Spiritual Conversations

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 29, 2013

1 Peter 3:13-16 Beyond Sunday Morning…: Spiritual Conversations

Can I Tell You about Jesus?
When I was in seminary I took a class called “Personal Evangelism.” It was a core course for the program I was in and it was somewhat legendary on campus. The professor was Dr. John Nyquist and it was well known that a requirement of the class was for students to engage in and document 10 different encounters where we shared the good news of Jesus with people.

Dr. Nyquist’s instructions to us were simple. Every week we were supposed to go somewhere with a lot of people, strike up a conversation with them, and then tell them about Jesus. It was a somewhat terrifying experience.

I went to seminary in the North suburbs of Chicago. So there was no shortage of people. But walking up to a stranger and getting him to talk to you at all, let alone turning the conversation to Jesus was an incredible challenge.

I remember one day my partner and I were at a very high end shopping mall. We knew that if we randomly approached people in the café court, security guards would kick us out. So we placed ourselves near the entrance of the mall and tried to walk alongside patrons as they came in. I remember one middle aged man, who turned out to be Jewish, being particularly hostile.

On another day we went to a local community college campus and hung out in the student union. There was one young man who let us go through the entire Bridge Illustration of the gospel on a napkin, and seemed genuinely interested in Jesus. My partner even asked him if he would like to become a Christian, and he said sure, but he got away from us as quickly as possible and never gave us his name or phone number.

At the end of the day, the class was good for me. It forced me out of my comfort zone and gave me an appreciation for what missionaries do. But it also taught me the importance of relationships in sharing my faith.

Contrast that experience with another one I had while in seminary. Besides being a student, I served part-time as youth pastor at Lakeview Presbyterian Church. About once a month I would take some of the kids down to Evanston to serve in a soup kitchen. On our way back to church we would stop at a Wendy’s for a chocolate Frostee and some french fries.

(And by the way, this is completely off the topic, but what is a Frostee? Is it ice cream? Is it a milk shake? Are we sure there is any actual dairy product in it at all? Have you ever left a half-eaten Frostee in your car? It doesn’t melt. It breaks down. Like a failed high school chemistry experiment. But I digress…)

So we started stopping at this same Wendy’s pretty frequently, right about closing time. And there was one girl who was usually working the counter, and she started getting used to seeing us. I had one guy in my group, a senior named Dane, who I think she was flirting with. So we would talk with her and joke around with her, until one day she asked what we were about that we came in there every month. So Dane explained about the soup kitchen, and our church, and then he told her about Jesus. It was amazing. She asked all kinds of questions. She thought she was Buddhist, or something, but wasn’t really sure. One of her co-workers asked some questions about the Koran. We got a great chance to explain what we believed.

Unfortunately, the next month she wasn’t working. Or the month after that. We prayed for her, and looked for her, but neither Dane nor I ever saw her again. But on that one evening, we had a chance to share Jesus.

Share Your Faith
Today is the end of our Beyond Sunday Morning Series. For the past few weeks we have been talking about spiritual formation. How we each grow in our relationship with Jesus. We’ve been working with this definition of what it means to be a growing Christian:

A fully-devoted follower of Jesus is someone who is secure in God’s love, seeks for more of the things of God, serves with Christ-like character and shares Jesus with others.

The emphasis, of course, is on the words that start with “S”, particularly the last three. We’re talking about how each of us is doing in the areas of seeking God, serving with our gifts, and sharing Jesus with the world. Today’s sermon is going to focus on sharing our faith.

And the point is that, as Christians, we need to be intentional about sharing the story of Jesus with those who don’t know Him. Whether it is an impromptu conversation with a stranger at the mall or, more ideally, in the context of an existing relationship, we need to be ready and eager to share our faith.

That’s the main idea of today’s scripture passage, which is 1 Peter 3:13-16. If you have your Bibles, you can turn there with me now. And we’ll put it up on the screen. 1 Peter 3:13-16:

13Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." 15But in your hearts set apart 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, 16keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

The key verse here is verse 15:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

This letter was originally written to a group of persecuted Christians. They were people who were being mocked and mistreated for their belief in Jesus. At times they might even be arrested or put on trial. So there is a sense in which Peter is telling them to be prepared to give a defense, or an explanation, for what they believe.

But the word “always” goes beyond just occasions where we might be put under examination for our faith. “Always” means at any time, in any circumstance. Peter is saying that as believers we need to be always prepared to talk about Jesus.

More than that, I think that Peter is saying that we should be looking for such opportunities. The Message version of this passage says “Be ready to speak up and tell anyone.” If they ask, all the better. But sometimes, even when they do not ask in so many words, there are openings to talk about our faith if we are looking for them.

In fact, I’ll summarize what I believe to be the main point of this passage like this:

As Christians, we should be seeking out spiritual conversations.

That is, we should be looking for opportunities to talk with others about Jesus.

Elsewhere in the Bible Jesus tells us to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15) Paul calls us Christ’s ambassadors, and says that Christ is telling his story to the world through us. (2 Cor. 5:20) And here, Peter tells us to always be ready to share the reason for our hope.

