9th January 2011


“Sharing our story”   (John 9:1-12)


I’ve often wondered how we came to have the Christmas stories in the Bible. Clearly these stories are important to us, even precious: yet they describe small-scale and personal events, in which only a few people took part – John the Baptist’s parents, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men (you will notice that I have left out the mythical innkeeper from that list, although we might have to include Herod and his entourage!) These tales are clearly different to the accounts of Jesus’ public ministry which took place many years later and were witnessed by hundreds of people or, at least, by his disciples who later became leaders in the early Church and who could pass on the accounts of what they had heard and seen.

Now, I know that there are some Christians who would say that the Christmas stories are only mythical anyway and do not have any foundation in real history. I can’t agree with that point of view: the stories are certainly told as matters of historical fact. But that still leaves us with the question of how we know about them. And, in the absence of video recording or phone tapping or any of the modern ways in which we can glean information, I think the answer to that question has to be the obvious one: that the people who took part in these events were simply unable to keep silent about what they had seen. It may well be that they didn’t “spill the beans” until the adult Jesus came into the public arena. On the other hand, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds could have told and retold the amazing stories of Jesus and his birth until their friends and family were heartily sick of hearing them!

I think that all of us like telling stories about our lives. Indeed, most families have a “memory bank” of stories that they trot out time and time again: the story of that camping holiday in Scotland when the tent blew down, or the story about Auntie Gladys getting stuck in the toilet just minutes before Joan and David’s wedding was about to begin, or the tale of Fred waiting for a bus in Liverpool and getting picked up by John Lennon ... nearly all of us have stories like that, which have become part of who we are. And, besides these sagas, most of us like to tell our friends about the unusual things that have happened to us over the last few days, from that wonderful bargain we got at the January sales to the blackbird who swooped down and tried to peck off our nose while we were putting out the washing! These human stories are much more interesting than the humdrum routine of our lives. We love both hearing them and, even more, telling them to an appreciative listener.

As Christians, each of us have our own stories of faith and our life with God. Sometimes these stories can be quite dramatic and exciting – I’m sure we have all read books like “The Cross and the Switchblade” which tells of God using the young pastor David Wilkerson among the drug gangs of New York; or “Chasing the Dragon” which relates the tale of Jackie Pullinger in Hong Kong. Certainly as a young Christian I found that these books stimulated my faith – although what I failed to realise is that they tend to be condensed highlights of what happened and fail to mention the many days when life simply went on without much happening. (But, then, the book of Acts in the Bible does the same!)

Most of us, though, aren’t called to such dramatic tasks by God and, indeed, we may feel that our stories of faith are relatively mundane. Our lives weren’t dramatically changed by a vivid encounter with Christ, nor were we converted by hearing a voice booming from heaven: we were pretty respectable people and faith was just something we grew into as we went to Sunday School and church. Equally, most of our Christian life has been spent trying to serve God to the best of our abilities: looking back, we can see a few modest successes in what we’ve tried to do but also one or two failures where our plans just didn’t work out. We’re not ashamed by that, but we don’t seem to have witnessed any earth-shattering miracles of healing along the way.

And then, when it comes to direct experiences of God, we haven’t experienced much in the way of visions or lights flashing from heaven, although there have been days when a Bible passage seems to have been particularly pertinent or when we have prayed and our prayer does seem to have been answer. But spectacle and drama seem to have been largely absent from our pilgrimage; in fact, there have been days when God seems to have hardly been with us at all. If we have any story to tell of God, it seems to be a pretty feeble one, if we’re honest with ourselves. Why on earth would anyone possibly want to hear us prattle on about religion? Surely it’s far better to stop making fools of ourselves and just talk about the weather or the price of fish!

