In the name of the Risen Lord. Amen.
Evangelism. It’s a word that makes us rather uncomfortable, doesn’t it? If I tell you that we’ll be forming a group to foster the work of evangelism at St. Francis and in our community, you’d get more uncomfortable than you do when I preach about money and stewardship. We hear the word evangelism and we think of a theology that is often deficient, harmful, and hypocritical. Evangelism reminds us of shady televangelists, colonialism, and closing the blinds and hiding behind the sofa when you see the young men wearing white shirts and black ties walking down your driveway. I had a conversation a few months ago with someone about evangelism and while they understood the need for it, they suggested that perhaps we find a different word to use, perhaps something less uncomfortable and politically charged.
But the message this morning is that evangelism is our calling, and it is time for us to reclaim that word and the values that go along with it. Throughout this sermon, we’ll consider how evangelism is misunderstood, and how we might better understand it, and therefore be able to claim our evangelical calling. And unless you’re reading this on my blog, you can’t tell that the word evangelical in this sermon has a lower case “e;” I am not speaking about what the media would consider being an upper-case Evangelical Christian, but rather, our calling to follow Jesus and share the Good News. In fact, that’s all that evangelism means; in Greek, it means “good message.”
Evangelism is not about conversion, it is not about saving souls, it is not about bringing in more young families to the church, it is not done as a duty, or as a means of obtaining cheap grace in which we are made right with God so that we can then live however we see fit. Instead, evangelism is about hearing the narrative of God, proclaiming your role in God’s ever unfolding drama, and listening to the story of others.
Our scriptural lens this morning is the reading from Acts. This is one of most compelling and powerful stories in all of Bible. Peter is in Joppa, near modern day Tel Aviv, and is being criticized for his ministry and eating with non-Jewish members of the Way, people whom we would call Christians. His critics saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews. They were suspicious of outsiders joining the Way. And so Peter begins to pray and has a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, and on that sheet where non-kosher animals and he was told to “kill and eat.” Immediately, he says “no!” Perhaps he thought this was a test. Peter was a good Jew, and keeping dietary laws was important to him. This was non-negotiable for him. In Bible, things happen three times to Peter, so it happens two more times. And then he gets it and he relays the message “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” They all understand that the Way was open to everyone, as the Holy Spirit descends upon and fills us all.
This was an extremely radical move for the early followers of Jesus. They went from being a small group of followers, to a worldwide movement without borders. No voter identification cards required; all are welcome to participate in following Jesus. They thought they understood their mission, they thought the story of God was the story of Israel, but they now saw that the story of God was about all of Creation.
And in this movement, the real need for evangelism emerged. The Gospel was now being proclaimed to people who perhaps were unfamiliar with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. People who had never seen the Temple in Jerusalem were now invited to be baptized into the Body of Christ. And so the story of God needed to be told. And as the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they claimed their rightful role in the story of God as main characters. And the same is true for us. We are all characters in God’s unfolding drama. There are no extras in this drama, we all have important roles, we are all lead characters with speaking lines. We might do some work behind the scenes from time to time, but the spotlight is on us. And right now, our world needs to see more Christians thriving in that spotlight instead of fumbling through their lines so miserably.
The first thing that we see in Acts is that God’s Spirit blows in new and unexpected ways, and the Spirit moves in a way that touches us all. In Revelation today, the one seated on the throne says “see, I am making all things new.” There is a constant Creation going on. The Spirit continues to move and continues to demolish boundaries that we have set up. The work of evangelism is paying attention to what new things God is doing in our lives, and linking that movement of the Spirit with God’s larger story for all of Creation.
And the second lesson from Acts is that there is no one who is outside. The Gospel is for the whole world. In our reading from John, Jesus tells the disciples in his farewell dialogue that “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He reminds them of the love that he has showed towards them, and tells them that one day soon, he won’t be around to show them that love, so it will be imperative that they keep his love alive amongst each other. And this is part of evangelism as well, loving each other. And if you love someone, you will want to know about their story, and you will share your story with them.
What all of these lessons this morning point towards is the fact that God is moving in the lives of others. Evangelism is about trusting that truth. God’s Spirit moves in everyone; God is doing a new thing through us all; God loves us all. And much of the fear and trepidation around evangelism is alleviated if we can trust that.
Evangelism is not about taking God to new frontiers, as God is already there. Doing the work of evangelism isn’t about telling people something that they don’t already know; it is, rather simply, helping people to be aware of those things that they have felt. If we truly believe that each person is created by God, that each person is loved by God, that God longs for all of Creation to be in harmony, that God’s Spirit moves among us all, then evangelism is helping people to recognize and name that. Evangelism though becomes scary when our trust waivers, when we lose sight of the fact that God is already moving in their life, when we forget just how good the Good News is.
And our world needs more Good News right now. But let me suggest that evangelism is about you and me, and not about the propping up of the institutions of religion. The religious landscape of our culture is changing. And many people are meeting this change with fear and denial. Some people are proclaiming that we’ve simply lost our way and need to get back to affirming things such as the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection as simple fixes to declining church attendance. Others will say that we need to transform ourselves to meet the needs of the culture, so more and more coffee shop style churches are popping up. When I was on paternity leave, I visited one of these hip, young churches and let me tell you, it was the most self-serving and shallow attempt at worship that I’ve ever seen. I won’t go into it now, we can talk more about that later if you want to hear more. But there are “experts” everywhere trying to diagnose the problems of the Church and recommend remedies.
Evangelism, understood properly, though reminds us that we already have everything we need. We have God’s story, as told through Scripture and the lives of faithful people throughout the generation. And if we spend some serious time in prayer and reflection, we can be aware of our own role in God’s story. And if we trust that God isn’t just moving in our lives, but in the lives of our neighbors, and family, and coworkers, then we can share our story with them. And not just share our story, but perhaps more importantly, listen to their story.
