A Story to Tell
A Story to Tell
Last September, Pat Payaso ran for an open seat on Boston’s city council—and he got an idea for a creative way to campaign. Payaso translates to “clown” in Spanish; according to a report in TIME, Payaso “donned a rainbow wig, a red nose, and clown makeup in recent campaign photos and videos on social media.” But then he actually showed up at a polling place with the clown costume, and people got a little scared: “Police tell The Boston Herald that Pat Payaso’s presence near a polling location at Roxbury Community College made some people nervous … and they called the authorities.” An officer called to the scene stopped Payaso and “realized he wasn’t a threat” … in more than one sense. Payaso finished eighth in the race for four seats.
Payaso wasn’t trying to terrify anyone (at least, I hope not)—he just wanted to spread the word about his campaign and garner some interest from potential voters. But the way he went about it ended up being far from fun and wound up alienating people. Now think about the ways you’ve tried to share the gospel and the good news about your faith: Are we making friends, family, or coworkers feel safe and cared about as we tell them why we believe what we believe? Or might they feel confused or judged or even a little afraid of us? There are so many misconceptions about Christianity out there today—how can we avoid and overcome these in order to share the Good News about Jesus?
Paul the apostle gives us an example. When last we left Paul, he had just narrowly escaped being beaten to death. He must have been badly bruised and shaken, but he recovered his composure enough to ask permission to speak to the crowd, for he has a story to tell.
[Read Acts 21:37—22:21]
Claudius Lysias, an honest, open-minded Roman soldier, compares favorably with the prejudiced Jewish crowd. They had assumed (without troubling to check) that Paul had brought Trophimus, a Gentile, into the inner court of the temple. Lysias had mistakenly assumed Paul was an Egyptian terrorist but changed his mind when he learned the facts.
For our purposes today, let’s examine how Paul goes out of his way to show them the Way.
Go out of your way to identify with their story
Paul identifies with their story. He speaks their language. The commander expressed surprise at Paul’s ability to speak Greek, the trade language of the Roman Empire, but then Paul addresses the crowd in Aramaic. The Aramaic Paul speaks to the crowd was the vernacular for much of rural Syria and Palestine. The fact that Paul spoke fluent Aramaic caused the people to become “very quiet” (22:2). Any who may have thought he was a collaborator with the Gentiles would probably have realized they were wrong.
Paul respects their heritage. To the angry crowd in Jerusalem, whose complaint was that he taught against the law, the temple, and the people, Paul stressed his personal loyalty to his Jewish origins and faith. Paul begins respectfully, calling his audience “brothers and fathers.” He spoke of his Jewish birth and upbringing, and of his training in “the law of our ancestors” under the eminent teacher Gamaliel. Paul’s Jewishness was undisputable. He was “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” with a thorough training as a Pharisee under the most revered teacher of the day.
Paul understands how they think. He draws attention to his zeal for God, which was as great as theirs, since he had persecuted followers of the Way, even to prison and to death. The Sanhedrin could attest to this, since it was they who had issued him with the extradition orders that he took with him to Damascus. The description of his activity as a persecutor of Christians (4–5) opened the way for him to describe his conversion.
Understand that this isn’t a canned stump speech that Paul gives everywhere—he is very mindful of whom he is addressing and tailors his message accordingly. He identifies with their story.
Do you know that, according to research from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, one out of five non-Christians in North America does not “personally know” a single follower of Christ? That’s over 13 million people who don’t have a Christian friend or even an acquaintance. The percentages get higher for certain religious groups. For instance, 65 percent of Buddhists, 75 percent of Chinese people, 78 percent of Hindus, and 43 percent of Muslims in America do not personally know a follower of Jesus Christ.
Worldwide, the numbers are much worse: More than eight in ten non-Christians do not personally know a Christ follower. Todd Johnson, one of the researchers for the study, said that relatively small gestures—like inviting families into your home—can have a bigger impact than big mission campaigns. Johnson said, “We should really have lifelong friendships with Hindus, Buddhists, and so on. It’s so simple, and yet it becomes a big deal.”
When was the last time you invited an unchurched person into your home? Let’s make a point to do that this month, or even this week. It doesn’t have to be a big production—just coffee or dessert or to watch a ballgame. Show them hospitality, listen well, and get to know them better. Take steps to identify with their story.
Go out of your way to share your story
Having identified with his audience, Paul shares his story. Paul’s report of his conversion here is similar to that in Acts 9, but there are some interesting points that complement the earlier one.
This account has greater emphasis on light than Acts 9. Paul specifies that it was around noon when he saw the light, which meant it must have been a very bright light indeed. Here Paul says that his companions saw the light but did not understand the voice he heard speaking to him (9). Paul does not mention Ananias’s dialogue with the Lord, where he was commanded to go to Paul, but he adds a new point, important to his audience, about Ananias being a “devout observer of the law and highly regarded by all the Jews” living in Damascus (12). Also new is the word from God communicated by Ananias that Paul was to be “a witness to all people” and that he must be baptized (14–16).
Ananias’ phrases are typically Jewish (e.g., “the God of our ancestors,” “the Righteous One”). We know from Paul’s upcoming talk with Herod Agrippa that God also gave this commission directly to Paul. But here it was important for Paul to tell his audience that a respected Jew had shared the vision of his future ministry with him. In keeping with the new emphasis on light and the response to it, Ananias said that Paul was chosen “to know God’s will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (14). He was to witness of what he has seen and heard.
On the Damascus road, Paul was blinded by a bright light. But he responded to that light, and not only was his blindness taken away, he was personally transformed by the revelation. He was now to witness of what he had seen and heard.
