This week’s story, drawn from the interdenominational Bible readings set for May 14. addresses a question which every Christian struggles with from time to time. We are commanded to share our faith with others — but how do we do it in our world of diverse beliefs, cultures and philosophies?
That confident, assured faith of our title is like a Holy Spirit dynamic within us. It’s like a force within us that wants to praise God and indeed tell others about His greatness.
This is summed up in a verse we’re going to hear from Psalm 66. “Come and hear all you who fear God. Let me tell you what He has done for me.” And that is the starting point of us sharing faith with others, and how we do that.
Come and hear, all you who fear God; let me tell you what He has done for me.Psalm 66:16-20
I cried out to Him with my mouth; His praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld His love from me!
Next in the story, we move to a time just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion — and before the coming of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a key here to the ‘how’ question we asked earlier.
This is the point in the Gospels, John’s Gospel in particular, where Jesus is preparing them for what to expect. He is giving them something of a farewell speech following the Last Supper — telling them in effect to ‘keep on keeping on’ with all that He has taught them, and showed them, and involved them in. But — the point is — they won’t be doing it on their own.
This is where Jesus talks about the Person of the godhead He calls the Advocate or Helper, the Spirit of Truth.
Jews had an awareness of the Holy Spirit from their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the exceptional anointing of the historic prophets. There was the anointing of kings like David and Solomon, outstanding priests like Zerubbabel and Ezekiel — special people with a special call from God.
But the separated, priestly caste was about to end — effectively at the rending of the temple curtain at the final hour of the crucifixion.
What the disciples didn’t know, and couldn’t yet understand, was that the Holy Spirit was going to be bestowed on each them in a way which would be close and personal.
He would be the presence of God in them and showing them how to carry on the ministry that Jesus had shown them, without Him being present physically.
In some places in the Bible He is called the Spirit of Jesus. And although Scripture is not explicit about this, it may help us to understand Him better — and see Him as the spiritual Person He is — as the continuing presence of Jesus with the disciples after He had finally left them and ascended to heaven.
And of course, we can know Him as the presence of Jesus with us now.
A lot of the teaching in the Gospels can seem burdensome, even impossible, if we come to it as something we have to do by. A lot of church preaching which ignores the all important ‘enabling’ aspect lands heavily, the ‘moral homily’ which adds to the hearers’ burdens — and Jesus criticised the Pharisees for this mistake.
Jesus told His hearers not to be like the Pharisees, but to be better, indeed to be perfect. That’s a pretty high call. He taught that we should forgive people who haven’t forgiven us, indeed who have not made any move of apology or restitution. And we are to love those who behave as our enemies. He told us that the path to life is narrow and difficult to negotiate, not the one which has been chosen by most others. And He urges us to be willing to take up our cross to follow Him, to bear the burden of shame and public humiliation for His sake.
How are we to do any of this? In the passage that we are going to hear now from John 14, Jesus sets that out for us.
[Jesus said] “If you love Me, keep My commands.John 14:15-21
And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of Truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see Me any more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you also will live.
On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you.
Whoever has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I too will love them and show Myself to them.”
Jesus is quite clear that the way we show our devotion to Him is by keeping on living by His values — keeping His commands in the Bible’s language.
But He also refers — and it’s one of His more difficult sayings — to a kind of spiritual impartation, when He says that He is in the Father, and we are in Him, and He is in us.
That’s what we are learning to understand here.
He is not leaving us alone in the world as orphans. But the new life that He will come into, is also the new life that will come into us. This gives new meaning to the historic name, Emmanuel, God with us. As we come into the experience of the Holy Spirit, we come into the experience of Jesus with us.
This was a turning point in God’s mission in the world. Jews found it difficult to grasp that pagan Gentiles of Greek culture could be accepted by God on the same terms as Jews.
This was a work of the Holy Spirit as much as it was a work of courageous people who were obedient to Jesus’ commissioning of them to make disciples of every nation.
And so in our story we come to the exceptionally courageous, and spiritually enabled, Paul, who has worked his way through Greek speaking countries, planting churches despite life-threatening opposition, until eventually he reaches Athens.
Athens is the centre of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy but also a place keenly interested in debating new ideas. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit engaged with the philosophers of the city and told them about Jesus and His resurrection.
To many of them, it was a crazy idea! Others were intrigued by the wisdom shown by this unimpressive Jewish man.
They invited him to address their High Council, an exclusive assembly, and we will hear an extract as Paul turns a speech, into a Holy Spirit-inspired preach, which both showed respect for the Athenians as thinkers but also appealed to their enquiring minds. This is from Acts 17:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.Acts 17:22-31
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.
