In Word and Deed
24 January 2021
10:00 a.m. Live-streamed Ante-Communion
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, Ph.D., SCP
Trinity Episcopal Church
God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
Years ago, when I was working at a college in Maryland, I had as a friend and coworker an older Jewish lady. She was the kind of person who could tell you nothing but the unvarnished truth. Once, when she hear I had served as a missionary in the church of my youth, she said, with all sincerity: “You know why we Jews detest missionaries, don’t you? It’s so very disrespectful and arrogant—‘I have the one true way, and you do not. Come and be more like me so God will finally approve of you.’ We hate it so much that we ourselves don’t proselytize others. That’s why most of us loathe the Chabad movement so much: it’s too much like inquisitorial Christians.” I agreed with her critique that much of proselytizing was cheap single brand promotion.
Today’s scriptures are all about evangelism, spreading the good word, missionary work. Jonah, after his unsuccessful attempt at running away, relents and helps the people of Nineveh to forsake their unjust ways and come closer to God. Paul, that missionary par excellence, says we have to stop living our normal lives because the great day of God is coming soon. The Gospel says that right after the murder of Jesus’ forbidding mentor John the Baptist, Jesus begins to proclaim broadly the happy news of the arrival of God’s Reign and calls followers to help him spread the good news.
Often, we confuse the call to evangelism with a demand that we participate in partisan or sectarian recruiting. Such a vision is part and parcel of the wrong-headed exclusivism so rightly criticized by my coworker. The idea is that there is only one true way, one true savior who can save us from our sins if we but intellectually assent to the true teaching. So we must spread the word about Jesus so that people may be saved or condemned by God on the basis of how they react to the message.
I don’t believe any such thing, and I don’t think you need to either. When scripture says things like “Jesus is the only way,” it is expressing the how reliable the writers have found Jesus, not calling him a jealous God. The call to evangelism is a call to spread happy news, joy, not make a sales pitch that will send someone to heaven or hell depending on whether they buy it. Jesus was constantly telling people that what matters is your love of God and of others, not correct religious practices or belief systems. In fact, he judged religious practices or belief systems on how they fostered a spirit-led life of compassion and service or hindered it.
The problem with believing that you must convert the world to your way is that such a view has the outward form of love and compassion—who would not want to save people from certain doom?—while it denies the inner power of compassion and love. You place your understanding above all others’ understandings, and make yourself or your group first. The world is broken into us and them, the pagans and the believers, the saved and the damned. Such thinking misunderstands the nature of faith: it is trusting and giving one’s heart to someone, rather than subscribing to a menu of propositions so you can be part of the proselytizing faction. It also misses the one great truth revealed by modern missiology: that God is found everywhere, and is reflected in every tradition, so mission rightly conceived is as much about listening as it is talking.
Evangelism is sharing our joy, our hope, and the experiences and reasons that lead us to find hope in Christ. Our baptismal covenant charges us to proclaim the good news in Jesus Christ in word and deed. St. Francis is said to have preached that we should at all times and places be ready to proclaim the Good News, and open our mouths to do so only when needed.
This isn’t about browbeating people and giving them a hard sales pitch to get them to assent. This is about letting our joy leak through, and it means listening to others.
Sharing our faith, telling people where our heart is, is risky. It makes us vulnerable. They might reject it, or belittle it. But that is no reason to be shy. Acting out our faith, and living as we believe the spirit leads us is also risky.
But Jesus calls us to act out the spirit-led life, the life of compassionate concern for others, especially those on the receiving end of society’s opprobrium. And Jesus calls us to share our faith. As in so many other things, it is a matter of heart. It is a matter of feeling comfortable in doing what’s right. It’s a matter of opening ourselves to God and to others. Do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with God.
Here at Trinity I have seen wonderful scenes of people sharing their faith: a men’s group where people opened up and talked about what they experienced when sharing in the Holy Eucharist; a women’s sewing group where people talked about how they got through hard personal times; a Bible Study where we listen to each other rather than to a single voice claiming to have the true understanding.
Evangelism is being on the lookout for moments when people are listening and hungry to hear stories. We usually find them when we listen to their stories first. When Jesus calls us to fish for people, he is just saying expand the circle of the people you’re willing to risk sharing with. It’s part of his open table fellowship and pursuit of compassion, rather than purity.
This week, let’s find ways to better open our hearts to others, whether in deed or in word. A thought experiment would be “what do I really truly believe? And why?” And a practice is to actually bring compassion for others into our daily routine, whether shopping for groceries, driving in traffic, or in our prayers.
Let us proclaim the good and joyful news at all times and places, and occasionally actually open our mouths to do so.
In the name of Christ, Amen.