Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Becoming a Better Witness for Christ

This is a sermon that I will deliver tonight; it is my first sermon ever.


There is a reason why I am the only one in the family, other than my Mom, who is not a pastor. So, just in case I do not sound so good, I hope you wouldn't take it against my Dad. I decided not to use the lectionary, and since I haven't been here in Fairview Park very long I have no idea about your particular needs that I can speak about. I thought that the safest bet for me is to talk about something that I know about and feel strongly about.

I don't think I can be called an internet junkie, that is, somebody who cannot have a day pass without going online and surf the internet. However, I until recently, I have been online quite a lot and, apart from checking my eMail and updating my website, my brother, my Dad and I have developed the habit of joining online forums, where we can discuss anything that comes to mind. It was, of course, while we were joining these forums that we found that even if we expected that people will not always agree with you, they will disagree with you in quite unexpected ways. And this is especially if they know you are a Christian.

For one thing, I had always assumed that Christians were generally liked around the world. Oh, there were those countries with Muslim or Hindu extremists that want us dead, of course; but in more civilized countries, I had thought that even if they disagreed with us, we were generally respected, if not liked or loved. I was shocked, therefore, to learn that there are more people who dislike and hate Christians than those who dislike those followers of other religions.

I can spend the entire evening describing the sort of "injustices" that forum moderators put Christians through, from unfair and very partial treatment, name-calling, provoking and outright disrespect. We were victims of some of it. What bothered me is, first of all, that their stereotype of us is very different from what I had thought Christians stood for, even in supposedly "Christian" countries. Another thing that bothered me is that, up until they found out that we were Christians, we were treated with respect and friendliness, and our opinions were treated fairly by people who also seemed to be fair and open-minded. How did all this "misconception" (if any) happen? The primary reason, I find, is that non-Christians on the whole just find us unbelievable. A Christian singing group called DC Talk put it very aptly:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is christians who acknowledge jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
It is a big mistake to say to ourselves that "No, that's not me... everybody knows that I'm a Christian. My life glorifies God everyday! Maybe they are talking about somebody else..." All the atheists and agnostics I have corresponded have very different reasons as to why they don't believe in God, but they are one in seeing all Christians, even the ones that seem to do okay, as people who are bad. The implications of this is grim: we are being ineffective witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world. And this has happened because we have neglected our Christian and Bible-based duties in the following areas, which, if we had followed it, would allow us Christians to still be respected even if they do not agree. Two of them I will present to you tonight.

We have become unconcerned about what we should know

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 behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
I Peter 3:15–16
One very common problem with Christians is that we have become unconcerned about how much we know about our own religion. I mean, c'mon! So, we were sinful... we deserve death... Christ died for us so we wouldn't die... end of story! How simple can it get? A lot of us would cheerfully state that our Christianity is uncomplicated, with only just the basics and none of the trappings. Well, of course, "Mere Christianity" is an ideal worth working for, that is, if what we mean by "trappings" are those useless rituals, "godless myths and old wives' tales" (as Paul warned Timothy about). But if it is knowledge about the history and story of our faith and for the hope that we should all have, these are trappings that we cannot afford not to know.

For instance, one of the most bitter internet debates I participated in was the question on what exactly does it mean to be saved. If someone asked you that question right now, how will you answer it? It sounds preposterously simple, doesn't it? Saved from our sins, of course! But what are sins, and why would our sins incur penalties from God? Are sins arbitrary or absolute? And why would a supposedly just and loving God punish someone for, say, something as innocuous as eating certain types of foods or behaving a certain way? If one was not familiar with the Bible stories we so carelessly label as "Children's stories"— not just some, but all of it — one cannot hope to explain the necessity of salvation to a world that prides itself on it's supposed open-mindedness and it's relative morality.

"Of course," one may reason, "I don't ever associate with unbelievers. Faith, after all, and not knowledge is what saves you." Even if that last one was true, not knowing enough also harms Christians. First of all, our fellow Christians, especially our children, get a partial idea of what Christianity is about and, if we are not careful, may twist what little knowledge they have about God and his relationship to man. Jesus (in Matthew 18:6–7) says

[W]hoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!
Matthew 18:6–7(NASB)
Very strong words indeed! People who cause "little ones who believe in" Jesus to sin (NIV) incenses Jesus so much that he wants some millstone hung around that guy's neck and dropped in the ocean to "sleep with the fishes". That's akin to the Mafia practice of giving a person concrete boots then dropped into the river. That strong! But how, one can ask, can a person botch it up so much? We all know about the sin of comission and omission; yet everytime we go out and give even fellow Christians the wrong idea about God, we commit both.

