Yesterday, after attending a funeral in the morning and spending the afternoon with 60 12yrs olds who wanted to know ‘what is worship anyway?’, I managed to make it to one of our Alpha Course sessions. I’ve missed the last few due to the birth of our son, Samuel (did I mention him yet?), but was back and giving the after dinner talk last night. Its largely based on the Alpha talks written by Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London, with tweaks, omissions and personal bits added in. As always, my script and what I actually said don’t completely match up, but here it is for your perusal, edification etc…
Before I was a Christian I used to be rather confused by Christians – I didn’t really see the point of faith. And they might try to tell me about it, kind of convert me. And I felt — you know, I thought God and church and Christianity were irrelevant, but I didn’t go to church trying to persuade other people not to go. I couldn’t see why they did it.
Sometimes people say, ‘Surely the best kind of Christian is the kind of person who is a Christian but doesn’t talk about their faith. Surely it’s a kind of private matter?’ And sometimes they refer to some relation of theirs, sort of ‘Uncle Norman’, who is this wonderful Christian but never talks about his faith. And the question I always want to ask is: Well, how did Uncle Norman hear about it? Someone must have told him. And if the early Christians had not told people about their faith, none of us would know.
So why should we tell people? First of all, because Jesus told us to. Jesus died for us, he rose again from the dead, and then he said, ‘Now go and tell people about this amazing news that you can be forgiven, you can be set free. You can have eternal life.’ And really he had no other plans except to use us to tell other people.
The word ‘Go’ appears 1,514 times in the Bible — I didn’t count that, but somebody did! In the New Testament it’s 233 times, in Matthew’s Gospel 54 times. Jesus says, `Go and tell … Go and invite … Go and make disciples.’
The second reason is because of our love for others. As we look around, we see people who are struggling to find meaning, purpose in their lives, struggling with guilt, struggling with fear of death, and so on. It’s rather like, I guess, if you’re in a desert and you came across water, it would be selfish to say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful to find water!’ but not want to tell other people about it.
And I think a recognition of the fact that there’s a kind of spiritual hunger out there sometimes comes from surprising sources.
Sinéad O’Connor (irish singer, no hair) said this: ‘As a race we feel empty because our spirituality has been wiped out and we don’t know how to express ourselves. And as a result we’re encouraged to fill that gap with alcohol, drugs, sex or money. People out there,’ she adds, ‘are screaming for the truth.’
Third reason to tell people is because good news travels fast. We can’t keep it to ourselves; we don’t want to. And the word `gospel’ actually means good news.
You may or may not be aware that 3wks ago my wife Carolyn gave birth to our son Samuel. He’s our 3rd child and we’ve just about got it sorted when it comes to telling folks about it: phone calls to parents with strict instructions about who they can’t tell, followed by email and facebook announcements. But the thing is, you just can’t stop people sharing good news- when we were still in the hospital we had a visitor who worked in the labour unit, as soon as my mum got the news she started phoning her friends and put together a birth announcement card to send to relatives that don’t do the email thing…we didn’t have to ask her to do that, in fact it would have been near impossible to stop her. And it didn’t stop there- you get people who live down your street, or who’s kids are at school with yours, and they’re all asking how things are and congratulating you… and sometimes you don’t even know their name…
People want to share good news.
So how do we go about it? In my experience, certainly in my own life, there’ve been two sort of equal and opposite dangers. I think I’ve swung in my life between insensitivity and fear. When I first became a Christian, it was definitely insensitivity that predominated — I just wanted to tell everybody!
When I was at uni I had a few friends who were Christians, but a lot who weren’t, and I wanted them to come along to church, to understand the Christian faith- to become Christians. And at various times I invited them, I tried to explain, I shared my faith… one of the worst was probably when I and a friend had sat up most of the night playing backgammon (as you do when you’re a student… it seemed the right thing to do), and it was near the end of the academic year… and for some reason I felt a real urgency: I’ve got to tell them, and not mess around, pull no punches… and the whole problem was that I think I felt it was a fight that I had to win, and so my whole attitude was combative… I don’t think I listened an awful lot.
On the flip side, I would be so worried about being laughed at, or not having the right answer to someone’s questions, that I wouldn’t even be willing to have the conversation in case I… lost the argument?
