Sermon - 12th January 2020
Declaring our faith
Scripture - Acts 4:1-3, 13, 18-21
Last week, Walt spoke to us about who the people of Jesus’s time, and the followers in the early church, believed Jesus to be. And Walt looked at the ancestry of Jesus as described by Matthew because, in the Jewish culture of those first decades of the Christian era, your ancestry added to your status and your credibility.
This week, I want to look at the status and credibility which those early communities gave to the followers of Jesus after his death, and see if we can discover why they had such an impact on their communities, and perhaps consider whether we can have a similar impact in our own communities.
Quite a few years ago a fascinating television documentary series asked the question 'What makes a great speaker?' Using archive film of such legends as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham and Donald Soper, it highlighted some of the qualities needed to become a great orator.
These included posture and physical presence, gestures and mannerisms, power and inflexion of voice, well-chosen pauses, eye contact, speed of delivery, repetition of key phrases, and humour.
Now, truly gifted speakers are a rare breed and we should not undervalue their skills and abilities. But there is more to effective communication than technique, learned or otherwise, and so it was for the great orators we’ve mentioned.
As much as anything, the impact they made came from the sincerity of their words, the fact that they spoke from the heart of things they deeply and passionately believed in. Without that, their words may still have sounded impressive, but they would have lacked their cutting edge and their power to truly convince people of their message.
If this was true for the great speakers of our recent past, it must have been all the more so for the Apostles in the days of the early Church. Suddenly, here they were, entrusted with taking the gospel out into the world. It must have seemed daunting enough sharing it in Jerusalem and Judea, let alone in Samaria and to the ends of the earth, yet this was the challenge they faced. Where could they even begin?
The answer, of course, was that alone they couldn't. They depended on the power of God's Spirit at work within them. And if anyone recognised that, it was Jesus. Consider those he called as Apostles.
Were they scribes, Pharisees, the teachers of the law? No. Were they priests or rabbis, the religious specialists of his age? No. Instead, they were an unlikely ragbag, their ranks including a tax collector, freedom fighter, and fishermen. In other words, they were remarkably ordinary people who almost certainly hadn't the least experience of preaching or teaching between them, and I've no doubt their hearts must have sunk when Jesus suddenly sent them out into the mission field.
What could they possibly hope to achieve? What conceivable impact could they make? It must have seemed ridiculous. Yet to each one Jesus gave the assurance that the Holy Spirit would give them the words they needed when they needed them.
In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus say: 'When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you' (Matthew 10:19).
But in what way did that Spirit move? How did the Spirit of God empower those ordinary people to share the message of Jesus in ways which convinced people to change, to reform, and to renew their faith?
Above all, surely, it was through the sincerity of their witness, an awareness of the deep truths at the heart of their message, the committed enthusiasm of their words, the self-evident conviction of their own experience.
Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the example of Peter and John as they preached the gospel in Jerusalem following the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.
They knew the risks they were taking in speaking out and soon found out how real these were as they found themselves hauled up before the chief priests and elders to explain how they dare to continue to speak of Jesus.
Yet, despite the threats made against them, they simply could not keep quiet. The Book of Acts tells us: 'Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard'" (Acts 4:19-20).
Fair enough, you may say, but perhaps these represent the exception that proves the rule. After all, their success was nothing compared to that of the Apostle Paul, and if they weren't theologically trained, Paul was. Yet, Paul openly admitted to not being a patch on other speakers of his time, compared to whom, in terms of technique, he felt that he came a very poor second.
Yes, Paul clearly found the business of sharing his faith a frightening ordeal at times. As he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
'I came to you in weakness and in fear, and in much trembling' (1 Corinthians 2:3).
Yet he did share his faith, wherever and whenever he could, with astonishing success. In part, this was down to his willingness to talk the language of his listeners, but alongside that, I suspect, was his transparent sincerity.
There was no false motive about Paul, none of what, in modern politics, we have come to refer to as 'spin'. He spoke of the way Jesus had changed his life, of the grace that constantly amazed him, of the love that moved him afresh each day, of the inner presence of the Holy Spirit that encouraged, nurtured, sustained and inspired him whatever he might face.
Whatever Paul said or wrote, it came straight from the heart, and people responded accordingly.
When it comes to communication, the impact of sincerity and personal experience cannot be emphasised too strongly. We may be the most polished speakers in the world, with everything prepared and delivered to perfection, but if we do not speak from the heart we can be utterly ineffective because something vital will be lacking from our words.
On the other hand, we may be tongue-tied, our message might seem to us confused and disjointed, but we can still put across the wonder of the gospel in a way that is able to change lives!
Many of us fear that, if ever we attempt to share our faith, we will dry up partway through – that we won’t be able to sustain the message we’re trying to share. It's not that we don't have anything to say - quite the contrary - but we inwardly dread starting to speak and then finding the words just won't come, our minds going blank at the vital moment.
We tell ourselves that witnessing for Christ needs specialist knowledge, natural talent or unique gifts. Much though we'd like to have a go, it’s a job best left to evangelists, clergy and missionaries, those who have been equipped for the task and acquired the necessary skills.
Are we right? Absolutely not! Certainly, those who are trained in public speaking, theology and the like may have advantages in certain situations, but that does not mean the experts alone are able to communicate the gospel effectively.
I think we have all sat through enough dull sermons and lifeless worship to know that 'training' does not compensate for the lack of an authentic, life-giving message.
As Paul says, later in his letter to the Corinthians: 'My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God' (1 Corinthians 2:4).
We will not get far by quoting the Bible at people without interpreting its message through our own experience and understanding. It is largely pointless to recite the creeds or central principles of faith unless people can see us living out those principles in our lives.
We will make no impact if we engage in complex theological debate at the time or in the wrong place, or by attempting to argue people into faith when that faith is dry and impersonal. Nor will a carefully rehearsed testimony or a practised technique produce any result if it is simply pushed towards someone with no reference to the circumstances or experiences of the person we are speaking to.
What we need is to speak, in our own words, of what Jesus means to us; what difference our faith makes to our lives; and to do that honestly, naturally and spontaneously.
Many of us will feel we are not up to the job, convinced that our nervous and awkward efforts will inevitably prove fruitless. Yet if we share our selves, simply and sincerely, telling of what Christ means to us, then however clumsy we may consider our words to be, God is able to use them and to speak to others in ways surpassing our highest expectations!
So, the next time the opportunity presents itself to share our faith, let’s not think too much about what we ought to say: let’s just launch into what we want to say.
Trust that the Spirit of God will give conviction to our testimony, power to our message, and credibility to our words. The results are sometimes amazing! The results can be seen on every new face who walks through those doors week after week.