As Christians, we should be seeking out spiritual conversations. We should be looking for opportunities to share Jesus with those around us.

I see in this passage three pointers for helping us to have more spiritual conversations. Three pointers for people who want to share their faith.

Be Salty
First, do good. Peter says the way to begin spiritual conversations is to be a person who does good. Verse 13 and the first part of verse 14:

13Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.

Peter begins with a rhetorical question: what harm will come to you if you do good things? Remember, the context of this letter is that Christians were being persecuted for their faith. Their goods wouldn’t sell at the market, they were being banned from public places, at times even being arrested for their faith.

And Peter’s advice, in the verses just before this, is to keep doing good. Do not repay evil with evil, he says. Bless those who curse you. Be humble and compassionate and love others. He even quotes a Psalm that talks about doing good. His point is: if you are doing the right things, good things will follow.

So the answer to his question should be: nobody. Nobody is going to harm you for doing good.

Except that, in our fallen world, sometimes we do suffer for doing what is right. And he acknowledges that in the very next verse. Sometimes, in a world in which so much is broken and wrong, people who do the right thing are set apart and suffer for it.

Consider some examples. Choosing to drive the speed limit even though you know you could get there faster. A business owner who decides to pay generous wages to his employees even though it cuts into his profit margin. The student who studies hard and yet gets a lower grade than the others who cheat and get away with it. And, there are times when we are as nice, loving, and caring as we can be to a person and yet they do nothing but ridicule us and abuse us.

There are all too many examples of suffering for doing good. And yet, Peter says, we should do it anyway. Because it is the right thing to do.

In fact, in a world in which people so frequently do the wrong thing, doing good is one of the best ways to get noticed. If you want people to ask you about the hope that you have, if you want to engage people in spiritual conversations, then they should notice that there is something different about you.

In a world of greed, Christians should be known for their generosity.
In a world of cynicism, Christians should be known for their compassion.
In a world of lies, Christians should be known for their honesty.
In a world of selfishness, Christians should be known for their self-giving.

When we do good, when we give help when others are hurting, when we forsake our own comfort for the benefit of others; people are going to want to know what is different about us. They’re going to want to know what makes us tick.

Ernie Bruns likes to say that we should live such salty lives that others will be made thirsty by being around us. And what he’s talking about is exactly what Peter is saying here. When we do good, even when it doesn’t immediately benefit us, people are going to wonder why.

So, if you want to have spiritual conversations at work, be a person of integrity. Tell the truth. Do what you say you will do. Don’t engage in gossip about your co-workers. Make sure you are giving a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. Don’t be the one standing on the sidelines when everyone else is pitching in.

If you want to have spiritual conversations in your neighborhood, be a good neighbor. Help out with yard work. Offer to babysit a single mom’s kids. Bring a meal when someone is sick. Make your home a place of hospitality.

If you want to have spiritual conversations in the community, be a good person. Be nice to the people who check you out at the store. Tip generously at your favorite restaurant. Volunteer.

Evangelism starts before we even say a word. People are watching to see if our actions match up to what we say we believe. So do good. Be different.

The One You Are to Dread
The second pointer for having spiritual conversations is do not fear. Peter says the way to have the courage to talk about Jesus is to fear the right thing. The end of verse 14 and the beginning of verse 15:

"Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." 15But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.

Peter is quoting from Isaiah 8:12. It’s a passage where God is giving Isaiah advice, warning him not to follow the way of the people. God says: “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.” Instead, the Isaiah passage goes on to say:

The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread.

In other words, we shouldn’t be afraid of the things other people tend to be afraid of. God is much bigger, and much more significant, than the things that tend to frighten us. In fact, the Hebrew word for “LORD Almighty” that Isaiah uses, and that Peter paraphrases to apply to Jesus in verse 15, is the Hebrew word for “LORD of Hosts” or “God of Angel Armies.”

So the message here is not to be afraid of people, but to set apart Jesus—who is the LORD of Hosts—as the real Lord of our hearts. He’s the one we should fear.

Let’s face it, one of the reasons we don’t share our faith more often is because we are scared. As I said at the beginning, carrying out the assignment for Dr. Nyquist’s class was a terrifying experience. I don’t think stalking people at the mall is the most effective way to strike up spiritual conversations, but we have to ask ourselves: “What are we afraid of?”

There are several fears that accompany the idea of sharing our faith. But I think if we look at them objectively, we’ll find most of them are misplaced.

For example, I think one of the biggest fears that keeps us quiet is fear of embarrassment. We’re afraid that if we start talking about Jesus we’re going to get labeled as a religious fanatic. Maybe people will call us Jesus Freaks. Maybe they’ll think we’re strange.

But we have to ask: What’s so bad about that? As DC Talk says in their song “Jesus Freak”: “If people say I’m strange, does that make me a stranger?” We don’t need to go out of our way to be weird. We don’t need to preach at people or knock on doors to tell them about Jesus. But if we’re talking about what we believe, and what Jesus means to us, how does that make us strange?

Besides that, and point Peter is making, Jesus’ opinion of us should matter much more than anyone else’s opinion of us.

