This sermon is mostly about integrity: Do we believe what we say we believe about Jesus? Have we experienced the gospel as genuinely good news? If so, why wouldn’t we tell others about what we’ve experienced? Yet most Christians would rather undergo a root canal than initiate a conversation about their Christian faith! Why is this? And what can we do to change?
Sermon Text: Acts 1:1-11
Have you heard of Penn and Teller? They’re a comedy-magic duo famous for outlandish and often squirm-inducing magic tricks. I used to watch them on Letterman when I was in college back in the ’80s. They’ve been around a while, and they’re very good at what they do. Penn Jillette is the half of the duo that speaks. His partner, Teller, never speaks.Anyway, Jillette is an outspoken atheist. I mean, he really, really doesn’t believe in God, and he wants you to know about it. Which makes it all the more surprising, several years ago, when he posted a video on his blog describing an encounter he had with a Christian businessman who, like other fans, met Jillette after a show. This Christian began by telling Jillette how much he enjoyed his work. He was sincere. And then he said that he would like to give Jillette a gift. And he handed him a new Bible—from the Gideons, I think—and said he really hoped he’d read it.
And I watched the video—Jillette was deeply moved by this man’s gift. So much so that even as he was describing the incident, tears were welling up in Jillette’s eyes. And he said something surprising. This man—who, again, isn’t anywhere close to becoming a Christian, at least right now—said that he doesn’t respect Christians who don’t share their faith with others. Christians who don’t do that thing that all of us Methodists promise to do when we join a United Methodist church. “I don’t respect it at all,” he said. He continued:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think that, uh, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!
Powerful words! Because we Christians believe that something far worse than a truck is coming to hit many people—and that far worse thing is Judgment Day and hell—and we all have frequent opportunities to at least try to rescue people from this far worse thing! And my question is, Are we? Can we say as a church, and as individuals, that we’re doing everything we can do—everything that the Lord wants us to do, is calling us to do—to rescue people from this far worse thing than a truck bearing down on us.
I feel like I’m not supposed to even say this as a Methodist pastor. In seminary—at least the one I went to—we were encouraged not to talk about hell—it’s so negative. We need to “ac-cent-u-ate the positive/ E-lim-inate the negative”—as the old song says. We’re supposed to talk about how Jesus improves our lives in the here and now. Because he does! Talk about how “eternal life” isn’t merely something that happens on the other side of death and resurrection—how it’s a quality of life that we can begin to experience right now—because we can. I believe that! I know that Jesus is the way to experience a better quality of life now. Not just in eternity.
And yet, I still can’t get over the fact that the best part of the good news that is the gospel is that, because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection, and my faith in him, I’m saved eternally from the hell that I deserve because of my sins.
So, by all means, Jillette is right: there is something infinitely worse than a truck bearing down on us, and God is calling us—as a church, as individuals—to help rescue people from that.
So my question is, how are we doing at that task?
I’ve been in the Book of Acts for several weeks now, and we’ve talked about the very real persecution that Christians faced in the earliest church. And in the face of this persecution, these first Christians boldly witnessed to their faith.
We Americans, by contrast, live in a country where we enjoy freedom of religion, for the most part, where persecution isn’t a big threat; it doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, it’s not nearly as dangerous as it was for these first Christians. Yet far from being emboldened to share our faith with others, we usually remain silent.
Why? What are we afraid of?
We’re surely not afraid that we’ll die by stoning, like Stephen. We’re not afraid that we’ll die by the sword, like James. We’re not afraid that we’ll die by crucifixion, like Peter, or die by beheading, like Paul. No… But we are afraid that we’ll die… from embarrassment.
So, like Jillette said, we’re afraid that we’ll experience a “socially awkward” moment.
Is that really all that’s at stake here in our reluctance to witness?
Years ago, the public radio program This American Life featured a story on a couple of Mormon missionaries who were responsible for converting Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City to Mormonism. That seems like a daunting task. Can you imagine? A couple of 19- or 20-year-old kids on bicycles in their white shirt sleeves and ties, doing their two-year missionary stint before going on to college or a career. The Upper West Side is surely one of the most hostile places in the country for missionaries, Mormon or otherwise: it’s very secular, very worldly, very affluent. Ira Glass, the host of the show, said, half-jokingly, that if you hear about Jerry Seinfeld converting to Mormonism, it will be undoubtedly be because of the work of these two young men.
And I know what you think when you see Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses canvassing your neighborhood. You think, “Let’s turn the lights off and shut the blinds and pretend we’re not home!” That’s what I think! But if I’m completely honest with myself, you know what I’m also thinking? I’m thinking, “These are people who at least have integrity… who have the integrity of their convictions.” They believe that it matters deeply whether or not people hear their version of the gospel—however distorted and unorthodox it is—and they believe it so much that they are—to their credit—willing to risk being “socially awkward.”
