You and a friend are talking. Your friend is not really involved with Christianity in any way. She doesn’t go to church. As far as you know she really has no religious practice. Faith is not something the two of you discuss, but she does know church is big part of your life.
It is an occasion where the two of you are talking over lunch as you sometimes do. She mentions she has wants to go to baseball game but she can’t find someone who will go with her. She asks if you would go and you say, sure. She pulls out her phone and pulls up the Bulls’ schedule. She suggests a game that’s coming in the next week. You start to say yes, but you realize that is the same day that something the church is hosting the chili cook-off.
In fact, you’ve want to invite this friend to this church event. It will be fun and you hope it will be a springboard to discuss matters of faith with this friend because you are pretty sure she doesn’t really believe in anything. You suggest that the two of you go to a game on a different day and then you ask if she would come to church to laugh and eat chili.
You’ve made the invitation and you look into her eyes. There’s no spark. In fact, her expression has gone blank. You instantly know she is searching for a reason to turn down your invitation. It is clear she wants no part of coming to church, discussing faith, or having this even come again. Before you know it, lunch is over; you have no plans for a baseball game, you kind of feel like your friend is mad at you or at least annoyed.
What happened? Why is it so hard to talk about following Jesus with this friend or with a lot of people we know who are not in church? Why does talking about our faith in the day-to-day conversations of life feel so weird?
This friend is interested in many things that you are also like. There’s baseball. You have worked together and are roughly the same age. You have a lot of common ground and discussion with her is easy – unless it is about God or religion or faith. Then, she slams the door shut.
The Gospel has no ground.
That is one example. In countless others, we see how impossibly challenging it is to hope that we could share the news that in Jesus, God has come. In Jesus’ death, God has taken away the sins of all who turn to him in faith. In Jesus’ resurrection, God gives eternal life to all who give themselves to Him. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. Disseminating that word, spreading that Good News, is why we are here.
However, in the secular workplace, coworkers, friends, bosses – they don’t want to hear us talk about Jesus, not most of the time. Disinterest is an obstacle to the spread of the gospel.
Our culture’s love individualism, tolerance, and relativism can be barriers. Your religion is OK for you. Mine is OK for me. All religions are basically the same. We tolerate all except for the religions that claim to be absolutely true. If we’re all the same, there is no need for conversion. And popular sentiment in our country is that the wrong thing is to try to say that there is anything wrong. The Bible says the world is fallen – all have sinned. That doesn’t really stick in today’s cultural climate.
Another bump in evangelism road comes in our friendships with people as committed to their religious beliefs as we are to ours. We have friends who are Muslims and Mormons, Jews and Buddhists and like in the example, we have friends who have no religion. We love our friends. But the differences act as obstacles.
Make no mistake about it. The Gospel is to be spread throughout the world. Acts 1:8 – Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses.” “Gospel” comes from a Greek word which means “good news.” The only way news is actually news is if people hear it. In our imagined encounter with friend who expresses no religion and might an atheist, is anyone hearing anything at all?
The first Christians did not know they were Christians. The term had not been coined. They knew they were followers of Jesus whom they had seen on the cross. They saw him die and knew he was buried. Then, they met him, resurrected. Everything they ever knew was turned over. Their worldviews were completely upended, but it did not stop there.
After the resurrection and after he ascended to the Father, they were seemingly left without much help in a world that was hostile to their cause. The temple leaders rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The Romans were not monotheists. In religion, the Romans thought they were insane. The Greeks did too. In politics, the Romans held the power and at moment could enslave the people of Jerusalem including the original community of Jesus followers.
How could these people, most of them poor and undereducated, obey Jesus’ command to tell of the good news of the salvation God gives in Him? They were powerless. They were directionless. They were kind of in shock.
Then the Holy Spirit came in full force destroying every wall that would stand between the salvation God offers in Jesus and the people who need it. They had been praying in that same upper room where Jesus shared the bread and the wine. The Holy Spirit shook the house and they worshipped in song and prayer, prophecy and Heavenly tongues.
