I am about to do what every homiletic class tells the preacher not to do. And that is to begin a sermon with a quote from a Church document. The listeners, preachers are told, will immediately glaze over. But listen carefully.
The supreme task of the Church today is to win the nations … back to the knowledge of God revealed in Jesus Christ as Judge and Savior, and to take the Good News to those who have not heard it. … Every man, woman and child has his part to play.
This comes from the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the 1948 Lambeth conference. I bring this up because we have in the Gospel record of the first evangelistic mission of the apostles:
Jesus called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two …
So this morning, some words about this supreme task of evangelisation.
What is evangelism? The best definition I have found is by Archbishop William Temple:
Evangelism is to so present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that [people] shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Savior and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of the church.
There are some important themes here. Let me mention two.
- Jesus is our message. Conversion to Jesus means turning to him as King and Lord.
- Evangelism is done in community.
First, Jesus is our message. On the surface, this seems rather straightforward, but it is not. Christians have, in our history, been very good at converting people to the Church, but not to Jesus. There are many people who are capable of singing the glories of the influence of the Church on art or music or history or philosophy. The beauty of art and music is important because they are a participation in the ultimate Beauty which is God. History is important, but let us not forget that it is “his story.” Doctrine is necessary because it protects the truth of the narrative, life and mission of Jesus. Evangelical mission-drift always begins with theological mission-drift. You can get to heaven without a degree in literature, or art or music or theology, but we Christians cannot get to heaven unless we know and love Jesus. The object of our faith is Jesus of Nazareth who is the Incarnate Son of God!” Jesus is our message.
And he is King and Lord. Jesus called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two … So they went out and preached that all people should repent. The Twelve preach metanoia, conversio, repentance. And so they should. What are the first words Jesus utters in Mark’s Gospel? What are his first words out of the gate? Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel’ (1:15-14).
To repent means to “turn again.” To repent means to turn to Jesus, and to allow him to inform the whole of my life, be carried into every aspect of my being, into the decisions I make, the day-to-day world I encounter and share in. There’s an old New Yorker cartoon where a man sitting in church turns to his neighbor and says, “As if Sunday isn’t enough, he now wants us to introduce religion into our everyday life.” A Christian, St Augustine says, is a mouth through which Christ speaks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.
There is a wonderful line in one of my favorite hymns:
In all my heart and will, O Jesus, be altogether King
Make me a loyal subject, Jesus, to thee, in everything.
Jesus called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two … Jesus is our message. Conversion to Jesus means turning to him as King and Lord.
Secondly, evangelism is done in community.
Sandra Tsing Loh is a Canadian author who writes about being on a dinner date in her collection of short stories Depth Takes a Holiday:
We were halfway through a lovely Thai dinner; we had discussed the music of John Coltrane; we had discovered a common love of volleyball. Our faces were flushed. Lanterns swayed hypnotically. Grasping my hand, Jeff impulsively leaned forward. “Sandra?”
“What”, I asked huskily.
“Have you accepted the Lord Jesus as your Savior?”
Just like that. No warm-up. No mood music. No idle teasing around the God issue to loosen the soil.
Needless to say, most of us would be tempted to shake the dust off our feet at such an overture. Very often, we see evangelism in such an intrusive and inappropriate way. Or some Christian traditions which speak of “evangelistic crusades,” as though unbelievers were somehow the enemy. Or, as in a discussion of the budget, one participant in last year’s Diocesan Convention spoke of our need for a diocesan “strategy,” as though evangelism were a properly implemented technocratic enterprise.
To be sure, at one level, all evangelism is personal. People are religious by nature. It is hard-wired into our DNA. The choice is not between a person being religious or not religious. We cannot help but be religious. The question is whether our religion will be true or false.
You may not have the gift of an evangelist like St Paul, but we are all called to be witnesses. Always we are to be looking for opportunities till the ground that may one day yield fruit; to share our own stories of faith; to let others see the example of our conversion in the way we live our lives. A converted soul is both attractive and attracting.
But evangelism is done, as Archbishop Temple reminds us, “in the fellowship of the Church.” Which raises the question: What is the quality of our community here into which we invite people to become part of our fellowship? I have spoken on this before, and will have much more to say about this as we re-member the Advent over the coming months. I have always thought that the Proper Preface of Christ the King provides a good guide. That Preface speaks of
- A kingdom where all are subject to the rule of Jesus,
- an eternal and universal kingdom,
- a kingdom of truth and life,
- a kingdom of holiness and grace,
- a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
No parish is perfect. There are no perfect priests, and no perfect people. But we can live in harmony, says Aquinas, because we are all madly in love with the same God. The marks of the kingdom in that Preface are a standard to which we should aspire.
But let me get really practical for a moment about inviting people into the fellowship of the Church. This is going to be especially important as students return to Boston later this summer. And statistically, August is the month in which most people with children check out new churches.
Practically, you are sitting in a pew, and you have a pew behind, and a few in front of you. This is your mission field. If you are seated by someone you don’t know, and get a chance, maybe at the end of Mass in the aisle, introduce yourself to them. Use something like, “I am Jane, and I don’t think we’ve met.” That way you don’t have to worry about whether the person has been a member since forever, you’re just saying you haven’t met. Try to remember his or her name.
If you discover that he or she is a visitor, you are commissioned by Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and exhorted by the Rector to do three things:
- Introduce them to the clergy at the door. “Father, this is Jane, who is visiting with us today.”
- Personally lead them to the reception after Mass. “Jane, I’m going downstairs for a cup of coffee, won’t you be my guest?” If they don’t want to they’ll say they have plans; or another time perhaps.
- Introduce them to at least three other people at coffee hour. That’s it, you are now free to go about your business as usual!
We are going to see, in the coming season, two forces at work in the religious landscape. One will be inward looking: an overriding concern for process, structure, a myopic focus on the holy huddle, issuing policy statements and resolutions, a mentality of scarcity. The other is going to be an outward focus on taking the abundant life we have here, a life grounded, established and founded on Jesus, and then share him with those out there.
As I said in my remarks at the annual parish meeting: our mission here at the Advent is to worship God, to make saints of our members, and to share the Gospel with those who have not yet heard about the mercy, grace and peace that we find in Jesus Christ.
Jesus called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two …
The supreme task of the Church today is to win the nations … to the knowledge of God revealed in Jesus Christ as Judge and Savior, and to take the Good News to those who have not heard it. … Every man, woman and child has his part to play.