Picture this scene. Thereâs a person we will call âSamantha,â who is a good, faithful Christian. She has attended church most Sundays for about a decade. She volunteers when needed and even served on the vestry for a term. She always attends special church events and Christian education offerings.
But somehow, Samantha feels that something is missing. She somehow senses, and secretly fears, that despite all this church activity, sheâs not much different than her friends who donât attend church at all, who go to yoga class, soccer games, or just sleep in instead.
Author Reggie McNeal, in his book The Present Future, describes people like Samantha:
âThe faithful, maybe silently or not so silently, wonder when their ticket is going to be punched, when they are going to experience the changed life theyâve been promised and expected to experience at church. In North America, people have been led to believe that their Christian life is all about church, so this failure of the church not only creates doubt about the church, it also leads them to all kinds of doubt about God.â
Now picture another scene. A few first-century travelers set out on a journey. They are on fire with the Holy Spirit. Their traveling conditions are tough, funds are tight, and there is frightening opposition to the group they represent in some of the places they plan to visit. Despite all this, they set out with conviction and faith. Theyâve mapped out where they will go, retracing the steps that one of them took on a previous journey. Then one night, one of them has a vision. Because they believe the vision is calling them to proclaim the Good News in a way different than they had initially thought, they immediately change their plans and set off in a new direction.
What faith. What dedication. What a commitment to sharing the message, story and life of Jesus Christ with others.
This is the scene from todayâs reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Itâs the story of Paulâs second missionary journey. J. Ted Blakeley, in his book A Lectorâs Guide and Commentary to the Revised Common Lectionary, describes the setting of and background for this reading. On his first journey, Paul traveled with Barnabas to Cyprus and Galatia to proclaim the gospel and establish small Christian communities â we might call them ânew church plantsâ today. On his second missionary journey, the one from which todayâs story comes, Paul is traveling with Silas. Their plan was to retrace the steps from Paulâs first journey, checking to see how those who became believers on his first journey were fairing. By the point of todayâs reading, Paul and Silas had been somewhat successful. They had been able to visit some of the places, but unable to visit others. They were now in Troas, a sea port, where Paul had a vision. Acting on that vision eventually led to the baptism of Lydia.
Contrasting the stories of modern-day followers like Samantha to early church followers like Paul, one sees a marked difference. Jesusâ early followers were alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, whereas many today seem to lack that fire, passion, and conviction. Perhaps the difference is because followers of Jesus in the early church were clear about what they were called to do, whereas some followers today lack that clarity. Followers in the early church were clear that they were to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we heard in todayâs reading. How Paul and his cohorts accomplished this purpose can be instructive to us if we seek to reclaim and increase a passionate, fiery faith.
For example, Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ by listening for, and acting on, Godâs word. If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we, like Paul, must also be willing to listen and act on Godâs word.
Do we take the time to talk and listen to God through regular prayer and silent Holy listening? If and when we sense that God is leading us in a certain direction, do we test out that direction, seeking affirmation from church, family, friends and other trusted sources? If it does indeed seem to be Godâs gentle hand acting in our lives and our discernment is affirmed, are we bold enough to act, or do we let fear, complacency, routine, or something else stand in the way?
We must listen for, trust in, and act on Godâs will in our lives if we are to reignite a fire in our faith.
Another way Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ was by going to where the people were. âOn the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.â Note that they did not stay in a synagogue, or put up a new sign outside the synagogue and wait for people to come. Rather, they went out to where the people were.
If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we too must reach outside of our established churches. We cannot just open our doors and wait for people to come in. We cannot simply mow the lawn or make a new sign and wait. Instead, we must look at the needs of the people in the community, the places where there is hurt, where there is need for redemption and forgiveness, where there is spiritual longing, and reach out to address it. It is our personal responsibility as Christians.
In todayâs rapidly changing social context, and in a society that is increasingly spiritual and decreasingly religious, searching out new ways to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ beyond our church buildings is mandatory. In doing this, we will find the fire of faith rekindled.
Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ, not limiting who was to be reached. Note in Paulâs vision it was a man of Macedonia who asked him to come over and help. However, as the story develops, he instead finds âa certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. â¦ The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.â
If we are to once again become on fire with the gospel message, we must not limit God by defining the people we are called to reach. We can seek the unexpected person who might be longing for the transformative message of Christâs love, and risk sharing the gospel message.
With whom might God be calling you to share your faith?
Letâs return to Samantha, the woman we began with, who was feeling as if she wasnât growing and changing despite her church activities, despite her commitment, despite her faith. There are people like Samantha in many congregations, people who arenât experiencing the spiritual transformation for which they hoped. As one anonymous Christian missiologist observed, âThey came to us seeking God, and we gave them church instead.â
Many congregations, despite their best intentions, seem to have lost focus and give those seeking Jesus a slate of church activities rather than avenues for spiritual growth that can be truly transformational. Our faith communities exist to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, and we, as people who are part of these communities, must ensure that our activities are in alignment with this purpose.
Todayâs reading from Acts gives us three instructions for reclaiming our missional purpose. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ:
â¢ by discerning and acting on Godâs will
â¢ by reaching out beyond our church walls as we seek to proclaim the message
â¢ by being ready to share the gospel message with an unexpected person
By refocusing on our true purpose, we can help people like Samantha transform the smoldering embers of her faith into brilliantly burning flames.