May 18, 2014

Evangelism – sharing your faith in a multi-faith world

Passage: Acts 7:55-60 (Stoning of Stephen) Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 1 Peter 2:2-10 John 14:1-14

Easter 5, Year A-2014                    Fifth Sunday of Easter                  May 18, 2014

The Reverend Martin Yabroff,  St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tacoma WA

(developed from my sermon of Easter 5, 2008 on these texts)

The deacon Stephen, whose death we hear about in our first lesson, was an evangelist.  He spoke eagerly, being moved by the Holy Spirit, of Jesus.  In his case, he stirred up violent opposition, but he kept his focus on God, and on Jesus at God’s right hand.  Stephen wasn’t judgmental toward those who opposed and stoned him – he prayed for their forgiveness.

Our lessons (and songs) today focus us on Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Now to say today in the larger community of the Pacific Northwest, and generally in the world today, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life is to espouse a minority view.  At the very least, it is to take a perspective among lots of different perspectives, religious positions, and spiritual paths.  How then might we witness to Jesus as Lord without being judgmental or close-minded, and yet be true to the Gospel?  How shall we as persons and as a congregation engage in our calling to be evangelists? – a vocation we affirm in our Baptismal Covenant to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”; the call we share with Timothy when Paul calls him and us to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), to help others experience the mercy and meaning we are finding in God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:10).

There was an interfaith conference on compassion in Seattle about six years ago.  It included a panel discussion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and other religious leaders from the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Christian traditions.  The question was asked – doesn’t interfaith discussion weaken or lessen one’s own spiritual identity and one’s own tradition?  Everyone on the panel agreed – No, such dialogue can and should strengthen and energize one’s own faith.  Each of the panelists spoke fervently as Buddhists, Christians, Jews, etc, and listened and complimented one another’s perspectives.  They encouraged one another to go further in compassion, in faithful seeking after God and Truth.

So let us consider some aspects of interfaith dialogue and evangelical witness.  For that is what we need to be about today – as we share our faith in Jesus Christ (if that is how you see and experience the Truth – which I do – Jesus is my savior and Lord) and as we seek to know God whose truth none of us on this earth can claim to fully comprehend.

I have six notes for this conversation.  I want to thank Jeff Sharp (of St. Andrew’s) and Chris Morton of Associated Ministries for their comments on these notes, some of which I have incorporated.

First – Our witness and dialogue must be sincere, eager and humble.    Share what you believe - who God is and who Jesus is for you - and respect the views and experience of others.  Share your questions – it will encourage others with their questions.  Share your doubts – it will encourage others with doubts.  Be honest – that is the strongest and most effective witness and evangelism.  And especially, share your experiences of grace and hope - of mercy and love - that you are finding through faith in God and in knowing Jesus Christ. Evangelism begins with sharing such Good News.  I love the definition of evangelism offered by the Indian missionary D.T. Niles:  one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.  That is, share what is meaningful –  “bread” – for your hunger and life.

Second – Evangelism and interfaith dialogue must never be arrogant or judgmental.  (Even though it may stir up arrogance or judgmentalism in others, as we see in the story of Stephen’s martyrdom.)  God’s truth is greater than my own understanding.  So let us listen in conversation for common themes and learn from them.

Here is a story about the German Catholic writer Klaus Klostermaier, who spent two years in India.  He wrote:  “I wanted to see a famous man in Benares, a sagacious philosopher, feared by many as a merciless critic of Christian theology.  I had my own reasons for paying him a visit.  He was polite, invited me for tea and then mounted the attack.  I let him talk his fill, without saying a word myself.  Then I began to talk about the things I had begun to understand within the dialogue – quite positively Christian.  We got into a sincere, good, deep discussion.  He had intended to send me away after ten minutes.  When I left after two hours, he had tears in his eyes: ‘if we insisted on our theologies – you as a Christian, I as a Hindu – we would be fighting each other.  We have found one another because we probed more deeply, towards spirituality.’” (in Donald Nicholl, Scientia Cordis, p. 6)

Third – Avoid relativism.  I will not say that all paths are the same, but rather let us speak clearly, each from our own perspectives.  We will disagree – that is OK.  Don’t downplay the differences and distinctions of your experience and understanding.  As a Christian – I believe that Jesus is the truest and fullest expression of God and of humanity.  Not all paths are the same – the Dalai Lama himself cautions against equating religious terms – the Buddhist notion of this is the same as the Christian view of that – it would be like trying to put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.