During those online debates, I would mentaly cringe everytime an uninformed but well-meaning Christian makes hasty declarations based on their partial knowledge of the scriptures. There are atheists and skeptics have made it their goal to go after these sort of Christians to prove that Christianity is an illogical and irational religion and go on to "prove" that it is the source of all prejudice, bigotry and injustice in the world. It perpetuates the notion that atheism as truth to the atheists while destroying the faith of those weak Christians. What a stumbling block if there ever was one!

For instance, how do we explain what is now considered a trite phrase — that we love the sinner but hate the sin? Think, for instance, of the gambling lord, the pimp, or the openly gay individual? A lot of us just don't know enough to explain why what they do is a sin and it should stop being done, while at the same time why we want them in our churches and not away from it. Do you know why gambling/prostitution/homosexuality is wrong? Or whether it should be wrong? What if one of these individuals walked through our door right now, wanting to worship with us and take communion... will we accept them? Do we know why we are accepting them?

A young lady in a former church I was in was talking about how lovely that story Aishite Imasu was. I could think of a lot of reasons why that story was really good (which it is), but was unprepared for her particular reason. You see, she was particularly touched when the character of Jay Manalo still chose to love the character of Dennis Trillo even after he found out that he was a spy and a man. "Biro mo, minahal pa rin siya kahit na lalaki siya!" It seems logical—Ichiru (Jay Manalo's character) loves Ignacio (Dennis Trillo's character) based on his personality and not on his political/cultural loyalties and his gender. Of course, that homosexuality suddenly gets this sort of blessing, that you can love whomever you want regardless of gender, is taken for granted. One can appreciate, perhaps enjoy the movie for its historical significance and the insights it can teach us; but really, if our youth cannot even distinguish what is sinful from what is noble and true, Satan can take a vacation and just leave us to tempt ourselves.

The difficulty is that those who will justify sin have done their homework. They know exactly why their sin isn't really so bad, graduating to the point that they question and openly mock God for ever considering that sin worthy of punishment (and therefore blaspheming God). Do we know that God does not delight in punishing people "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9) yet "cannot tolerate wrong" (Habakkuk 1:13)? Can we ever explain any of that to one who asks if we only know a little? The Bible says

11Much more could be said about this subject. But it is hard to explain, and all of you are slow to understand. 12By now you should have been teachers, but once again you need to be taught the simplest things about what God has said. You need milk instead of solid food. 13People who live on milk are like babies who don't really know what is right. 14Solid food is for mature people who have been trained to know right from wrong. 6 1We must try to become mature and start thinking about more than just the basic things we were taught about Christ. We shouldn't need to keep talking about why we ought to turn from deeds that bring death and why we ought to have faith in God. 2And we shouldn't need to keep teaching about baptisms [a] or about the laying on of hands [b] or about people being raised from death and the future judgment. 3Let's grow up, if God is willing.
Hebrews 5:11–6:3 (CEV)
If we know too little, we wouldn't know what we are doing. And sometimes, those actions we do with very little knowledge are being closely watched.

We have become unconcerned about how people see us

11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
I Peter 2:11 & 12
Sometimes we are so sure of our salvation, so sure that God is a forgiving God, that we sometimes forget that whatever other people know about the Christian God is based on what they see of us, and just do whatever our passions instruct us. Nothing can be more destructive, for instance, to suddenly discover that some highly respected church leaders were involved in adultery, or embezzlement, or in some other "sin", except perhaps knowing that these leaders justify or rationalize their sin or, if they "repent", they callously throw it off as just one more sin that God will forgive anyway. The Bible says

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
I John 3:9 & 10
This does not mean that we will stop sinning magically once we are born again. This means that sinning will no longer be natural to us as it had been. Justifying an affair based on the supposed "love" they have, for instance, inspite of all the biblical injuctions agains it is clearly not the way to go. In fact, sins like that which require focus, dedication and deliberateness shouldn't happen anymore! We would be left with bad habits, of course, which we strive to eliminate, and we battle with our worldly desires everyday. But to knowingly do a sin not only endagers us, it gives the wrong impression to fellow believers, and makes us look like idiots to unbelievers.

For example, it seems to be alright for unbelievers to believe in free sex, apparently; that's what they say, and we rightly condemn that. Yet, if Christians, while saying with their lips that it is wrong do it anyway, our credibility with anyone goes out the window.

I once taught in a Christian School where, as a matter of course, we teach the students that it is wrong to cheat and have public displays of affection, among other things. At the beginning of the term, we still had our credibility intact and the students follow us (out of fear, if for nothing else). Yet, by the middle of the term, it was obvious that there were much more delinquent students that we thought. Now, the honest thing to do is, well, grade them fairly, and let the delinquents (no matter how nice they are personally) fail. Yet, to our surprise, we had a "meeting" where we gathered to bring the quota of failures down to just twenty percent (20%) per section. To do that, we had to willfully manipulate the grades to believably ensure that even if their grades weren't sterling, they passed. Sometimes, we had to choose between two students to decide who passed or failed, not on their performance but in an arbitrary manner. If it were just the failures, the damage wouldn't be so great. But we also had to tweak even the grades of good students highter if they seemed to be lower than was expected of them, and poor students lower who unexplainably perform better that quarter.

