Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21
St. Andrew's hosts the monthly luncheon of the Southtown Council, the local business association. As people were gathering for lunch this Wednesday, I was talking with one of our neighboring business owners, Andy Wolff, who’s a massage therapist. Andy said he felt convicted that he needed to do something about a real problem he saw in our community – the risk of teen suicide. After the recent tragedy involving a St. Paul’s Day School graduate, teen suicide is a threat that strikes pretty close to home. So Andy took it on himself to put together a suicide-prevention workshop, which is happening later this afternoon, actually.
Before the luncheon, Andy and I were setting out flyers on the tables at the same time – his inviting people to his workshop; mine inviting people to our picnic and HJ’s farewell party later this morning. I showed him the image of the new building and told him what we had in mind for it as a place to support church ministries and build relationships with people in the community. He said, “You know, I had a really hard time finding a good spot for my workshop. I would’ve much rather hosted it here in Brookside rather than down at the library. It’s great that you’re doing this new building,” he said – “just the kind of thing our community needs.” I don’t know where else this potential partnership might go, but it’s exciting to imagine how we might come alongside Andy in the work he feels called to do to respond to a deep need and build the well-being of our community. Sounds like an opportunity to proclaim Good News in word and deed.
Similarly, I mentioned a couple of Sundays ago that Mike McKinne, our engagement coordinator, has been connecting with a new initiative being offered by Research Medical Center. It’s called Brookside Babies, “a neighborhood and online resource for all things fertility, pregnancy, baby, and being a parent”1 … a way for parents to connect with each other and learn about healthy parenting. Mike got in touch with the person organizing Brookside Babies, and – long story short – St. Andrew’s is going to be a partner with Research in offering the program. We’ll provide resources for building spiritual well-being for young adults who are beginning the blessed and challenging journey of raising kids in this day and age. Again, it’s a chance for us to come alongside people in our community who are feeling called to build wellness and quality of life for people around us.
These are great steps – great ways to connect with people who aren’t necessarily looking for a worship experience at 8:00 or 10:15 on a Sunday morning but who do have a need for God’s healing and resurrecting power in their lives. But the question is, once we develop a partnership like this, then what? What’s our next step, as followers of Jesus Christ here in this family of St. Andrew’s?
I think we can learn a lot from the example of St. Paul in today’s reading from Acts. This story shows just how much of a “back to the future” experience being a Christian today really is. In a lot of ways, we’re living not just in the 21st century but in the 1st century, too, right there with St. Paul. This reading is set in Athens, but it could be Kansas City instead.
The apostle Paul finds himself in a place where there is no dominant spiritual narrative. As he walks around Athens, taking in the sights, he sees many grand buildings honoring the official religion, temples to this god and that god. In Athens 2,000 years ago, lots of people practiced the official religion, but whether they really believed in it is another question, especially in such a cosmopolitan city. There, as Acts says, “the Athenians and the foreigners … would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21).
So Paul spends time in Athens debating with philosophers. He’s trying to take the way Jesus has transformed his life and connect it with the experience of the people there. His experience of the living Christ has changed his heart, recalibrated his reality; and he’s looking for a way to translate that for the people God has put in front of him. So, he keeps his eyes open. He listens deeply to the people around him. And he finds the living God at work, even in the spiritual shopping mall of Athens.
Out of the way, probably on a side street, Paul finds a small temple “to an unknown god” (17:23). It’s a wonderfully Athenian thing – if all paths lead to the same place, why not set up a temple to honor whichever god you may have missed along they way? So Paul takes that bit of experience about life in Athens and uses it to connect with the hearts and minds of the people he meets. In the reading, Paul is speaking to the equivalent of a community forum of thought leaders, but he could just as easily have been having a more intimate conversation over a beer or a latte. The point is that he looked for an expression of the kingdom of God, something advancing God’s purposes in the community around him; and he linked what he found to God’s invitation to resurrected life for all people.
That’s our task, too: looking closely and listening deeply to find the Holy Spirit at work around us, then coming alongside that kind of blessing, naming how it serves God’s purposes, and connecting with people who are involved in it – building relationships, linking people together, and inviting them into what God’s doing in and through this church family.
To do that, we need what St. Paul had. We need to know what we believe, and we need to have something to say about it. We need to be formed as disciples – having a sense of God’s story, seeing where that big story connects with our own story, and being equipped to engage with other people about it. It’s about claiming our faith and connecting it across the breadth of our lives so that it guides everything we do, every decision we make; and then being able to reflect on that with other people. That’s the goal of what we call our formation ministries, which we’re celebrating this morning – ministries that help children, youth, and adults learn and follow the disciple’s path with every step of our lives.
So, what does it look like to when your faith is life-wide, guiding the very practical steps we all have to take? Here’s a real-world example at the top of my own mind in the moment. Some of you know from Facebook that Ann and I are having some work done on our house. It’s not very sexy, as home improvement goes – replacing a broken driveway, replacing windows from 1955, replacing ugly linoleum, repainting the house, that kind of thing. Frankly, home improvement would not be my first choice for how to spend a fair amount of money. I barely even spend any time at my house, so my enjoyment of our investment will be kind of limited. Honestly, I’d much rather go back to England for an extended vacation instead. But part of the discernment for Ann and me was about our stewardship of this house that God has given us. We need to leave it better than how we found it, because it’s only ours to use for a season anyway. We may be the owners legally, but in truth we’re only caretakers, stewards of what God provides for our use. And we have a responsibility to tend and manage that gift so God can later give it to someone else – even if I would rather go to England. Part of being a disciple, part of loving God, is following God’s path even when it conflicts with your own.
So guess what? I just “witnessed” to you, and nobody got up and left. Pretty sneaky, huh? Did you feel thumped with a Bible? Did you feel like Jesus was being shoved down your throat? See, it’s not rocket science to know what we believe and to have something to say about it. And you won’t even have people turn and walk away from you.
That’s what this buzz word, Christian formation, is all about. It equips us to know our faith, own our faith, and connect our faith to real life. That’s what’s happening in Godly Play with the little kids. That’s what’s happening in Children’s Chapel. That’s what’s happening on the youth ski retreat and the mission trip to Haiti. That’s what’s happening when kids serve as acolytes or gather in youth group or earn a God and Country badge. That’s what’s happening as grown-ups study the Bible, or discuss good books, or learn about Christian history. That’s what’s happening when people meet and pray together. That’s what’s happening when eight guys share a beer at a bar, talk about Scripture, and help each other see how God’s been working in their lives. That’s Christian formation. It’s what gives us our story and the words to share it with someone else.
So, back to my question earlier: As members of this family of St. Andrew’s, as we build connections with people around us in ways we’ve practiced for decades and in ways we’re only beginning to learn – then what? What is it that makes us followers of Jesus rather than simply solid citizens? The difference is the path of discipleship: Step one, remember God’s story. Step two, know your own story. Step three, name the connection points between God’s story and your story as you come alongside people to practice love. “On that day,” Jesus said, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” (John 14:20). For when we use our stories to build connections and invite people into relationship, the Holy Spirit will guide us, and we will truly live.
1. “Welcome.” Brookside Babies. Available at: http://brooksidebabies.com/about/. Accessed May 18, 2017.