How do you feel talking about Jesus or about religion? Do you find it easy or difficult to talk with others about these topics?
When it come to talking about Jesus, I had a bit of a reality check this week. As a pastor, you can imagine that I talk about Jesus a lot, but something happened that had me feeling nervous about talking. Faith Church’s Outreach Team made gift baskets that anyone in the church could give to neighbors and friends, simply to encourage people during the pandemic. I ordered three of the baskets to give to my neighbors. I also ordered 6-7 more to give to the neighbors around the church who I’ve met over the years, including some neighbors who have newly moved in this year. The Outreach Team made the baskets, and they looked great, filled with candy and items to spread joy during the pandemic. It was a great way to connect with people.
But when I saw the baskets on the floor of the church lobby, waiting to be picked up and delivered, I realized I now would actually have to give mine out. Part of me didn’t want to! Part of me started feeling like I wished I hadn’t asked for the baskets. I love the idea, but I realized now I would have to do something about it, and that shy, introverted side of me was feeling squeamish. I would have to go a bit outside my comfort zone, walk up to neighbors’ homes, ring their doorbells, and talk with them. Have you ever felt that unease? I wonder how much of that is an inner desire for the mission of God to be easy or convenient.
But we don’t live in the days of years past when the mission of God was a more common part of our culture. In the past, you could build a church building, and people would fill it up almost naturally. Or in more recent years, if a church had great kids programs and music, it seemed people would join the church. But our culture has been changing, rapidly. In October 2019 the Pew Research Center reported that “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.” From 17% to 26% in ten years! We live in a culture in transition. How do we respond to that?
One way to respond is to pray for revival. This past year I studied the Great Awakenings in American history in the 1700s and 1800s, when the Spirit was at work for revival and thousands of people came to Christ. I am part of the Evangelical Congregational Church, and our predecessor denomination was formed in the early 1800s during the Second Great Awakening. Today Christians would love for God to bring revival again, and we are right to pray for it. But until that time, we must face the reality that our culture that is rapidly changing, and we have to think about how to share the good news of Jesus in a way that makes sense to that culture. So what do we do? Interestingly, the Christians in the early church faced a similar situation.
Last week in Acts chapter 16, we studied Paul & Silas’ missionary adventures, culminating in a very dramatic situation in the city of Philippi. Chapter 17 picks up where 16 concluded, and there we’ll see how Paul ministers in a very unchristian culture. How he speaks to his culture is very instructive for us as we seek to tell the story of Jesus in our culture.
First, we read that Paul and Silas travel to Thessalonica (vs. 1-9), which is in modern-day Greece and is still a bustling city today. There you can also visit ancient Roman ruins dating back to Paul’s day. As was his custom, in Thessalonica Paul heads first for the Jewish synagogue, sharing with the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah the Jewish people had long been waiting for. Some believed, as did some Greeks, including some prominent women.
What happens next is becoming a pattern in the book of Acts. The Jews who don’t believe become jealous and they start trouble. I find it interesting that the Jews say the apostles were causing trouble “all over the world” (vs. 6). Talk about exaggeration. Isn’t that so like us humans, to make things sound way worse than they really are, a tactic we utilize when we’re trying to prove our point?
Notice what the Jews claim was the crime the apostles committed (vs. 7): “They are defying Caesar’s decree, saying there is another king, one called Jesus.” While it is true that the Jews are jealous and exaggerating, in making this charge, they are right on the money. Defying Caesar’s decree is exactly what Paul was doing, saying that Jesus is the one true king. This is a serious claim, as the Jews well know, because if proven, it was a violation that could lead to the death penalty for Paul. The Roman Caesars were generally intolerant of contenders to their throne, and they made laws against such things. What the Jews are doing is saying that Paul has committed treason, and thus you can understand why it whips the crowd into a frenzy.
As a result Paul and Silas flee leave the city under cover of night (vs. 10). Stayed tuned. The story of Acts 17 will unfold, following the apostles as they continue traveling and talking about Jesus. How Paul, in particular, chooses to talk about Jesus will be very helpful.
For me, I let those gift baskets sit for a few days. Once the weekend neared, I finally mustered up the courage to drive them around to the church neighbors. And then on Saturday handed out a couple to my own neighbors. I will admit that the deadline of Sunday loomed over me. I didn’t want to tell the story of baskets without a resolution. If someone asked, “Well…did you hand them out?” I wanted to be able to say, “Yes!” I wish I didn’t have to admit that I wasn’t 100% eager to give out the baskets. Looking back on it, I feel embarrassed a bit. It wasn’t like I was doing anything other than blessing people with a small gift. How hard could that be? Why did I make it so difficult?
Maybe you’ve experienced similar thoughts and feelings. I’d be interested in hearing your stories. What convicts me is the reality that because I believe in the good news of Jesus, and the ramifications of that good news for people to have abundant life now and eternal life after death, then I should be much more passionate about sharing the good news. What do you think?
What we will see is that Paul, in Acts 17, continues to be passionate about talking with people about Jesus, and he does something that is uniquely creative that I believe we can learn from. More on that as we continue studying Acts 17 in the next posts!