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The Gospel: Promiscuous Preaching 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
When I was in high school we had a "spiritual awakening" on our campus. Students began wearing crosses, and making "Jesus People" artistic designs on the walls. A number of Bible studies sprang up spontaneously almost overnight, and prominent individuals who were "outside" the faith were targeted for conversion.
The whole thing caught the community quite by surprise. I remember going to worship services at church on a Sunday evening and overhearing a group of middle-aged people talking about us. One shook her head and said, "It's really sad, you know, the way these young people act! Blue jeans and T-shirts in church! And those songs they sing! And all those 'one-way' signs!"
The woman next to her said, "It's all so irreverent!" Another chimed in, "Yeah, but the worst is when they take those friends of theirs in here! They don't belong in our church!"
All the while I was getting more and more upset. They just didn't understand what Jesus was doing in our hearts and at our school!
Then an Elder of the church spoke up. He said something that cut me to the heart: "Ah, don't worry about it! They'll get over it! It's just a passing fad!"
Is it? Is it that for you? Do you have a spiritual awakening only to go back to sleep again?
They tell the story of a farmer in Saskatchewan who was a bachelor for many years. Then he felt the need for some domestic help, so he scouted the local town for an eligible young woman, and the two were married. Twenty-five years later they sit across from one another at the breakfast table. She is getting more and more agitated. He is totally oblivious to her frustrations. He hides himself, in his usual way, behind the newspaper. She gets up to pour him another cup of coffee.
"Sven," she says, "I want to ask you something." He doesn't even put down his paper. He just goes, "Hmmmmmm?!"
She says, "Sven, can I talk to you?!" Still behind the paper he replies, "If you've got something to say, woman, just spit it out!"
"Well," she says, "it being our anniversary and all, I was just wondering if you still love me."
Now the newspaper is slammed to the table. "Woman," he shouts, "when we got married 25 years ago I told you that I loved you! If I ever change my mind, you'll be the first to know!"
Nice guy, eh?
Yet the truth of it we all know. It is in the telling that the important things of life are made real. If a man will not speak to his wife of his love, she has every right to question whether it still burns. And sometimes, in our Christian faith, we follow the advice of that church Elder in my hometown: "Just wait; they'll get over it! It will go away over time!"
Good news needs to be told. Yet like that Saskatchewan farmer, our lips can be sealed. When I was pastor in my first congregation I sat in one home where the man said to me, "You're more evangelical than we are." I was stunned for a moment, wondering what he could mean. So I asked him.
"Well," he said, "we like to keep our faith to ourselves."
As if that is an option! As if you can have a church with or without evangelism!
C. S. Lewis, in his famous book, The Screwtape Letters, said that evil in our world rarely begins in horrible dens of wickedness, or in the unspeakable hell of concentration camps or the slaughter of war. Instead, he says, evil begins in office corridors and government bureaucracies and in classrooms where the "System" does away with personal stories. When no one can tell of the passion of her heart, each person becomes merely a cog in a machine. The machine grinds away at Truth until it is scattered to the winds, and any old lie will do.
Lewis said that the only way to find Truth again is when people begin to recover their personal stories and tell them. In the telling of the impact of Truth on our lives we begin to live as if it mattered. This is the choice Paul makes when he wrote the Corinthians: "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16).
The gospel that he preaches has at least four elements to it.
The first is this: "You were 'haunted' into the Kingdom of God, not 'hunted'." You were haunted into a relationship with God, and not hunted down like a wild animal. Emily Dickenson once wrote it like this: "Art is a house that tries to be haunted." What she meant is that artistic skills only come alive when there is a creative spirit living within.
So it is with us. Often we pretend to be "secular," and try to create the impression that we can function just fine apart from God. Yet, in reality, we are houses begging to be haunted. We are empty shells that need the inner warmth of the divine Spirit.
Irving Berlin wrote a song that included this line: "A pretty girl is like a melody that haunts you night and day." So it is with our faith. It is not so much that we are forced into a relationship with God as it is that His love surrounds us like a haunting melody. Only when we begin to hum the tune, His tune, do the many dimensions of our selves come together and begin to make sense. Otherwise we try to sing the songs of our lives, but the melody escapes us. Only when I heard the tune of heaven did His song become my song.
