You too can evangelize like the disciples!
Year B, Epiphany 3
I am a pretty big fan of church humor. I have a bumper sticker collection devoted to such humor in my office. It’s not making fun of God. It’s occasionally poking fun at the silly things we do as Christians. As you can imagine, I love seeing those billboards on the highway with quotes signed by God. There is a black background with white letters. Among my favorites are: “That “Love Thy Neighbor” Thing, I Meant It.” or “Keep Using My Name in Vain And I’ll Make Rush Hour Longer.” Of course there are some that are less about making you laugh and more about making a point. One just says: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” What is interesting about these signs is that they are not attributed to anyone. No one takes credit for them. There is no web address under them to direct you to a page where they ask for money. Nothing. I find that admirable for numerous reasons.
However, there is one billboard that I feel needs additional information. It just says, “Follow me.” As a Christian, we might look at that and consider it to be a good reminder. But if you are not a Christian, it would make no sense and probably not have any effect at all. It makes a little more sense on a bumper sticker when it says, “Follow me to St. John’s’,” but then I always worry that some person will follow someone and find they are just going home. That could get weird.
Yet I wonder sometimes if we are just as vague in the Episcopal Church. We put out signs that say, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!” Underneath is the Episcopal shield and the name of the church. First of all, what are we welcoming people to? Are we welcoming them to a church, worship, prayer, volunteer work? And what is up with the shield? If you are not an Episcopalian the first question you might have is, “Why does a church need a shield?” Most Episcopalians don’t even know what it means.
Both of these things are attempts at evangelism and I would agree that any attempt is a good one; but the big flaw is that they lack follow up. Episcopalians respond to the word evangelism the same way they do to a flying object about to hit them…duck and cover. Evangelism is sharing God’s love with others. That’s really not that scary. I know that it’s harder than it seems. Only 77% of Americans identify as Christians and many of those do not engage with their faith. People are faced with many alternatives, many different ways to spend their time. Even some people who identify as Christians don’t go to church or pray regularly. It is no longer safe to assume that if someone is not in church it’s because they haven’t found one they like.
Yet imagine how difficult evangelism was in Jesus’ day. There were two main faiths in the place where Jesus was living. There was the faith of the Hebrew people, Judaism, and whatever god the Romans were worshipping. There were smaller variations, but those were the main faith traditions. Because of that, it was pretty risky to move beyond those two options. It was not like now when we have over 10,000 denominations to choose from. If you want something different, just create your own church and you can do whatever you want.
When Jesus called his disciples, he was not calling them to a new religion. We often consider the disciples or even Jesus to be Christian, but that word did not even exist until many years after Jesus died. These men were all devoted Jews. Jesus was not trying to convert them. He was simply asking them to follow him. First he had to find the people.
Jesus, being all knowing did not have to consult demographics or send out postcards inviting people to hear about this new great thing. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first disciples come from John the Baptist’s group of disciples. John the Baptist was with a couple of his disciples when Jesus passed. He told them, “Look there is the Lamb of God.” That was all these two men needed. They followed Jesus. Jesus turned around and asked them what they were looking for. They answered by asking where he was staying. He simply said, “Come and follow me.” They followed him to his home and stayed with him. The next day, one of the new disciples (Andrew) went to his brother and said, “We have found the Messiah.” Then he immediately brought his brother to Jesus.
So far the disciples have found Jesus with the help of others. In the next story, Jesus finds Philip and simply says, “Follow me.” (I guess when you are Jesus, you don’t need to explain.) After spending some time with Jesus, Phillip finds his friend Nathanial and tells him, “We have found the one Moses spoke of in the law-the prophets too-Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Here Philip is meeting Nathanial where he is. He’s Jewish and knows all about Moses and the prophets. This is a pretty compelling reason to at least listen to Philip. Nathanial needs a little more and questions Philip. Philip realizes that he could tell him all that he has seen and heard or he could introduce him to the man himself. So he replies the same way Jesus did when he was questioned by John’s disciples. He said “Come and see.”
What we have here are four examples of evangelism. The first two men to follow Jesus are encouraged by someone they trust, someone who knows a lot about God, someone who has proved himself to be an honest and faithful man. Andrew then calls the next disciple, his brother Peter. Since he was his brother, someone he knew intimately, he didn’t have to say much….just enough to get his interest. Andrew brought him immediately to meet Jesus. The next example is an invitation from Jesus himself. The last one is a friend sharing with another friend and then asking him to come and see. That is how it all began for Jesus’ disciples and inevitably for Christianity itself.
Some of you may know that the number one reason that people visit a church is because they have been invited by a friend. That seems deceivingly simple. It is and it isn’t. In all of these examples with the disciples the men were offering both a reason and an invitation. Jesus was the only one who got away with “follow me.” The others needed to tell the person why they should come and see. Not only did they provide information and an invitation, they went with the person to find Jesus.
No, it’s not as simple as inviting someone. You need to consider your relationship with that person. If it’s a good friend, you might be able to say, “Hey, I really love my church and I think you might too.” If it’s more of an acquaintance, you might have to talk to them about why you go to church. That is one of the reasons I have asked people to write about their reasons and submit them to the bulletin. Today, you can read why Bill Saunders attends. Then after you have invited them, you need to take the next step and say something like, “It’s kind of hard to find the parking lot, perhaps I can pick you up or meet you somewhere convenient.” Then that person is accountable to you and they don’t have to walk in alone. They are guaranteed that they will know at least one person and that is a huge comfort for people.
I hear from a lot of people that we want to grow the church. I understand that and agree. But what we are really looking for is disciples of Christ. We don’t just want numbers to sit in the pews and turn in their pledge on time. We want disciples. People come to church for all kinds of different reasons and I encourage you to talk to people about that. But as a community, I think we need to consider why we want people in our church, more important why we want people in God’s church. Let’s consider that in the context of the Gospel we heard today. Jesus wanted people to know him and follow him. So how are we, as St. John’s Episcopal Church going to help people know Jesus and be disciples of Jesus? If we can talk about that, then evangelism won’t seem nearly as frightening.