The Gospel Call: The Message
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Did you notice something different? Felt a little empty there didn’t it? Let me try something else.
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. Amen.
How about that time? Are you noticing what I’m doing? I’m leaving out bits that everybody knows, bits that everyone is so accustomed to hearing that it is startling when I don’t say them. Why am I doing this? You’ll see. I’ll come back to this in a bit.
Today I’m starting a bold new experiment, for me at the very least, and hopefully for you, my brothers and sisters. I’m going to be starting a 4 week sermon series on Evangelism, entitled the Gospel Call. For the next four weeks, I want to focus on certain scriptures, doctrines, and ideas that revolve around the core of evangelism. Now, this series may not be quite like other sermon series you’ve heard before. Part of that is because I don’t tend to preach like other people.
If you haven’t noticed, I don’t really follow the standard 3-point sermon structure. I don’t like doing that; it doesn’t really flow well. It seems too… artificial, cold, lifeless, take your pick. Truth is, I prefer to tell stories. I’ve told you this before, but I think it’s important. Stories are the mode in which we’ve shared our lives with each other for centuries, and I think it’s the best way to get a message across without trying to make it conform to a 3 point format. Not that 3 point sermons are bad, it’s just they aren’t me.
Anyways, back to the point. Evangelism! Now, what does that word conjure up in your mind? Possibly a street preacher, bible in one hand, megaphone in the other, scaring people into believing in Jesus? Does the word evangelism make you think of seminars and books devoted to boosting the attendance numbers of your church? I’m afraid that that’s the majority of people when they hear that word. In truth, the word evangelism has been hijacked by well-meaning but misguided people playing a numbers game.
For a long time, I avoided the word evangelism. It conjured up some ugly images for me. Being one of the few Methodists in a town full of Baptists, Pentecostals and other similar denominations (or non-denominations) I tended to be approached with some rather unpleasant means of evangelism. Let me set something on the table. I am a Methodist pastor’s kid. This was common knowledge in most places, especially in the small east Texas town I went to high school in. This did not stop people from trying to convert me. People would ask me when I was baptized, I would tell them that I was a baby when I was baptized, like I’m sure at least a few of you were. And you know what? It really doesn’t set well with me when people say that that doesn’t really count. I knew what I believed, but that didn’t matter to some people, even though I shared the bulk of their beliefs. They still felt the need to convert me.
So when I first thought of evangelism, and started taking evangelism as a serious call for me as a Christian, I had some misgivings, and even some doubts about what I was to do. If belligerent, aggressive and hard-headed evangelism is the only kind of evangelism I knew of, how could I bring myself to answering the call to evangelize given by Jesus? Maybe I’m the only one, but I think there’s got to be another way.
So, I started looking into it myself. I looked at books, took a class on it, and came to some of my own conclusions because of it. In the course of all this, there are certain scriptures that formed the way I think about evangelism. The result is the four scriptures I’m presenting to you in the next few weeks. It may not be completely clear to you now, especially with this first reading, so let’s get into it! Ready? Cool.
This passage from Luke is actually one of my favorite passages in the whole Gospel of Luke. It’s just wonderfully weird and over the top, and I love it. It also encapsulates and condenses the basic gist of Jesus’s ministry in just 15 short verses. But perhaps the thing you’re probably wondering, is why they would want to throw Jesus off of a cliff just for reading this passage from Isaiah?
It all has to do with what you guys were feeling when I said the pledge of allegiance without saying part of it. Or with the Lord’s prayer, when I omitted a part of it. In fact, I’m sure a lot of you place a great deal of importance on those parts I left out. It jolted you, or at the least, caught you off-guard.
This is the same thing that Jesus did to the people in his hometown when he read Isaiah. Why? Because he left out a critical phrase to the passage at the very end, one that everybody would know. This was a fairly popular passage in the Jewish community in Jesus time, and because most people couldn’t read, people often memorized scripture. When you deviate from the script, people notice.
The passage from Isaiah he was reading from was actually from Isaiah 61, and the way the people were used to hearing it read went something like this:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
Now, I pose the question to you: Why would Jesus leave that bit out? Is it because he’s not interested in vengeance of God, or comforting the mourning? Certainly not. Jesus repeatedly talks about divine justice, and comforting the mourning. So really, why would he leave it out?
