Service with Revd. Nick Stanyon –
By what power did you do this? Acts 4
Easter is dangerous. At least to preachers.
Every so often you hear of one ending up in hospital on Easter day. Poisoned. By eating daffodils!!
It was a topic of debate on the URC ministers facebook group again this year, and I have to say I cringed at the comments saying you could eat this bit of the daffodil, but not that bit. In truth, eating any of it can give you a very nasty stomach ache – not at all to be recommended!
And then, there’s some of you who will be asking, why would a minister want to eat a daffodil anyway?
Well, as one who has to confess to eating the flowers at easter I can tell you – at least why I did it! It was a stunt. The minister doing something that no one would expect him or her to do, and which most people would not believe when you told them about it. But, unlikely and unbelievable as it was, the congregation had seen it happen for themselves. They were witnesses to the event, so they could tell you it happened. Just like the first disciples were witnesses to a very unlikely and some would say impossible event at easter – Jesus risen for the dead!
Now, I’m not recommending you set about such crazy stunts – but I do think it’s fair to say that what is done in church and by church should be worth talking about! It should have that quality that draws comment. The love, the life, the faith and the hope, the kindness, generosity and service of Christians should be so radical that it becomes a talking point in the community around. Don’t you think?
Yesterday (in the time line of our reading from Acts of the Apostles) Peter and John had been on their way to church for a prayer meeting, when they met a lame man on the way. He was begging, and asked them for any spare coins – but Peter and John didn’t have any. Instead, they gave him what they had – commanding him in Jesus’ name to get up and walk. And he did! He went ‘walking and leaping and praising God’
Its not surprising that caused a stir! And now Peter and John were being called to give an account of their actions: ‘By what power, or in whose name, did you do this?’ they were asked.
And so came the opening, that enabled them to speak freely and boldy about their faith. Peter spoek powerfully about Jesus, The Risen Lord and the listeners were left with no doubt that these men had been with the Lord. And Peter’s word was convincing, because the evidence of new life and resurrection brought about through their loving action -The healed man – stood right there with them. Gospel Words were given authenticity by generous works – the one leading on to the other. And many who heard the message believed.
Now, as Synod Evangelist, I want to point out Evangelism is never a thing in itself, but part of the whole flow of Christian life and witness. It should not be thought of in isolation from the rest of the churches mission, nor should it be seen as an alternative to mission, or as an optional add on for those who are keen on it. True Christian mission in every expression not only gives the Christian message its authenticity, but it also gives the opening in the conversation. By what power, or in whose name have you done this? They may well ask.
And they do.
Let me give you two examples, one from church history and one from recent times in Swansea.
1. Church history
Church historian Alan Kreider: asked the question why the church grew fastest in first 4 centuries?
He noted three things about the early church that were significant:
- Deep expression of inclusive community. People were amazed by the love Christians had for one another, which broke all normal social barriers ‘See how these Christians love one another’
- Degree of service offered to wider community – they were noted as caring for widows and orphans, assisting with funerals, being present in times of need.
- Distinctive lifestyle – The early Christians refused to take up arms, they eschewed certain festivals and practices, they sought to live simply and share their belonging.
These factors fascinated unbelievers. And Kreider asserts that the church grew so remarkably by fascination.
The church, it seems was not only in open conversation with others, it was a topic of conversation itself.
See how these Christians love one another
The question is: how do we create that conversation today?
- How can we not only establish free and easy conversation with our neighbours,
- but also be a conversation piece, engendering a fascination that draws many to enquire, and hopefully find faith?
2. Swansea, where I was minister for 12 years before moving to this role, had a very active nightlife. Once the mumbles Mile lost its attraction and many of the pubs there closed, it moved into the city centre and ‘Wind street’. The churches, having been brought up on an almost exclusive diet of band of hope tea-totalism, thought this the very den of iniquity. Until something ( I think it was the spirit) changed our mind!
Churches joining together in love for their city set up Street pastors, and I had the privilege of being on the management committee. Our church building was also used as the training centre for new street pastors, and I was amazed how many were willing, not only to give up their time walking the city streets till the small hours of the morning, but also paying for their training and uniform themselves!
