Today we heard about St. Paul’s efforts to spread the Good News of Jesus – and they were not without controversy. That’s because Paul was willing to work with people of other faiths and draw parallels between his budding movement and their already-existing beliefs. He’s a bit sneaky. “I see you are very religious people,” he tells the Greeks, who have many gods. “And I see that you have a statue to an “unknown god.” I am here to tell you that your “unknown” God is known to us. And, coincidentally, that God is the only God you need. Some people take exception to this way of evangelism, suggesting that it waters-down the Christian message by comparing it to other religious traditions rather than explaining what it is.
I don’t agree. I think that as long as we know who we are – something I preached about the day we introduced our new mission statement – we can safely explain it to people in terms they understand. Knowing what it means to be an Episcopalian and preaching it so people can get it is something our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry, does very well This weekend the Diocese of California was blessed with a visit from the Bishop Curry, who was here to participate in the Eco Justice Weekend, which included a moderated panel on the role of the church in environmental justice, graduation at my alma mater, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a reception and celebration Eucharist at the Cathedral on Friday night, and Eco Confirmation at the Golden Gate Overlook in San Francisco yesterday morning, at which two of our parishioners were confirmed and two others received into the Episcopal Church. At the Friday evening Eucharist service, Bishop Curry preached what Bishop Marc called, “a transformational sermon that will form the basis for the Episcopal Church’s understanding of our relationship to the environment.” It was, quite simply, amazing. Paul Brooks turned to me afterward and said, “I never knew an Episcopal priest could do that.” I encourage all of you to listen to the sermon in its entirety when it is posted online. For now, I wanted to share with you some of the things that came up for me in listening to Bishop Curry.
He preaches the Gospel. He tells us, “This is the Bible. This is right there in scripture.” But he knows his audience too. He says, “But I know Episcopalians. Episcopalians think, “Well, yes, scripture is good, but if it’s not in the Book of Common Prayer….but it is in the Book of Common Prayer,” and he tells you where. But he also knows that we are a thinking people, a rational people. We are the crazy Christians that believe in – science and informed debate. So he gives us some more evidence. “If not the Bible if not the Book of Common Prayer, then the Pope” and the Journal of American Medicine. And back to the scripture. Because, although we do not as a denomination believe that the Bible is inerrant or literally true, we still believe that it is the bedrock of Christian belief. And we should not be afraid to share it – and preach it.
He refers to the church as a movement, “the Jesus Movement.” The part of church, he says, where we sit in the pews on Sunday – the part we’re doing now – is only a tiny percentage of what church is about. We are, as St. Teresa of Avila reminded us, God’s hands and feet in the world. We must be about doing God’s business. We must be about spreading God’s word. And we must be about doing this together, as a community because by doing it together we need not fear.
He is never overtly political, but he makes clear what the values of the Episcopal Church are: being good stewards of all that we have been given – all of God’s creation; living in relationship, striving to make communities of harmony and peace; keeping our mission, our high calling, in our heads and hearts at all time by seeking to live according to the words and actions of Jesus Christ; by working together to welcome, support and serve all God’s people.
He spreads the Good News.
Bishop Curry did not preach at the Confirmation service. Instead, he asked each of us to think of a moment of wonder that made us aware of the presence of God. As I thought about my own “mountain top moments” – times when I felt a particularly strong sense of “Immanuel” (God with us), I realized that my own first reaction and, I suspect, beings and I think it is part of our God-given nature to share Good News when we receive it. As part of Confirmation, we renew our baptismal vows. Thus, yesterday morning, we found ourselves committing to a life of evangelism. That’s because proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ is, in fact, one of our baptismal vows. And it is also the definition of evangelism.
“Bishop Curry invites us all to join “the Jesus Movement,” which centers on sharing of the Gospel to our hurting world…The term evangelism stems from the New Testament Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.” Evangelism is the sharing of the life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ in word (proclamation) and deed (actions)…Verbal proclamation, social justice, and the works of mercy and charity are linked by our incarnate Savior.” Evangelism involves three actions: proclamation, social action, and invitation. We must tell people what we know to be true: that the way of Jesus is the path to salvation. We must act on our words by demonstrating the way of Jesus through kindness, generosity and forbearance toward others. We must, in other words, show we are Christians by our love. Finally, we must invite others to join us, to offer them the opportunity to share our path toward peace and love.
Bishop Curry believes that, “In all of our work, we must especially remember that God is the great evangelist, and yet he graciously allows us, his Body, to be ‘his ambassadors, making his appeal through us… Evangelism wasn’t a dreaded task in the early Church, it was a joy to share the best news: of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ… [According to Bishop Curry], the Church will experience joy and abundant life as it stretches beyond its walls. We must, though, take heed to hold together, equally, proclamation, social action, and invitation in our evangelistic efforts.”
I believe that Episcopalians fear the word “evangelism” because of its historical association with forcing others to change their beliefs and because it has been co-opted by other Christian denominations whose beliefs about the way in which to follow Jesus are different than ours. But just because those associations exist does not mean we should not call ourselves “evangelists.” Rather, it gives us that much more reason to learn to evangelize so that we can show people the true way of Christ, the path that follows the words he gave us when asked what the greatest commandment is: “Love God, Love your neighbor – everything else is secondary.” That we love our God who gave us so much and that we actively seek to love our neighbors is the way of Christ, and it should be spread. In fact, it must be spread. It must be spread here at Grace. It must be spread here in Martinez. It must be spread to all those we love-and to all those we are tempted to hate. This is exactly what Peter was talking about in today’s New Testament reading: know who you are and be ready to explain it to anyone who asks at any time.
The future of the Episcopal Church that Bishop Curry believes in is the same future the disciples believed in – the same future that Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker believed in. The same future we have always had: life in Jesus Christ. “Do not be afraid my brothers and sisters,” Bishop Curry told us, “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement and we will not be silenced. We will not be defeated. We will not fail. God is with us and God is good.” Amen.
Carrie Boren Headington (2016), “The Episcopal Church’s ‘e-word,’ – what is evangelism”? The Living Church, http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/02/02/the-episcopal-churchs-e-word-what-is-evangelism/.