Celebration and Critique: The Church’s Verbal Witness

You may have noticed for the first few weeks after Easter, the readings went through Peter’s Pentecost sermon. This week, we get a glimpse into Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill. I find it interesting to contrast these two talks, and think it gives us some insight into the way we should think about God’s mission.

I always get nervous when talking about evangelism or mission. I think there are a lot of goofy ideas out there, and most of my issues with Christians being awful revolve around a screwed up sense of mission. But I think these two talks teach us something about the verbal witness part of mission.

First, they are given to two very different audiences. Peter addresses a group of religious people who had all come together to worship the God of Israel. While it is a gathering of people from every nation, the gathering is a result of people seeking Israel’s God.

In Athens, Paul is talking to a group of polytheistic Greeks who have little or no sense of Israel’s God.

Because of the very different audiences, it can be helpful to notice the content as well.

Peter addresses his audience and tells them: You are responsible for Jesus’ death. Repent!!! You think you understood God and the Scriptures, but Jesus has come to turn that all on its head and do something new and beautiful.

Paul says: You are amazing people who are clearly thoughtful and passionate about your religion and spirituality. This is a beautiful thing, and you have good ideas. Now let me take your good ideas a step further by introducing you to Jesus.

website-home-page-critique-550x322It is an interesting contrast between the two. But I think they reveal two import parts of verbal witness: Celebration and Critique. Both of these are key to the verbal witness of the Church, but I think we often get them backwards.

When we compare these two talks, we see the critique is turned on those who are the religious people. God’s people. The insiders.

The celebration is for those on the outside. The heathen. The lost.

Yet walk into most Christian circles and you find the opposite. Most Christian talk is filled with why “those people” are evil and horrid, and what the Christians are doing so right.

Once again, we have gotten it backward.

At Mars Hill Paul speaks from a place of understanding that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. He understands God is not far from any of us. And in many ways, “these heathen people” have experienced Jesus in one way or another. So he begins there.

And he celebrates it.

He could have told them why all their false gods were going to send them to hell. He could have started with all the ways they were falling short of the life God wants for them. Yet instead, he sees an opportunity to help people see the different ways they are experiencing Jesus, and points them in the way of “more.”

If you want more life, joy, hope, love, and truth, this unknown God has a name and desires you and wants to lead you into more. He uses the opportunity to tell them of the hope he has with respect and gentleness.

He celebrates and points them to Jesus.

Yet Peter has a more critiquing tone. Because Peter knows the importance of self-critique for the people of God.

It is easy to get into “insider” mode. We are the ones who have the truth. We have it together. We know it all.

And this thinking causes a lot of trouble for the Church’s witness.

If we are going to be people who witness to God’s truth and embody God’s mission, we have to remember whose mission it is.

It is God’s mission.

We witness to what God is like.

But too often we fall into the trap of thinking it is our mission and our witness is to get people to be like us.

So we have to constantly remind ourselves and critique ourselves so we understand our proper place. We are participating in a mission which is not our own and pointing to something and Someone bigger and more amazing than ourselves.

If our witness points to the Church, we will leave people disappointed. The Church is messy and full of screwed up people. Like me. Like you. We can’t put our full trust and hope into a band of ragamuffin people like that.

But if our witness points to what Jesus is like, then we have a message worth sharing.

Our job is to participate in God’s action of drawing in and reconciling all people.

A God who is close to everyone, pursuing everyone, loves everyone, and want the best for everyone.

So we celebrate the ways God touches people’s lives and we keep a close eye on ourselves to be reminded whose mission it is and who it is we witness to.

Our words matter. The verbal witness of the Church is one that has caused a great deal of hurt and pain and misunderstanding. And I think it is because we forget what to celebrate, we forget who to critique, and we forget who we point to.

May we be a people who are more aware and in tune to the reality of the world by celebrating God’s movement in all people, and by remembering that God is God and we are not.


Note: The majority of this post combines some ideas from one of my favorite theology books and an amazing talk from Greg Boyd on evangelizing.

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