19th January 2020
In the Summer edition of Insights (the Synod magazine) there is an article entitled “Focus on Growth” talking about a proposal that was passed at the last Synod. There are 4 key areas: discipleship; relationship; number and impact. It is a very interesting article and is supported by some information from the National Church Life Survey.
It got me thinking about evangelism. I ask you: “Are you an Evangelist?
Seriously…this is an important question. “Are you an evangelist? I wonder how many of you are thinking, “Yes, that is what I want to be”. I am pretty sure if I asked you to raise your hands if you say “yes”, you would be in the minority. Perhaps one or two of you might, but not very many.
So why would most of you not raise your hands? Why don’t many of you want to be evangelists?
It seems evangelism has become a scary word for us. In general, it is a word with which we do not want to be associated. It is not unusual at all in congregations these days for the word not to show up anywhere in our mission statement or organizational chart of ministries or committees.
I wonder what you associate with the word. Is it because you have experienced an evangelist and it wasn’t a comfortable moment for you or for those around you?
One beautiful day in San Francisco, (our daughter) and I were waiting for the cable car to arrive. We had bought our tickets and stood on the footpath waiting while a fellow stood a few feet away and called out questions about life and then answered them from the Bible. I was thinking that I agreed with all of what he said but the people around us began to get restless. They started calling out their curly questions. “Why did those good God loving people die in the hurricane? Kind of questions. He patiently took each question and answered it, quoting scripture. He was doing a great job, but I don’t think his audience appreciated his endeavours.
People on the footpath started getting angry and abusive. “What about gluttons, hypocrites, and the righteous. He tried to be patient, but the crowd was getting in his face now.
It wasn’t funny. It was intense. It was sad. It was disturbing. Several people treating each other with contempt, hurling Bible verses like verbal grenades at each other.
When the cable car arrived, we got on as quickly as possible and I remember being embarrassed and sad and thinking, “no wonder people don’t find Christianity attractive”.
Or when I say the word evangelist, do you think of an “aeroplane evangelist”? These people are usually not so aggressive as the street evangelist, expressing concern for your eternal destiny in softer tones. Perhaps slightly more theologically nuanced, their bottom line is the same as the one standing on the street corner…to warn you about hell. They have your ear for as long as the plane is in the air and they begin probing to see if you have ever said the magic words that will assure your eternal life with God. If not, these evangelists employ a variety of tactics to move you in that direction.
Or maybe your idea of an “evangelist” was the roommate you had in college who was one of the kindest people you’ve ever known, but there was this condescending way she spoke to you when it came to issues of faith. You had this sense that when she said she was “praying for you,” it wasn’t the same as what you meant when you prayed for her. She dropped subtle hints that your faith wasn’t quite the real thing, like hers. She was always quick to quote a Bible verse in the nicest possible way that somehow made you feel less than. You sensed she was indeed concerned about your eternal fate and wasn’t sure that you were “in” at all.
So if these are our images of what it means to be an evangelist, it’s no wonder nobody’s raising their hands when I ask who wants to be one. But what if being an evangelist is not about being self-righteous or being pushy or being a religious know-it-all or standing on street corners or quoting Bible verses or having pat answers or being particularly articulate about Christian doctrine?
When we look at our passages today on this Second Sunday of Epiphany. This season when we celebrate the Good News of God’s love for all people, revealed, made manifest in Jesus Christ. That’s what Epiphany means, you know, a revealing, a manifestation, a showing. These passages have a theme running through them; it is the sharing of those revelations, the sharing of Good News. That is: Evangelism. Yes, that is what the word evangelist means literally–to be a bearer of Good News. How it got to be associated with those who are self-righteous and condemning—I can’t really say.
But what if, as these passages suggest, evangelism begins simply with paying attention and giving voice to manifestations of God’s love in our own lives? John the Baptist has experienced Jesus as the one who takes away sin. Andrew says, “we have found the anointed one…the chosen one”. If you read on in John’s gospel, Phillip says we have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. And the psalmist in our passage today describes God as the one who has lifted him up from the pit and put a new song in his heart. Paying attention to the way God shows up in your life is where evangelism starts.
My guess is that at one time or another, you too have had an experience of the divine presence in your life. An epiphany. Because I am a minister, people share their epiphany moments with me, and I wish they shared them with others too. Often times, they sound something like this:
• It was when my brother was dying I realized, I saw, I sensed, a comfort, a peace, a transcended word.
• Or it was one lonely night out in central Australia, far away from everything I knew and everyone I loved. I was feeling so small against the vast sky and the endless clusters of stars and galaxies when I became aware of a presence, a connection, an assurance.
