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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Introductions (Acts 17:22-31)


Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way.  As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’  What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.  God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth.  He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands.  Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else.  From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.  God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.  As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought.  God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives.  This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed.  God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

This week, over 3000 United Methodists from the western half of the state will gather at Lake Junaluska for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.  This yearly gathering is part worship, part business, part family reunion.

Annual Conference concludes each year with the fixing of appointments – the official sending of pastors to some 1100 churches across the conference for another year of ministry.  I view this time as a yearly renewal of my commitment to go where I am sent, to represent God and serve God’s people, and lead God’s people in sharing God’s life-giving love and grace with the world around us as the Holy Spirit enables us.

This realization is, for me, anyway, humbling – wondering why in the world God would count on me, and empowering – for whatever reason, God is counting on me.  Not just the pastors, but all of us.  God is counting on me.

It’s a time to re-up.  This year, there will be a “2” next to my name in the appointment book, indicating it’s about to be my 2nd year appointed as the lead pastor here at Morehead.  I have already told our bishop and district superintendent to forget my name and leave me alone! We love it here.  Next year I want to see a “3” next to my name, and then a “4,” and then we’ll see how high it can go.

It’s weird to think that a year ago, I didn’t know you.  You didn’t know me.  We were waiting to be introduced.  I’ve often thought about that process you go through to get to know someone – how you can go from complete strangers to having a deeply-meaningful relationship with someone.

I am particularly grateful for those who facilitate introductions.  Even introducing someone to someone else doesn’t form an instant relationship between them – they still have to do a lot of the work themselves to make that happen – but an introduction is often a spark, the initial “oomph” that gets a relationship started.

When you think about it, we make introductions all the time.  We introduce mutual friends if we think they might hit it off.  We set people up on blind dates.  We tell people about restaurants we enjoy, where to get a good haircut, oil change, or frozen yogurt.  We share recipes, garden tips, articles, you name it, if we love it, we share it with great enthusiasm!

Do we have the same excitement for sharing our faith and introducing people to Jesus?

We call this “evangelism.”  Evangelism is a churchy word we use to describe introducing people to Jesus and talking about our faith.  Evangelism has gotten a little bit of a bad rap lately; perhaps because the very word conjures up images of TV evangelists with big hair and perfect smiles cajoling money out of a vulnerable TV audience, or angry people with hateful signs hurling slurs and insults at passers-by – maybe not the best picture for sharing God’s love!

Make no mistake – we are called to share our faith, we are called to be about sharing God’s love and grace in the world, and we are called to be bold in it – but, and this is critical – we are not called to be jerks about it.  Being a Christian doesn’t make us better than other people, and sharing our faith does not give us a license to be obnoxious or condescending. 

Friends, we cannot allow these to be the voices that speak for us, nor can we allow them to keep us from speaking.  Even though these voices represent the smallest sliver of the Christian community, they are perhaps the loudest and most persistent voices, and unless we also speak up, when the world hears the words “Christian,” “Jesus,” “Bible,” “faith,” or “church,” this is the picture they’ll have.

Now, I know, some people are going, “Talk about my faith?  Tell people about Jesus?  What are we paying the pastor for?”  You pay me to remind you to introduce people to Jesus.  Remember what we said earlier – God is counting on me.

The Apostle Paul in today’s reading from the 17th chapter of Acts, gives us a good pattern to follow for sharing our faith in a non-Christian world.  He has been criss-crossing the Mediterranean, preaching and setting up churches.  He has been met with resistance and hostility in each place.

He arrived in Athens for some down time waiting for his colleagues to meet him and figure out what they would do next.  There was no work on the agenda – no preaching, no teaching, no setting up churches, none of that – just a little R & R.  And yet we know that’s not what happened.

Paul was walking through the city, taking in all the cultural and historical treasures that make Athens the great city it is.

Everywhere he went, he saw altars and shrines to many gods.  The Greeks & Romans worshipped a variety of gods, but they were also deeply respectful of the gods worshiped in other places by other people.  Not wanting to leave anyone out, they even set up an altar to “an unknown god.”

Paul decides to share the Gospel with non-believers, and starts with a compliment – “Look at all these altars!  I can see that you are deeply religious!”  And so many altars – these people are definitely searching, definitely trying to connect with something beyond themselves!

We aren’t so different today than were people in Athens.  People are still longing for meaning and searching for significance.  So many altars where we bow – altars of wealth and power, materialism and nationalism, prominence and prestige, experience and esteem, friends and family, leisure pleasure – one altar after another, each built with the promise of enshrining our happiness, each one just as disappointing as the one before.

