How to share your faith without losing your friends

A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner

Do you remember the first day of leaving your family home? For me it was Fresher’s Sunday in 1998. I was excited to be stepping out into the big world, excited to discover who I was going to become, excited to meet new people and have new ideas.

However, it might surprise you to hear I was quite a shy teenager. Once my parents had left me with a packet of chocolate digestives and the encouragement to “Go make some friends” I hid away in my room obsessing about the exact place my posters should be and making sure my books were arranged just so.

My faith had become important to me and I knew that sooner or later something would come up and I’d have to tell them. On the one hand my evangelical upbringing led me to believe I had a duty to God to proclaim my the Gospel boldly.

On the other hand, I wasn’t that sort of person. Both ideologically and out of raw need I wanted to build some friendships.

“Evangelism” as it is known, felt too arrogant, too pushy like it would distance me from those I was talking to rather than draw near to them.

If friendship is defined as the increasing reality of me encountering the increasing reality of you, evangelism seemed like the last thing I’d want to do. I wanted them to be my friends, why would I tell them that Christians like me are the bees knees and they’re sinners going to hell? So I hid in my room rearranging my books into alphabetical order. And I ate the biscuits.

Eventually I ventured out and went exploring. I bumped into someone who lived in the kitchen next door, Anna. Anna wasn’t shy, she was funny, genuinely interested in other people AND completely open about her faith.

My ears pricked up as she confidently told her corridor friends that she’d just been to church.

My eyes grew wide as I watched her ask sincere questions about their lives and what they were aiming to do in fresher’s week… one of them in turn asked what she got out of going to church.

My jaw hit the floor when Anna responded with “Come and see some time if you’d like”.

He said “maybe” and the conversation moved on.

But I noticed that when people were interested in having a conversation about faith they would seek Anna out. They knew that they could talk to her and be valued for who they were not just where they might end up.

It seemed like a different way of interacting with the world was possible. One that was neither my model of hiding away in my room with my biscuits or the model of other Christians I had seen who seemed like robots, trotting out pre-learned lines, placing inordinate pressure on their friends to conform.

We are about to trial a new Exploring Faith Course here at St Martin’s so it seems like a good moment to look at what is a St Martins way of sharing our faith, individually as well as corporately. Is there a form of Faith Sharing, is there a form of Evangelism that makes sense for us?

I’d like us to look at a model for faith sharing that is

  • Personal and honest rather than formulaic
  • Dynamically discovering something new together rather than relying on forcing others through a set path to find the “right answers” to become like us.
  • Invitation rather than relying on superiority

In our gospel we find three stages in this faith sharing… three phrases – they’re the same phrases I’d encourage those wishing to deepen friendships to use.

“I have found”

“What are you looking for?”

“Come and see”

I HAVE FOUND –  essentially, opening our lives up to others including our faith

The passage starts with a monologue from John the Baptist. Perhaps this is exactly the thing I was scared about having to do when I arrived at university. John launches into a conversational sermon about who Christ is. We don’t associate monologues with humble self-revelation. But look a little closer.

John has clearly spent a lot of time with these people, they’ve devoted themselves to following him around as their teacher. They have already established that they like each other and want to know more about what makes John tick. What gives John life.

And now John the Baptist opens the most significant part of his life up to his friends. This isn’t John being weird, this is John being with them.

In these four and a half verses (v29b-34), John uses the word “I” six times.

“This is who I was talking about”,

  • I didn’t know it was him”
  • “he’s why I was baptising everyone”,
  • I saw God’s Spirit land on him”,
  • I myself have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.”

 I have found” “Ive found” “I have found

It’s personal.

Now, we’ve all had THAT friend who goes on and on about themselves. But this isn’t that.

John isn’t bragging…  he openly says “I didn’t know it was him” – John has no need to impress. This is honest enthusiasm not self-obsession.

The whole of the Gospels are written like this – particularly John’s Gospel – there are only 6 conversations in John’s gospel and most of them go on for the best part of a chapter – they want us to feel like we know Jesus not by making a logical argument, but relying on sharing the experience of those who encountered Jesus, not as a superheroes but as human beings… usually as pretty broken human beings… like us.

