Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Evangelism: Preach It

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Mark 1:29-39  and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23:

Normally when we think of someone spreading the gospel message, of doing the dreaded word evangelism, there are several images that pop into our heads, or at least pop into my head.  The first is of someone, nearly always a stranger, who walks up to us carrying their Bible and saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”  And the second is either of Jehovah’s witnesses or Mormon’s coming to know on your door.  Recently, Linda and I were in our front yard and two Mormon’s came by, and I told them that I was a minister, and so they said something along the lines that I was clearly devoted to my faith and they just like to talk theology with people, to which I responded, “No, you really don’t.”  These are people that most of us don’t want to have to talk to or with which we want to deal.  We want them to go their way and leave us alone, and we definitely don’t want to be the people that others think of doing the same thing.
Even though on its face it the passage we just heard doesn’t seem like it is related to the passage from last week in which Paul was talking about the incredibly fascinating subject of meat that was sacrificed to idols and the idea of community, but it is a continuation of that idea, because of what Paul says that he is willing to do in order not only to be a part of a community of believers, but also what he believes that it means to be a follower of Christ.  One of the crucial things that is happening in this passage, and was also the case in the passage we heard last week, which are the verses before these, is that while Paul is certainly telling the Corinthians what they should do, it is not as orders, but instead by instruction because it is what Paul himself is either doing or would be willing to do or not do.  Because what we heard last week was that if eat meat sacrificed to idols would cause someone else to fall, then Paul himself would not eat that meat.  And then today he says that in order to reach others, that he is willing to become like a Jew for the Jews, like one outside the law for those outside the law, which would be gentiles, and to become like the weak, which is how he describes those who don’t eat meat because it has been sacrificed to idols, so that he might win the weak.

But the crux of Paul’s argument, very similar to last week, is that in Christ he has been given absolute freedom and also has been given full rights within Christ.  But, Paul says, freedom by itself is really meaningless and when we practice complete freedom, it can lead to the destruction of others and community as well as to the destruction of ourselves.  And thus we must first understand the freedom we have achieved in Christ, not to subject ourselves back to the things that enslaved us before and were the means of our destruction, things like our slavery to sin and death, and instead to become slaves to something else, and that is slaves to Christ.

That seems sort of backwards doesn’t it?  Claim freedom only to be made slaves again?  But this is a special type of slavery.  Now some will argue that Paul understood slavery differently than we do with our conception of slavery, but don’t let anyone tell you that the Romans practiced a kinder, gentler slavery, because slavery in the ancient world could be as nasty and brutal as what we know from antebellum America.  One of the key differences was that it was not based on any racial characteristics and slaves were found at all levels of society, not just those doing the most menial tasks, as well as the fact that slaves could be freed either through being manumitted by their owners or by purchasing their freedom.  But the one thing in common with slaves everywhere and for all time is that they needed to obey and follower their master.  And that is something of what Paul is talking about here.  He is saying who is going to be your master and whom are you going to follow?  Are you going to follow yourself and your own desires and wishes? Or are you going to follow Christ?  Are you going to intentionally give up your freedom in order to obey what God tells you to do?

This symbolic language of slavery is found not just here in Paul, but in other areas of scripture especially in the prophets, where modern translations tend to refer to the prophets as the servants of God, but a better and closer translation of the word is that of slave.  The prophets are the slaves of God because they have decided to give God their allegiance, and I do think there was a choice there, and they have decided to do what God tells them to do and to say what God has told them to say.  And that is what Paul is telling us here.  When we say that Jesus is Lord, what do we think that actually means?  It means that Jesus is the person to whom we are going to follow and to whom we are going to give our allegiance.  And so Paul says that if he is going to proclaim the gospel, it’s because an obligation has been laid upon him, and “woe to me if I do not proclaim” it.  He doesn’t do it so that he can boast, so that he can feel himself superior, so he can tell everyone else how wrong they are, but he does it because he has to do it, and as a result he has given up his freedom and has made himself a slave so that he might win others to Christ. He has become a servant of Christ for the proclamation of the kingdom.

Now I’ve always been a little troubled by a portion of the passage from heard from the gospel of Mark today, and perhaps it also troubled some of you as well.  Jesus and the disciples go to the home of Simon and Andrew and as they enter they find that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill.  Peter is the only disciple we know of who was married, and it is because of this story, but Jesus goes to her and takes her by the hand and raises her up and the fever she has immediately leaves her and she begins to serve them.  To clarify one remark I made last week when I said I didn’t believe in demon possession, after worship some people asked me if that meant that I didn’t believe that Jesus healed people, and I said absolutely not.  That one of the things we see testified about Jesus is the fact that he was, and is, a healer; that was clearly a part, and I would say a large part, of his ministry.  But we do have a very different understanding of healing and medicine than did writers in the 1st century, and I said that if one of my daughters had epilepsy, which is by all indications, one what boy whom Jesus heals has, that I would never take them to see an exorcist in order to try and cure it.  By the same token I wouldn’t do the same if they had a fever, but fevers too where considered to be caused by possession, and the phrase that the fever “left her,” the Greek used there is the same for when it is said that a demon has left a person.  But that’s sort of off the topic, and the troubles I always had with this story is that it could be seen that Jesus heals this unnamed woman simply so that she could then be well enough in order to serve him and the disciples, since that was one of the roles of women in society.  If that is the case, then this can be a very troubling story about Jesus.  But is that what happens?

