Sunday, May 3, 2015

"No Apologies"

Rae Fitch, Associate Pastor of Amanda Flipper A.M.E. Church in Decatur, GA, tells the story of a man who took an evening flight on which dinner was to be served to the passengers:

Of course he was in first class, so we can expect that he would have received first class service and a first class meal. He was a bit hungry as he had missed lunch that day in order to attend a meeting so that he could catch an earlier flight home. He inquired of the flight attendant how long it would be before they would be serving dinner, and she was rather cross with him, but he tried to ignore her behavior when she responded that it would only be a bit longer. And so as dinner time arrived, the flight attendant came around with the cart and started passing out the wrapped dinner trays which included a tossed salad. When the passenger received his tray he was a bit anxious and began opening his salad, but he was met with a surprise upon peeling back the covering. There, on top of the mixture of lettuce and carrots and what have you, lay a roach. Of course after such a strong urge to eat, his hunger quickly left him and he no longer desired the salad or any other food they had to offer. He became quite furious and decided that when he arrived home he would most certainly send a scathing letter to the president of this particular airline. So he wrote the letter and mailed it off.

A couple weeks or so later he was surprised to receive a special delivery package in the mail. Lo and behold upon opening it up he saw that it was from the president of the airline. In contrast to his own letter full of contempt and anger, this letter from the airline president was just dripping with apology. He informed the passenger that the particular plane on which he had flown had been taken out of service. He told him it had been stripped and treated for bugs. He also told him that the flight attendant would most certainly be reprimanded, possibly up to and including termination from employment. And he ended by appealing to the passenger to continue to use this airline. As the passenger finished reading the letter, he noticed that there was another page clinging to the back of the letter. You see the secretary had made a grave mistake because the passenger noticed that this was his own letter. He pulled it apart and his attention was drawn to the unfamiliar scrawl of the airline president who had written these words to his secretary; "Send this guy the standard ’roach’ letter".[i]
            Sometimes you need to give an apology for mistakes that you have made or things that you have done that hurt, offended, or jeopardized another person.  When an apology is insincere, people can usually tell, but when an apology is from the heart, they’ll know that too.  James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another.  When you have messed up, apologies are necessary to make things right.  They help people heal, move beyond the pain, and grow.  When you refuse to apologize for wrongs we have done, those things can become barriers in relationship between you and another person, and even between you and God.  So apologizing is important.
I’ll even go so far as to say that sometimes you even need to apologize when you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong.  After all, didn’t Jesus take the burden of our sins, when He Himself was guilty of none of them?  Didn’t He bear the blame for our wrongdoing, for the sake of reconciling us to God?  Maybe you need to do the same with someone, in order to bring peace.
Christians need to take seriously our need to apologize when we’ve sinned.  But the one area where we need to make no apologies is in the matter of our faith.  It seems these days that our culture thinks we owe it an apology, just for being Christians.  A generation ago, notorious sinners publicly repented of their sins.  Now, true believers are made to feel like they have to ask forgiveness for their religious convictions, if those beliefs run counter to the culture’s godless opinions and mandates.  We should not think, however, that this is the first time Christians have been asked to say sorry for what they believe.
In the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts, Peter and John find themselves on trial for the crime of Christianity.  God had done mighty signs and wonders through them.  Acts of healing and Spirit-filled preaching had resulted in thousands of new converts, threatening to overturn the religious and political status quo in Jerusalem.  Their trial had turned into an opportunity to testify to their faith.  Instead of suffering death for their “blasphemy,” they are threatened, beaten, and released.  Yet, instead of apologizing for their testimony, they preach all the more.  God continues to do miracles and the church continues to grow. 
In chapter five they are arrested again.  They do not remain in jail, because an angel of God opens the gates and sets them free, saying, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life (5:20).”[ii]   Again, they are arrested while preaching.  Verses 27-29 say:

When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
This intentional, respectful disobedience almost earns them the death penalty.  However, the renowned rabbi Gamaliel wisely advises, “Stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God (5:38-39).”  Again, they are flogged and released—yet instead of apologizing for their message, verse 42 says, “…Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”
Just as they did in the days of the early church, it’s time for today’s Christians to stand unapologetically for their faith.  This doesn’t mean rudely throwing it in people’s faces or pointing accusing, judgmental fingers.  It does mean refusing to capitulate to the demands of society to sit down and be quiet about what we believe.  It means refusing to regret the teachings of our Lord.  It means no more backpedaling whenever people ask us about our faith.  As Christian teaching becomes more and more unpopular, the world will increasingly ask us to apologize.  But we must take Paul’s words to young Timothy as our own commission:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom:  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,  and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