Jewish tradition valued the light of God and viewed Israel as its guardians and agents, who were to give it to the Gentiles. Yet as John would later explain, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:5). Jesus “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). This Jewish mob belonged to the majority of God’s people who were rejecting the light; Paul belonged to the minority who received him and carried on the tradition of bearing the light.
Bible scholar N. T. Wright uses the analogy of waking up in the morning for how some people come to Christ through a dramatic, instant conversion and others come to Christ through a gradual conversion:
Waking up offers one of the most basic pictures of what can happen when God takes a hand in someone’s life. There are classic alarm-clock stories, Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, blinded by a sudden light, stunned and speechless, discovered that the God he had worshipped had revealed himself in the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. John Wesley found his heart becoming strangely warm and he never looked back. They and a few others are the famous ones, but there are millions more.
And there are many stories, thought they don’t hit the headlines in the same way, of the half-awake and half-asleep variety. Some people take months, years, maybe even decades, during which they aren’t sure whether they’re on the outside of Christian faith looking in, or on the inside looking around to see if it’s real. As with ordinary waking up, there are many people who are somewhere in between. But the point is that there’s such a thing as being asleep, and there’s such a thing as being awake. And it’s important to tell the difference, and to be sure you’re awake by the time you have to be up and ready for action, whatever that action may be.
Can you share your story in a concise way? If you’ve never done so, take time this week to write it out. God may give you an opportunity soon to share your story.
And then, because it is so inextricably linked with his own story, Paul reveals God’s story.
Go out of your way to reveal God’s story
Paul presents himself as a loyal Jew, not only by birth, heritage, and education, but still even at this point. True, he was now a witness to Christ where before he had been a persecutor of Christians. But the God of his fathers was his God still. He had not broken away from his ancestral faith, much less apostatized; he stood in direct continuity with it. Jesus of Nazareth was the Righteous One in whom prophecy had been fulfilled.
Paul wanted them to understand that those features of his faith that had changed, especially his acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord and his mission to the Gentiles, were not just his own wacky ideas. They had been directly revealed to him from heaven. If you think about it, nothing but such a heavenly intervention could have so completely transformed him.
Paul describes two visions from God. One, he saw the risen Lord, which resulted in his conversion and which he considered a resurrection appearance (6–10). Two, about three years after his conversion, God warned Paul of the danger of staying in Jerusalem and told him to leave (18). In this vision, God gave Paul direction for his life. Note that Paul was in prayer when God spoke in a vision. Prayer attunes us to God and makes us receptive to his voice. While Paul was in prayer, God warned him about the dangers of something he was eager to do. His heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites was that they may be saved (Rom. 10:1).
Evangelist Leighton Ford once met the former boxing champion Muhammad Ali at a hotel in Sydney, Australia. Ford listened as Ali regaled a group of admiring onlookers before introducing himself as “Billy Graham’s brother-in-law.” Ali’s face lit up as he said, “Oh Billy! Billy! I love Billy! I went up and saw him at the house at Montreat and he signed a book for me.” Ford relates what happened next:
“We got into a very interesting conversation. He was not only very articulate, he was also a very bright man. Of course, earlier in his life Ali had become a Muslim, but he told me and the onlookers, ‘You know I have traveled all over the world. And I have seen all these different religions. It seems to me that they all have the same thing. It’s kind of like you have a river, and you have a lake, and you have a pond, and you have a stream. But they all have water in them, so they are all the same, aren’t they?’
“I said, ‘Muhammad, that is very interesting. But suppose you have all of them and suppose they are all polluted. Then you would need a purifier, wouldn’t you? You see that’s who Jesus is. Jesus is the purifier.’ And he thought about that for a minute and he said, ‘That’s good. I had never thought about it quite like that. Jesus, the purifier.’
“I know that Muslims don’t refer to Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ because they interpret that [as blasphemous]. So I told him, ‘Did you know that in the Bible Jesus is called the Second Adam?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t know that.’ I said, ‘Yes, you see there was the first Adam that God made in the first creation. Then the second Adam was Jesus, the new creation, in whom everyone can become new.’ And he said, ‘I need to think about that.’”
Leighton Ford never saw Ali again. But “The Greatest,” as Ali called himself, has since met the One who alone is really the Greatest. I don’t know how Ali’s story will end, but I admire the lengths Leighton Ford went to in revealing God’s story to him.
Let’s go out of our way to show others the Way. Sometimes that’s all God asks of us—to go out of our way, show others his way, and let him do the rest.
Residents of a sleepy central Virginia town were surprised in March by a coordinated campaign to identify and woo one of their local teenagers. Carnival Cruise Line first posted signs all over town, then augmented their effort with a gigantic rolling billboard on a truck. The sign featured a picture of “Chief Fun Officer” Shaquille O’Neal with the text “DOES ANYBODY KNOW DARIAN?” The Darian in question was Darian Lipscomb, age 15, owner of a Snapchat account with a distinctive handle: @CarnivalCruise. Lipscomb had previously been on several Carnival cruises and had such a good time that he started a Snapchat account in 2012 to document his adventures and share with friends. Carnival representatives eventually tracked Lipscomb down and surprised him by offering, in exchange for that desirable Snapchat handle, an all-expenses-paid cruise to Barcelona for him and family aboard its newest ship, Carnival Horizon—a trip with a retail value of about $5,000. “We thought this would be a fun way to claim our handle and reward a ‘superfan’ at the same time,” said Robyn Fink, a spokesperson for Carnival, who also referred to the trip as “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Like Darian, we should be excited to share the Good News of our experience of salvation with others. Like Carnival, we are on a mission to seek those who are lost and offer them a life-changing invitation.
Will you go out of your way to show the Way?
David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.