This Eastertide, I have been thinking a lot about evangelism. The bishop asked us to have a conversation about our mission and evangelism efforts here in Plainview during Eastertide. The Vestry just started reading a book about evangelism as a spiritual discipline. And our Vestry retreat in April was about the tangible practices of evangelism we could employ. For a topic that makes most Episcopalians very uncomfortable, evangelism seems to be everywhere I turn. But as I was thinking about the theme of evangelism this Eastertide, I realized that the theme’s prominence makes quite a bit of sense. Eastertide is sort of the “so what?” of the resurrection. Throughout Eastertide, we are hearing the stories of the disciples’ reaction to the resurrection, and what life was like after this pivotal moment. What better time to think about evangelism than while the disciples are doing just that – taking the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection and sharing that Good News with others.
What I appreciate then about our lesson from Acts today is that the practice of evangelism in biblical times was not exactly precise. You would think that the book of Acts would tell the story of how after Jesus’ death the disciples knew exactly how to spread the Good News. You would think after all those years with Jesus, the disciples had clear instructions for moving forward, and were able to draw up a structured evangelism plan. But our stories from Acts this year have included nothing of the sort. So far we have heard stories of a brutal persecutor of Christians being dramatically converted, of Peter realizing that Gentiles should also be included in the Christian community, and today we hear of this foreign woman of power coming to Christ. I am pretty sure if the disciples sat down and planned their target audience for the Good News, Paul, Cornelius, and Lydia would not have been on their list. And yet, this is the story of evangelism we hear during Eastertide: a story of unlikely and unexpected people hearing and responding to the word of God.
On the surface, this sounds like good news to us. These stories of conversion give a sense of confidence that no matter with whom we share the story of Jesus, they will be converted. But looking at the end of the story glosses over the actual experiences of those on the evangelism journey. If you remember, when Paul is converted, and his eyes are scaled over, the Christian who goes to talk with him is scared to death. God tells him to go to Paul, but that is little assurance when that instruction means walking into the lair of a nasty murderer of Christians. And for Peter, his interaction with Cornelius means that he must surrender all that has been familiar to him – the necessity of circumcision and all that he has known as being central markers of faithfulness – and let go of that familiarity. Even with this interaction between Paul and Lydia today, Paul must take on a long journey based on a few words in a dream, only to find not a Macedonian man who is asking for help, but a foreign woman.[i]
These stories during Eastertide only highlight our own anxieties about evangelism. As modern Christians, we have a hard enough time sharing the Good News with our friends and family. Religion is one of those primary topics to avoid at dinner parties. At the slightest hint of discomfort from someone else, we immediately drop the topic, not wanting to drive away a friend or colleague. We do not want to become known as some Jesus freak who everyone avoids at parties. Quite frankly, there are even times when we feel uncomfortable even talking about our faith within Church. How in the world could we ever then expect ourselves to be able to talk to those who are hostile, unchurched, or strangers to us?
Before I went to seminary, I participated in a group at my parish called EFM – Education for Ministry. The program was a four-year program where a small group of people gathered and each year covered a different topic – Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, and Theology. During one of the scripture years, I was traveling by plane alone and I was sorely behind in my scripture reading. I carried a large study bible with me, and that trip I found that I had more interesting conversation than you could ever imagine. I had a slightly uncomfortable conversation with a young evangelical male who started telling me about his conservative views on scripture. I had a businessman ask me if I was a minister or theology student. When I told him no, he seemed bewildered as to why I would be reading the Bible, and kept eyeing me suspiciously the rest of that flight. I had a middle-aged woman start telling me about her church and Bible Studies she had enjoyed. And of course, there were tons of people who just stared at me warily trying to figure out what my angle was. You would think the lesson from my trip would be, “Take a Bible with you, and see what evangelism opportunities it creates.” But to be honest, I found myself wanting to never carry a Bible with me again in an airport.
I think why we get so uncomfortable about evangelism is we imagine evangelism as knocking on the doors of strangers, presenting some uncomfortable script, and then having doors slammed in our faces. But our lesson from Acts today shows us a different model. Our lesson from Acts tells us is that yes, evangelism will entail going places that may be uncomfortable or interacting with people you would not expect. Paul goes on a long journey expecting to meet a man and gets something quite different. Lydia goes seeking a place to pray with her familiar girlfriends and hears something entirely new. But evangelism is not just about the evangelizer and the evangelizee. The other major actor is the Holy Spirit. The text tells us that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to Paul. Evangelism is the intersection between human faithfulness and divine guidance. “Paul would not have been guided to this place at this moment, were he not first of all at God’s disposal, open to being guided, sensitively attuned to being steered in one direction and away from all others. Lydia would not have arrived at this place or time, had she not first of all been a worshiper of God, a seeker already on her way. Peter does his part and Lydia hers, but it is God who guides all things and works in and through all things, not just for good but for what would otherwise be impossible.”[ii]
What is so liberating about this understanding of evangelism is that even if we thought we had to or could do evangelism on our own, we realize today that our work of evangelism only happens with God. The book our Vestry is reading says that “Evangelism is a spiritual practice of expressing gratitude for God’s goodness and grace.”[iii] That does not sound so bad, does it? A spiritual practice of expressing gratitude for God’s goodness and grace. He does not define evangelism as saving souls or self-righteously driving away your friends. He says that evangelism is about expressing gratitude for God’s goodness and grace. Knowing that definition of evangelism and knowing from scripture that evangelism happens as a partnership between our faithfulness and God’s guidance makes the whole enterprise seem a lot less scary.
I want you to take a moment to think about the best vacation you ever had. Think about all the reasons why the vacation was wonderful and why you enjoyed yourself. Think about the happiness and peace that the vacation brought you and the warm smile that just recalling the trip brings to your face. Imagine the enthusiasm in your voice as you share that story with someone else and the great conversation your sharing might evoke. Now, take a moment to imagine the same experience with a conversation about your faith journey. Think about the great joy you have had in your relationship with God. Think about the happiness and peace you have at times found in God. And now think about the enthusiasm in your voice as you share that story with someone else and the incredible conversation your sharing might evoke. That is all that happens between Paul and Lydia. That is all that God invites you to do today. Because the Holy Spirit will take care of rest. Amen.
[i] Eric Barreto, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=584.
[ii] Ronald Cole-Turner, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 476
[iii] David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York: Church Publishing, 2008), 29.