By now, everybody has heard about the riots in Baltimore as a result of the arrest-related death of Freddie Gray.  One viral video shows a mother, Toya Graham, grabbing her son Michael out of a crowd of rioters, slapping him repeatedly, yelling at him, pulling off his hoodie to reveal his face, and escorting him to the car.  Many have hailed her as a parental hero, saying that her use of force might have been excessive if it weren’t for the extreme nature of the situation.  Later in an ABC News interview on World News Tonight, Michael apologized for his role in the riots, saying, "I understand how much my mother really cares about me…so I'm just gonna try and do better.”[i]  Michael came to realize his need to apologize for his behavior, not just to his mother, but to the world.
Christians need to understand the importance for apologizing for wrong things that we’ve done, and for offenses we’ve given. In Matthew 5:23-24,[ii] Jesus says, “…If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”  Unapologetic Christians create a relationship barrier between themselves and other people, and between themselves and God.  Yet, while we should be quick to apologize for our sins, we must never apologize for what we believe.
In chapter six of the Book of Acts, Deacon Steven performs signs and wonders by the power of the Holy Spirit.  False witnesses rise up against him, and he is brought before the council on a charge of blasphemy.  In chapter seven, Steven gives a defense for his faith, but he never apologizes for it.  He reminds his hearers of their link to the past, calling upon the spiritual authority of patriarchs and prophets.  He leads them on an historic tour from Abraham to Moses and Aaron, to Joshua and David and Solomon.  Perhaps he intends to take them all the way to the cross and the empty tomb in his message, but he allows his emotions to get the better of him, and he never finishes.  What starts out as a well-thought-out testimony ends up as an angry tirade:

“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.  Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become;  you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it (Acts 7:51-53).”

            As a result of his insults, the Sanhedrin became bitterly angry.  They condemn him of blasphemy and stone him to death.  Christians often look to Steven as an example of faith, and admire him for his courage to become the first Christian martyr.  Yet I am not convinced that Steven needed to die that day.  We praise him because he didn’t apologize for his beliefs.  But he didn’t die because he stood unwaveringly for his faith.  He died because he defended his beliefs in an insulting manner.  He didn’t practice good apologetics.
            “Apologetics” is a word that is often misunderstood.  Many people think it means apologizing for what you believe.  In fact, it means quite the opposite.  It means defending your faith in a way that will hopefully win people over.  Unapologetic apologetics would mean steadfastly sticking to your testimony about Jesus, but giving such a testimony that would convince others to place their faith in Him as well.  Steven did one, but not the other.
            1 Peter 3:15 says, “…Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”  This gentleness and reverence is what Steven lacked as he gave his testimony about Christ.  Christians need to be unapologetic about their faith, but they need to stick to their crosses, not stick to their guns.  Too often we get so defensive that we allow ourselves to become angry and offensive.  In a poor case scenario, this could lead to martyrdom.  In the worst case scenario, it could lead to a testimony that fails to achieve its purpose—the saving of souls.
            Practiced properly, apologetics can mean the employment of scripture as an authority, as long as you’re speaking to someone who already has a respect for the Bible.  Christian apologetics can use philosophy, science, history, law, or logic as a means of testifying to your faith.  Bear in mind, though, that we should never use these things as an attempt to prove that God is real or that Jesus is true.  God can defend Himself—He doesn’t need us.  We give a defense for our beliefs, not for God.  Sharing your testimony should also include a personal story of your relationship with Jesus, and a reason why you believe.  I highly recommend the writings of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel if you want to learn more about Christian apologetics.  And remember—this is the practice, not of apologizing for our faith, but of defending it so as to lead someone else to believe.
            The Gospel can sometimes be an offense—but we ourselves should never be offensive.  1 Corinthians 1:23-25 says, “…We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  Because the subject of our testimony is so foolish and offensive to the world, we should take extra care to not be offensive ourselves.  “Speaking the truth in love,”[iii] we should strive to make love the technique of our testimony.  1 Corinthians 13:4-7 describes love in this way:

 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

            Unfortunately, this was not the technique of Steven’s testimony.  And I’ve known too many Christians like him, who get carried away with anger toward their audience and sabotage their witness.  Believers need to make no apologies for their beliefs, yet they do need to practice apologetics in such a way that will lead people to want the faith that we profess.
            Come to think of it, while Christians should never apologize for what we profess, good apologetics can and should mean apologizing for those ways in which the technique of our testimony has offended our audiences.  We should be sorry for those hypocrisies in our personal lives, and in the history of the Church, that jeopardize our witness.  While we must never apologize for the Gospel, we ought to repent of the offensive way in which we may have pushed it down someone’s throat, misrepresented Jesus, or been a bad example of what a follower of Christ ought to be. 
Today as we celebrate Steven’s martyrdom, let’s be honest about the accomplishments of a hero of faith.  But let’s also recognize the things that his testimony lacked—the things that got him killed.  Let’s tailor our testimony so that, God willing, we’ll live to see the result.  Let’s remember that as offensive as the Gospel can be, it’s important that we remain as inoffensive as we can.  “Gentleness and reverence,” says 1 Peter  3:15.  This is the way that the Christian can practice unapologetic apologetics.

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