What evangelism so often gets wrong is that people assume that evangelism is about telling their story more than it is about listening to the story of the other person. If evangelism is about God’s story, we should be yearning to learn more about God. Earlier this month, there was a great anniversary that sadly wasn’t as widely celebrated as it should have been. April 16th was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. writing The Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is one of the most powerful pieces of Christian witness ever written, and part of what I enjoy so much about that letter is that it gives a very powerful insight into the story of God in the life of Martin Luther King. And if you ask me, it is worthy of being called scripture, right along with St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Corinthians, or Ephesians.
Earlier this week, one of our parishioners, Ryan Mails, met with Bishop Curry about his discerning a call to ordained ministry. And as I worked with Ryan on the initial stages of the discernment process, what I loved the most was hearing about how God was moving in his life. And in hearing Ryan’s story, I learned more about my own. When I learned how God moves in Ryan’s life, I couldn’t help but wonder, “what if God moves in my life in the same way and I just wasn’t paying attention to it?”
There is no one size fits all story out there. CS Lewis, speaking about evangelism, said “it is right to be concerned about the salvation of our loved ones, but we should not demand or expect that their salvation should conform to some readymade pattern of our own.” Remember, God does new things. When we listen in evangelism, we learn not only more about God, but we learn about how God might also be moving in our own lives.
Evangelism is also about finding ways to take bold steps, knowing that there are no boundaries to God’s Spirit, to show people that they are a part of God’s story. One of our parishioners recently told me a wonderful story about their efforts in evangelism. She was at an urgent-care clinic on Good Friday, and a man came up to the window, upset that they wouldn’t take his out of state insurance. And he’s particularly upset that the billing department was closed that day. Neither he, nor the receptionist, knew what holiday it was that caused the billing department to be closed. And so he sat down. And this parishioner asked him “May I tell you about Good Friday?” And he agreed. So she told him the story of Good Friday. And after she told him about the crucifixion, he shouted “what’s so good about that?” But she continued to tell him the rest of the Easter story and he concluded “well, that is good then, isn’t it.” Now this parishioner is self-admittedly, not the person you’d expect this story to be about, and said that evangelism is far outside her comfort zone. But she said to me “all I can do is listen, share what God can do, and share what God has done in my life.” Amen. I couldn’t say it any better myself.
Evangelism can be a challenge, especially for those of us who were trained to not discuss religion or politics in public, for those of us who are introverts, or don’t particularly enjoy talking about deeply personal matters with strangers or mere acquaintances. Evangelism though becomes possible and powerful when we trust two things, first that God is already moving in their life; and secondly, that what we have to share is indeed Good News, news so good that it would be selfish to keep it ourselves, news so good that it compels us to share it, news so full of gratitude and wonder that it drive us to be evangelical.
And I hope that you can see that this isn’t about filling pews. A bishop recently remarked that “when church people start talking about putting people in pews [or bringing in new families] they are speaking the language of decline. If our focus is to receive the life God has given to us, and live that transformed life, then the question of evangelism will take care of itself.” It’s really a question of going to church versus being the church. When you go to church, you come to receive religious goods and services, you come to be fed, you get your needs met through programs, and you expect trained professionals to lead you. But when instead we trust that God is moving in our lives, we can instead focus on being the Church. And when we are the Church, we are people on a mission, we gather to worship, not be fed. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say “I didn’t get anything out of that service;” my response is “good, you weren’t supposed to get anything about it. Worship is about God, not you.” But if we view church through the lens of a consumer, we expect to get something out of our investment. Instead though, when we are the church, we learn out to feed ourselves through the Word of God, proclaimed during worship, and through the community that gathers.
Evangelism simply doesn’t work if we’re just trying to get people to come to church. Membership campaigns don’t work, and are quite frankly counter-productive to genuine discipleship. This sort of evangelism forces to focus on having strong Sunday School programs, lovely music, and a pretty campus not for the glory of God, but to make ourselves appear attractive to others. It’s a false evangelism, it tells the story of us instead of the story of God.
Instead, evangelism is vibrant when we focus on being the Church. When we plant our roots deep within God’s story and then spend enough time in prayer to clearly articulate how we, both as individuals and a community, are living as a part of God’s story, then we are living as the Church. People these days aren’t looking to join something else- we’re already busy with associations such as homeowner’s boards, civic groups, scouts, PTAs at school, we really don’t need add just another membership to lists. But studies and surveys consistently show that we, as a people, are deeply hungry to belong and to have meaning.
And our belonging is found in the story of God and our meaning is found in being the Body of Christ. You have a story that I want to hear. You have a story of God moving in your life that our world needs to hear. I’ve said enough in this sermon, so I won’t share my story now, but perhaps we can listen to God’s Spirit speaking through us over a cup of coffee sometime. As the refrain from our Psalm this morning say, “praise the Lord.” In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be gathering a group of parishioners to consider evangelism more deeply at St. Francis. We’ll meet to discuss how we might better know God’s story, how we might encourage deep listening with others, and how we might be able to articulate and boldly proclaim our place in God’s story. And it is my desire that this group will facilitate the work of evangelism throughout our parish, and into our lives, our homes, and our city. It is my prayer that in owning our stories as part of God’s, that we might be the Church in a world that deeply needs more sharing of Good News.
The book of Acts is the story of evangelism. It tells the story of God’s Spirit leading followers of the Way into new truths. And the acts of the faithful aren’t confined to the book of Acts; your action is part of the story. We see that there are no boundaries to God’s grace and love. The work of evangelism is to trust that this same Spirit is working in the lives of everyone whom we encounter, and then sharing with them our Good News and listening to theirs. Might we heed the words of the great hymn – “tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!”