Sunday, May 14
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10 & Acts 16:9-15
All three synoptic gospels have the story of the young man who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:16, Mark 10:17, Luke 18:18)?
In the very familiar story from John’s gospel, Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night to hear more about what he’s doing and asks the reasonable question, “How can someone be born when they are old” (John 3:4)?
Even later in the chapter where our text comes from today, a Roman jailer asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)?
Questions like these are all over the New Testament. When a person encounters Jesus or the message about his life, death, and resurrection, they come to a moment of decision. Is this message for me? Am I to give my life to this? If I do, how will I be different? Will I give my life to live in this new way?
As many of you have heard already, I grew up in the Baptist tradition, and so these questions were ones I heard all the time. One of my primary concerns growing up was whether or not I was actually saved from my sins, that heaven was my eternal future, and that I wouldn’t mess it up and head the wrong way. On many Sunday mornings, the pastor made sure the question was asked of the congregation and any visitors, “Are you saved?”
This question certainly has a strong biblical foundation, and it is one that all of us need to ask of ourselves and answer at some point, but now that the Lord has led me into the Presbyterian Church, I find that it’s not a question we like to ask often and it’s not a topic we like to touch that much. Now, before I press into this too much further, I want you to know that I get there are reasons for this. We Presbyterians have a very strong covenant theology, which means that God is the active one when it comes to human-divine relationship and when it comes to salvation. Along with that comes a sense of stability in our relating to God, which is one reason among many I am proud to be a Presbyterian.
However, I also think we are way too sheepish about our faith and about the message of the gospel. Today’s topic in our Practicing Faith series is conversion. The earliest followers of Jesus practiced the direct and immediate reordering of a person’s life once they heard the message of the gospel, which not only changed the convert’s relationship with God but also changed the way they lived from that moment forward.
I would contend that evangelism and conversion are not what we assume they are and that we at First Pres have a clear role to play in sharing God’s love with our community. It’s something all of us individually have to come to grips with, and it’s something we bear with us wherever we are. By the end of this sermon, I hope that you feel encouraged to see yourself as someone who bears the light of Christ in your life and that you feel emboldened to share this great gift God has given you with others.
Before I get into our Bible story today, I want to talk a little about our Presbyterian witness. Preparing this sermon, I actually asked Google this question, “What do Presbyterians believe about conversion?” and, would you believe it, but our own denomination’s website had an article on it! Wonderful! As I expected, it was apologetic in tone about evangelism, but that’s because churches have made so many errors when it comes to how we’ve borne Christ into the world. The title of the article I read was “Reluctant Evangelists” and it was subtitled, “Telling the Good News may not come easy, but it is an essential part of a Christian lifestyle.” I think those titles say it all. We Presbyterians are reluctant to share the good news, but we must learn that it very much part of who we are!
I get why there is apprehension over sharing our faith. We all know stories of people who have been turned off by others who are aggressive in their evangelism. There have been times that Christians have actually harmed people by tying the gospel with particular cultural expectations that have nothing to do with the gospel. Perhaps you’ve been given a Christian tract or had someone try to evangelize you on the street, and you felt how awkward it was to have someone not know your own faith or story or to have someone just assume you were on the highway to hell.
So many of us have tried to address this by going a completely different direction. We’ve neglected sharing the story of God’s love through any words, but we try share it through serving our neighbors in need or by calls for justice. Those are good things, but when we’ve stopped sharing the message too, we only have two legs on our three-legged stool. And a two-legged stool isn’t a particularly useful piece of furniture!
Back to this article – this graphic shows a holistic way for the gospel in our world today and the aim of how we as Presbyterians can be about God’s mission in the world. The church’s holistic mission includes evangelism, compassionate service, and social justice. Not just justice. Not just compassion. And not just evangelism. But all three.
Let’s take a look at Acts to see what conversion actually looks like. There are a lot of details that show us the elements that go into these moments of decision.
The first thing we see is that this story is all about the Holy Spirit working through Paul and his companions. This story occurs in the larger context of what we now call Paul’s second missionary journey. He begins the journey by strengthening the churches he’s already established, but he then begins pushing further west with his gospel work. In the verses leading into our passage, we see that Paul tries to head places where the Holy Spirit does not want Paul to go. So, the first step in this for Paul and for us is being attuned to the Holy Spirit in the steps we take in life. Not every door is an open door! Going where you want is not necessarily where God wants you to go! If it was true for Paul, certainly it’s true for us.
