Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Proper 9, Year C: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

It’s happened to me several times over the years. And almost every single incident was awkward and embarrassing.

On one of those occasions, I was walking down a busy street when this guy walked up to me, a leather-bound Bible in one hand and a fistful of pamphlets in the other. Looking me straight in the eye he asked, “Have you found Jesus?” I had no idea what to say. Taking advantage of my discomfort, this guy began berating me with all kinds of questions, none of which I knew how to answer. I just wanted to get away from him as quickly as possible.

On another occasion, it happened on my college campus. Except this guy wasn’t as nice as the first one. This guy was angry. Standing in the midst of students walking to and from class, he yelled out Bible verses at everybody passing by, threatening them with damnation, singling some of us out by the way we were dressed for special censure, and just generally calling down the fire of heaven on all of us. Alienated from the Church as I was during that period of my life, this guy didn’t exactly inspire me to return.

One of my most memorable experiences happened after I was ordained. I had come home from work early and was still wearing a black suit and clerical collar. The door bell rang, and as soon as I opened the door I realized by the way the two guys on the front porch were dressed that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. When they saw me, the look on their faces was like deer caught in headlights and there was an awkward pause that completely threw them off script. Clearly, I was not what they were expecting, and so, for a change, I wasn’t the one who felt unsure about how to respond. So I gave them my card and invited them to church!

These are some of my experiences with “evangelism.” I’ll bet that many of you have similar stories to tell. They range from the mildly uncomfortable to the humiliating. And they constitute some of the reasons why many of us in the Episcopal Church feel like crawling under a rock whenever we hear the word “evangelism.”

It’s ironic when you think about it, because the word “evangelism” quite literally means “good message.” And it’s from there that we get terms like “glad tidings,” “good news,” and “gospel.” In spite of the ways in which evangelism can sometimes be distorted and manipulated for self-serving, guilt-inducing ends, evangelism – the practice of sharing the good message or good news of what has happened and continues to happen through Jesus – lies at the very foundation of our faith as Christians, and at the heart of the Church’s mission to the world.

In stark contrast to ways we have sometimes abused the good news of Jesus, Episcopal priest and Biblical scholar William Countryman notes that there are three things necessary for good news to be genuinely Christian.[1] First, good news must be good; it must give hope for the future rather than merely creating new and unbearable burdens. Secondly, good news must be news; it must offer some element of surprise and some new way of looking at the world. And finally, good news must be Jesus-centered; it must be related to the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus as revealed to us in the New Testament.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, we see the elements of surprise and hope in the work of the 70 commissioned by Jesus to go in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit on his way to Jerusalem. What good message, what good news or gospel, were they sent to proclaim? The 70 proclaimed a very succinct gospel: “the kingdom of God has come near.” What exactly does that mean?

Kingdom of God language was very familiar to Jews in Jesus’ day.[2] Echoing the visions of prophets like Isaiah, kingdom language pointed to the fulfillment of God’s promises in rescuing Israel from pagan oppression, the judgment and overthrow of evil, and the establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace. To talk about the kingdom was to talk about God rescuing and healing God’s people and God’s creation, all of which have been damaged, distorted, and diseased by sin and evil. The coming of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven meant God setting the world to rights. It meant a world freed from tyranny, sin, sickness, and death. It meant the dawning of a new creation, the marriage of heaven and earth, the life of the world to come.

“The kingdom of God has come near.” God’s saving, healing, just and peaceful rule has started to break into this sinful, broken world. That’s the message the 70 were sent out to proclaim. And it’s still the message our Lord wants us to hear and proclaim today.

The point of the Christian faith is not to go to heaven when we die to enjoy an eternity of disembodied bliss. Nor is the point that an angry God wants to punish everyone who doesn’t live up to arbitrarily imposed rules. The point of the Christian faith is God’s passionate desire to remake a world messed up by sin and evil, a passionate desire decisively inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the good message of authentically Christian evangelism.

The kingdom of God has come near to us in Jesus Christ: that is the message our world so desperately needs to hear. It’s the message of freedom for those enslaved by addictions or by any other demonic or degrading power. It’s the message of healing for those suffering from heartbreak or disease. It’s the message of hope for those who have lost their trust in the goodness of life. It’s the message of justice for those whose way of life is threatened, or has been destroyed, by human error, greed, war, or ecological devastation. And it’s the message of love for those who don’t believe themselves worthy of anyone’s time, care, and attention.

As he sent out the 70, so, too, our Lord commissions us to go forth into the world, proclaiming the good news of the coming kingdom, sharing the ways in which the new life, grace, and love of the risen Jesus have touched our lives, inviting others to see and name the work of God’s grace in their lives, and working together to give glory to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in our words and deeds.

That’s a world-transforming mission and a message of hope and healing. And that’s an evangelism I can get behind.

[1] L. William Countryman, Good News of Jesus: Reintroducing the Gospel (Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 2.

[2] Cf. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp. 99ff.

1 comment:

C. Wingate said...

I completely flummoxed the Mormon boys last week, layman though I am, by loudly greeting them with "ah, it's the Mormons!" and proceeding to inform them that they had no chance of converting me (not quite in those words). I suppose I should have gone a bit further and turned the tables on them a bit, but I had jam on the stove.