|An example of what evangelism is NOT.|
Come and See!
August 25-26, 2012
Text is below--audio can be found at this link.
I’m a big, big Nebraska Cornhuskers football fan. Ever since moving to Nebraska when I was in 4th grade, I’ve followed the Huskers, cheered the victories and grumbled at the losses. I love to talk about the team, I love to go to the games when I can—in fact, I’ll often lose my voice by game’s end from cheering so loud.
January 1, 1995 was a big day for me as a Husker fan. The Huskers were in the Orange Bowl, playing Miami after a perfect season. Win this game and they were national champions. Anticipation was high, especially since the Huskers had made it to the same point the previous season, only to have their title hopes dashed as a last-second field goal attempt sailed wide.
At the end of the third quarter, Miami led, 17-9, and things didn’t look all that good for Nebraska. But then, plays began to open up for the offense. With about 7 ½ minutes left in the game, Cory Schlesinger scored on a run up the middle, and the two point conversion afterwards tied up the game. Miami wasn’t able to do anything with their next possession, and when the Huskers got the ball back, they drove down the field, running it right at the tired Miami defense. With a little over 2 ½ minutes left in the game, this happened:
With the play that my wife and I still refer to as the “Schlesinger Roll,” Nebraska took the lead for the first time in the game, and ended up winning. Here’s Kent Pavelka’s call of the final seconds:
That wasn’t just fake emotion he was mustering up. As the game ended, celebrations erupted across the state. Over 10,000 people spontaneously gathered at the intersection of 72nd and Dodge in Omaha, and thousands more converged on 13th and O here in Lincoln. Complete strangers gave each other hugs and high fives. I was at my parents’ house in Bellevue, and we ran outside, cheering with the other neighbors.
When we see or experience joy, when we hear or experience good news, we want to share it with others. When something affects us so profoundly, we want to tell others, we want to invite others into our joy, so that they too may become a part of it. It might be something as relatively small as a football game. It might be something like a birth announcement or an engagement, or a new job, or a promotion. Birthdays, anniversaries, all of our life’s mile markers are things that we seek out others with whom we can celebrate. It comes naturally to us.
Why then, is talking about our faith often not the same?
Today is the last topic in our summer series on Faith Questions You Were Afraid to Ask But Your Kids Weren’t, and the question we’re “tackling” (to continue the football metaphor) is the question of evangelism. What exactly does evangelism mean? Why is it so difficult for many of us?
For too many Christians as well as for many outside the Christian faith, the word “evangelism” has become a dirty word. It brings for many people negative connotations, people knocking on doors or carrying signs or trying to argue someone into the faith or beating their neighbor over the head with a Bible until it finally sinks in. But the word “evangelism” isn’t any of that at all. It comes from a Greek word which means, “one who is the bringer of good news.” In fact, the root is the same as where we get the word “angel.” Our church thinks so highly of the word that we have incorporated it into the name of our wider church body—we are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelism ought to be part of our spiritual DNA—so why, so often, is it missing?
You, my friends, are evangelists! You are the bringers of good news! That doesn’t mean being pushy, it doesn’t mean arguing or violence or much of what the world tends to associate with evangelism. It’s about experiencing joy, about experiencing transformation, about experiencing God’s amazing love and grace and forgiveness, it’s about being a part of God’s promise that God is making all things new, and simply wanting to share that. Wanting to not keep this incredible gift to yourself. Wanting to experience this in a community, and wanting others to be able to share in the freedom through the cross that you yourself know. It’s about extending the same simple invitation that Philip extended to Nathaniel: “come and see.”
“Come and see.” The day before the events in our reading, two disciples of John the Baptist had been so captivated by Jesus’ encounter with them when he had come to John that they had followed him. One of those disciples was named Andrew, and he had gone and found his brother Simon. Apparently, word must have spread through their hometown of Bethsaida, because in our reading today another resident of that town, Philip, has his own encounter with Jesus. And what is Philip’s reaction? He runs and finds his friend Nathanael, telling him excitedly, “We’ve found the one! The one that Moses and the prophets wrote about! It’s Jesus, from Nazareth!”