Jerusalem teemed with Jews who had come from all over for Passover and the Pentecost. Many heard the commotion and rushed to the house as the disciples, now Spirit-filled, spilled out into the street. One by one, the disciple testified. The gathering crowd was amazed.
Everyone looked around and saw as clear day that this was a gathering of people from everywhere – yet all clearly understood. The obstacle of language was overcome and the Gospel advanced. They saw that these were fishermen, not educated folks. And they came from Galilees, not a place known to produce people of sophistication or scholarship. More obstacle are obliterated – socioeconomic divisions; education; and the Gospel moves forward from the disciples mouths into the ears, minds, and hearts of the people in the crowd.
Some critics accused the disciples of drinking too much. I struggle with the logic. I never thought getting smashed would enable me to speak Amharic or Karen. Alcohol doesn’t have affect. And the crowd did not buy this lame explanation from those who would oppose the Gospel. They listened as Peter spoke and the story of Jesus was proclaimed.
He told of the crucifixion and that would be a problem. People did not continue following a would-be Messiah after he died. They went and found a new Messiah. But here was Peter still holding on, claiming Jesus had been raised. No one, I mean no one, believed the Messiah would be resurrected ahead of an end-time resurrection at which point all people would be raised for judgment. Peter’s message that Jesus was the carrier of God’s salvation and had been raised by God was totally unexpected. Expectations and the idea of death stood to block the advance of the Gospel. Empowered by the Spirit, Peter preached through these blockers.
When the Spirit poured out on the community of faith in Acts 2, they shared the Gospel, spread the good news of life in Jesus in spite of insurmountable opposition. This event launched the movement of the Christians who carried salvation throughout the world. The rest of the book of Acts follows Peter and John, Philip, and Paul and Barnabas and then Paul, Timothy, Silas, and Luke along with Priscilla and Aquila as they tell all who will listen that Jesus is Lord.
Many, like our friend in the opening story I imagined, have no part in it. Many do not want to hear about Jesus. But some do. And even when we hear, “No thanks, let’s just go to a baseball game,” we don’t give up. We pray for that person. Maybe our invitation planted a seed that someone else will harvest down the line.
The Holy Spirit is as active now as was the case in Acts 2. The Gospel accelerated across Israel, through Turkey, through Greece, to Rome. It continues today. We have the word. We stand in the encouragement of the church community – praying for each other, building up each other. We have the history of our faith and the Christians who have gone before us to inspire us. Finally, we have God – the Holy Spirit – in us.
Our culture shows indifference or a penchant for pluralism. In China, there are the persistent attempts of the government to control everything. In Western Europe, many buy into the myth that religion has died. In parts of Africa, Christianity is so infused with traditional religions it is hardly recognizable. In North Korea, open Christian expression can land you in jail. In Syria and Egypt, proclaiming faith in Jesus as the Son of God can get you killed.
Everywhere, there are challenges and it appears the easiest thing to do is go underground, worship in secret, and keep to ourselves. But a fire burns; the fire of Holy Spirit sizzles. We can’t put it out and we should not try. We stand it in it so the light of Jesus shines through us. The Gospel is going to continue to fill the world. We play our part by worship, by prayer, and by setting ourselves so we are attuned to the Spirit.
I have a friend. More often than not, when we try to get together, life gets in the way. When do find time to grab a sandwich, our conversation is mostly about our kids or college basketball or the weather – not especially deep or spiritual topics. He knows my work and my life and I think he’s most comfortable at the surface.
But last year, he showed up here at church – just once. I’ve known him for almost 9 years and he finally came. The Gospel is on the move around the world and into my friends’ heart. To me what happened at Pentecost was a miracle. When the Spirit filled those first disciples, it was amazing. To me, when my friend comes back to church and when our conversation moves from debates about who should start at Small Forward to questions about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus that will be a miracle too. They will be as important an advance of God’s Kingdom as any I can imagine.
Evangelism and the work of the Holy Spirit are interchangeable. I am sure this is true in your life and your friendships too. The gospel is rushing forward. Pray that you as an individual and we as church can be part of it.