I’m not sure I could have scripted a more amazing first Sunday. A baptism at 8 o’clock, nearly a full house at 10 am and children running here, there, and everywhere made my heart sing. The day was capped off by a wonderful reception and we were sufficiently pounded. Thank you all for a truly delightful day. I’ve thought long and hard about how to make week two just as memorable as week one and I’ve decided not to try. Instead, I’m going to go the opposite direction, taking my cue from this morning’s Gospel lesson, and talking about a part of our common life that is uncomfortable for many. That’s right; today we are going to talk about the dreaded E-word: evangelism.
Now, before you turn off your ears and pull out the announcement insert from your bulletin, let me assure you, I am not talking about the kind of evangelism you are probably thinking about. There will be no handing out tracts at the entrance to Wal*Mart; no standing at the round-about holding signs that say “repent or perish;” not even knocking on doors and asking people if they have found Jesus. It is only because Episcopalians, like other mainline churches, have by and large failed to do the work of evangelism that these are the images we have of the E-word. We have, for too long, allowed a different kind of Christianity to hold sway. We have abandoned our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. As a result, the picture that people have of the God that we love and worship each Sunday is that of a judgmental, angry God who survives on the guilt and shame of his followers. I don’t know about you, but that is not the God I know.
There is a change afoot, however. With the election of Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop, there has been a renewed interest in the E-Word. In his biography for the Presiding Bishop search committee, Bishop Curry called for the PB to be a different sort of CEO for the Church; not merely a Chief Executive Officer but the Chief Evangelism Officer. He is working diligently to live up to that title. Throughout 2017, the PB will tour the country preaching at a series of “Episcopal Revivals,” not only to highlight his own ability to share the Good News, but offering practical evangelism resources for Episcopalians who might be scared of the E-Word. He has hired a Canon for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation, who works with various groups throughout the Church to develop practical evangelism training guides. More than 400 Episcopal leaders gathered in Dallas late last year at an Evangelism Matters conference. Even your Rector is a part of the new-found interest in Evangelism. I am honored to serve on the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism. Our task is to create training materials for people who are interested in using their presence on social media to share the love of God.
As we seek to re-learn what it means to be Episcopal Evangelists, one obvious place to turn would be the scriptures, and today’s Gospel lesson is a gift in that it has within it not one or even two, but three different evangelistic encounters. It all starts with John pointing out Jesus to his disciples. “Here is the lamb of God!” he proclaims. He can do because he has first-hand experience with Jesus. That’s the first lesson we can learn: evangelism is, quite simply, telling the story of our experience with Jesus. This is, at least to me, a lot less scary than feeling like I have to know all the answers before I talk to somebody about God. We don’t need to know how many angels fit on the head of a pin; or whether we prefer Penal Substitionary Atonement over Christus Victor; or even where in the Bible it says that God loves us in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. All we need is an active, ongoing relationship with him. How has following Jesus changed your life? How has attending your church been transformative? When have you seen God at work in the world about you? In order to be an evangelist requires nothing more than being willing to tell your story.
The second evangelistic encounter comes from Jesus himself. He can feel Andrew and the unnamed disciple just sort of lurking around and so he invites them to “come and see.” Many of us in the church are used to people sniffing around at our faith. When we live lives worthy of the Gospel, others can become curious, hungry even, to know what it is that makes us different. Why is it that we can have joy and hope in dire circumstances? What causes you to have such compassion for those in need? Who in their right mind gives up a Sunday morning of sleeping in and the Times crossword puzzle to teach three year-olds gospel stories on felt boards? Here, the challenge isn’t so much to be willing to tell our story; they’ve already seen it in our lives, but instead the evangelistic opportunity is to have our eyes open to their interest. They might hover nearby or ask tangential questions; unsure of how to get at the meat of what they are looking for. One of the ways God’s hand is at work is bringing people into our lives who are hungry for God’s love. Pray that your eyes might be open.
Finally, there is the story of Andrew and Simon Peter. Here we have the classic model of evangelism where one person, often a convert, excited about what God is doing in their life finds someone with whom they already have a relationship and shares the Good News. “We have found the Messiah!” This is the form of evangelism to which every disciple is called. This is the easiest form of evangelism, and often the most effective, as one person who loves and cares for another shares what is important in their life, but again, notice that Andrew’s word to Simon Peter isn’t a long theological discourse. He isn’t engaging his brother in a debate. He is simply sharing the excitement has welled up within him after an evening with Jesus.
Way back in 1983, I was a chunky three-year old growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. My dad was employed by RR Donnelly and Sons, and was informed that he would be transferred to either Los Angeles, California or a new plant they were building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Thanks be to God, my parents chose Lancaster. While on one of those whirlwind weekends where you fly in, buy a house, and leave, they met Jeanne Ritter. Jeanne was their realtor. She showed them all around town. They settled on 52 Blossom Hill Drive. It was in the best school district; close enough to dad’s work, and had a great sled-riding hill in the back yard. It also happened to be near where Jeanne Ritter lived and went to church. “You’ll have to give my church a try,” she told my parents late that weekend. There was no Bible thumping or fear or shame, just a woman who loved God and her community of faith and was willing to invite someone else to come and see. Because of Jeanne Ritter, my parents sat in the fourth pew from the front on the Gospel side of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church for almost three decades. I was raised in that church, confirmed in that church, worked as a youth minister in that church, and ordained a priest in that church. I am standing before you today as the result of one woman who had a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and wasn’t afraid of the E-Word.
I know this is only our second week together, and I shouldn’t talk about such sensitive topics so early on, but I think we have a unique opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, it is often converts who are the most effective evangelists. I think it is because they have the most enthusiasm. There is something exciting about a new thing happening, and that is precisely what we have going on here. Studies still suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans would we willing to attend church if a friend or family member invited them. So, why not ask? Invite someone to come see this new and exciting thing we have going on. Invite someone back who maybe hasn’t been here in a while. Be willing to take that step of faith. It doesn’t have to be complicated or scary, evangelism is simply an extension of your joy that invites someone else to come and see. Amen.