He is so excited, so filled with joy, that he can’t just keep it to himself. He has to share that with someone, and so he shares it with Nathanael, whose response is just like popping a balloon: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nazareth? That town? Really? Come on, Philip—you’ve come to me all excited about this? Seriously?
Philip would have had every reason to get defensive, or to argue with Nathanael, or to attack, or to claim that Nathanael was persecuting him, or complain that he wasn’t being taken seriously. Indeed, those are some of the reactions that Christians unfortunately often have to those who question our proclamation of good news. But instead, Philip simply says, “Come and see.”
When you know you’ve got a good thing, when you are so certain that the news you have REALLY IS good news, then this good news can speak for itself on its own merits. It doesn’t require you to argue your way through it. It doesn’t require you to try to trick someone into believing, or to scare them into believing, or to strongarm them into believing. “Come and see.” If the cross really is good news, if God’s promises of newness and freedom and justice and mercy really are good news, if we really believe that God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life, if we really take to heart that it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, and this is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one may boast, if we really have taken to heart the things that Jesus said and did, his life and ministry and death and resurrection, then evangelism becomes the same simple invitation that Philip extended to Nathanael: “come and see.”
We Lutherans should be on the evangelical front lines. We understand this grace stuff. We get the cross. We are theologians of the cross—Martin Luther said a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is, and so we are able to see things the way they really are. We can see sin and call it sin. We can see pain and disease and suffering and we have no need to whitewash it. We know we are broken people and we live in a broken world. We know that there is nothing about the cross to suggest that a life spent following in the way of Jesus means sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. But we also hear God’s promises, and we see the empty tomb on Easter. We gather around the communion table, where all are invited, all are welcome, all are told, “come and see.” We cling to the promise that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We see God’s transformation even in the midst of the brokenness, we acknowledge that we are saints at the very same time that we are sinners, we look to the cross as God’s ultimate yes to humankind’s no.
That’s good news. And that’s something we just can’t keep to ourselves. When we’ve experienced something so profound, so life changing, so WORLD changing, the very way we are wired compels us to share it. That’s evangelism. It’s simply the invitation to come and see.
So then, we need to ask: is this story that we’re inviting people into a compelling one? Does it have meat? Does it match up with their experience of life and humanity? Does it take seriously the big questions of existence? But is it at the same time personal? That’s the beauty of Holy Communion for me—on the one hand, it’s universal. It’s a picture of all of humanity gathered around the great table in a giant celebration of life and love and Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin and death. On the other hand, at the very same time, it’s intensely personal. It is FOR YOU. Not just anyone…you. Our faith stories are the same way. God is at work in the world—we know that. God is about the business of making all things new. But God is also at work in your life. God is at work in the lives of those you meet. How do we tell that story? How do we invite others to “come and see?”
We can tell through our words. We can simply share our own experiences. Not what we have done, but what God has done…in us, and for us, and yes even sometimes through us. And we can also tell through our actions. That’s how every act of kindness, every act of mercy, every act of sharing, of breaking down the walls that divide us, of bringing peace…that’s how these are all acts of evangelism. Because they don’t just proclaim the good news, they embody the good news. They make the good news of God in Christ incarnate, enfleshed.
This weekend, our congregation’s third graders will be given Bibles by their parents. My son will be one of those kids receiving a Bible. In doing so, the invitation continues to be extended to “come and see.” Also this weekend, we’re privileged to be helping to host the Nebraska Synod field trip, which is focusing on prison ministry. Come and see. Come and see what God is up to. Come and see and hear and experience.
We’re just messengers. Inviters. Proclaimers. God’s the one who does the work—we don’t convert. We don’t change others. We don’t transform them. All we do is what we’re wired to do. We just share our joyful freedom. We just invite. We live. We love. And we rejoice together.
Come and see.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church