Michelangelo noticed a huge block of white marble on the refuse pile one day. It had a nice color and good texture, but other artists had thrown it out because of its awkward shape. Yet from this discarded stone, Michelangelo was able to create his marvelous statue of David. Someone who knew where the statue had come from asked him, "How did you ever do this?"
He replied, "I saw David in there, and little by little, month after month, I cut away everything that wasn't David."
This is the work of God on us. We need the skills of the great Artist to see the truth of our lives, and then, slowly, often painfully, to cut away everything that isn't really us, that isn't essential to our characters, that weighs us down or bubbles us out in odd shapes and forms.
My own first recollections of Christian faith are the haunting sounds of music: music that my mother used to sing as she went about her housework; music that my father listened to from the radio in his shop. Not all of it was "church" music. Yet it was music that carried a wistfulness about it. Music that spoke of bigger things than I could be on my own. Music that told of love deeper than feelings, and courage broader than bravery, and beauty richer than appearance. I remember thinking to myself then that there had to be a God! The hauntings of His presence were around me every day.
It was the church that taught me His name.
My Christian faith is not like clothes that I can wear for a while and then take off or change. It is more the kind of compulsion that Paul speaks of, an echo of our own haunted spirits waiting for the Spirit of God to move in us.
When we talk with others about our faith, isn't it this that we share? We have heard the music that heals. We have come to the waters that quench. We have found a place of feasting.
The way we understand these matters makes a difference. Harv Smit once told of a missions conference he had taken part in, several decades ago. Forty pastors and cross-cultural missionaries came together. One speaker posed this question: "What image do you have in mind when you present the gospel of Jesus Christ to someone? Do you see it as snatching brands from the burning fire, or do you think of it as inviting people to a feast?"
The response was astounding, even to the participants. To a person, the pastors chose the former image, while those who identified themselves as missionaries immediately gravitated toward the latter. Harv Smit noted the separation with distaste. Perhaps one of the reasons that the church is not able to bring people to faith is that its image of the gospel is all wrong. Rather than being energized by the haunting of God's Spirit, bringing new life, it reduces the gospel to a formal ethic, and condemns those who don't want to participate.
If what Paul says is true, there is a wonderful playfulness about God's haunting of our lives that begins to come out in our conversations with others.
Several years ago students at a university called me to ask if I would visit their roommate. She was hospitalized on a psychiatric ward because of a failed suicide attempt. When we talked she told me of the aching of her soul to find meaning. There was a void in her begging to be filled. She had a restlessness from being torn apart by too many petty loves.
When we prayed for the Spirit of God to enter her, she spoke of her faith in terms of the haunting of divine love. She was haunted into the Kingdom of God. So was I. And so were you.
Here's a second thing that is true about our Christian faith: you were sandwiched into the Kingdom, not sold. Sandwiches speak of community, selling of separation. A sandwich carries its substance packed together between slices of bread so that it won't slip away. When you sell something, however, you deliberately put distance between yourself and what it was that you were selling.
Sometimes "evangelism" is huckstered about like a sell-job. Steve Martin portrays it well in his movie about a flashy evangelist who operates from a billion-watt showbiz stage. The church gets a bad name for such cheap tricks. People are hoodwinked in by false promises, and then bilked out of their money. When they turn up broken and needy they are shifted out onto the street, sadder and wiser.
So why are you here today? What brought you into the church and what keeps you a part of it? My friend John VanTil says he knows. He contacted 325 people across Canada who joined the church through evangelism, and asked them how it happened for them. 260 said that they came to church directly as a result of meaningful personal relationships with people in that congregation. That's 80%! They came sandwiched between people who cared about them, and for whom God and the church were important.
Researchers say that 7 out of 10 people who don't presently attend worship services would seriously consider doing so. When will they do so? The answer is almost always the same: "We will go when someone asks us!"
