A Season for Growing: Witness
A Season for Growing: Witness by Rev. L. John Gable
July 30, 2017
As best as I can recall it was July of 1969. I was between my 7th and 8th grade years in school and I went to the annual Lion’s Club Carnival in our suburb of St. Louis. That evening I had a conversation with a 20-something year old young man who, now remember this was the 60’s, had long curly hair and a scraggly beard who was wearing sandals, jeans and some kind of T-shirt. He was what was commonly called at the time a “Jesus Freak” and that evening as we sat on the grass on the outside edge of the carnival, he told me about Jesus. As I recall, he didn’t tell me anything about Him that I didn’t already know, but what he did do was talk to me in a way that was meaningful and intentional and convincing, like he really did believe what he was telling me and that Jesus had made a difference in his life. He spoke about Jesus as being Someone he knew and loved, and who, he knew, knew and loved him.
I don’t remember now how that evening or even that conversation ended. I don’t know whether he offered to pray with me or for me, as best as I can remember we just finished talking and both got up and went our separate ways. I don’t even know why I remember that conversation so vividly because there were no earthquakes, no lightning bolts, no visions of blinding lights, but looking back I recognize that conversation as a marking point for me in my journey of faith because that was the first time I realized that my parents faith was my faith, that all of the truths my parents and grandparents and pastors and a countless stream of Sunday School teachers had taught me through the years, I really did believe for myself. Like him and like them I realized that I believed in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and shortly after that I felt God’s claim and call on my life to enter the ministry.
Now, what did that “Jesus Freak” do that all of the others before him had not done that made such a difference for me? Absolutely nothing! He was simply sharing his faith me in the only way he knew how, using his own words and life experiences, as had all of the others before him. He was doing what each of them had done faithfully and consistently throughout my life; he was planting a seed of faith, or watering it, or cultivating it or weeding it; all encouraging it to grow. And then, as Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the growth.” (I Cor 3:6)
My own faith story is one of the reasons I so strongly believe in our practice of infant baptism, of surrounding our children with countless named and unnamed people who will support and encourage them “to the end that one day this child will accept Jesus Christ as their own.” That young man didn’t do anything different than what any of the others had done before him. Like them he simply told me about the love of Jesus, in his own way, in his own words. He “witnessed” to me and God used that in my life.
We are familiar with Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28: “Go and make disciples of all nations”. Luke records a similar commission in the opening chapter of Acts where Jesus gives a promise and a command. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
“Be My witnesses” He says, starting right where you are, in Jerusalem: Indianapolis, Zionsville, Carmel, Greenwood, Avon, wherever you live. Be My witnesses in all Judea – across the state or region, wherever you go. Be My Witnesses in Samaria – recall Samaria is the home of the half-breed Samaritans, the outcasts from religious society – Go and be My Witnesses among them as well, even among the people you think don’t really care or will ever come to believe in God’s love for them, and then keep going “to the ends of the earth” until everyone hears this Good News. While you are out there, wherever you go and whatever you do, be My Witnesses.
So, what is it exactly that Jesus is instructing, commanding us to do? Quite simply, we are to tell others what we know to be true for ourselves, and to do so in as personal and meaningful and winsome way as possible.
There are two aspects to being a witness. The first is this: a witness is someone who has seen something first hand, as in “I was standing at the corner when the accident happened. I saw the whole thing. I witnessed it with my own eyes.”
The second aspect of being a witness is the willingness to tell others what you’ve seen or heard, in your own way, in your own words. A witness is called upon to testify in a court of law and to tell what they know to be true for themselves. They aren’t charged with trying to convince the judge or the jury, but simply “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help them God.”
That is exactly what Jesus instructs us to do as well, and appropriately He also promises “the help of God.” With the help and aid and encouragement of the Holy Spirit we are charged to share with others what we know to be true about who Jesus is and what He has done for us and our salvation out of His great love for us. While of course our purpose in telling is to try to convince or persuade others to believe us, or rather to believe Jesus, that is not our primary task or responsibility, ultimately faith is a gift from God, hence the work of the Holy Spirit; that is God’s part, and our part is to simply to tell about Him, to “be His witnesses”. One plants, another waters, and God gives the growth.
