I want to start out today with a question. Are you ready? WHO WANTS TO BE AN EVANGELIST?
Seriously...wherever you are, raise your hand...if you want to be an EVANGELIST? I wonder how many hands are raised out there. Typically when I ask this question in a sanctuary or room full of people, no one raises their hand. On very few occasions one or two people have.
I wish I could ask each one of you listening why you did--or I am assuming in most cases, did not--raise your hand?
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 their mission statement or organizational chart of ministries or committees.
I wonder what you associate with the word. Is it some variation of my experience a few years ago?
One beautiful fall day in Athens GA, I was marching along with the happy upbeat throng of people pouring into Sanford Stadium for a University of Georgia football game, when we came upon the "Evangelist." He was a very large man positioned just outside the gate holding up signs about the eternal damnation of drunkards and shouting out Bible verses about the doom of all kinds of people.
That was when one of those eternally doomed drunkards confronted the "evangelist."
"Let me get this straight," he slurred as he invaded the man's personal space. "I'm going to hell because I've had too many beers??? Well...what about all the Big Macs and fries you've been eating, big boy?" He asked as he poked at the man's big belly and smugly laughed.
Obviously feeling self-satisfied with his own theological insight, he continued, "Seriously, BIG BOY, what about GLUTTONS?" The "evangelist" stuck to his script proclaiming all drunkards hell bound and did not react to the invasion of his personal space. He did not even make eye contact. It was as if he didn't see the man at all. That's when the drunkard got right up in his face. "Maybe I'll see you there," he said, poking him now in the chest and laughing a sinister laugh.
But it wasn't funny. It was intense. It was sad. It was disturbing. Two people treating each other with contempt, hurling Bible verses like verbal grenades at each other.
One of my Jewish friends looked at me, the minister in the group, and in an attempt to ease the tension, laughed and said, "You see why I'm not Christian."
Embarrassed and sad, the best I could come up with was, "I think they forgot to read the part about love one another and judge not that you should not be judged." And I wondered, as we made our way to our seats, if the confrontation had eventually erupted into a fight.
Evangelist. Or when I say the word evangelist, do you remember encountering an "airplane evangelist" ever? Usually much less aggressive than the big boy outside Sanford Stadium, the airplane evangelist expresses concern for your eternal destiny in softer tones. Perhaps slightly more theologically nuanced, their bottom line is the same as the man outside the stadium...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?
Let's consider together our passages today on this Second Sunday after the 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. Aka 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--well, that's a topic for another day.
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. Oftentimes, 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 on a military ship far out at sea, 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, she was my child, my sister. We were part of the same family. I was her and she was me. There was no distance between us.
- 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, 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. There is that wonderful proclamation of Saint Francis. Perhaps you've heard it. _Preach the Gospel. When necessary use word s. _ Doesn't that ring true? When God's love claims us, our very lives preach Good News. And sometimes it is indeed necessary to use words. And being an evangelist is also about giving voice to your story in those necessary times. Giving voice to your story.
Now listen! 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 an elevator talk. 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...." Tells the truth about his life. 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 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, no, no, 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 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? Raise your hand. Raise it high! Thanks be to God. Amen.