Easter 6, year A

I was born into a Christian family – my mother was an Anglican from Canada, and my father was a Roman Catholic, so I was baptized as an infant in a Roman Catholic Church, but raised as an Episcopalian by my mother. My mother, younger sister and I attended an Episcopal Church wherever we lived during our childhood. I say that because we moved several times throughout the mid-west and north-east. To be an Episcopalian, or to be a Christian, was part of my identity, but it was not a conscious choice. My parents made that choice for me and I followed their faith. I thought everyone was Christian, and perhaps attended a different church than mine on Sunday morning. A normal childhood school conversation might have been, “Where do you live? What church do you attend?”. Before I was a teenager, I can’t recall being aware of anyone who didn’t go to a church. It was just part of the culture in suburban towns in Illinois, Ohio, Upstate New York and Connecticut. Those were the kind of communities that I lived in as a child during the 1950’s &60’s. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s, when I attended college, that I met and made friends with kids  who were not 

Christian,  but we never discussed our religion. I never had to Edit Edit date and timeexplain to anyone why I was a Christian. My mother had always told me, “Never discuss race, religion or politics with strangers. It isn’t polite.” Thus, I lacked the vocabulary of faith, a personal understanding of Jesus Christ, and permission to share my faith with others.

How many of you can identify with my childhood experiences? Were you ever asked, or encouraged, or motivated to explain to anyone why you were a Christian? If you did, what was your experience like? Did sharing your faith enrich your own?

(Allow time for anyone to respond)

I raise these questions because many of the “mainline” Protestant Churches, including the Episcopal Church, are not growing in membership. There are lots of reasons why, but one of them is that most mainline Protestants do not know how to enthusiastically share their faith in Jesus Christ, or convincingly share why they are Christian. Most Episcopal Churches hope that their parish will increase in membership when visitors, newcomers and the children of its members ask to be baptized, married or confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But apparently, this method is not enough. Now we all need to learn to share our Christian faith with those who might be curious, who might be seeking a faith community, or want to get to know us better.

American culture has significantly changed since 1965, when the Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished an earlier quota system based on national origin and established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. Montgomery County in 2017 is a vastly different kind of community than it was in 1970. Montgomery County is now a Majority-Minority county, and one of the most diverse in the country. The population has doubled since 1970 to 1.1 Million people and 1/3 of our residents are foreign-born. Although the census does not ask for religious affiliation – it is estimated by City-Data.com that in 2010, Catholics are 13%, Protestants are 8%, Evangelical Protestants are 11%, Orthodox Christians are 1%, all the other faith traditions represent 10% of the residents, which includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Sikhs and Hindus. According to City-Data.com – in 2010 there were 14,000 Episcopalians in Mo Co. City-Data surveys indicate that 57% of the residents of MoCo are non-religious, or do not identify with any particular faith tradition. That’s roughly 60,000 residents. As Jesus said to his disciples, “He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Luke 10:2

I tell you all of this to help you see the harvest available to you, one in which you live and work, and which you could evangelize. But I also want to help you to identify with St. Paul, who was then called “Saul of Tarsus”, a rabbi and pharisee who had an encounter with the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. Paul became convinced of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who called Jesus the Christ, God’s anointed one. And he faced a similar challenge in proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ to most people he met as he traveled around the Mediterranean Sea. So imagine Paul, inspired and filled with new faith in Jesus, decided to make three missionary journeys, by boat, from Palestine to Syria, to Turkey, to Greece to Italy, and back again, spreading the message of the saving grace of belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts of the Apostles, Paul was speaking to some Jewish men, but mostly non-religious men, philosophers, and members of the city council. And what he tells them seemed strange to them. But the portion that you heard omits the paragraph just before, which describes the crowd who are listening to Paul.

16 “While Paul was waiting for them (Silas and Timothy to arrive) in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there.”

18 “Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’”

 Paul was standing and addressing a crowd of intellectually curious Athenians who were non-Jews and representatives of major philosophical schools, who began to debate with him. The Epicureans were those who maintained that deities played no role in human affairs. The Stoics maintained that humans should use reason to live a life of virtue and in accordance with nature. I am certain that there still are Epicureans and Stoics in our culture who think in a similar way about faith in God.

Today’s lesson from Acts, chapter 17 begins:

22  Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus (a hill of Mars, near the Acropolis) and said, (with a bit of sarcasm) ’Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”

Then Paul begins his inspirational description of our relationship with God. This is St. Paul’s “elevator speech” – describing his faith in Jesus Christ in a few clear and convincing words:

“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”

Paul concludes with the reason that one should have faith in the one God – because one day, we will all be judged by someone (Jesus) whom God has appointed.

29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’”

The good news is that some of the non-religious men later joined Paul and became believers. Evangelism is not easy, but if persistent, people will receive your faith and your passion and come to believe or be drawn to believe what you believe. Just as God is creator of all and humans are descended from a single ancestor, so God’s judgment applies to all persons and everywhere. Hope of our resurrection is assured to those who have faith in Jesus’ resurrection and choose to follow Jesus’ way of life.

In this Easter season, when we especially celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from death,  and how Christianity evolved in the first century, we are charged to deepen our own faith and then find words and ways to share our faith in Jesus as the Christ with those who have not yet found God. But it takes prayer and practice to share one’s faith with others. A place to begin is within your own congregation. I invite you to sit quietly and ponder what you would say to someone you know fairly well, about your faith and hope in Jesus as the Christ. Your faith statement could become your own mission statement of the purpose of your life and your relationship with God, who may one day judge your treatment of yourself, your family and your neighbor. Your faith statement should be your “elevator speech” – it should be short and sweet (2 minutes), avoids using Christian jargon that non-Christians or non-believers would not understand, shows your passion, includes an invitation to talk further with you, or to come to church with you, and then gives the listener a chance to respond or ask questions.

My mother was a product of her time, but in our time, it is polite and very Christian, to talk about your faith tradition with your friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors. Your Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist friends or neighbors are eager to share their faith tradition because they want to be understood and respected. Christians should do the same, which will lead to deeper and more respectful relationships.

The Rev. Dr. Carol Flett