And this swinging from insensitivity to fear can leave us in a place where we are paralysed- doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t.
The thing is, Jesus didn’t tell his followers to share the Gospel only when it would be well received. Or to avoid difficult conversations. He didn’t guarantee the kind of reception that the good news would receive. When we’ve something exciting to share, we don’t worry about those things. We are sensitive to the people and timing, but the importance of the news is paramount.
And much of my life it’s been like that. You know, I’ve swung from insensitivity to fear. And then I’ve heard a talk: `Go and make disciples!’ and I’ve gone back to insensitivity. And then I get hurt and I go back to fear. And all the way along I’ve been thinking: `What’s the right way to do this?’
And I think in essence it boils down to one word, and that is love. That’s why we tell people, and that’s how we tell people.
I find it helpful to think of this subject under really five headings, all beginning with the letter ‘P’, to make it slightly easier to remember. And the first one is Presence. Look at this verse: Matthew, chapter 5, verses 13–16?
Jesus said this (verse 13):
‘You are the salt of the earth.’
‘You are the light of the world.’
Verse 16: ‘… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’
Jesus says to this group of people, he says, `Look,’ — just as he would say to us tonight — he says, ‘Look, you can make a difference to the whole world.’ ‘You are the salt of the earth’; `you’re the light of the whole world.’ What he’s saying is we can have a wide-ranging influence.
And we do that not by withdrawal. He says it’s no good if you cover a light. We do it by involvement. You have to be out there. You have to be out there in your jobs. You’re on the front line. Those of us involved in kind of full-time Christian work are, hopefully, supporting you. But you’re the ministers! You’re the people who are bringing the light of Jesus Christ to the world around, to your families, to your neighbourhood.
So we need to be in the world, but we need to be different. Jesus says, ‘You’re salt.’ Now, salt in the ancient world was used instead of refrigeration to stop things going bad. And he says, `You’re the people who need to stop the society around you going bad. And you’re light — you’re the ones who allow the light of Christ to shine through you.’ We do it’, he says, ‘by your good deeds’ — everything that we do and say as Christians. And it’s summarised in, I suppose, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ It’s living out the Christian life, particularly with those in close proximity to us — our family, our work colleagues, people maybe we share a flat with. It’s really enough that they know that we’re Christians. We can’t constantly be sort of forcing it down their throats. But if they know that we are Christians, they watch our lives. And we’re called to be different — and to show it through our love — our love for our enemies, little acts of kindness, honesty, integrity.
This is hard. You know, it’s really hard to live the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live. But this is what we’re called to: we’re called to a different love. That’s what we’re striving for.
With our family. When I first became a Christian, I thought I need to convert my parents. And I realised that was so counterproductive. Because you know, if you say to your parents, as I’d said, `I’ve become a Christian,’ what that is, is an implied criticism of their upbringing, the way that they brought you up. And I wish somebody had told me earlier that it would have been better to say something along the lines of: `You know, I’m beginning to find there’s a bit more to the Christian faith than I first thought,’ and then to live it out.
The same with a husband and wife relationship. In fact, St Peter gives very clear guidance — don’t look it up, but in 1 Peter 3, verse 1 he says:
‘If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’
And so often I’ve noticed on Alpha people say, when we say, ‘How do you come to be here?’ they say, ‘Well, I noticed a change in my wife … I noticed a change in my husband … I noticed a change in my son … in my daughter … in my parent … in my friend … at work.’ They see the difference.
It involves, of course, more than just our family and our immediate friends; it involves the needs of the people around us. Relieving human need — hunger, homelessness, poverty. I’m just so impressed by, well, many of you and all the young people in our church when I see the kind of things that they get involved in.
And then social justice — the removal of injustice, inhumanity, gross inequality in our society.
William Wilberforce. He was aged 27, which is actually the median age, it’s kind of the average age of people who come on Alpha here at this church:
He was aged 27 when he sensed God’s call to fight against the inhuman, degrading slave trade. Ten million slaves left Africa for the plantations in the year 1787, and in that year he put down a motion in the House of Commons about the slave trade. It was not a popular cause, but he said this:
‘So enormous, so dreadful did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from that time determined I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.’