This is what Peter was getting at when he writes, “Always be prepared to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; (and then he inserts this helpful corrective) yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” I say this is a corrective because it tempers the approach that so many take to faith sharing. We have all had encounters with individuals who feel fired up and called by God to share their faith with others – and while I love and appreciate their passion and conviction, I do not always appreciate their approach. Too often it feels manipulative or pushy or coercive, even self-serving rather than God-honoring.
So Peter’s advice is helpful. First, as a word of encouragement, particularly to those who could never imagine ever speaking with anyone else about their faith, “be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you to give an accounting for the hope that is in you”. This is not saying you have to have all of your answers ready for any question they happen to ask you. It simply means each of us must be ready to speak a word of faith if and when called upon to do so; to tell, in our own way, in our own words, what it means to believe in Jesus and the difference He has made in the way we live our lives. So, that is the word of encouragement to those who are hesitant, and to those who may come off as being a bit too bold or pushy Peter gives this word of correction “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Gentleness: respect, listening not just talking, much less arguing. Reverence: trusting that God can use you to plant a seed of faith or to water it; respecting that you are God’s representative in that conversation, so praying that He will use your words and your tone and your demeanor to represent Him faithfully.
When we share our faith with another in a way that is gentle and respectful we are trusting that God will do His part, even as we do our own. If we think another person’s coming to faith is all up to us we will likely keep going at them until they finally acquiesce; but if we believe that the Holy Spirit is also at work, then we are likely more willing to do our planting, watering, cultivating and encouraging, trusting that one day God will bring the increase.
I had a seminary professor who gave this sound advice. He said, “One way to measure whether a faith-sharing conversation has been successful or not is when, at the end of the conversation, the other person says, ‘I hope we can talk about this again soon.’” Contrast that to the person who back-peddles and tries to change the subject whenever the topic of faith comes up.
You may be saying to yourself, “Yeah, it is easy for you, but how can I be expected to begin a faith-sharing conversation?” You know, in some ways I think being a pastor has limited some of my opportunities to talk genuinely about my faith because now I come off sounding more like a “hired gun” than I do a “satisfied customer.” But in order to make this teaching very practical, let me give you an example of how I typically start one of these kinds of conversations, and let me add, they happen most often when I am away from this place, when no one knows I am a pastor.
I typically begin what will become a faith-sharing conversation with a perfect stranger by asking a very non-threatening question like “How are you today?” and then I carefully listen.
I was on a flight from Richmond, VA to Indianapolis several months ago when I found my seatmate to be a woman, give or take, my age. As I settled in to my seat I turned to her and smiled and asked, “How are you today?” “OK”, she said. “Just OK?” I said, and that was literally all it took. She started telling me about how she was coming to visit and care for her sister who was facing cancer surgery. And I listened. She told me that it was a reoccurrance and that she wasn’t sure she was going to make it. So, I listened. Our conversation was periodically interrupted by announcements from the cockpit and the flight attendant serving us a full course meal, rather pretzels and a Diet Coke. I read my book, she her magazine, but every time there was an interruption she picked up the conversation again. She wanted to tell me more about her sister and their family, and I listened. Well into the flight she told me she was scared. “You are or she is?” I asked. She said, “Both of us”. I asked for her sister’s name and then told her I would be praying for her, for both of them. She said “That would be great.”
Finally, as the plane landed and we began to taxi in, we did that customary gathering of our belongings and saying farewell. She thanked me for visiting with her and said she felt less anxious about going to be with her sister. I told her again that I would be praying for her, for both of them. As the aisle began to clear she turned to me, extended her hand and said, “My name is Sheila” and I said, “I’m John.” Then as she stood in the aisle, ready to go, she leaned in and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Of course.” She asked, “Are you a pastor?” I smiled and said, “Yes, I am.” “I thought you might be. Thanks again for visiting with me.”
No earthquakes. No lightning bolts. No blinding lights, but hopefully a seed of faith was planted or watered or encouraged.
“Go and be My witnesses, and wherever you go, always be ready to speak a word of faith with gentleness and reverence.”