And this is still how God chooses to reveal himself to human beings. Not with writing in the sky, though some people do get part of the way with nature. Not with abstract ideas, though some are helped by removing their intellectual stumbling blocks. But the main way God communicates, the only thing that is almost universal in people’s experience of finding faith, the one thing you wouldn’t choose if you were making a strategy for a global movement… is that God meets human beings through other human beings. Eye to eye. weakness to weakness. hope to hope.

The first three words in good faith sharing “I have found”. Risk it… be open about your story.

John does such a good job of sharing his faith that his disciples leave him and start following Jesus.

Like the first direct speech of God in Genesis, the first words we hear of Jesus… after 37 verses of build up, what will Jesus say?… a question. He invites others to speak.

Jesus notices them. They’re after something. He stops, turns around and says the next of our key phrases for faith sharingWhat are you looking for?He responds to their inquisitiveness with a question.

It’s amazing how many times Jesus, God the Son, who was there at the star of the world, stops and asks people questions. It’s almost his default when people do things out of the ordinary.

“What are you looking for?”

Why do you think Jesus asks people questions so often?

In the world before google maps I had a habit of calling my father whenever I was going on a long journey to find out what root he recommended. This motorway is often busy in rush hour, that A-Road has a lot of roundabouts. I think we both knew it was as much about keeping the relationship strong as the new information.

There are a million different reasons why anyone can ask about faith or do something out of the ordinary. Asking open questions give a chance for both people to discover something together.

Take the most common question about faith. “How can a good God allow suffering?” There are a million different reasons someone might ask you that question from “my mum’s just died” to “I heard it was the one thing that would stump religious people.” To have a meaningful conversation we need to be more attentive. We need to know how to listen and invite more sharing, more than have the perfect response.

Not only does a question like this share the power in the conversation but it gives the opportunity for a deeper understanding of your friend. It’s offering to know them better, whatever they come back with.

As it happens in this particular situation they panic. They hadn’t planned on Jesus actually speaking to them directly.

They don’t know the answer to that question or if they do they’re too nervous to say it. To be fair it would be quite a risk “We’ve heard that you’re the saviour of the world…?” Would you say that to someone you’d just met?

Instead, they go with “Errr where are you staying?” The literal translation here is “where are you abiding?” “Where do you spend your days?” in other words “Who are you?”

Jesus again instead of rushing this and getting to the right answer recognised their hesitancy… like Queen Esther he draws them in.

“Come and see” he says

Not “Go and read this book”

Not “Here’s the right answer now make up your minds are you in or out?”

Jesus responds to their invitation “Where do you hang out Jesus?” with an invitation. Again he meets them where they are at.

“Come and see”

Bring all that you are into all that I am.

Even though Jesus is the source of all personhood there are No reductions of the person here.

Even though Jesus is the King of the Universe, there are no power imbalances here.

Even though Jesus is the only way to God, there is no pressure only invitation.

How much more should we offer ourselves including our faith to our friends?

Moroslav Volf puts it like this in his essay “Soft Difference”

“It might be appropriate to call missionary distance a soft difference. I do not mean a weak difference, for the difference is anything but weak. It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. The difference that joins itself with hardness always presents the other with a choice: either submit or be rejected, either “become like me or get away from me.”

In mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for a soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which [the New Testament] repeatedly encourages it’s readers to assume.

People who are secure in themselves—more accurately, who are secure in their God—are able to live the soft difference without fear. …For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation… They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves.”

“I have found…”

“What are you looking for?”

“Come and see.”

What we ultimately find as we start to practice this personal, conversational, invitational faith sharing is that this is not merely a method to get people into the Christian faith. This is the Christian faith. This is exactly how Christ is with us, with all of us: gentle, inviting, generous, kind.

We act towards others not because of what they might become but because of what God has shown us in his Son.

To encounter Christ is to encounter an overflow, an overflow of real friendship.