When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
According to tradition, Luke was a doctor. Doctors are deeply educated and skilled people, who can take part in the healing of people – a truly wonderful thing. But we in the church don’t know a lot about that aspect of Luke’s life. We know Luke as a follower of Jesus. We know that Luke thrived on a wonderful mystery far greater than the black and white world of medicine – the Good News that God has become one of us, and that however bleak things may seem, because of Him, death no longer has the final word. Particularly good news for a doctor, I’d say!
We describe Luke as a doctor, but the truth is that once he was baptised – like us – he assumed a new identity. That is why, 2000 years later, we know Luke at all, not because he was a doctor, but because he was a disciple of Jesus and a writer of one of the gospel stories, upon whom we depend for the Good News of God’s life among us. Without Luke telling us, we would never have heard Mary singing the Magnificat, or old Simeon singing his song to the new baby in his arms, or the birth of John the Baptist, or the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, or the story of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son – these are all stories that only Luke tells. This disciple set down in writing the Good News he had heard, so that we could receive it in our own time, be healed by it, and be saved.
Perhaps then Luke never resigned his job as a doctor and healer. He just changed medicines. Instead of prescribing herbs and spices, hot compresses and bed rest, Luke told stories to his community and to the world for 2000 years, stories with power to mend broken lives and revive faint hearts. Instead of pills and potions, Luke prescribed words like “weep no more”, “do not be afraid”, “your sins are forgiven”, and “stand up and walk”. Luke’s new medicine was the Gospel, medicine that works through words.
So, Dr. Luke was an evangelist, who heard the Good News of Jesus, and knew that there was a whole world waiting to hear the Good News too, so he took his place in the long line of servants of the Lord, gathering up the stories he had heard and setting them down in writing, so that parents could tell them to their children, and teachers to their students, and friends to strangers, and those nearby to those far off, and insiders to outsiders, until everyone, finally, had heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the world was healed and reconciled to God.
Jump forward 2000 years, and here we are. Isn’t it true that everyone of us arrived at faith because someone told someone who told someone who told someone who told us? Maybe all someone said to you was “come to church with me”, or “God bless you”, or “I’m praying for you.” Maybe someone said something to you that soothed you, or angered you, or intrigued you, something that brought you back for more. Maybe someone just radiated joy and hope and love, and when you asked why, they simply pointed to the cross. That is how the Church has existed and grown for almost two thousand years. That is how a Galilean man who spent his whole life in a country no bigger than Bathurst became known all around the world – because people talk.
There is a word for this process that we are generally so reluctant to use, because it tends to make the hair stand up on the back of shy people’s necks. But it is a word that has everything to do with the healing business that Luke was in. That word, folks, is evangelism. Are you as sensitive to that word as I am? A little while ago, one of you called me an evangelical preacher, and I was surprised by my own reaction to it, feeling like I was being accused of armed assault. Surely I’m not one of those crazy evangelical preachers, with their soapboxes and their threats of eternal damnation, am I?!
Perhaps we should pause here and think about some of the often-used words we Christians use without really thinking about their meaning. What does evangelism actually mean, and how does it relate to other concepts like conversion, proselytism, being saved, and being baptised?
Christian evangelism is the act of telling the story of Jesus. That’s it, in a nutshell. It is simply telling the story and thus proclaiming the Good News. Our reading from Luke says it all; it’s all about proclaiming.
Conversion is God’s in-breaking into a person’s life, such that that person encounters God, and chooses to become a follower of Jesus. Evangelism and conversion are therefore two different things, with one preceding the other. Evangelism is opening the blinds; conversion is God shining a light in. Evangelism is about invitation; conversion is about accepting the invitation. Evangelism is our job; conversion is God’s. So, when we talk about evangelism, let’s take away from it the idea that we are meant to convert people. We are not. That was never the intention. We are called, and commissioned, and commanded, to tell the Good News to others. What they do with the Good News, whether they let God into their lives, is between them and God.
Salvation is what we believe happens when people put their faith in the promises of Jesus Christ – deliverance from the consequences of sin and the power of death. But again, salvation is God’s job. We don’t save people by evangelising to them; God does. As well, the moment of conversion in one’s life brings about the promise of salvation, but it is untrue to suggest that once one is saved, they are good to go, that they can live their life as per normal with the assurance of a ticket to heaven. Rather, salvation brings about a life of Christian discipleship – loving God, loving neighbour, and telling the story to others. We are Christian disciples not to earn our place in heaven, but as a joyful response to our conversion. We love, because God first loved us.
Baptism then is the act of welcoming someone to the family of God. Baptism does not save someone, nor is it a ticket to heaven. Baptism is how to incorporate someone into the body of Christ; it simply acknowledges that that person is a beloved child of God, and they bear the sign of the cross. So in an ideal world, first comes evangelism, then conversion, then the promise of salvation, then baptism, and then a life of discipleship. Often, things aren’t that clear cut, but that’s the biblical ideal.
