Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By Word and Example

A standing joke about Episcopalians is that we live in mortal fear of the "E" word: Evangelism. There's much truth to the humor (as this t-shirt underscores). Many of us don't understand what the word means and/or associate it with stereotypes and bad experiences (Scott Bader-Saye's article is a good corrective on these fronts). And quite frankly, too many Episcopalians and Episcopal parishes have been content to stay in the comfort-zone of a maintenance model of the Church.

But whether we realize it or not, every Episcopalian has made a solemn vow to be an evangelist. It's right there in the vows of the Baptismal Covenant:

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God's help.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305

What does this mean for everyday life?

David deSilva, author of Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer (InterVarsity Press, 2008), offers some helpful thoughts:

The baptismal life also involves us all in evangelism, proclaiming "by word and example the Good News of God in Christ." If Satan, the domination systems of the world and our sinful desires are busily promoting distorted views of the purpose of life and the ways to fulfill our core longings, those who are baptized are enlisted to tell the truth, and to tell it courageously. The Reverend Dr. D. T. Niles, Sri Lankan evangelist and one-time president of the World Council of Churches, penned the now-famous quotation "Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread." Evangelism need not be conceptualized as taking people down a prefabricated four-point path to salvation. It is, rather, our sharing with others what we have found in God, inviting others into our experiences of God's grace so that they, in turn, might have an opportunity to encounter more of God's grace.

We cannot make this good news known by word only, without the consistent display of attitudes and deeds that make our words credible. Neither can we make it known by example only, without the words that tell others what makes our attitudes and deeds possible and meaningful. Just as we do not pour water and lay out bread and wine without the words that make them sacraments, nor speak the words without the water, or bread and wine, that can be apprehended by our senses and bring the word into our flesh, so the witness of our lives combines word and visible sign. In this way, we live out our baptism more and more, God makes our existence into sacramental lives that give those around us a means of grace to apprehend more of God (pp. 64-65).

I think deSilva is dead-on to insist that while both word and example are necessary, neither is sufficient by itself. We need word and example to be effective, faithful bearers and communicators of the Gospel. And that requires adequate spiritual, moral, and intellectual formation (unfortunately, The Episcopal Church - and other mainline denominations - aren't always very good at this).

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