Every year I heard the new trainees report back a version of the same conversation. Some one would get in to conversation with the street pastors and ask how much they were paid for what they did. On getting the reply that they were not paid, but in fact had to pay for the privilege, the questioner would usually respond with something like: ‘are you mad?’ and what an opening that was – the revellers had seen for themselves the sacrificial love and generous kindness of street pastors that meant they were happy to listen to a message about Christ that then rang true.
3. Of course, we don’t have to stay out till 4 in the morning raise questions. Christian life lived genuinely in many ways can prompt the question and start the conversation.
I’m sure that there are those in Broadway who have benefitted from this church’s generous mission in the community who have wanted to ask: By what power or in whose name did you do this?
I wonder how that conversation is going?
I wonder what they are saying?
And I also wonder how you are replying?
There’s a letter in the bible, said to be written by the Apostle Peter, in which he assumes this dynamic of Christian life prompting questions. and gives us the instruction:
Always be ready to give an answer when asked for the hope that is within you – doing this with all gentleness and respect.
See that? Peter assumes that there will be something in our life and something in our life together that will prompt questions! It is on the back of that that he urges us to be ready to give an explanation –
Just as he did himself when asked for an account by the authorities. Without hesitation Peter put the name of Jesus to what had happened. He directed his hearers to recognise Christ living and working among them – particularly in the healing of this man.
So, our thought moves on from ‘what are you doing to prompt the question?’, to ‘how ready are you to give an answer when the question is asked of you?’
This, I believe, is where we all start to feel a little uncomfortable! The conversation, as I have said, has a genuine flow, but somehow we struggle to keep it going, and somehow we are afraid to bring the name of Christ into it.
You know how it is. Chat with neighbours over garden fence.
“lovely weekend, What did you do on Sunday”
”Oh yes it was a lovely day. Now that we can, we had the family round for a barbecue and then set up a screen and watched a Disney movie together in the evening. All loved it.” And what haven’t we mentioned? Went to church on Sunday morning. Somehow that gets filtered out.
Even I, appointed as an evangelist, have to make a conscious effort sometimes to include Christ in the conversation!
What I’m asking is that we turn that auto filter off. Don’t let Jesus be muted out of our conversation. Start including him in your chatting. You don’t have to say a lot, but please say something.
Like peter, but in your own way, Be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you…
But how important it is that we do – even more so today than ever. Because now things have changed, and people don’t automatically leap in word associations from the word Good to the word God!
In his day, Jesus could happily urge his followers not to hide their lamps under a bowl but to let your light shine before people that they may see the good works that you do and glorify the father in heaven’ I have always loved that verse, and of course it is true. But Jesus spoke in a world that would automatically connect the good with God.
I’m not sure that many people have the spiritual conceptual tools to do that so much anymore.
Let me illustrate:
There is an approach to evangelism, often called ‘lifestyle evangelism’ that reacts against the pushy preacher on the streets and instead states it is our deeds, not our words that speaks. A favourite quote of this approach is that wrongly attested to St Francis, who certainly didn’t and probably wouldn’t have said: Preach the gospel, use words if necessary!
Of course, what I have said already shows we understand where that is coming from, but I have to argue against this if its used as an excuse and to say words are not necessary. They are
The story is told of a man, Ill call Stephen, who wanted to share his faith with others, but had been persuaded by the argument to keep quiet and let his actions speak for him.
Stephen was approached by a colleague at work who said he could see something different about him, but couldn’t figure out why that was. It took everything in Stephen to keep his mouth zipped – ‘no let my life do the talking’, he quoted the rule book to hiself.
A few weeks later Stephen was approached by the same man with the same question again – I can see something different about you, but I don’t know why – and again Stephen managed to get the better of himself and keep quiet.
A third time the colleague approached him excitedly and said ‘I can still see something different about you and I think I’ve worked it out.!’
At this point, Stephen was delighted! It worked! After all those years of struggling to share his faith, at last he’d found a method… and he hadn’t had to say a word at all!
He was bubbling inside until the man continued with his conclusions:
“You’ve become a vegetarian haven’t you?’!!!
And why not? Why do we assume that people will think about Christ working in and through us unless we tell them so if they ask? Where do we think they will get that interpretive framework that points to Jesus unless we are ready to give the answer for the hope that is within us?
If people are asking, we have an opening
If our actions have prompted the question, we have authentic ground to speak from.
