Sermon: 5th Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 8th February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

Readings: 1 Isaiah 40:21-31;  Psalm 147;  1 Corinthians 9:16-23;  Mark 1:29-39

Dwight l. Moody was a great American evangelist of the 19th Century. He was once criticized by a lady for his methods of evangelism, as he called people to respond to the Gospel of Christ. Moody replied to her criticism: “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The woman replied: “I don’t do it.” Moody responded: “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it!”

Evangelism is a word which many people shy away from. Many of us churchgoers feel uncomfortable about evangelism, as of course do many non-churchgoers.

Why is this? We remember aggressive doorknockers wanting to lecture us on religion. Or mass meetings with long addresses and emotional pressure. Or those American preachers who turned out to be the most dreadful hypocrites. Or more locally, the Sydney preachers who seem to say that if you don’t believe exactly what I believe, you’re going to hell! As if people can be frightened into the kingdom of heaven!

Well, I have to say that if that is what evangelism is all about, I’m not too enthusiastic either. In reality, evangelism can take many forms: it might be in large meetings or personal conversation; it can be confrontational or low-key; it can be embarrassing or very natural; it can be done helpfully or very unhelpfully.

What then is evangelism? It is simply communicating the Gospel message: telling people about God’s love and the call of Jesus to trust and follow him. And in our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes clear how important he regards the task and the opportunity of evangelism and Christian witness.

Now we might say: “That’s fine for Paul. He was an apostle. I’m just an ordinary Christian: I’m no evangelist.” But as Paul sees it, there is no choice. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel”, he says.

And although we may not have the unique call of Paul to be an Apostle and witness to the Gospel, we too are called to bear witness to the love of Jesus. We might not do it the way Paul did, but we are called to bear witness in the way that is appropriate for us.

A few decades ago, people would be rather confused if someone said “I am a Christian.” “Aren’t we all Christians?” they might reply. “You’re just more enthusiastic in your religious practice.”

Have you noticed that this is no longer the case? People can nowadays be distinguished as Christians in a way which was not the case in earlier generations. So people like Kevin Rudd and Scott Morrison, and other parliamentarians became known as Christians: sadly many of us looked at them and wished that they weren’t known as Christians, because their various shortcomings didn’t seem to bring honour to Jesus and the message of Jesus. But people today do seem to recognize that living in Australia and living as a Westerner doesn’t make you a Christian.

Paul certainly made himself known as a Christian and as a messenger of the Gospel of Jesus. He was enthusiastic about the message, keen to make it known.

As a preacher, he had the right to receive practical and financial support from Christians, and especially those who were converted through his ministry. But he put that right aside, and preached and taught at no charge, earning his keep through his work as a tentmaker. He didn’t have to, but he let go of his rights so that people would not misunderstand his motives and so that he would not put pressure on his new converts.

And although we don’t have the special call that Paul received, we are all called to let our light shine so that others will see our good works and give glory to God. And how will they do that? Above all by putting their faith in Jesus and becoming members of his family, the church.

In a world where religion is no longer a private thing, we are all called to bear witness to Jesus. The life we lead, the values we display, the words we speak, the love we show, will bear witness to Jesus: people will either be drawn towards him or away from him as they respond to what they see in us, once they know us to be Christians.

And there will be times when we are able to speak directly about our understanding of the faith, or perhaps to invite people along to church or church events, or to encourage people to go along to a church that is convenient for them.

Paul saw that the Gospel of Jesus breaks down barriers. Of course Jesus was happy to mix with all kinds of people, particularly those who would be on the edge of respectable society. He certainly sought to break down barriers.

When Paul was seeking to point Jewish people to Jesus, he acted in a way which raised as few barriers as possible. As a Jew, he knew their laws and traditions. He knew he was not bound by them, but he also knew that making an issue of being different from other Jews would only raise barriers. And so he fitted in with their customs in every way he could.

On the other hand, when he was dealing with non-Jews, and those who knew nothing of the Old Testament and its laws, he acted quite differently. Not that he acted dishonestly or immorally to fit in with the ways of some Gentiles: he knew what God seeks from those who were followers of Jesus. He still sought always to please God. But he had worked out his principles, and was not going to put up unnecessary barriers between himself and those whom he was seeking to lead to Christ.

Paul says that he became “all things to all people”: he sought to relate to them as far as possible on their terms. He was not going to let unnecessary barriers get in the way of the message of Jesus. Not that he compromised on principles. But he sought to identify with people where they were at, so that he might relate to them and communicate to them with understanding and love. Effective witness seeks to break down barriers. It is concerned with people, not with human rules and standards.

Sometimes in my role as a hospital chaplain I am contacted by enthusiastic people who see the hospital as a wonderful place to go round evangelizing people. They want to get the message of Jesus out, and to get speedy decisions. But they are not interested in people, and they are certainly not interested in listening to patients and understanding them.

I steer these people in another direction. That is not what hospital ministry is about, and indeed it would be an abuse of people and an abuse of the Gospel. Yes, I certainly get opportunities to speak about God’s love to patients who do not see themselves as Christians. But I do it because they want to explore these issues, and are happy for me to share with them. I never have the right to force my faith upon others: least of all in a situation where they cannot easily escape!

Witness is simply about being Christian in a humble but open way. We might have the opportunity to say something which will get people asking questions, and will open up a conversation. But it is not for us to lecture or harass or attack or put people down. Love is still the way. I remember reading the saying of a great saint: “Always bear witness to Jesus: sometimes do it using words!”

Christianity is seen as a distinct faith in today’s society. It is often attacked – sadly often because Christians often deserve to be criticized. But the Gospel of Jesus still tells us of the love of God, of the Son of God, of the forgiveness of God, of the welcome of God, of the hope and purpose God gives us through Christ. The Gospel is still good news.

And as we are called to bear witness and to break down barriers to the Gospel, so our church needs to do the same thing.

We know that the size of our congregations has been dwindling, and that there are many questions about the future of our parish: perhaps not next year, but certainly in the decades ahead. If we are to effectively bear witness to the Gospel and to welcome people to the family of Jesus, we will need to be prepared to ask questions about what we do here.

I imagine most of us love the way we conduct our worship: indeed it will often be the key reason why we belong to the parish. We love our traditions. But we will need to re-examine what we do. Does what we do draw people in or push them away? Are there things we can do to help people feel more welcome and more valued? Paul let go of his rights if he felt they might get in the way, and we will need to be prepared to take the risk of asking uncomfortable questions, even holding lightly to things we value, because we see the need to reach out, especially to the younger community.

Maybe we will conclude that great changes are not necessary, that our traditions help our mission rather than hinder it. Maybe the decision will be that we need to offer something in addition to what we do now. Maybe we will conclude that we do need to make significant changes, and that will be uncomfortable for us who love what we have now. The important thing is that we are concerned to reach out to others with the love of Christ, even if it involves change or discomfort.

It really does matter that we see ourselves as witnesses to the love of God in Christ. We are not members of a closed club, but a community of believers who are serious about bearing witness to the love of God in Christ to all people. Amen.

 

The Reverend Paul Weaver