He was trying to get their attention, and to draw attention to what the words he said meant. It was the reason I left out those bits from the pledge of allegiance and the Lord’s prayer (fun fact: those versions with the deletions are closer to their original text and intent, as opposed to the versions most often used today). I mean, the people responded well to it at first, especially when he said that this prophecy had been fulfilled. Why? Because what this passage is essentially concerned with is the Day of the Lord’s favor, or the year of Jubilee. For those a bit rusty on what Jubilee is, its’ the day when every debt is erased, every slave is released from bondage, and all land lost is returned to the original owning family. History is not clear on whether they ever followed this command found in Leviticus 25, but it is clear that the Day of Jubilee was an idea that the people liked. Honestly, who wouldn’t?
But the thing is, Jesus didn’t shut up when he had the congregation on his side. No, Jesus drew attention to the omission. Why? Because it drew attention to the idea that God does not discriminate. See, the original interpretation of the Day of Jubilee only pertained to the Jews. Nobody else was included. Jesus had a different idea. Jesus was hammering home the original intent of that law.
How? Well, he reminded the people that of all the widows Elijah could have helped, he chose to help a foreigner, and a non-Jew. He reminded them that of all the lepers Elisha could have healed, he chose to heal not only a non-Jew, but an enemy. AN ENEMY! Jesus was trying to include everyone in the Day of the Lord’s favor, the day of Jubilee. Naturally, this ticked some people off, so much that they wanted to throw him off of a cliff.
But here’s the thing. Yes, Jesus escaped this mob, and lived to preach another day. But he just didn’t shut up about this idea that God doesn’t discriminate, that all people belong to God, and that God loves everyone, heals everyone, saves everyone. In Jesus’s ministry, one thing remains clear and constant: Jesus is concerned with the outsider, not the insider. Jesus cares for outward giving, not inward taking. Jesus is concerned for the sick, the poor, the enslaved, and the oppressed. The message to these people is that Jesus will heal you, and set you free. Jesus’s message is always outwardly focused.
I think this is the model meant for us to have as his disciples. I think this is the message he wanted us to tell people. Look at the word Evangelism. It’s derived from the Greek word evangelion, or in English, gospel. What it means is the Good News. The task for the disciples of Jesus Christ is to spread the good news. But what is the good news? Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed free. Jesus has come to make us all equal. Jesus has come to make us all whole.
So when we do evangelism, when we think less about the numbers game, and more about a higher stakes game than that. Evangelism is not “whoever gets the most people in church on Sunday, wins.” Evangelism is what is called a holistic process, a process that deals with everything, body, mind and soul. Evangelism is about making disciples, and calling people into the kingdom of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Evangelism is anchored in the church, but is always focused outwardly, where the people are. And most importantly, evangelism is about the transformation of the world.
Make no mistake, Jesus’s call to making disciples, to transform the world, is not an easy job. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Being a disciple requires quite a bit of dedication. It’s not as easy as 1,2,3. Discipleship requires everything that you have, body, mind and soul. The people in Jesus’s hometown knew that he was asking something difficult of them, so difficult that it was downright offensive enough for them to want to kill him.
I’m not going to lie to you. Being the good news in the world isn’t easy, and you will meet resistance. But it doesn’t make it any less real of a command for us, and it certainly doesn’t make it any less rewarding. The stake in this mission is nothing less than the kingdom of God itself.
These next few weeks, I’m going to explore with you what evangelism means for us today. Really, what I want to do is start a conversation about how we can best live out the call to evangelize. We’ll look at the mission itself, the problem that challenges the mission, and the people to whom we are called to spread the message to. Most of all, I want us to keep this in mind: Jesus’s message was pointed outwards, not inwards. The light of Christ was meant to be shared with the world, not hidden away from where people can see it.
For Christians, evangelism begins at the table. In communion, we were given a vision of what the kingdom of God looks like. The kingdom of God is a feast. Everyone is called, everyone is invited. In sharing in the body and blood of Christ, we take Christ into ourselves, and are transformed by it. So, let us be the body that transforms the world. Amen.