As an aside, why do we baptise children, you may ask? The baptism of children has a different emphasis; while the baptism of a believer is about choosing to graft one’s self into Christ’s body, the baptism of an infant is about acknowledging that God’s grace and love is larger than our choices. God loved that infant even before he or she knew it. And actually, the model for infant baptism is Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan, where God says “this is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased”, not “this is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased, because he has proven to me that he deserves my pleasure; he prays every morning, he reads his Torah, and so on.” As far as we know, the young adult Jesus hadn’t done anything of merit yet, and he was baptised and called beloved anyway.
Proselytism has a different emphasis to evangelism. While evangelism is about sharing the story of Jesus Christ, proselytism is about attempting to convert people from something else to one’s own faith, with an emphasis on the consequences of not doing so. That is, believe in Jesus Christ, or else. Proselytism at its worst holds no respect for the prospective convert’s freedom and dignity. It uses high pressure tactics: telling lies about the other person’s current religion; comparing the weaknesses of their religion with the strength of one’s own; attempting to convert children in opposition to parents; offering financial, charitable or other inducements to change one’s religious alliance, or even threatening violence as incentive. The goal of proselytism is getting more souls to their team. The goal of evangelism is simply to offer the Good News.
I wonder then if we have seen bad evangelism, that is, proselytism, and we have thought to ourselves “well I don’t want to be like THAT”, but we don’t have a model of how we should be as evangelists, so we just don’t do it at all. Another barrier for us today is that the Christian Church doesn’t have the best reputation in the public sphere, particularly in our post-Christendom, multi-faith Australian society. Perhaps we fear that by telling people about Jesus, we will be written off as loony or unenlightened. Or perhaps we fear that when people hear Jesus, they automatically think of the Royal Commission, or domestic violence, or power-and-money-hungry pastors, or social conservatism, or condoning slavery, or colonisation, or the Crusades – instances of the Church getting it wrong.
So why bother? Why evangelise? The simple, or simplistic answer is that we do it because we are commanded to do it. But it seems that is not enough of an incentive for us these days. So why bother?
I want you to take a moment now and think about the greatest gift you have ever received; it might have been a birthday present or a wedding present or something. This is mine. This is a blanket that my sister-in-law crocheted for Adrian and I on the occasion of our wedding. I love it so much, and I treasure it. It is so meaningful and wonderful to me that I can’t wait to show it to people when they come and visit. This present is too special to keep folded up in a cupboard out of view. In fact, hiding this present decreases its value and meaning. This present only becomes more special in its viewing.
The Good News is such a precious gift that has given countless people joy and hope and wonder over 2000 years. It brings joy to my heart to know that in Christ, the things that make us different no longer matter, that our sins are forgiven, that the poor are blessed, that death is no longer the end of our stories, that there is meaning and purpose and direction and hope in my life, in an otherwise hopeless, desolate world. The Good News of Jesus Christ is so precious a gift that surely we have to share it! Surely our faith is so wonderful to us that it cannot help but bubble over in abundance! Surely we evangelise because this precious gift cannot be kept within us, or within these four walls, or within the Church! And it’s not like one’s faith is like a pie, where if you share it, there is less for yourself. Those of you with more than one child or grandchild know that the love we give doesn’t split between each child, it multiplies! Sharing your faith only multiplies it!
Friends, as we embark on Discipleship Month, focusing on evangelism, let us look to Luke as a model. Dr. Luke was an evangelist. He heard stories with the power to heal in them, and he repeated them and recorded them so that they would be told again and again and again. But folks, he is not the only one called to that ministry, and nor are John and I and Kent and Rick and Graeme and other ordained ministers. In the Uniting Church, every time someone is baptised in our midst, we renew our own baptismal covenants, promising that we too will be evangelists. We all say that we will proclaim, by word and example, the Good News of Jesus Christ. We thereby join ranks with Luke and all the apostles, Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, Oscar Romero, Sunday School teachers, parents, friends, and so many others.
Perhaps these feel like big shoes to fill – to follow in the footsteps of such giants of the faith. But sisters and brothers, there are a million ways to proclaim the Good News, and we sell God short when we forget that, when we try to force ourselves into a narrow soapbox mold or fall silent completely because we cannot. There may be times when we are called upon to stand up in public and give an account for the hope that is in us, but really, nine times out of ten, our evangelism will be different: reading psalms to a sick friend, ending a fight with words of forgiveness, writing a note that restores hope, listening to an old woman’s story, laughing at a child’s joke, inviting a stranger to come in from the cold – these are all acts of evangelism, as long as in each act, we point to the cross. And if we are ever stuck for ideas, we can remember all the ways the Good News has come to us, all the ways the medicine of the Gospel has brought about our own healing.
And whenever we evangelise, we take our own places in the 2000-year relay of the faith, passing on the glad tidings we ourselves have heard from our predecessors who themselves were practitioners of Gospel Medicine. So why do we evangelise? Because we have been evangelised to, from a long line of people going all the way back to people like Luke, and the Good News we have received is so good that it has to be shared with others, so that the line continues. We evangelise because the Good News is so, so good.
May the God who has given us the will and commandment to evangelise, give us the grace and power to perform it, restoring our tired broken world to health, one God-blessed word at a time, until the whole world can join us in saying Amen.