But are we ready to give an answer?
Are you ready?
Now, please notice, I am talking about readiness here, rather than skill.
Many of us think that what we need is to learn a skill –
to know how to give an answer, or to have an answer ready when asked.
Now if it’s skill training you want, then I can happily give it – but that I think is better suited to a workshop than a sermon. Invite me and I’ll come and lead one. But don’t expect me to concentrate on giving you and ABC or 123 patter so you have a pre-prepared answer to give. Knowing ‘the four spiritual laws’ or the ‘steps to life’ or any other package can be helpful – but many of us have suffered enough pre-packaged gospel presentations shoved down our throats to know that can be counter-productive!
I remember one new year’s Day – the morning after the night before – and I would much rather have been in bed, but the dog, of course needed the exercise ( and so, probably, did I!)
What I wasn’t prepared for that morning was overzealous religious types taking to the park determined to force their message down the throat of any unsuspecting person who happened by. I was, in fact, so much in a trance that I walked straight past the first pair of budding evangelists without noticing or hearing them greeting me. Unfortunately, I didn’t get away with it, because there was another pair following shortly behind.
And straight away they started with their patter, asking questions I didn’t want to be thinking about right then, attempting to force their literature on me. I decided to throw in the big bomb and tell them who I was and what I did for a living – but they were obviously trained well enough for that to trigger another preprepared patter and the offer of more literature I didn’t want! I was polite, but looking for a way out when suddenly the whole tenor of the conversation changed when one of them noticed my dog was limping. Now they appeared genuinely concerned and full of pity, and I was happy to explain that she wasn’t in pain, but paralysed following a back injury. We parted on an almost human note! But I found myself thinking to myself that they were more interested in my dog than me!
And how, I wondered, would that conversation have gone if they had started it where they ended it? Building bridges, asking questions, showing genuine care and compassion?
If I added that the reason it felt like the morning after to me that day was not the one that you’d think. Yes, I had been up late on New Years eve, but I hadn’t had much time for partying. In stead I was on the phone or wattsapp messaging my brother and father, trying to keep their spirits up while they sat at the hospital be of my mother, whod been rushed in early evening and by morning we still didn’t know what was wrong with her. If I’d met someone in the park that morning who’d asked how I was and was ready to listen, maybe Id have been open to talking, and maybe Id be able to hear any words about Gods love they wanted to share with me. But they didn’t ask. So they never knew. And I never listened.
So, I’m not particularly in to pre-packed messages and approaches.
And neither, incidentally was Jesus! OK, yes, he did go preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand – but that doesn’t mean he had a prepacked spiel to get through everytime. Far form it. His preaching or conversation was never formulaic. Reading the Gospels shows that almost invariably the starting point for Jesus was a question he was asked. His stories were sparked off by the situation his listeners were in and the conversation progressed every time in dialogue with them.
Jesus took time to listed before he spoke. He continued taking time to listen as the conversation progressed. And what he said was always tailored specifically for the person he was encountering.
So yes, of course, we need to be prepared to give an answer for the hope within us, but I’m not sure we need to be prepared with a set answer. It’s not about having all the right answers, it’s about having the readiness to respond when asked. It is about being willing to speak naturally about Christ and how he has been a help to us, how he is a hope for us, in conversations that arise.
Now, thanks to zoom, one of the phrases most used in 2021 is probably the phrase ‘your on mute!’ Either automatically or by forgetting to unmute, people we are in conversation with can’t hear us.
This reminds me in closing that the authorities – the council or Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, were very much trying to mute Peter and John.
After deliberating on what Peter and john had told them about Jesus, they called them back before the council and told them that on no condition were they to speak or teach in the name of Jesus
But Peter and John answered them, “you yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight. – to obey you or to obey God. For we cannot stop speaking or what we ourselves have seen and heard” acts 4:17-22
Note that wording – we cannot help speak about what we ourselves have seen and heard
This was personal.
Peter and John at this point did not attempt to give a rational defence of the resurrection, but instead they felt compelled to offer their own experience – what they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears.
And that’s the vital bit.
Evangelism at its heart is quite simply the straightforward and spontaneous sharing of the good news of what God has done for you.
And we do have good news to share, don’t we?