Bills were debated in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1794, 1796, 1798, 1799 — they all failed. In 1831 he sent a message to the Anti-Slavery Society in which he said: ‘Our motto must be perseverance, and ultimately I trust the Almighty will crown our efforts with success.’
He did. In July 1833 the Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed in both Houses of Parliament. Three days later Wilberforce died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in national recognition of his 45 years of persevering struggle on behalf of African slaves.
But what about today? There are massive needs, injustices, out there. What about the fact that 800 million people live on less than a dollar a day and go to bed hungry every night — if we were to fast on bread and water for the rest of our lives, we would still be vastly better off than them. Every three seconds poverty takes a child’s life. Today and every day until we act, 30,000 children die because of avoidable diseases, ie because they live in poverty. 8,000 die of AIDS every day in developing countries. There will be 15 million preventable deaths this year.
And that’s what I love about what Bono is doing, inspired by his Christian faith. And he was invited to speak at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, He said this.
He said, ‘My name is Bono. I’m a rock-star — Brighton rock star. Excuse me if I appear a little nervous — I’m not used to appearing before crowds of less than 80,000 people. I heard the word “party” — obviously got the wrong idea!’ And he went on to speak of his time working in an Ethiopian orphanage. He said: `We lived for a month working at the orphanage. The locals knew me as “Dr Good Morning”. The children called me “The girl with a beard”. Don’t ask!
‘It just blew my mind; it opened my mind. On our last day at the orphanage a man handed me his baby and said, “Take him with you.” He knew in Ireland his son would live; in Ethiopia his son would die. I turned him down. In that moment I started this journey. In that moment I became the worst thing of all: a rock-star with a cause. Except this isn’t a cause — 6,500 Africans dying a day of treatable, preventable disease, dying for want of medicines you and I can get at our local chemist: that’s not a cause; that’s an emergency.’
And I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed, really, by the scale of the problems and to think, you know, ‘Can we really make a difference?’
There’s the story of a man walking along a beach… And he saw that what had happened is the tide had gone out and there were tens of thousands of starfish left stranded on the beach, dying for lack of oxygen, in the heat of the sun. And there was a young boy who was picking up the starfish one at a time, going down to the sea and just throwing them in, and going back to get another one, pick it up and going back and throwing it into the sea.
And this man went up to him and he said, ‘Look, can’t you see — there are tens of thousands of starfish out here! I don’t really think that what you’re doing is going to make any difference.’ And the young boy picked up another one, and he went down to the water’s edge and he threw it in the sea, and he said, ‘I bet it made a difference for that one!’
That’s what we can do. Nelson Mandela said this: `It’s not the kings and generals who make history, but the masses of the people.’
That’s the first ‘P’ — Presence.
Secondly, Persuasion. Would you like to turn to Acts, chapter 17, verses 2–4?
‘As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said.’
‘Some of the Jews were persuaded …’
There’s a big difference, I think, between pressure and persuasion. Pressure is not a good idea. I don’t know how you respond to pressure, but most of us run a mile if anyone tries to pressurise us to do anything. And the effect of pressure is the opposite effect of persuasion: pressure is very unpersuasive. But Paul says he tries to persuade people. And he does it by reasoning, by explaining.
Because the Christian faith is not a blind leap of faith; it’s a reasonable step of faith. There are good reasons to believe. And that’s why I would encourage you to look into those reasons quite carefully, so that if somebody says to you, ‘Well, what is the evidence for the resurrection?’ you’re able to say, `Well, actually there’s quite a lot,’ and that you’ve thought about it. If somebody says to you, `Well, how can you believe when there’s so much suffering in the world?’ — of course we don’t have neat answers to these, but there’s something that we can say.
Again, don’t bother to turn to it because we haven’t got time, but in 1 Peter 3:15 Peter writes this:
‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.’
Those are two key things. I have never met anybody who became a Christian as a result of an argument. I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘I met this Christian and we had this violent disagreement, and at the end of it I said, “Oh, I see! I’m so sorry, I was completely wrong and you’re completely right! I’d better become like you!”’ It doesn’t work like that. He says, don’t do it like that; do it with gentleness and respect.