This week as I was thinking about this passage, especially as it relates to Paul’s comments about our obligation to Christ, it occurred to me that perhaps Jesus does not heal her in order that she can them serve them, because heaven forbid the men should have to do some work around the house.  But he heals her because she is ill and then she serves them because she has been healed.  There is a subtlety of distinction there that I think makes all the difference in the world.  That is that rather than being obligated to do it because of her gender, instead she gets to choose to do it because of what Christ has just done for her.  She chooses to make herself a servant to Christ because of what she has received from Christ.  In some further research on this passage I have come to believe that that might in fact be the right, or at least a better interpretation, because of the Greek word that is used to describe what she does after she is healed.  That word is diakonisa, coming from the word diakonos, which means servant.  We use that word today in the church to talk about deacons, people who serve or who are servants.

The Gospel of Mark tells a story about what a true disciple looks like and what they do, and the disciples are often used as the example of what not to do, as they don’t really get it.  Jesus tells them, repeatedly, that they are not to be served, but instead to serve, that to be a disciple, that to pick up your cross, means serving and giving of yourself, even to the point of death.  But the disciples don’t get it.  When Jesus goes off for some quiet time to pray, the disciples go and search for him, because they don’t understand that they too are called to do the work, to be of service, they think it’s all centered in Jesus.  That Jesus is the one who has to do all the work and they just get to go along and watch.  They don’t understand the teaching until after the resurrection, and even then with the original ending of Mark it’s still not clear that they got it, but Simon’s mother-in-law gets it.   She understands what the message is all about, and deep down she is already a Christian long before there is such a thing.  She has set aside selfishness and other teachings, and because Jesus heals her she then begins to serve, diakonisa, a deacon of the church.  Of course Jesus, he more than anyone, understands the call to servant ministry, and the cost that goes with it and so he tells them that they will go proclaim the message, just as Paul is doing, just as we are called to do.

One of the common themes in all of the gospels is that after the resurrection, that Jesus commands, Paul might say obligates, the disciples, and us, to spread the gospel message to the ends of the world, to all people.  And what Paul tells us is that we need to be willing to change our message depending on who it is that we are talking to.  Now did Paul really become all things to all people as he says?  Well if you’ve read the authentic Pauline letters you know that’s not the case, that he definitely had his own opinion about the way things were supposed to be, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to tell some people about it.  But, where he was most strident in his opinions was about things that he thought were threatening the community, that putting ourselves ahead of either the community, and most especially ahead of following Christ, was not what we were called to do.  But I know that for many of us, preaching the word, telling others about Christ scares us and we would rather leave it to someone else.  For the moment we’re going to skip over Paul sort of dismissing those who get paid to preach, and simply focus on the fact that all of us are called, commanded, obligated, to proclaim the message to the world, that it cannot rely upon only a few of us, or just on me, because if that is the case we will never be successful.  But not only that I know that that is not the history of this congregation because many of you have told me your story, and that story involves first being told about this church, about why the person thought it would be a good match, and then finally inviting you to attend.  That’s how good evangelism works.  It is personal and relational.

That’s really what Paul is telling us as well.  He says that he approached people where they were, he don’t force them to become more like him in order to hear his story, and he didn’t get upset that non-Christians weren’t acting like Christians, although he was quick to point out those who claimed to be Christian who did not live up to that standard.  But where Paul excelled was in telling his story, and that story began and ended with Christ, indeed he says that he came to proclaim nothing but Christ and him crucified.  So how do we proclaim the message?  It’s as simple as telling our story.  Not someone else’s story, not even really this congregation’s story, but telling our story, telling it authentically and telling it with passion and enthusiasm.   If people feel like you have memorized some line, or are reciting something you read in a book, it will not resonate the way our story does.  Adam Hamilton says that there are three questions that everyone needs to be able to answer in order to become an evangelist.   The first is why do people need Christ?  If we can’t tell that story, of what Christ means, and in particular what Christ means to us then nothing else we do or say will matter, and that also means that we need to be living that message out in our lives.   The second question is why did people need the church?  There are certainly lots of people who say that they believe in God, but are not part of a church, and think that they don’t need to be a part of a church in order to be a Christian.  So what are your feelings and thoughts about the church?  Why do you believe the church is necessary and what does it add to our faith journey?  And the third question is why do they need this church?  Churches are not the same, so what do we have to offer that the other churches around here don’t have to offer?  This is not to diminish or demean them, because they have strengths that we don’t have, but why should people come to worship here?

Effective evangelism is personal, it is the story given by us and it is personal to the person to whom we deliver the message, and it is an obligation to which we are called.  But there is one other crucial piece of information we learn from Paul, and that is that he does not say that he does what he does in order to save all.  He says to save some.  That is the other place we get confused and we think that if we don’t keep hounding people that they won’t be saved, but where is the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in that?  Where is the prevenient grace in that belief?  Our job is to proclaim the message to the world and then trust that God is also working with us and will convict their heart, our job is not to knock them over the head until they finally accede, often just to get us to stop.  Our obligation is to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near through word and more importantly through deed.  We will soon be entering into the season of Lent, which is a time of preparation for the Easter celebration, which this year is on April 5, so as a time of our preparation, I think we might take on the obligation of seeking to answer these three questions so that we can then begin praying for those we are going to invite to come and celebration the Easter story with us this year.  I pray it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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