Sunday, January 20, 2008

Called to Witness

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
RCL, Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

While in seminary at Sewanee, one of our professors was a Lutheran who loved to poke fun at a commonly perceived Episcopal attitude towards evangelism and witnessing. He’d say: “If you awaken an evangelical Christian in the middle of the night, and you tell him that there’s one person on the other side of the world who’s never heard about Jesus Christ, he’ll immediately jump out of bed, throw on some clothes, hop on the next plane, travel across the world, and tell that person about Jesus. But if you awaken an Episcopalian in the middle of the night, and you tell him that there’s one person on the other side of the world who’s never heard about Jesus Christ, he’ll roll over in bed and say, ‘We’ll talk about it at the next Vestry meeting.’”

Granted, these are stereotypes. Not all evangelicals and not all Episcopalians are like this. And, in fact, there are many evangelicals within the Episcopal Church.

Nevertheless, there’s truth to the claim that, for many Episcopalians, words like “evangelism” and “witnessing” are kind of scary. Rightly or wrongly, we Episcopalians have a reputation for being uncomfortable with sharing something as personal as faith in God and Jesus Christ. For some of us, that may be because words like “witness” and “evangelism” conjure up images of street preachers and fiery fundamentalists lugging heavy black Bibles and harassing passers by with threats of fire and brimstone. I can personally attest to how distressing and scary receiving that kind of zealous attention can be.

But our personal discomfort and our fears don’t serve the mission of the Church. And this is because evangelism lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Just think about it. If the people who had experienced something life-changing in the presence of Jesus hadn’t gone out and told somebody else about it – and if that person hadn’t gone out and told somebody else – and if nobody had cared enough to write down what they had experienced in the gospels and letters of the New Testament – well, we wouldn’t know anything about Jesus, would we? And we certainly would not be gathered in this beautiful church this morning, for there would be no such thing as the Church, much less St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

Without evangelism, Christianity would have been stopped dead in its tracks. And so evangelism – bearing witness in our words and deeds to Jesus Christ – is vital, not only for the survival of the Christian Church, but even more importantly, for the power of God to transform people’s lives with forgiveness and resurrection hope.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we see evangelism in action. John the Baptist was born for one reason: to witness to the coming of the Christ. And that’s what he’s doing when he proclaims to the people, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s witness to Jesus arouses the curiosity of two of his disciples. So they leave John and start to follow Jesus. And they start telling people that they’ve found the Messiah. The words of one individual set off a chain reaction, forming a small group of disciples that would later grow into a world-wide Church.

Today’s reading from Isaiah also addresses witnessing and evangelism. After raising the people up out of exile, God commissions Israel to be a servant community. And the purpose of this service is not simply “to restore the survivors of Israel.” God has something bigger in mind. God has a plan for the entire world. And so God commissions Israel to be “a light to the nations.” God wants Israel to spread the good news of salvation “to the ends of the earth.” This evangelical mission of witnessing to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the sole purpose of Israel’s existence. And so Isaiah puts these words in the mouth of the servant community Israel: “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb he named me.”

The mission of Israel and the mission of the Church share this in common: we are called to boldly testify to God’s salvation in a world desperately seeking good news. God called us to do this before we were born. We hear it in Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel in a passage often called “The Great Commission”: “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20 NRSV). We each receive this commission when we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we see it clearly stated in our Baptismal Covenant promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP, p. 305).

Evangelism – bearing witness to Jesus in our words and deeds – is not an option for any Christian. Quite the contrary, it’s a direct command from our Lord. And in the sacramental rite of confirmation and the regular renewal of our baptismal covenant, each one of us has solemnly vowed to obey that commandment.

So what does this look like? What are we called to do as evangelists?

John the Baptist and Jesus show us the way. John shows us how important it is to publicly speak up for what we believe about Jesus. He shows us how important it is to point to Jesus and to then get ourselves out of the way. “Behold, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “Here is the one who’s more important than me.” “Here is the one who reveals the true nature of God as love and mercy.” “Here is the one who has changed my life; he can do the same for you, too.”

And then there’s the example of our Lord himself. When two of John’s disciples ask where he’s staying, Jesus issues this invitation: “Come and see.”

Come and see: our task as evangelists is really that simple. It’s about welcoming and hospitality. It’s about actively inviting others to come and see Jesus. Come and see Jesus in the fellowship of this faith family we call St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Come and see Jesus in the liturgy and music of our worship. Come and see Jesus in our Sunday school programs for children, youth, and adults. Come and see Jesus in the Wednesday night suppers and programs. Come and see Jesus in the many, many things we’re doing to enrich each other’s lives and to reach out in love and compassion to the needy in our community. Come and see Jesus. And be changed.

There’s a contemporary translation of a passage from Matthew’s Gospel I’d like to share with you. It speaks directly and beautifully to what evangelism and witnessing are all about.

Jesus said, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hill-top, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up to God, this generous Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:13-16, The Message).

Indeed, God is not a secret to be kept. The God we know in Jesus Christ is a gift to be given and received with great wonder and joy. And you and I have the high calling and the privilege of sharing that gift we have already received.

So may we therefore go forth and generously share the mystery and the hope of our faith, asking God to continually inspire our witness to Jesus Christ, “that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection” (BCP, p. 816).

1 comment:

John said...

Evangelism is simply "coming out" as a Christian. Just as gay and lesbian people have to set aside their fears of rejection to be honest with their families and colleagues about who they are and their deepest feelings and affections, so to as Christians we have to deal with our fear that others will despise or reject us, and to be honest about ourselves and our sense of connection to something far greater than ourselves. And just as coming out as a gay or lesbian person often leads to some conversations and some changed attitudes, so to our coming out as Christians can change people's perceptions of God and the Church.