I had the great pleasure of worshiping with and preaching to St. Francis in the Valley Episcopal Church this morning. It’s in Green Valley, AZ and a wonderfully friendly congregation
O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
“so that grace, as it extends to more and more people,
may increase thanksgiving”
There is something a little confusing about Christianity.
We way that grace abounds,
and that God and grace may be found in every living thing
and even in the vast extent of creation
as the waters cover the sea.
But we also speak of evangelism,
of bringing the good news to the whole world
and making disciples of all nations.
Which is it?
Is God already there, or do we bring God to people?
Today I want to talk about that most difficult of topics,
particularly for Episcopalians.
I want to talk about evangelism.
How many of you are evangelists?
Raise your hands please.
Evangelism can be tricky,
and over the last couple centuries
it has developed somewhat of a reputation.
Most Christians I know want to be evangelists in a generic sort of way,
but find themselves troubled with the details.
They wonder whether this means being obnoxious or inappropriate.
They wonder if it means in some way imposing their beliefs on others.
So let me put your mind at rest, and jump ahead to the final point.
Yes and no.
Evangelism does sometimes mean being obnoxious and inappropriate.
God calls us to be visible and to interfere with the status quote.
Jesus was seldom proper, seldom appropriate.
But he was always compassionate.
Evangelism does not mean imposing your beliefs on others.
There we seem to have mucked things up.
To begin with, we must be clear that evangelism is not proselytization –
it doesn’t mean making new Christians.
Indeed, that does occur, but that’s up to God.
We water and tend. We spread the seed.
But God gives growth.
Nor is evangelism simply teaching.
Again, that occurs, but we do not have a magic knowledge pill
that, when accepted by an unbeliever, automatically saves them.
We call that kind of thinking Gnosticism,
and ruled it out around 1800 years ago.
So what is evangelism?
It comes from two Greek roots that you’ve probably heard,
but may not recognize
“Eu” for good,
as in euthanasia – good death–
or eucharist – good gifts or thanksgiving.
And “angelos” the Greek word for messenger,
from which we get the word angel.
Eu-angelium or evangelist means good message,
or one who brings good news.
Mark’s gospel begins with these words:
“The beginning of the evangelion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
We usually translate it to “gospel” in English,
which originally meant “good story.”
So evangelism and gospel go together.
I already said, though,
that evangelism is not specifically about spreading knowledge.
We are not saved by knowledge.
Even worse, the good news cannot be thought of as a commodity we sell.
God’s grace, God’s gifts are always freely given.
And Anglicans have long been skeptical of evangelism,
for these very good reasons.
What are we to do if we are neither distributing the truth,
or selling membership?
Jesus answers that question in today’s Gospel.
We hear that family for him means more than blood relation.
He even denies that his biological mother and brothers
Are really family to him, when they try to stop him
from sharing the good news with the people.
Mark says they tried to restrain him,
because people were gossiping about him,
saying he was mad.
Rather, for Jesus, his family came
in the form of the people who listened to him.
“Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The Good News has to do with the relationship we share with one another,
and with God through one another.
Jesus brought a new way of being family,
and of being religious.
Jesus exercised community, common love, and true fellowship,
which we have come to call ecclesia, or church.
We are one Body, one Spirit, in Christ Jesus.
I fear that in the last couple centuries, Christianity
has been reduced to intellectual assent,
when for Jesus it was about relationship.
Paul says, “Yes, everything is for your sake,
so that grace, as it extends to more and more people,
may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
God was already there. Grace was already there,
but the glory of God increases in the thanksgiving,
we find in the building of family and community.
The Glory of God increases in Eucharist and Church.
This is the Good News: that God exists within you
AND within the hearts of those you meet.
The challenge is to make a connection,
to draw out the inner blessedness in both self and other.
No education required, no fancy speech or special knowledge,
though those things certainly help.
Only find the spark of God within you
and allow it to reach out to the spark of God in others.
Jesus did this.
Jesus was very clear that he came for the children of Israel.
That particular aspect of his faith,
for he was man as well as God,
reached out to the people of Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea.
Peter did this when he reached out to people of courage,
and Paul, when he reached out to people of reason.
We listen to Paul trying to be “all things to all people”
and forget that each pair was sent to a different place at a different time.
Paul reached an amazing number,
and we give thanks for that, but even he had only a part of the church.
We also thank Peter and Mary Magdalene,
Thomas and Priscilla, and countless others,
each of whom reached out in there own way.
Here we remember St. Francis, who embraced poverty
(in a way most of us never will)
and reached out to the poor.
You too have your own gift, your own charism and charisma
to reach out to the people around you.
For my part, God has called me to be an evangelist to scientists and academics.
As the chaplain to the University of Arizona,
I work with college students to help them
find the image of God within themselves,
and to share the Good News of God alive in their actions.
We share a common meal twice a week and Eucharist every Sunday.
Both I and my peer minister spend time in public areas of campus
meeting people where they are and sharing our-selves,
because we believe we are the Body of Christ.
I cannot tell you that dozens have converted to the faith,
Nor can I promise that they have accepted the knowledge we shared.
What I can say is that communities have formed.
Students have discovered what it means to trust one another,
even to love one another, and
to share meaningfully the questions and answers of their lives.
Our country, our culture desperately needs
the ability to communicate right now.
And we Christians, we Episcopalians in particular,
have that to offer.
As frustrated as we can be with another, even within our church,
we know what it means to bring our different opinions,
our different wants and needs to a common table.
You have that,
and the world needs it.
In John’s version of the Good News, Jesus leaves his disciples
with these words:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
This is the Good News, and it cannot be shared remotely or impersonally.
It cannot be guaranteed or insured.
“The kingdom of God is among you.”
And we experience it as a community,
in the very concrete, very earthy and specific
water of baptism and bread of communion.
We experience it in one another.
Our strength comes in community,
the one we have and the ones we are forming.
I’d encourage each of you, and all of you,
to find your own ministry among the people you know and love already.
That may be your family, or your neighbors,
the people you work with, or the people you play with,
even the people you pray with.
We all need to hear the good news over and over sometimes.
Find the spark of life and light within you,
in all that you do,
and do not be afraid to share it with the people you normally see.
Build communities of love, with honesty, trust, and joy.
The grace already there will become apparent.
God will become apparent.
Conversion yes, knowledge yes, but first love.
The Good News comes in the form of a specific person,
Jesus of Nazareth, the living God.
I’d encourage you to share that good news with the people you know and love.
A surprising number of people.
A sad number of people, will never have met him.
Or they will have been introduced to a picture of him
that does not inspire love or trust or faith.
In that case, you are the Good News.
You must love them until they understand what love means.
I suspect some of you have done this already.
So let me ask again,
How many of you are evangelists?
How many of you share of yourself in love
with those around you?
How many of you let the image and likeness of God within you
come out to play?
Don’t be afraid to evangelize.
Don’t be afraid to be the best, most honest and caring you.
Don’t be afraid to give credit for that to this man, Jesus of Nazareth,
but always remember, that he died (and rose again)
so that you might come into your inheritance,
so that you might love and be loved,
so that you might spread the Good News.
And so I will leave you with the words of my own favorite saint,
and the patron of this household, St Francis,
“Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”