Which means that these people are willing to work harder on behalf of a lie than most of us Christians are willing to work on behalf the truth—the life-changing, soul-saving truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, you know it shouldn’t be like this!
And I know what some of you might say: “I don’t have the spiritual gift of evangelism.” But guess what? Evangelism isn’t a “spiritual gift.” It’s true that the Bible says that God calls gifted people to be “evangelists”—just as he calls apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers—but the Bible says that their purpose is to “equip” the rest of the church to do the work of evangelism—not that they’re supposed to do all the work of evangelism themselves. We are all called to be witnesses.
Besides, maybe you don’t feel especially gifted to do evangelism, but can you pray—pray that the Lord would empower people from our church to be powerful witnesses? Can you pray for lost people that you know, that they, too, will come into a saving relationship with Christ? Can you invite a friend to church? That’s not very evangelistic, is it? Can you pray wth a friend who’s in need? Honestly, we all know people in our lives who are sometimes suffering, sometimes going through a hard time, sometimes even just having a bad day. A very powerful and loving way to be a witness is to say, “Would you mind if I pray for you? Right now?” No one’s going to turn that down. And then pray with them!
Also, think about the meaning of the word “witness.” A witness doesn’t mean you’re a Bible scholar or a preacher or a theologian; it means you’re someone who has seen something, experienced something. First-hand. And when you speak from that experience, you are witnessing. If you have been converted by Christ, guess what? You have a story to share: here’s what Jesus means to me; here’s how Jesus helps me; here’s what I’ve discovered on my journey of Christian faith. Maybe this will help you, too. Why don’t you come to church with me where you can learn more about it?
My point is, if we’ve experienced something as good news, it’s not hard to share that news. Lisa, my wife, and my son Townshend aren’t here this morning. They’re worshiping at a church in Auburn, Alabama—the church that Lisa went to when she was a student there 25 years ago. They went to the Auburn game last night. It was a thrilling game, which Auburn literally won in the last second. Auburn was winning by five points, which meant an LSU touchdown would win the game. LSU had driven down the field to around the Auburn ten-yard-line. The clock stopped at one second—which meant there was likely less than one second left. Once the play clock started, LSU had less than one second to snap the ball and get the play off, which they appeared to do. And then the LSU quarterback threw a touchdown pass. Game over. LSU wins!
Only, on further review, it was clear that LSU didn’t snap the ball before the clock went to zero. So the refs ruled that the play didn’t count and Auburn won. A big upset victory! Great news!
Now, you tell me: What would Lisa and Townshend both be more than happy to talk about if they were here this morning? That’s right: they would be delighted to tell you all about this good news of the game. And one of those two isn’t any kind of expert in football—she doesn’t any special “gift” for analyzing the game or talking about the numbers, the stats, the strategies—but she will be more than happy to talk about it! And why not? She’s experienced some very good news! And we would be happy to listen—even Georgia fans and Georgia Tech fans, who don’t have good news to share this week about their teams—even we would be happy to listen.
My point is, if we’ve experienced Jesus Christ and the gospel as good news, why would anyone mind—especially our friends, neighbors, and coworkers—why would any of them mind if we tell them about this good news. As long as we’re being sincere. Being honest. Speaking from our heart. That’s all a witness for Jesus Christ needs to do!
And here’s the best part of all: Witnessing isn’t mostly about us and what we do, anyway. Seriously, what do verses 1 and 2 say? Remember the Acts of the Apostles is a sequel to Luke’s first book, which is the Gospel according to Luke—and Luke addressed both of these volumes to someone named Theophilus. He writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
Did you catch that strange thing that Luke said? The first book, the Gospel according to Luke, is all about what Jesus began to do and teach before he died and was resurrected and ascended to heaven. Began to do and teach. Well, wait… That means that this second book, Acts, is about what Jesus continues to do and teach. And Jesus continues to “do and teach” to this very day… through us! Through his disciples… Through people like you and me who are Christians.
What does Jesus tell the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel? “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” What does he tell his disciples on the night of the Last Supper in John’s gospel: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” And he also says, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Because Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, because he gave us the gift of his Holy Spirit, we have this same power within us—to do and to teach what Jesus did and taught! Look at verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
Brothers and sisters, we need this power! And we have this power, if only we’ll be bold enough to access it! To use it! When we take the risk to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, something supernatural happens: It’s like Jesus himself takes over. He will use our words and actions to reach people—or not. That’s O.K. Jesus is in charge of the results. But we have to be bold enough to do our part.
1. See Ephesians 4:11-13.
2. Matthew 28:20
3. John 16:7 ESV
4. John 14:12 NIV