As you all know, this year of 2011 is a “Year of Evangelism” in the United Reformed Church. In fact it is the third and final year of the “Vision4Life” programme which we have signed up to. And over the next weeks and months we’ll be thinking about what evangelism is and, more than that, we will hopefully be engaging in evangelism. After all, we are followers of Jesus who told his disciples to take his good news to the whole world. The only problem is that we want everyone to do it but ourselves: the very notion of evangelism sounds personal, pushy and acutely embarrassing! It’s something that we all shy away from.

Well, in the next few messages I will be trying to ask why we find it so hard to share our faith. Clearly one of the reasons is our British notion that you just don’t talk to people about either money or religion! But might I suggest that another reason is because we have got some wrong ideas of what evangelism is: we very often think of it as collaring some poor unfortunate soul who is quietly going about their daily business, haranguing them with some theological gobbledegook which they are not the slightest bit interested in hearing, and then putting them on the spot by pointedly asking, “Are you saved? Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart right now?” That is quite clearly a caricature, yet most of us have been the unwilling victims of such keen evangelists; we shudder at the recollection and vow never to be anything like that ourselves!

But could I suggest that another definition of evangelism – or, at least, part of a definition – is simply being prepared to tell our personal stories? Clearly we don’t want to push ourselves and our faith onto other people – that would be boorish and insensitive, quite inexcusable. On the other hand, we must remember that St. Peter, in one of his letters to the churches, tells his readers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks them to give the reason for the hope that they have” – gently and with respect for the person who asks. If our story is honest, direct and humble, it will most certainly gain a hearing.

Up to this point I have not referred to the story we read earlier, of the blind man healed by Jesus. But I have not forgotten about it; indeed, I want to use it as a model or paradigm for our story-telling. For here is a man who has encountered God – truly in a way that went far beyond most of our experiences, for he had been blind from birth but now can see. That was a life-changing event for him. But what I want to focus on are two things: firstly, that this man is prepared to tell his story to those who question him; and second, that he is really quite puzzled about who Jesus is and what he has done. Today the man would be the subject of a media frenzy, and probably get a friend to read out a statement. In his less complicated age, he simply says, “I don’t quite know what happened to me; Jesus did something and now he’s vanished into thin air”.

I think there is something delightfully refreshing about this tale. Here is a man who simply relates what happened to him. He isn’t theologically trained, he can’t put together a coherent account of what had taken place, all he knows is that he has met Jesus and that something incredible has happened to him. Clearly, we may not have had quite such a dramatic meeting with God. Nevertheless, all of us can simply tell our own stories to other people and, although they may have their own explanations for what has taken place, they cannot refute our account. For these stories belong to us; we experienced them ourselves.

Now, there are three quick points I would like to make before I close. The first one I have hinted at already: it is the importance of being honest in what we say. Although I’m sure that most of us would never do it, there is a huge temptation for us to embroider or “ginger up” our experiences of God, especially if they have been pretty mundane in comparison with the stories being told by someone else. But we should never do that: God cannot bless exaggeration or dishonesty and, in any case, your simple story may be exactly the one that communicates with the person you are talking to.

This was a lesson I learned once and for all many years ago. Shortly before I was about to leave for West Africa, I had to tell my story (we used to call it “giving one’s testimony”) at a missionary meeting. I stood up and said how I had been brought up in a happy and loving family, how I had always gone to church but made a very specific commitment to Christ when I was 12 years old, and how I had simply felt what I believed was a growing divine compulsion to be a missionary. I’d told the story before and there was nothing at all noteworthy about it.

After the meeting a young man came up to me. He said, “Could I ask you a few questions, please?” I said, “Yes”. He said, “You said you had a happy home life – is that true?” I said, “Yes, it is”. “There were no terrible crises in your life with your parents always rowing with each other or walking out?” “No”, I said, “things were fine”. “And you just had this sense that you wanted to commit your life to Jesus, it was quite unemotional?” “Yes”, I said, “that’s right”.

“Thank God for that”, said the young man. “I’ve had a happy life, too. But I’ve heard so many testimonies where there have been terrible difficulties or crises which led to someone seeking out God, that I was really beginning to wonder if I was a proper Christian at all. You’ve given me great reassurance”. All right, that wasn’t exactly evangelism – but it showed me how sharing my story honestly was the right thing to do.