If we didn't do that, the parents swoop down on us like vultures and question our skills as teachers. So we did it, and no one was the wiser, right? Wrong. In fact, the students themselves, who knew very well that they didn't do well but suddenly found themselves passing or, worse, failing when someone with similar performance passed started suspecting that there was some hocus pocus with the grades. The result is no longer any surprise: good students become complacent and lazy since they have already established themselves as "good", mediocre students who pass realize that they can get away with poor performance, and those poor few who can't pass cannot see better performance as the key, since an improvement is apparently seen with suspicion.

So, later, we may bring them on spiritual retreats and give them evangelistic talks. We may take them on "Trust Walks" and guide them through emotional and tear-stained deliverance sessions. But, if my observations were anywhere accurate, they saw all of these motions as just a part of what a normal student had to go through in school, like exams, quizzes, and bullies, and then promptly forgotten. Who can blame them? They know, even if their parents don't, that we have let go of our morality at the drop of a hat.

When we don't follow our own rules, that is, live out Godly lives inspite of the consequences, we shouldn't be surprised if the pagans don't trust us. We will be mere hypocrites in their eyes, muttering "do as I say not as I do." Jesus said that that is for Pharisees in Matthew 23:3; we don't want to be Pharisees, do we? It's just like that commercial on TV: "Sa mata ng bata, ang mali ay nagiging tama, kung ito ay ginagawa ng mas-matanda." Same thing with Christians, not just with non-believers but with Christians as well.


24For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.
Romans 2:24 (KJV)

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Matthew 5:16 (KJV)

5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:5-8 (NIV)

26For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
James 2:26 (KJV)
I would like to close with these four verses. There is much more at stake here than merely being insular, taking care only of our own. We have seen that even when we think that we are providing a good example, there are many times that we don't. It is useless to think it is not so, or that it is their fault as to why "mahirap silang umintindi". God once told Ezekiel that a man's blood is on our hands if we don't try to save him (Ezekiel 33:8-9), but at the rate we are going we don't have the knowledge to be credible enough to warn him and even if we do our actions make hypocrites of us all.

The danger in giving sermons like this is that even the preacher isn't perfect. Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall, sometimes we lose our step, all of us. "23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23, NIV) but, the good news is that though we all make mistakes "are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24, NIV). How then do we become better witnesses?

The key lies in remembering that very fact, that even we can be mistaken. As a former high school teacher, my mates and I have been sometimes taught not to show any weakness and to pretend that we know more than we actually do. This becomes tricky during times when we don't know and the students do. We have been sometimes told that students will learn to disrespect us if we ever let out our ignorance. Thank God, that little myth is being disproven. I found that what students really think is the real factor that earns our respect is consistency. We need to show them knowledge, that is, we need to be trained in what we do and our particular area, but we will never lie and say we don't know. We will tell them what is expected of them and follow it ourselves, even if sometimes the powers-that-be over-rules us. It prevents us from becoming ineffective and unproductive as teachers. Or, at least, tip the scales favorably.

As Christians, it is our duty to do the same. What a student really hates is an ignorant yet know-it-all teacher, and the world and baby Christians hate an ignorant yet know-it-all, hypocritical Christian. We should increase our knowledge para 'di tayo mapahiya and be consistent with our actions para 'di tayo pagtawanan, but being big enough to admit that we don't have all the answers.
What If I Stumble?
by DC Talk

[the greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is christians who acknowledge jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.]

What if I stumble?
What if I fall?

Is this one for the people?
Is this one for the lord?
Or do I simply serenade for things I must afford?
You can jumble them together, my conflict still remains
Holiness is calling, in the midst of courting fame

Cause I see the trust in their eyes
Though the sky is falling
They need your love in their lives
Compromise is calling

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble, and what if I fall?

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
You never turn in the heat of it all
What if I stumble, what if I fall?

Father please forgive me for I can not compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows
If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses will leave a deadly scar

Do they see the fear in my eyes?
Are they so revealing?
This time I cannot disguise
All the doubt I’m feeling

(repeat chorus)

What if I stumble?
Everyone’s got to crawl when you know that
You’re up against a wall, it’s about to fall
Everyone’s got to crawl when you know that (2x)

I hear you whispering my name [you say]
My love for you will never change [never change]

(repeat chorus 2x)

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
You never turn in the heat of it all
What if I stumble, what if I fall?
You are my comfort, and my god

Is this one for the people, is this one for the lord?