If we grew up in the church, we came in first on the arm of parents who cared about us, and who made God real for us in their lives. If we came to faith in later years, more than likely we did so because a good friend told us how important God and the church were to her. The Christian faith is shared between people who care about each other. We come into the Kingdom of God sandwiched between friends, not sold on the auction block of cheap grace.
Here's a third truth about the gospel: you were challenged into the Kingdom of God, not carried. There is a cost to Christian faith. There is a time of choice, an "hour of decision," as Billy Graham used to put it.
The haunting isn't enough. Nor is "faith by association." At some point along the way our outlook on things must change. It's what we call "conversion." Christianity is not just another form of pop psychology in which we learn how to cope better with the problems of our lives. It's not a message of "I'm okay; you're okay!" Instead, it is a story of transformation: "I was this. Then the crisis came and I couldn't cope anymore. By grace I found healing and hope and wholeness. That's why I'm telling you this today."
Keith Miller tells of a time that he got a call from an alcohol treatment center. A man had contacted the center wanting help, but obviously still quite under the influence of drink. Keith was asked to take someone with him and bring the man to the center.
When they arrived at the address they found that the home was a filthy mess. The man himself was totally intoxicated, and almost naked. He looked at the young woman with Keith and asked how old she was. When she told him, he responded, "What in the world do you think you can teach me about getting straight?! Do you know who I am? I've been a national speaker for Alcoholics Anonymous for years! What gives you the right to come barging in here and thinking you're going to help me?!"
Keith said that she never blinked an eye. She just said, "Well, for one thing, I'm sober, and you're drunk as a skunk!" The truth of her words stunned him, and he went to the treatment center with them.
No one slips into the Kingdom of God without changing. In one of His parables Jesus pictured a banquet hall with a party going on. The host moved lovingly among the guests. He had urged everyone to attend; no one was turned away.
But the host had also told the guests to wash before they came, and to wear the new clothes that he provided for the festive occasion. As he walked among his guests he met a man wearing his old clothes. The host ordered his servants to throw the man out.
Why should a man be thrown out of a party when the host wanted him to be there in the first place?
The host's welcome never wavered. The only problem was that the man wanted to come to the party on his own terms. This, said Jesus, is never how it happens in the Kingdom of God. Either there is a change that takes place in your life, or you don't belong because you have no story to tell!
So this is what you share with others: that you were haunted into the Kingdom, not hunted; that you were sandwiched into the Kingdom, not sold; and that you were challenged into the Kingdom, not carried.
One more thing: you were venerated into the Kingdom, not violated. Evangelism is more than speaking words about Jesus, and calling for people to believe. It is also about changing the circumstances of their worlds in ways that reflect the coming Kingdom of God. Sometimes we call it "incarnational evangelism." It refers to the fact that God took a piece of Himself and made it human. He did not stay separate and distant, remote from our needs. Instead, in the person of Jesus He came to join us in our human situation, and work with us to change it into what it could be.
God came to us. He didn't violate us as persons, twisting us into "sacred" and "secular," sundering us into "holy" and "profane." He lived our life, experienced our sufferings, and shared our meals. He said that we mattered as we were: real people in real situations of life. He venerated us. He respected us.
True witnessing involves that dimension. We venerate and respect people for who they are. We don't violate them by making cheap converts without broadening the power of the Kingdom in their lives as a whole. Systematic health care began with the Church of Jesus. Systematic education began with the Church. Counseling began with the Church's confessional. Social justice began in the context of the Church's faith.
This is incarnational evangelism: to love in the real world with real people experiencing real problems, and then to say that the Kingdom of God means something for them in every dimension of their existence.
When Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 he said, "No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately, and that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
He could have been writing about the witness of the Church. He could have been speaking the testimony of my life and yours. He could have been nodding in agreement to Paul's compulsion to preach. There is a promiscuousness about the church's need to preach the gospel of light, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
It starts when I know that I was haunted into the Kingdom of God by the Spirit of grace, not hunted. When I tell how I was sandwiched into the Kingdom of God by those who cared, and not sold as a religious trinket. When I sense that I am challenged into the Kingdom of God, not carried along by cheap theology. When I know that I was venerated into the Kingdom of God, not violated. Then I have to speak.
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