For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[a] that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
I begin by posing you a question: what was Jesus’ profession? Was he a carpenter? A healer? A preacher? A revolutionary? These are all things that Jesus did, but were they his professions? Perhaps not. What I’d suggest to you today is that Jesus’ profession was storyteller. The gospels are full of parables and stories attributed to Jesus. Jesus consistently used the power of story to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which was his Good News. Stories were how people heard about the love and grace of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was only natural then that stories were how people heard about the world turning upside down in the Gospels. Jesus’ ministry was grounded in storytelling.
Our own stories define who we are. Our stories are what we learn from, they are how we remember the past and consider the future. It is in our stories that we find truth. Think about the power of the stories of the beginning of this congregation and the building of this church; the stories of amazing ministries being exercised here; the stories of God’s amazing action through new initiatives. Stories hold such power.
How does this relate to our topic of evangelism? The definition of evangelism that I offered in our first week was this: Christian evangelism is the act of telling the story of Jesus. That’s it, in a nutshell. It is simply telling the story and thus proclaiming the Good News. If that is what evangelism is, then we can conclude what evangelism is not; namely, evangelism is not speaking Christianese to those with Christianese as a second or unknown language. Evangelism is not sprouting amorphous rhetoric about Jesus. Evangelism isn’t even about teaching orthodox theology or liturgy or values. Evangelism, at its core, is storytelling, following the methods of the greatest storyteller, Jesus.
This makes sense when we think about what warms our hearts, in the words of John Wesley. Human beings, at our core, are emotional beings. We can learn rationally, but we really are emotional beings. And stories connect to that core. This is why facts on issues like homelessness or poverty or domestic violence or clerical abuse of children don’t move people to action as much as personal stories do. For example, I knew in my head that there was a significant drought affecting farmers in the north and west of NSW, but it wasn’t until I saw farmers on TV sharing their stories of pain and anguish that I felt compelled to give money and find other ways to help. Stories move people more than cold, hard facts.
Part of the storytelling of evangelism is literally telling the story of Jesus that we hear from Scripture. As Vernon said a couple of weeks ago, the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are two of the best stories that convey the Good News to people – the Prodigal Son because it is an analogy for God’s unconditional, all-forgiving, yearning love, and the Good Samaritan because of its’ message of breaking down barriers and loving one’s neighbour, whoever that neighbour is. So there is no doubt that to be an effective evangelist – well really, to be an effective Christian – we have to read and re-read and talk about and know our Bibles – in particular, the stories contained within our Bibles. We need to know all those great Sunday School stories like Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea and Joshua and the walls of Jericho and Elijah and Elisha and so on, because these stories convey what God is like. We need to know the story of Job, whose story of faith and doubt and questioning is an incredibly useful one for those struggling with or new to faith. And of course, we need to know the stories and parables that Jesus shared.
But a big part of that storytelling that we do as evangelists is actually telling stories of Jesus in our own lives – that is, sharing our testimonies. We do this because our own stories are easier for people to connect to a lot of the time than stories from Scripture. Our own stories have reality and emotion and meaning and depth and tangibility, and because of this, they have effect. Wesley’s story of conversion, when his heart was strangely warmed, was perhaps a much more effective story to share in his ministry than any theology or sermons or anything.
So I could tell you the story of Wesley’s story of conversion, or Augustine’s. I could tell you about Corrie Ten Boom or Billy Graham or my parents or my husband. But the stories that I can really share with the most integrity are my own – the ones that I have lived and learned from myself. So let me do that today, and as you are listening, I want you to think about your own stories of faith and grace and doubt and community; what stories make you up? What stories make you a Christian today?
I was born into a Christian family; my parents were the children of converts through American missionaries in Sri Lanka, and when they migrated out here, the Uniting Church most suited them. So church was a part of my life from day 0 – Sunday morning worship every week, Sunday School with a small group of kids, Tamil Church once a month and other churchy fellowship events. It was just a given that Sundays were for church and not for sport or socialising or even study, which said something. I know there are a lot of pastors’ kids and other people who grew up in Christian homes who grew to resent the obligation to go to church, and therefore fell away when they were old enough to choose for themselves. But my story was truly never like that, nor was it for my siblings or indeed most of the other kids my age at that church.