Fourth – We don’t need to defend God or justify Jesus against those who disagree.  Let us be like the birds of the air or the flowers of the field – they don’t defend their flight or their beauty.  All truth is God’s truth, so appreciate and learn truth whenever and wherever you find it.  So listen to one another, listen to God, seek Jesus Christ, and to know Christ better through dialogue and discussion.  Let your own mind be clearer through discussion.

Let me be clear – we should clarify our witness and correct what others think we are saying and believing.  Oftentimes the God someone else rejects is not the God or the Jesus we know and follow.  But we do not need to prove God’s value or defend Jesus’ honor – they can defend and prove themselves, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

Fifth – Our goal in conversation and dialogue is to seek the truth and to grow in it together, to deepen friendship, understanding and learning.  As the Dalai Lama says, ‘Differences need not be divisions.’

There is a difference between evangelism and proselytism.  Evangelism is sharing the Good News as we are finding it, in an open-ended and generous way, inviting others to consider if it might be valuable and meaningful for them also.  Proselytism is seeking to convert others, to make them proselytes or converts.  That is not what we are called to do.  As the great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin explains,

… the conversion of a human mind and will to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior is strictly a work of the sovereign Holy Spirit of God, a mystery always beyond our full comprehension, for which our words and deeds may be – by the grace of God – the occasions but never the sufficient causes.  Anything in the nature of manipulation, any exploiting of weakness, any use of coercion, anything other than the ‘manifestation of the truth … in the sight of God’ (2 Cor. 4:2) has no place in true evangelism. (Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian – a reader, p.147)

Let us be evangelists to ‘go and tell’, inviting others to ‘come and see’.  And leave the deciding and convincing to God and each person’s own decision.

Sixth – Christian faith, a relationship with Jesus Christ, is a fundamental perspective.  For Christians, Jesus Christ and his resurrection are our first principals – let us not try to explain Jesus in terms of science or other philosophies.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life – let us begin there, and approach science and other paths in terms of your own understanding of Jesus, of God, as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  In biblical terms (in terms of our Epistle lesson from 1 Peter), if you start with science or the world’s reasons, Jesus will be a stumbling block.  But if you start with Jesus, science and other paths fall into place, with Jesus as the cornerstone.

Remember that we are called both to proclaim boldly yet humbly what we believe and to respect the dignity of others and other faith traditions.

Let us be eager to share Good News.  Personally, let us share it like sowing seeds, like letting God’s light shine, like telling our stories and listening for God in the stories of others.  Let our listening and our friendships be full of laughter when appropriate, tears when they arise, and gentleness.  Wasn’t that the way Jesus was with people who were seeking?  Look for opportunities for God to speak through you – be bold at times.  Be “foolish” in terms of the world’s wisdom, even though it is hard for Episcopalians.  Christian faith is important – there are so many around us who want a living and healthy spiritual life, and to know a loving and forgiving Savior like the Jesus we proclaim.

As a congregation, let our witness be eager and unashamed and clear about who we are following and seeking.  Let our witness be as a welcoming community, a people of compassion and service.  We do need to put our light on a lamp stand (not as is traditional for Episcopalians, under a bushel basket) because this is a new time when we cannot assume the folks who drive by this church or live in our community know what kind of community this is or about the loving and forgiving and merciful God we are coming to know.  God will use such evangelism to inspire and reconcile God’s people to God and one another.

Let us close with our collect for this Fifth Sunday of Easter:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (emphasis added)