Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sermon for Epiphany 2: John 1:35-42

Contagious Christianity

I had an interesting experience a few years ago on a trip from Calgary to London. It was quite a long flight - eight and a half hours - and for the first six hours or so my neighbour and I didn’t talk very much. But about two hours before the end of the flight I got out my Bible and did my morning Bible readings. My neighbour noticed this and he asked me if I was a Christian. When I said that I was, he began to talk about himself. He had been brought up in a home with little if any contact with the church, and had lived that way himself for most of his life. But in the last couple of years things had changed and he had now become a regular Sunday churchgoer. A number of things had led to this change. He talked about his growing awareness that financial prosperity wasn’t enough for him; he was hungry for something deeper. He also mentioned the fact that his daughter had narrowly missed being killed in a car accident a couple of years ago. As we spoke it was obvious to me that his understanding of Christianity was still in its early stages, but nonetheless his churchgoing was really helping him find the answers he was looking for. He said “When our minister speaks, what he says makes sense to me”.

I tell this story because there’s a mythology around in churches that outsiders are universally resistant to the Gospel. Sometimes that’s true, but my experience has been that the Holy Spirit is quietly working in the lives of many people, creating a hunger for genuine spiritual experience and a desire to know more. All you and I have to do is to show up when we’re needed: to listen to the Spirit’s leading so that when it’s necessary for a human being to speak a word, we’re there to speak it.

For a case in point in the New Testament, let’s take Simon Peter. In the early years of the Christian church Simon Peter was a giant figure. With James, John and Paul, he was one of the four greatest leaders of the early church. He preached the first great evangelistic sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the sermon that resulted in the conversion of three thousand people. In the early chapters of Acts he is the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church.

But none of this would have happened if it had not been for the events in our gospel reading for today. At a certain point in his life, Simon Peter was receptive to hearing the message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. And at that point, a quiet, unassuming person, who never grabbed the limelight or created headlines, put in a simple word of witness. That person was Simon’s brother Andrew. Think of the consequences for early Christianity if Andrew hadn’t spoken when he did! Undoubtedly the greatest service Andrew ever did for Jesus was this simple word of witness to his brother on the very first day of his own Christian journey!

But Andrew didn’t stop there. He is mentioned three times in John’s Gospel, and every time he appears, he’s bringing someone to Jesus. The first time is today’s story where he brings his brother Simon Peter. The second time is the feeding of the five thousand, and it’s John who tells us that the one who brought the boy with the five loaves of bread and two fishes to Jesus was Andrew. The third story is in the twelfth chapter of John, where some Greeks in Jerusalem want to meet with Jesus. Once again, Andrew is the one who brings them to meet the Master.

I don’t get the sense from the Gospels that Andrew was a great preacher or an outstanding leader in the early church. However, he excelled in this ministry of introductions. You and I will probably not be Peters - we probably won’t preach sermons at which three thousand people will be converted. However, we can all be Andrews - ordinary Christians who are faithful in speaking a word of witness where a word is called for. And there are two things we can learn from Andrew.

First, Andrew had a real faith to share, something that was making a difference in his life, something that he wanted to pass on to other people.

Some years ago I was talking with some members of a little country church about our call to be witnesses to our friends and families. One older lady in the group said “But none of my family want to hear about religion, and they all say they’re too busy to come to church”. When I heard how she had been approaching her family and friends, I could well understand her resistance to the idea of giving it another try! What she had been sharing with them was not good news – it was all about duty, and going to church, and getting involved with institutional religion. Understandably, she was having a difficult time making this sound attractive!

Andrew’s approach was very different. Look at what he says to his brother in verse 41: “We have found the Messiah!” ‘The Messiah’ - the long expected king who would set Israel free and inaugurate the reign of God on earth! This was a story that was immediately relevant; it meant God was at work to change the world, and Jesus was the key to his work. Andrew’s language is the language of personal discovery; you can hear the sense of excitement in his voice.

How did Andrew discover this? Well, we read in today’s gospel how John the Baptist encouraged him to become a follower of Jesus, and how he and another friend went and stayed for an afternoon and an evening with Jesus. No doubt during that time they asked questions and listened to Jesus’ answers; no doubt his personality had a big impact on them, which was why the first thing Andrew did was to go and tell his brother about it. His experience of Jesus motivated him to want to introduce other people to him.

A few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas, our family went to see The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring. I well remember that when we came out of the movie Nicholas said, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen!” I was excited about it too, and I was certainly enthusiastic about telling my friends and family about it. I wasn’t talking about duty – “You are required to go to see this movie!” Rather, I was talking about something that had added enjoyment and value to my own life, something I was glad to recommend to other people.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: what value and meaning is our Christian faith adding to our daily lives? What difference does it make to us to be followers of Jesus? Is there a strength and joy we’re getting out of our Christian life? Is there something about our relationship with God that makes us say, “I wouldn’t want to be without this”? My friend Harold Percy likes to put it this way: “What good news about Jesus have you experienced, that you can share with others?” In other words we’re not just passing on hearsay: we’re passing on something that has impacted our own lives in an experiential way.