Open Doors and Community
We also see that the Holy Spirit sends Paul to an unexpected place. Paul has a vision where a man from Macedonia begs him to come and help them. Prior to this vision, there is no mention that Paul has a desire to go to Macedonia. Paul’s plans were different, but the Spirit opens an unexpected door. If you claim any kind of European heritage, it is this vision, friends, that brings the good news to your part of the world. The gospel has already made its way to Asia and Africa, but now it’s finally on its way to Europe. I would venture to say that almost all of us here today can trace the lineage of our faith directly to this vision and to what comes next! That’s pretty wild, when you think about it.
So, Paul has a vision, but you’ll notice that there is a communal response to one man’s God-given vision. It says, “We got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). The Spirit directs, but the community discerns and responds. We are all in this together, and while elsewhere in Scripture it is clear that some have a specific gift of evangelism (e.g., Ephesians 4:11), the whole community participates in the ministry of sharing the good news.
So, Paul and friends are unified in vision and empowered by the Spirit. They head from Asia into Europe, putting themselves into Philippi, which is a thriving and important city in the region. And nothing happens. All it says is that they stayed there several days. Usually they showed up in a town, found a synagogue or a market and started preaching. Not in Philippi. I think they arrived and encountered a context that was completely unexpected. They had to regroup.
So, on the Sabbath, they leave the city and go to the river, where Acts tells us they “expected to find a place of prayer” (16:13). Why would they expect to find people by the river praying? Because they had figured out that there was no synagogue in town. In order to have a synagogue, there had to be at least 10 Jewish men to form it, so clearly Philippi didn’t even have that.
I wonder what Paul was thinking by the time he made it to the river. He had some success elsewhere, and he has a vision that’s clear enough for his crew to venture into Europe. Yet they wander through the city for days with no success. I wonder if Paul kept looking for that “man from Macedonia” and not finding him. They finally arrive at a river to find a small group of women gathered. They have no formal organization. They have no building. Their religion doesn’t even have a formal standing in town.
Lydia herself is not even Jewish, but rather, she’s a “God-fearer,” which is a Gentile adherent to Judaism. She is also foreign to the area. Ironically, she’s from Thyatira, which is in the areas where Paul wanted to go in the first place, so sometimes our impulses may be right but they find fulfillment in unexpected ways. So, where has this vision brought Paul? He is by a river, speaking to a small group of women, and God chooses a foreign woman to respond positively to the gospel. This is not an auspicious beginning to the gospel’s spread to Europe! The strategic planners of Paul’s church growth movement were certainly not planning for things to go this direction.
Yet, it’s how God works. Where there is an opportunity, someone has the courage to speak the truth about what God is up to in the world. Several years after this strange entrance of the gospel into Europe, I think this is why Paul can write in his letter to the church in Rome these words, “12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
“14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Romans 10:12-15)! Someone has to speak the gospel, and you, church, are that someone.
And when someone speaks, there must be someone there to listen. There is a timeliness and an openness to what God is up to when Paul speaks to these women by the river. Not every moment is a moment to speak, but, friends, there certainly are ripe times for you to tell someone about God’s love. And where there is someone ready to listen, there is also the Holy Spirit who is at work. Conversion and evangelism ultimately are this beautiful partnership between God and us. We have a role to play, and we must play that role. Yet it is the Spirit who ultimately must move a person, not our fine words or reasoned arguments!
Finally, after that moment of conversion, there is a lifetime of change. All Christians are continuously being converted to the way of Christ in the world. It is a daily practice and refinement in each one of us.
And so I end at the beginning. We all must encounter and answer this question in our lives, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer is simple – believe what Jesus has done for you. Hear the gospel. Open your heart to the Spirit’s movement. And you’ll never be the same again. Then share your story with others so that they, too, might listen, be open, and be changed. It’s a story for all of us. It’s a gift for the world. Why would we ever hold back on sharing God’s amazing love for the world and the difference it has made for us?