And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.
God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. ‘For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent.
For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”
So this is Paul crossing cultural barriers to share his faith in Jesus and to do it in a new way that is a good fit with his hearers. He draws out the difference between pagan gods who needed to be served, appeased and humoured — or so their devotees believed.
But by contrast, he said that the God of our experience, living, personally-known and relatable, “is not served by human hands as if He needed anything — rather He Himself gives everyone life.” And he went on to quickly review some of God’s salvation history, weaving in some well-known quotations from poets who would have been familiar to the Athenians.
When Paul preaches in other Greek cities, we have to say that it doesn’t always go well. At times it stirred up riots, at other times he got arrested, and once he was taken out of the city, stoned and left for dead.
The more civilised Athenians, with their interest in new ideas, didn’t move to arrest him — some did laugh at him in contempt, but others said that they wanted to hear more. We’re told later that some believed in Jesus and joined him and at least one was a member of that exclusive Areopagus Council.
In the Western world, we tend to have our own ideas about what preaching is, and whether we appreciate it or not. Preaching can be a word of contempt, a description of unwelcome and unhelpful moralising.
But true preaching is no boring religious homily, but more like what we see Paul doing, where there’s a clear evidence of the Holy Spirit at work both in the message and in the hearts of the hearers in a way which engaged with their questions.
We might not want to compare ourselves with Paul, who clearly was a near-unique individual. But we can certainly learn from him and aspire to be more like him in having that confident, assured faith which demands to be shared.
And we can grow in finding creative and appropriate ways of sharing this message with different people, such that they can begin to hear God for themselves.
Next in this confident faith story we are going to hear from Peter writing a letter to teach and encourage believers in the various churches, probably a decade or two later than the scene we witnessed with Paul addressing the High Council in Athens.
He writes to people who have given their hearts and lives to Jesus and who have the empowering experience of His Spirit in them.
We’ll hear Peter talk about always being prepared to talk about the hope or assurance that we carry and explaining why it is. We will also notice that he links this thought with baptism, a familiar scene in the churches.
This was not a naming ceremony for babies but a celebration of those who had come to believe in Jesus. As they were about to enter the water to be baptised publicly, they would have the opportunity to explain how they came to know Jesus, and why they were making a public act of commitment, symbolically washing away the old life and entering the new in a clean way.
This reading comes from 1 Peter 3.
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”1 Peter 3:13-22
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. 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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.
After being made alive, He went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolises baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand — with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him.
Peter spells out in direct terms that every true believer should be ready to answer whoever asks them and explain the reason for the assurance that they have but — he says — do this with gentleness and respect. That was the flavour of Paul’s address to the high-ranking Areopagus members.
We have already said that Peter sets this confident sharing in the context of something very familiar in the churches: the baptism of new believers and sharing their stories. But he is also is realistic about the opposition believers will face in a world which is often hostile and cynical.
He points out, our Lord also suffered, not for His sins (because there were none) but for ours, putting Himself forward as a righteous person suffering for the unrighteous.
Unrighteous is how we were before we were saved into a new life, transformed by God’s Spirit, made acceptable to God through Jesus and being made more like Him as His Spirit shapes and moulds us.
He also tells how, having been made alive in resurrection, Christ went to preach with the imprisoned spirits in hell.
As an example of sharing faith, this is an extreme one! And as a place to share it, it’s a tough one. So what do we take from this?
We all carry a message of hope, the confidence assurance of our faith that must find ways to be shared — and the people who need to hear it most are the ones who have already shown themselves unwilling to hear.
We actually prefer ‘birds of our own feather’ — we like to spend time with, and share with, people who are not too far different from ourselves. The ones who think more like us!
But in joining Christ and His mission, with His final words of commission burning in us — make disciples of all nations, all kinds of people, suitable and unsuitable , open to the message and not — this is what we do. We do it His way.
This, Peter says, is part of the picture of having a clear conscience towards God. Or, to put it in other words, this is how we make it absolutely clear where we stand in having a living relationship with God.
Some people and some churches emphasise the form of words, and out their assurance in the ritual, as if it were able do anything by itself. But, as Peter says, it is not baptism that saves us, but declaring where we stand. It’s not us being washed off by the water but us freely declaring how we are trusting God and coming to Him through Jesus.
That is the key to the confidence in the assurance that just longs to be shared with others.
In our own strength, it’s difficult. But through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, we will always be finding new and creative ways to speak for Jesus who died for us and speaks for us by the Father’s side today.