Or, again, sometimes I think we stay quiet because of fear of getting it wrong. We don’t want to talk about Jesus because we’re afraid we might get the facts wrong or lead people in the wrong way. I see this quite often when people will bring a friend to me and ask me to explain the gospel because they figure that I—as a professional Christian—can do a better job than they can.

I don’t mind helping people share Jesus with their friends, and I especially don’t mind helping to answer hard questions, but I certainly don’t believe you have to go to seminary in order to be qualified to share your faith.

The key is to remember that you are simply telling another person why you believe in Jesus. You are sharing your own story, and nobody knows your story better than you.

More than that, Jesus frequently told His disciples not to worry about what to say when they found themselves in witnessing situations. Instead, He told them to trust in the Holy Spirit and they would find that the right words would come. (i.e. Matt. 10:19) In the same way, if you are sincere about your desire to share your faith, you will find God providing just the right words as your spiritual conversations progress.

One more fear. Sometimes I think we stay quiet because of a fear of losing a friend. If we start sharing our belief in Jesus, and we invite our friend to trust in Him as well, but they decide not too, maybe that will be the end of the friendship.

If that is our fear, we need to remember what is at stake. If you truly believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation; that is, if you believe that apart from Jesus we are all doomed to an eternity in Hell, then you should be desperate to share this news with your friends who are not walking with Him. What you are doing is not pestering your friend, it’s not picking on him or her, it’s not judging anybody, it’s an act of love. And even if your friend decides not to follow Jesus, I hope they would at least appreciate your care for them and be willing to preserve the friendship.

So, do not fear. Don’t be afraid of what others are afraid of. Instead, set apart Jesus as Lord in your heart.

Gentleness and Respect
The third pointer for having spiritual conversations is be respectful. Peter says the way to be effective when sharing Jesus is to honor the person you are talking with. The end of verse 15 and all of verse 16:

But do this with gentleness and respect, 16keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

Peter doesn’t want us yelling at non-Christians. One of my earliest exposures to evangelism was a guy I’ll call “bullhorn guy.” He used to show up on UNI’s campus once or twice a year when I was in college. He’d go to the busiest part of campus, right outside the student union, and he’d take his bullhorn and start preaching the gospel.

Only he wasn’t nice about it. Not nice at all. He’d call out girls for having shorts that were too short. He’d call out guys for having hair that was too long. He’d talk about sin and judgment and tell people they were going to hell. Only he didn’t say a whole lot about how they could avoid it. He didn’t say much about Jesus or the cross or grace or forgiveness. He just yelled at people.

He always drew a crowd but it was more people who want to laugh at him or yell back at him. I was always embarrassed when he was around. I felt like he gave Christians, and Jesus, a bad name.

But Peter doesn’t tell us to mock or belittle non-believers. He tells us to treat them with gentleness. To approach them with respect. When you have a spiritual conversation your goal should always be to end with a clear conscience, knowing that you were not manipulative or mean but that you gave the best explanation you could of Jesus’ love for your friend.

Bill Hybels, in his book Becoming a Contagious Christian, gives three communication tips for sharing Jesus with gentleness and respect.

For one, listen more than you talk. Don’t give a speech. People want to talk with you, not be talked at by you.

Sometimes when we get an opportunity to talk about our faith, we get a little excited and blurt out a monologue. I’m very prone to this. I give a lot of speeches.

But the most effective way to keep from shifting into speech mode is to ask questions and genuinely listen to the answers. This is the best way know what the other person needs to know about Jesus, and it shows a definite interest and concern for the other person. If your only goal is to get to the end of a presentation of the gospel, people feel like you’re trying to sell them something. But if you are having a two way dialogue about matters of faith, you’ll earn the right to share what you believe.

Or, again, Hybels suggests that we give it in doses. Sometimes there is a temptation to give much more information than is needed. Once we sense an opening to talk about faith we might make the error of emptying the entire dump truck.

Hybels says that Christians have two problems when it comes to sharing their faith: starting and stopping! He says that sometimes the best thing we can do is stop.

When someone shows some interest in your faith, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want all the details. Initially, most people merely want the CliffNotes version. Over time, however, their curiosity may grow and their interest expand in spiritual matters.

But until that happens, we must give them just enough to satisfy their thirst—whether that takes a minute or an hour—and then back off. This will let them know it’s easy to get in and out of discussions with us and keep them coming back for more information.

And then, finally, be bold. Hybels writes:

When you’ve prepared and prayed for opportunities, the moment will come. And I’ll make a prediction: You probably won’t feel ready or fully up to the task. I rarely do either.

That’s when you lean on the strength and the wisdom that the Holy Spirit provides. With love in your heart, take a deep breath, look them in the eye, say it to them straight, and see where God takes it.

I believe that people will respect you for not beating around the bush. They’re looking for something that makes sense, and they want to hear it from someone who really believes what they are saying.

That person can be you.

As Christians, we are all called to share our faith. That doesn’t mean we have to chase people through the mall or go door to door. But we should be constantly on the look out for spiritual conversations. And when the opportunity comes, we should be prepared to give the reason for the hope that we have.