I will tell you two pieces of good news that I have experienced, two things that I’m happy to share with other people. The first is that prayer really does make a difference in my life. I don’t mean to suggest that I always get everything I ask for in my prayers. What I mean is that the discipline of taking time each day to be quiet with God, to read the scriptures and listen for what God is saying to me in them, and to respond by thanking and confessing and praising and bringing my needs and the needs of others to God – this daily experience is like a spiritual sheet anchor for me. The storms can be raging around – in other words, I can be going through all sorts of stress and trouble – but as long as my prayer anchor is in place, I know that in the end I’m going to be okay. It’s like a daily lifeline to God.

The other piece of good news that I have experienced is that Jesus is actually a very smart person. I’ve discovered that one of the things that ‘believing in Jesus’ means is actually ‘believing Jesus’ – believing what he says about the kingdom of God, and believing that the way of life he describes for us is a good way. I’ve discovered that taking the initiative to be reconciled with people, and forgiving those who hurt you, and living more with less, is a good way of living. It really does lead to more peace and more joy. This is something I’ve discovered from my own experience.

So the first thing I learn from Andrew is that I need to have a real faith to share, something that’s adding meaning and value to my own life. And the second thing I notice about Andrew is that he seems to have been a very relational person. He was the sort of person who enjoyed talking with other people and spending time with them. When he found a faith that made a difference to him, he thought of his brother Simon and what it could mean to him too. Later on in the gospel, Andrew was the one who knew that there was a boy in the crowd with five loaves of bread and two fishes who could share them with Jesus. He was the sort of guy who knew these things, because he made time to make contact with people. I get the sense from reading about him that Andrew was an approachable sort of guy, someone who people felt comfortable talking to and bringing their questions to.

If we are going to have opportunities to share our Christian faith with other people, it won’t happen if we never spend time with other people! Neither will it happen if we spend our lives in a little Christian bubble, with all our friends being Christians and not an agnostic among them!

But of course, none of us actually lives in a Christian bubble. We all have friends and family members and work colleagues who as far as we know are not actually followers of Jesus. Hopefully we like those people, we care about them, and we want the best for them. So there are all sorts of opportunities for us to be a witness, by the way we live our lives and by the things we say.

The subject of building positive relationships, relationships which in time can become bridges for the good news into people’s lives, is a huge subject, and in the last four minutes of this sermon there isn’t a lot I can say about it. But here’s perhaps the most important thing I’ve discovered about it over the years, the one rule that I’d like to impress on people most of all: generally speaking, if people think you are interested in their lives, then they will be interested in your life too.

In other words, if I wake up one morning and suddenly decide that my friend Jack is a good potential target for a bit of witnessing, it’s probably not a good idea for me to go up to him out of the blue and say, “Jack, are you saved?” Not that I think many of you would do that – Anglicans are usually pretty shy about that sort of thing! We’d have to get a hundred times more pushy before we got pushy!

No – it’s probably a better idea for me to take time to get to know my friend Jack a bit better – to find out about his work and his family and his interests and all that. Perhaps I discover that he’s really interested in stamp collecting – a rather obscure subject, and not one I’m very interested in, myself! But nonetheless, I can decide to be interested in it, and to ask questions and find out about it, because I like Jack and that’s what friends do, isn’t it? And all the time I’ll be praying for Jack, and asking the Holy Spirit to give me an opportunity to share the good news with him in a caring and positive way. Sooner or later, that opportunity will come.

My friend Harold Percy tells a story about a businessman in his church who had recently decided to become a follower of Jesus. He was sharing his story with a small group in the church. He talked about a colleague at work, someone who he liked and had become quite good friends with. Over the years they spent a lot of time together, both at work and socially, and gradually this businessman found out that his friend was a Christian. Occasionally he asked questions about this, and his friend always replied in a gentle and respectful way. You’ve guessed where this is leading: eventually the businessman decided that he wanted to become a follower of Jesus himself, and his friend helped him take the first steps on that journey.

When he was telling this story, the businessman said, “I found out later that my friend had my name on his daily prayer list. Every day he was praying that the Lord would lead me to faith in Christ, and that he would have opportunities to share the good news with me”. Harold asked him, “Were you offended when you found out about that?” “Not at all”, the businessman replied; “I thank God for my friend every day”.

You and I can be like that businessman’s friend, who sounds to me as if he was quite a bit like Andrew in our gospel! Remember, Andrew wasn’t a forceful leader or a spectacular preacher, and we have no record of outstanding miracles from him like we do for Peter or Paul. He was just a man who loved Christ and loved people and wanted to bring them together. He had a faith worth sharing, and he had friends worth sharing it with. If we have those two things, then God can use us to spread the gospel.

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