Before we know it, our lives have become more cluttered with altars to false gods than the streets of Athens.

Why do we do this?  Because God created us with a restlessness, a need deep inside us for a connection with God.  I think of it like the little shape ball I played with as a kid, trying to fit those yellow shapes into the various holes.  Now, imagine one of those holes is God-shaped.  You can try to cram all sorts of things in there, but only one thing can fill the God-shaped hole in each of us – God.  Anything else, we remain empty inside.

Paul knew that the people were searching.  So many altars?  So much devotion, even if misguided?  Yeah, they were looking for something.  Patiently, Paul says, “You’ve been searching.  You’ve been looking a long time” – what they’ve been looking for is the one, true God.

Paul’s presentation meets his hearers where they are.  They are intellectuals, and he presents the Gospel with quotes and allusions to their own poets and philosophers.  He builds bridges between their culture and his message, finds common ground, and says, “Let’s start here.”  He is not at odds with his hearers.  He’s not trying to fix them, correct them, tell them everything that’s wrong with their beliefs or way of seeing the world.  He’s not trying to prove anything about them or himself.

And though he uses reason and appeals to their intellect, he presents the Gospel not as an argument to be won or a puzzle to be solved or a set of prepositions with which to agree, but as an introduction to the living God, and an invitation to be in relationship with God.

He doesn’t say, “Let me help you know things about God.”  He says, “Let me help you know God.”  The God you’ve worshiped this whole time and didn’t even know it – would you like me to introduce you?  The God who created the world and everything in it, the God who created you and loves you more than you can imagine, the God whose image you bear, whose love and creativity are marked indelibly on you, the God and Father of us all, even though you’ve never confessed God’s name or realized that you were God’s child, has always loved you and knows your name, whose will has always been directed toward your good, the God who has been reaching toward you and calling your name even while you were completely ignorant of this God because that’s how much God loves you, the God in whom we literally live and move and have our very being, this very same God – would you like me to introduce you?

People cannot come to know God until someone introduces them.  Introducing people to God doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in theology or have a bunch of answers or arguments ready to go.  You simply need to be willing to share your experience of how God has been at work in your life.  If you have a story to tell, then God can use you.  It’s easy – it’s just your own story, and it’s powerful; you’ll watch God work through that in amazing ways, and before you know it, you’ll be introducing people to Jesus left and right.  As Paul showed us in Athens, we can invite people to get to know God in a way that is respectful and not pushy, but also has a holy boldness and passion for sharing God’s love and grace.

We talk about church as family.  A family of faith.  God’s family.  You may not have ever thought about it, but there’s a family business – bringing people (all people!) into relationship with God through Jesus.  The family business is growing the family.  Being part of the family means being part of the family business.

As a church, our job is clear.  It’s already been outlined.  We are part of God’s family, so our business is God’s business – introducing people to Jesus and making it possible for them to grow in God’s love.  What a great line of work we have, with no shortage of opportunity!  Just look around at all the people we have the opportunity to introduce to Jesus!

But it’s a family business – that means all the members of the family have a role, including you.  Though we have nice benches, do more than ride the bench here.  That’s not standing on the promises; that’s sitting on the premises!  Gather to worship, yes, but then depart to serve.  Come in to be fed, go out to feed others.  Come to get to know God better, go and out introduce Jesus to others.  Don’t just warm a pew; be part of God’s mission.

The beautiful thing in God’s mission of introducing people to Jesus is that there’s a job for everybody.  Maybe you can preach.  Maybe you can go somewhere to people in need, around the corner or around the world.  Maybe you can pray.  Maybe you can sing.  Maybe you can teach.  Maybe you can give.  Maybe you can cook, or set up tables, or greet people when they arrive or help them find a parking spot.  So many ways to serve, but each and every one of them supports our primary mission to introduce people to Jesus.

Friends, like the people of Athens, we can be easily distracted and pulled in so many directions that we quickly lose focus and get off track.  So many things vying for our attention, pulling us this way and that way.  Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.  Let’s stay focused on introducing people to Jesus.

I’d love it if church were a little more like Pinky and the Brain.  This favorite cartoon of my childhood features two animated lab rats – The Brain, a diabolical genius, and Pinky, his dim-witted but loyal sidekick.  At the beginning of every episode, Pinky says, “Gee Brain, What do you want to do tonight?”  “Same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!”

Such a driving, clear, undebatable statement of purpose.  Said with clarity and conviction, unequivocally naming their purpose and mission.

I would love for the Church to have the same singular focus, that if I were to say, “Gee Church, what do you want to do today?” you would instinctively answer, “Same thing we do every day, pastor: introduce people to Jesus.” 

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