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.
On the occasion of Pentecost the church invites us to reflect upon the origin and meaning of the church itself. It is this Sunday we set aside to commemorate the outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples in Jerusalem, the beginning of a worldwide movement to make known the mighty works of God, most especially the works done by the Father through his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, who at this historical moment has been crucified, raised, and now ascended back to the right hand of his Father.
Given that our church has been unrecognizable for the last year, and given that we are just now beginning to see our way to the end of this dystopian nightmare, what better time is there to refresh ourselves on the fundamentals of what the church even is?
The church has its proper beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, an event promised by Christ himself to his disciples, as recorded in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. Because Jesus is going back to the Father, he will appeal to the Father to send the Holy Ghost to dwell within anyone who loves Jesus, believes in him, and keeps his commandments.
That promise is made good ten days after Jesus ascends to the Father, and the Holy Ghost comes upon those same disciples.
Devout Jews from all over the world have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks, the festival that commemorates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. At that time God appeared to his people in a display of great power, attended by thunder and lightning on the darkened mount, and made his will for human life and behavior known. Pentecost is a new appearance of God to his people, once more attended by a great noise and fire from heaven, and once more he makes his will for human life and behavior known by uniting the faithful in a new society. This society is the church, and it transcends the national differences and divisions of languages among its members. This is the first work of the Holy Ghost, to call the faithful together into a new unity.
Thomas Aquinas argues that each of the persons of the Holy Trinity has a proper name: The proper name of the Father is of course “Father;” the Son he says can be properly called the “Word” or “Image” because the Son is the perfect word or image of the Father; while the proper name of the Holy Ghost is “Love” or “Gift.” Aquinas argues that both names are appropriate because we give a gift to someone we love simply because we love them and want to show our love by giving a gift. Because God loves us, he gives us the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Because the Holy Ghost animates the church and has done so since the first Pentecost, the church is also a gift.
I have just said that the church is a collection of persons, a new society, and so it is, but it is first and foremost a gift, a gift from a loving God for the people he loves.
Much of what we have endured over the past year has been premised on a very different view. This very different view is that the church is just a sort of social activity, such that if social activities need to be limited in some way, in the event of emergency, then the church—being just another sort of social activity—the church should be no exception.
This misguided conception is entertained not only by politicians and pundits, who cannot be expected to know better, but it is also believed by some people within the church itself.
Not far from my office in Cambridge there is a church that still has a sign hanging on the door that reads: “All activities of the church are canceled until further notice, including worship.” Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Social activities can be canceled. Worship cannot be canceled.
And that’s because worship is not an optional activity that we undertake at our pleasure and refrain from when it is unadvisable to engage in it.
Worship is a reality that is going on all the time whether we are part of it or not. The reality is that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, alive right now, and ascended to the right hand of this father in heaven. He is being worshipped there now, on his heavenly throne by the angels and heavenly host.
When we engage in worship here in this space all we are doing is witnessing to a reality that we confess is ongoing. We don’t initiate worship; it is much larger than us, and we take a small part in it. This is why in the prayer of consecration we say we are joining our voices with angels and archangels, because we take it that they are already and forever have been praising God, and we are now joining in ourselves, joining our voices to those who have been singing from all eternity.
We configure the liturgy, we arrange the very space inside the church, we appoint the ornamentation, to reflect this understanding of what we are doing: This church is designed to give the impression that prayer and worship never stop—even when the mass is ended. The lingering smell of incense, the light streaming through the windows, the magisterial stones standing as witnesses to what has gone on here day after day for over 175 years. It is just a part of a sacred cosmic drama that never stops. Worship fundamentally is a heavenly reality, one that is imperfectly realized here and now on earth. No earthly authority can stop it. Not a governor, not an expert, not even a bishop.
I have said that the church is God’s gift to us; every gift should be gratefully acknowledged by its recipient. Worship is that acknowledgement, and thus worship is the church’s primary function. In the Bible, to worship someone is to fall down before them and make yourself available for their service. Everything we do flows from this.
Like the first disciples inspired by the Holy Ghost we tell of the mighty works of God. Worship involves the recounting of those works, from creation to the calling of Israel to their liberation from slavery to the ministry of the prophets. Worship recalls the saving words and works of Jesus Christ and explains their meaning in preaching and in liturgical practice. Worship enjoins obedience to his many commandments: “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” “Feed the hungry.” “Clothe the naked.” “Visit the prisoners.”
The church does not stop doing these things because in these matters the church is faithful to the commandments of the one who gave them to us and who gave us the gift of the Holy Ghost, who enables us to do these things. This parish church said mass daily throughout the last 14 months. This is not a point of pride. This is a point of grateful fidelity to Jesus Christ, who said that those who love him will follow his commandments.
Remember the words of our Savior: “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do.” This is a shocking promise, seeing as how during his earthly ministry Jesus did many amazing works, miraculous even. Yet he says that those who receive the Holy Ghost will do still greater works.
What works could these be? I believe that they are nothing other than the works of the church, the works that the Holy Ghost makes possible, the works that Jesus commands, the works that comprise worship and flow from worship.
Because there are no greater works than those that testify to the reality of who God is and what God has done. There are no greater works than those that reconcile human beings to one another and sanctify them. There are no greater works than those that meet the needs of the body, satisfy the longings of the heart, and heal broken spirits. These are God’s works, done through the person of the Holy Ghost, and done through us.
Here at the Church of the Advent we are just a small part of a story that began at Pentecost. That story has not been interrupted by the disturbance of the last year. What began at Pentecost will continue. World without end. Amen.