The second point I want to mention is that all of us should have some kind of a story about our spiritual journey. Each story will be different – that is what I would expect, for God treats us as individuals. Each one of us will tell our stories using different language: again, we are all unique human beings. And each of us will hopefully be able to tell of those times when God seemed particularly close to us and helped us; while all of us will be able to talk of times when he seemed distant and when our faith seemed to be a waste of time. Those “mountain-top” and “valley” experiences are part and parcel of Christian discipleship.

But – and this is the point I want to make – I hope that each of us does have a story about God. It may not be like St. Paul’s, who met Jesus on the Damascus Road (that story was never intended to be the norm for conversion). It may not be like John Wesley’s, who said that he “felt his heart strangely warmed” by God’s Spirit one evening in 1738 – although that is getting closer. But if you find you have nothing at all to say about God, or if you discover that anything you can say relates to life 50 or 60 or more years ago, then I have to seriously question if you are in a living relationship with God at all. God may not have given you an amazing revelation this morning: but I really do hope that all of us can look back over the last months and years and say, with the Old Testament prophet Samuel when he set up the marker stone he called “Ebenezer”: “Thus far the Lord has helped us”.

And, finally: we need to remember that Christian story-telling is not just an individual thing – just as the Christian faith itself is not just for individuals. For there is increasingly a move for churches to become story-telling communities, especially in Scotland but also elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that their members spend their time gossiping about each other (far from it!), but it does mean that they tell the stories of what Jesus is doing among them, allied to recounting Bible stories in new and creative ways. For we do not just carry around our individual testimonies, primed and ready to bring them out and display them, like a travelling salesman who will open his sample-case to anyone who is willing to look inside. No; we live out and declare publicly – if hesitantly and humbly – the things we believe that God is doing in our midst.

I want to finish by challenging us to do something. In many churches people are encouraged to stand up and say something about their current experience of God. The church I went to in Africa included such a time of sharing every Sunday morning: it wasn’t a free-for-all as each person who wishes to speak had to run it past the Deacons first. But this isn’t something we ever do here, either in our services or our church meetings. Some of us would probably find it very scary to try and articulate their faith in public. Yet it can be a good thing to do: it helps us understand each other better, it allows us both to weep and laugh together, it gives us a shared knowledge of Jesus – and it helps us to learn how to tell our Christian story while we’re among friends.

So, as we begin this year of evangelism, may I encourage us to be people who are not embarrassed to tell our Christian stories. After all, we are people whose mainspring is faith and who believe that God is alive and with us every day. Each of us can tell the intensely personal story of God’s love to us. Let us make sure we don’t always keep it to ourselves.

“Proving Faith”.

I cannot pass my faith on to others as a doctor injects a patient with serum.

I cannot pass my faith onto others as a service station attendant fills a car with petrol.

I cannot pass my faith onto others as wharf-labourers move cargo

from one ship to another with cranes.

I cannot provide a pill that produces faith when it is swallowed.

I cannot explain my faith as a teacher explains a mathematical formula.

I cannot demonstrate my faith as a clever lawyer demonstrates the innocence of the accused to a sceptical judge.

I can only prove my faith by letting Christ heal my entangled, sinful life.

I can only prove my faith by praying for others as Christ prayed for Peter and others.

I can only prove my faith by doing loving deeds to others, even as Christ revealed his love to the sick and hungry.

I can only prove my faith by being ready to forgive and forget the evil words and deeds of others, even as Christ forgave His enemies on the Cross.

I can only prove my faith by being prepared to suffer for others, even as Christ suffered for others.

I can only prove my faith by not letting my failures deflect me from my calling, even as Christ could not be deflected from His course by the peoples’ unbelief.

I can only prove my faith through the power of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ.

John Gnanabaranam

(former Bishop of the Tamil Nadu Evangelical Lutheran Church).