And I think respect means we listen to people. We say, ‘Well, you know, what do you think? What do you believe?’ That’s why we try to do that — I know sometimes people find it a bit frustrating in the early weeks of Alpha that the leaders and helpers don’t say more. But we’re trying to respect the fact that the guests who come on Alpha, those of you who are guests here, we want to hear what you say. We are genuinely interested. It’s so fascinating to hear it. And we want to respect what people believe, and listen to it.
And I think respect also means being honest. That’s why it’s okay to say, `I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’ll go away and find out.’
I think we need a little bit of a multi-layered approach, because certainly in my case I had intellectual objections and I believed they were genuine intellectual objections, to the Christian faith. But at the same time, I think, there were other things going on at the same time.
I think, for example, I was beginning to realise the implications that becoming a Christian might have for my lifestyle. And possibly, although the reasons that I was giving to people were the intellectual reasons, deep down for me it was a moral question as well. How will this affect the whole of my life? Am I ready for that?
When they first realised that the Titanic was sinking, they rushed around trying to persuade people to get into the lifeboats, but a lot of people didn’t believe them and wouldn’t get in. Some of those early lifeboats went away half-empty. But they were trying to persuade them out of love.
And I think that trying to persuade people, again, is an act of love.
The third P is Proclamation. It’s communicating the message — at the heart of Christianity it’s all about Jesus. And I suppose that’s what we’re trying to do on Alpha, is to focus on the person of Jesus and try to communicate that message. And there are many ways that we can do this, but one of the simplest ways is simply to say to people, ‘Come and see!’ Would you like to turn to John, chapter 1, verse 35?
‘The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”’
‘When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning round, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”’
‘They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”’
‘“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.’
‘Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who’d followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You’re Simon son of John. You’ll be called Cephas”’ (which is translated Peter).
‘The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see.”’
It’s so natural, isn’t it, to say, `Come and see!’ That’s what Celebrations, guest services, Christmas services etc are an opportunity to do: to say to friends who’ve maybe been interested in what you’ve been doing, `Come and see!’
There’s no greater privilege than bringing a friend or a member of the family to know Christ.
The great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who wrote a commentary on John’s Gospel, he wrote that the words ‘he brought Simon to Jesus’ were ‘the greatest service that one person can render another.’
And it’s something that we can all do. Andrew — we don’t really read very much about Andrew except that all the time he was bringing people to Jesus.
Peter became one of the greatest influences in human history. Countless millions of people — lives have been affected by the apostle Peter.
And we can’t all do what Peter did, but we can all do what Andrew did — he brought his brother to Jesus.
I heard about a man called Albert McMakin. He was 24 years of age, he was a farmer, he’d just become a Christian and he was really excited. So he heard that there was this event going on where someone was speaking about Jesus, and he decided he would invite all his friends.
And he’d got this old van, and there was one guy he really wanted to come. He was a farmer’s son, and he really wasn’t interested. This guy had lots of girlfriends, he was a very good-looking guy. And he thought, ‘How am I going to get him?’ So eventually he said to him, ‘Look, would you drive the van?’ And the guy said, `Okay, well, I’ll drive the van. I’m not particularly keen to come in, but I’ll drive the van.’
And he came along and drove the van, and just was interested in what was going on, so he popped in at the back, and he was spellbound. And he went back night after night after night. And on the last night the speaker said, ‘Look, if you want to give your life to Jesus, come to the front.’ And this farmer’s son got up and went to the front.
Since that day, that person has spoken to 210 million people in person about the Christian faith. He’s been the friend and confidant of nine American Presidents. And he’s spoken — not live, but through television and so on — to half the world’s population. His name, of course, is Billy Graham. We can’t all be Billy Grahams, but we can all be Albert McMakins! We can all be the one who says, `Come and see’ and brings our friends to Christ.
The second thing that we can do is tell our own story. That’s what Paul — if you read the book of Acts, Paul’s constantly telling people his own story. He’d say, ‘Look, this is what I was like. I was persecuting the church. This is what happened, and this is the difference Jesus has made.’ And when friends ask, you can tell your story. And really there’s no answer to your story. They can argue about the evidence for the resurrection or the contradictions in the Bible or suffering or etc etc, but they can’t argue with your story.