• Or it was after an awful argument with my son, an insight gripped me, a conviction, about my own brokenness and how far off track I had gotten.
• It was tutoring a child whose family was hopelessly caught in the cycle of poverty, and I knew, I saw her humanity. We were part of the same family.
• It was my first year of college. In a moment of deep confusion and doubt I admitted to myself I couldn’t believe anymore–not the things I had grown up believing–and it was the surprising assurance in that moment that love had not abandoned me.
Maybe like John the Baptist, in a moment of epiphany, you too have come to know Jesus as the one who takes away guilt or shame or burdens too heavy to carry, too deep to undo, takes away despair or cynicism. Maybe like the Andrew and Phillip you have come to know Jesus through religious teachings and to know yourself to be called into the sacred narrative that in Christ God continues to love and transform the world. You have a sense–it has been revealed to you–that your life has a mission and a purpose tied up in the Good News. Maybe like the psalmist, you have endured unspeakable grief and times of unbelief and have felt a strength, a power beyond your own, sustain you and lift you up.
And the truth is there are as many variations of epiphanies as there are people. And those moments shape us and to the extent that they have made us more loving and compassionate and accepting, our lives bear good news without saying a word, and we already are evangelists. When God’s love claims us, our very lives preach Good News. And sometimes it is indeed necessary to use words. Because being an evangelist is also about giving voice to your story in those important times.
That does not mean that you have to take a course on how to explain the Christian faith in ten minutes or reduce your story to a couple of minutes it takes for the elevator to go up. Nor does it mean you have to memorize Bible verses. The words to share are simply the words that tell your honest story–nothing more, nothing less–the words of the evangelist are not threats but testimony, the telling of your encounter with God’s love. The words of the evangelist are not answers but authenticity. Notice how the psalmist says, “I was in the pit….” he tells the truth about his life. He doesn’t sugar coat it, he doesn’t embellish it, or polish it. The words of the evangelist are not doctrine but discipleship. Notice how John the Baptist says,
“Hey, I didn’t know who Jesus was, but here’s what I have learned.” That’s what discipleship is all about: learning. That’s what the word means. To be a student. And evangelism is sharing what we learn. Evangelists are students, not necessarily scholars. The words of the evangelists are not quotes, but questions, heart-to-heart questions.
Which brings us to the other starting point of evangelism–besides paying attention and giving voice to manifestations of God’s love in our own lives–evangelism begins with a genuine attentiveness to the other.
Remember the story There is Jesus walking along and two people start following him. The passage tells us he turned around and then he gave them a list of things to which they had to give intellectual assent. BEHOLD. No, it didn’t happen like that. Okay. So two people are following Jesus. He turns around and he gives them a phrase they need to repeat in order to secure their eternal destiny. No. It didn’t happen like that either. He turned around and he beheld them. He beheld them. He pays full attention to them. He sees them. He contemplates them. And the same thing happens later when Andrew brings Simon to Jesus. First Jesus beholds him…perceives him…looks at him with his mind’s eye and his heart’s eye. Isn’t that part of the issue with our popularized notions of evangelist? They are people who often do not see individuals but simply roll over people with their agendas. But evangelism begins with beholding another person. And then after Jesus beholds the two, he asks a probing question. What are you seeking? What do you want? Evangelism always begins with genuine interest in the longings and heart desires of the other person.
What are you looking for? What are you seeking? These are questions that invite people to share their lives beyond the surface, to look deeper together at life’s complexities. They are an invitation to mutual discovery and sharing of stories. The Good News is shared in personal encounters. Jesus invites the two to come and see–and keep reading–later Phillip invites Nathaniel to do the same thing: Come and See. Evangelism is invitation, not intimidation.
So, I wonder about your story. How did you get here today? Why are you listening? What are you seeking? Who in your life has paid attention to you and seen you and asked you the questions that go below the surface of our lives? Who has taken the time in their busy life and turned around and beheld you?
Who in your life has asked the questions beyond: What do you do? Where do you live? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up?
Who saw you and asked what are you seeking? What’s on your mind? What’s troubling you? What do you really want? Who invited you to come and see? Who invited you into a community of faith where God is at work and people are asking and learning and serving and growing and worshipping together?
Whoever those people are–can you see their faces now in your mind’s eye?–they are the Evangelists of the world. They are the bearers of Good News, and the world needs more of them. Those who love because they have been loved. Those who welcome because they have been welcomed. Those who take the time to turn around and see another because they have been seen. Those who invite because they have received an invitation.
If that’s what it means to be an evangelist, I wonder how many of you already are evangelists? If that’s what it means to be an evangelist, let me ask you again. Who wants to be an evangelist? Thanks be to God. Amen.