do so.
  2. This was something only Matthew could do. Out of the disciples only Matthew could throw a party and expect so many tax collectors to show up. Think of people you are connected with and whose acquaintance you make. You may be the best person to introduce them to Jesus. You have connections with people that I do not have. You have connections with people Billy Graham does not have. Let’s not leave introducing people to Jesus to the people gifted at evangelism. They are not given the gift of your connections with people.
  3. There were more than just tax collectors there with Jesus. Notice how the Pharisees complain to the disciples about the presence of the tax collectors? There are a lot of people at this party. We may want to introduce people not just to Jesus but to other disciples of Jesus. Be careful though, we do not want to introduce people to the church for the sake of our church, but for the sake of the people.
  4. No friend is left out. Notice how the Pharisees grumbled at the presence of all the tax collectors. For a Pharisee, the only thing worse than a tax collector was two tax collectors. Imagine showing up at a party and realizing there is a whole group of them? Why the grumbling? Tax collectors were not collecting taxes for Judah, or to pay the salaries of the Pharisees. They were collecting taxes for Rome, to pay, among other things, the Roman soldiers who stood between the Jews and freedom. They were therefore considered as traitors. But even they were given the honour of being introduced to Jesus. There is no one in your life, no matter what they have done or said against God, no matter what they have done or said against the Church, no matter what they have done or said against you, that is beyond the loving reach of God in Christ. There is no one who can disqualify himself or herself from our Matthew List.

Ready to be a witness and introduce others to Jesus? If you are like me you may never feel ready. That is natural but it is also natural to share enthusiasm and excitement about that which is truly exciting. There is nothing more exciting than the Good News of Jesus Christ. Time to go – we have some people to be praying for!

(You can listen to the audio of the full sermon at http://www.churchcloud.com/calvary-baptist-cobourg/ or through iTunes podcast upon release)