When Jesus healed the blind man, there were a lot of people who came and questioned him. The Pharisees came and questioned him about it, and they were cross-examining him and trying to trap him, and he said, `Look, I don’t know the answers to all your questions. But I’ll tell you this: once I was blind and now I can see.’ There’s no answer to that.
And then we may have an opportunity to actually explain, ourselves, and to bring someone ourselves to Christ. Its something that never fails to excite me and fill me with utter joy. Just sitting, talking with someone, and hearing them say that they’d like to become a Christian. Praying a simple prayer- of repentance, thanking Jesus for dying for us, and asking Jesus to come into their life through the Spirit. I love sharing things with people- teaching folk to climb, or surf, or read… but none of them come even close to the joy and the privilege that it is to see the difference that Jesus makes in the life of those we know.
The fourth P is Power. In 1 Thessalonians, chapter 1, verse 5 St Paul writes this:
‘ … our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.’
This is not just an intellectual exercise — you don’t sort of persuade people just intellectually. Of course, there are reasons and it’s important to give reasons; but what Paul is saying here is not just about words — it’s about the activity of the Holy Spirit.
For me, I look back to certainly particularly the first experience of the Holy Spirit.
That the love of God — that’s what Paul says in Romans 5, verse 5 — ‘the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ Again, love is at the heart of it. But when we experience God’s love deep down, that’s what the Holy Spirit comes to do.
And the Holy Spirit also comes with activity: with conviction of sin, with deep conviction, but also with activity — with healing, for example. That’s what we’re going to look at next week.
The fifth P is Prayer. Prayer for others. Paul loved people, and out of that love came a desire to pray for them. In Romans 10, verse 1 he says: ‘My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved.’ And so often when someone comes to faith, their faith comes alive, we find that somebody’s been praying.
A good friend of mine, Steve, used to go along to church with his parents as a child, but as he grew older he found that attending church clashed with football training and matches. And Steve was a good footballer. When he was a teenager he decided to commit to football and stopped going to church. One Sunday when he was playing in a match, a fair while after he’d stopped coming to church, he blacked out when heading the ball, crumpled to the floor and was in a coma for several days. When he recovered, he discovered that his parents church, the one he’d walked away from, had been praying for him throughout his coma. The people he’d rejected had been praying for him- not just that he’d recover, but that he’d also come to know God’s love… and he became a Christian soon after that.
I don’t know how it works, but there seems to be something that prayer is very effective.
And maybe that’s one of the things that in the small groups you could begin, maybe even tonight, to start to pray together. It’s so powerful.
We pray for others, but we also pray for ourselves. Because when you start this, some people, hopefully, will be interested and when you say, ‘Come and see!’ they say, ‘Oh, I’d love to.’ But not everybody responds positively. Sometimes — and you may already have experienced this — you’ve told a friend what you’re doing, and they make some … Maybe they mock it a bit or ridicule it or they’re not quite as enthusiastic as you hoped they would be. But this is quite normal.
Would you like to turn Acts, chapter 4, verses 29–31?
This was an occasion where the apostles had been involved in healing somebody and it had provoked a very negative reaction! They’d been threatened, and — verse 29 — this is their response:
‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’
‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’
My encouragement to you would be: if you get a negative reaction from time to time, which will probably take place, don’t give up. Don’t stop. Keep going. Because it will have such an impact if you do.
I heard about a man, it was during the war: he was dying in the trenches. And his friend, who was by him in the trenches, turned to him and he said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ And this guy said, ‘No, I’m dying. There’s nothing you can do.’ ‘Well,’ he said, `is there anything I could do when I get home, any message I could take?’ And this man said, `Yes. I’d like you to take a message to this man at this address and tell him that what he taught me as a child is helping me to die now.’
So this man went back and he went round to this man at that address, and he told him the story. And the guy said, `God forgive me.’ He said, `I taught that man in Sunday school, children’s church, but I gave up teaching there years ago because I thought that what I was doing was having no effect.’
But Paul says the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is the power of God, is the power of God to change lives.
‘If bringing a friend to meet Jesus, maybe bringing them along to Alpha or church is the only thing I ever did in my life, my life would have been worthwhile.’