Why was it different for us? It was people like you. People older than me would take notice of me, have conversations with me, take time out of church regularly to teach me, celebrate the big moments in life with me, journey with me through tough times, and more than anything, made me feel like a real and valued member of that community – not just because I was young and cute and yay-young-people, but because I was equally made in God’s image, equally broken and redeemed, and equally in need of love and grace. They say it takes a village to raise a child; I’d say it takes a church to raise a Christian. So my community acted as Christ for me, and that is a big part of why I am still a Christian today, and why I am so passionate about the children and families we have among us.
A big part of my story of course is how God acted in the worst times of my life. Growing up going to Sunday School meant that I had my own theology from an early age, shaped by the wonderful people at church who taught me those great Bible stories, and sang about Jesus, and endeavoured to teach me some big theological concepts in a way I could grasp. But my theology until I was 15 was Sunday School theology. It wasn’t the fault of anyone, but I sank into the notion that one of the perks of being a Christian was a happier, easier, safer life, that prayer and doing good deeds would just make life better for me. And it’s not like my family were angelic, but we were a good, loving, charitable family.
And then in January 2003, when I was almost 15, the Canberra Bushfires burnt my house down. My family came out alive, but everything we held dear went up in smoke. A massive event like that tends to shake the foundations your life is built upon, but for me, it shook up my picture of God and Jesus and faith and religion in general. Was the fire God’s doing, or was it random? Did it mean anything that our house was burnt down, but our Hindu neighbours’ house wasn’t? Was God punishing us for something, and if so, what? Or was God totally absent from us at that time, and that’s how the fire took our house? What kind of a God takes everything from a good family? I was so very deeply angry. More than the loss of priceless items like photos and sarees, I was infuriated by the randomness and injustice of it all.
What’s the good news in this story? It was the process of unlearning and relearning faith and theology from a much more real, vulnerable lens. It was realising that being a Christian doesn’t make everything easy; it makes everything bearable. It was learning that God did not abandon us, but was fully present with us in the car, driving through the flames, as He was on the cross on Good Friday. It was realising that we don’t pray and do good things to earn salvation; we pray and do good things because we believe we are already redeemed, and can’t help but live out that redemption in the world. More than anything, it was realising that the world is random and cruel and unjust sometimes, to good and bad people, and that in itself is why we Christians must work tirelessly for the Kingdom of God, in which the world will regain its balance and harmony. Through that experience, I came to make my faith my own choice that I continue to choose each day and live out where I can. My childhood faith was real but sanitised. My faith post-fire is vulnerable and sometimes rocky but infinitely more real.
My last story that tells you why I am still a Christian is my story of call into the ministry. For some colleagues, including my husband, the experience of call was not so much a big Holy Spirit mountaintop experience as it was a series of doors opening in a particular direction. For me, it was a big moment in a difficult time of my life. I was 19, I was a year out of home, and life was pretty difficult. My boyfriend at the time was bad news, I was unmotivated to study, and I was in a particularly bad relationship with my parents. Like many second-generation migrants, I was struggling between the attitudes and values of my parents and the Tamil community and that of the Australian community. I realised I was making a lot of life choices because I knew it was what a good Tamil girl would do. On top of that, living in Sydney gave me my first real experiences of racism, so much so that I began to resent my skin colour. I believed so deeply that life would be so much easier if I was white, and so I prayed for God to take my brown-ness away. I prayed and prayed and prayed.
After a particularly bad fight with my boyfriend, I decided to go down to Canada Bay, just to sit near the water and cry. And that was where I had my call to ministry. It’s very hard to describe the moment, but it was warm and light and wonderful, and there was no Charlton Heston-esque voice, but there was a very clear sense of the message I was getting. The message was that my colour was my thorn in the flesh, the burden through which God’s grace and strength would be shown, and that God was calling me not to live my life for my family and culture, nor to live my life for me, but to give my life over to Him, and use my identity as a Tamil Australian woman for the coming of the Kingdom. Jump forward 10 years and here I am. But the most striking part of that experience was that God decided to use that which I hated for good. God opened doors to guide me to where I am today and where I am going next. God helped to create a place for me, a woman, a non-Anglo woman, a young non-Anglo woman, to serve Him and the church with whatever gifts and skills I have. I am a Christian today because God loves and uses all of me.
Jesus was a storyteller. If we are to walk in His footsteps, taking up His commission and spreading the Good News, we are to be storytellers too – tellers of the stories of Scripture, tellers of the stories of miracles, and tellers of the stories of our lives. Think seriously about why you are still a Christian today, and the stories that make you a Christian still. Be courageous, and tell your story. Amen.