Evangelism is having a tough moment. It’s not politically correct to tell people what to do believe. Well, it isn’t Christian to tell people what to believe. But the way we communicate our faith has certainly changed and evangelism, even the word evangelical, is so loaded with connotations that we cringe at the descriptor.
Beliefs are personal. Beliefs come from deep within at that place that is so closely tied with loved ones, and heartbreak. What I believe is all about my worldview, my perspective – intricately interlaced with experience and education and witness. How can you say to me, “you are wrong about how you understand God?” when my experience with God is exactly that: my experience?
Still. If you have experienced loss or tragedy or the joy of giving birth or satisfaction in accomplishing something difficult – we share in that experience and a similar sense of the numinous, the wonder or comfort that so often rushes in when we need it. Most of us have an inkling, a sense that there is something More-Than that is beyond the cells and neuronal firings that make up our bodies, that seems to run through all of us and the world around us.
Yet so often, particularly in those eventful times of note, we find comfort in being reminded of that presence, that force, that divine, utterly benevolent force that makes everything right, all things well, all will be well (Julian of Norwich).
And this is the gift of the Evangelist – to communicate the goodness that is the reality of what God has done, is doing: forgiving, loving, healing. But it goes sideways lightening quick if this communication is not carried by love, when the evangelist does hold her subject in view, perceives his audience, as that of a lover to the beloved, soul mate to soul mate.
In a book I recently read, the protagonist quotes one of the more well-known Yeats’ poems:
The Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,W. B. Yeats
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
I love the imagery here and it is obviously written with a lover in mind, but when I carry a message from God, this More-Than that is also the source and instrument and definition of Love itself – when I relay information from such a force, what might I enticed to do with it if not at once filled by that Love and viewing my audience with Love?
The Spirit of God has already embroidered cloths with gold and silver light, Jesus spread out the cloths under and over and around you already – and if I do not see the beautiful, original, exquisite needlework before me, I might stomp all over those threads, muck them up, even pull strands from the weave. Woe is me. It would be better that a millstone be tied around my neck and I be cast into the deepest sea.
The Spirit empowered evangelist extends grace over the different. Their message will be focused on redemption, reconciliation, restoration. Their communication is infectious so when they draw people into a personal response to Jesus, the mission often grows in number. Of course, this is also the downfall of one who is not nurturing a vital relationship with God: an obsession with numbers, and misappropriation of that charisma – taking the focus away from God and onto the orator, silver-tongued.
A phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words. – is not attested. There is no written record of his saying this, though there are a great many sources that communicate similar sentiments. I’ve read and heard many an expositor fairly rail against those who are proponents of not verbalizing the “good news.” We are exhorted to preach the gospel, they say, proclaim the good news!
Regardless, of your position, we do use our words easily – sometimes too easily – and just as carelessly. So it is definitely good counsel to use our words sparingly, intentionally, prayerfully. It is easy to say, “I love you,” but to show love – live it out day after day – is a whole new ballgame!
So when we speak of communicating something, what does that look like, exactly?
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God. (John 1:1) The gospel, the “good news” is given us in four movements, Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection with quadrophonic perspectives. And one of those perspectives describes Jesus as the Word. And as being with God in the beginning, and IS God. The Word. Jesus is language. Jesus is the message. Jesus is God. God is Love. There is so much there that a measly sermon such as this could never even approach teasing it all out – and is from one measly perspective.
So, I will go with this: Words are not static. All that is Jesus is the Word. Spoken or written down they move and evoke and encourage and enrage. Words are not inert; they carry power, provoke the upending of governments, and softly lull a newborn to sleep.
Evangelists are really good at using words. The evangelist is all about recruitment, recruitment to a cause. In order to be successful, the evangelist must be persuasive. Their modus operandi? They Talk people into it. Such a great phrase. And a telling one, at that: talk people into it. It is as if one’s very speech, the words passing along the air could carry another along and into the proposed activity or change of mind. But they are good at it.
Ursula K. le Guin writes, “Words are events. They do things, change things.” In linguistics and theology it is called performative, or the Speech-Act Theory. And Toni Morrison in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech remarks, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Writers, poets, expositors know that to craft language is to craft a very powerful tool, an implement to harm or provoke, to lull or propel to action. How we use language matters.
The apostle John understood this when he recounts the inception of Jesus’ incarnation by naming Jesus, the Word. That word that transcends time and space, does not know the strictures of entropy, and maintains its force millennia ad finitum.
But language is about perceiving, that is, what we see. It makes the leap, bridges that which is at a distance – in sight – and how we understand the object of that sight. When I speak about something, it describes – it paints the picture that represents how I see a thing. I step back and look at it from a distance, know it, understand it, while seeing it to explain it.
The French writer and literary theorist, Maurice Blanchot, says this stunning thing about language:
“This is sight’s wisdom, though we never see only one thing, even two or several, but a whole: every view is a general view. It is still true that sight holds us within the limits of a horizon. Perception is a wisdom rooted in the ground and standing fixed in the direction of the opening; it is of the land, in the proper sense of the term: planted in the earth and forming a link between the immobile boundary and the apparently boundless horizon — a firm pact from which comes peace. For sight, speech is war and madness. The terrifying word passes over every limit and even the limitlessness of the whole: it seizes the thing from a direction from which it is not taken, not seen, and will never be seen; it transgresses laws, breaks away from orientation, it disorients.
— There is facility in this liberty. Language acts as though we were able to see the thing from all sides.”Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, also found here.
We are limited by a horizon, while seeing the horizon as endless potential – and that is what we describe – and as if we can See. It. All. Words matter.
The Word of God gives sight – Jesus certainly did that literally a number of times. Jesus came that all might see, their eyes opened, to know the truth that God loves and loves so much God sent the son . . . so all might believe and know . . . Be persuaded, the Word speaks and we are moved to respond, be carried by it: by Jesus himself.
So Jesus tells his disciples:
Go into the town. Live there a while and proclaim. “If you are welcomed, stay. If you are not, shake the dust off your feet and move on.”
So they went out and Proclaimed: repentance, healing, removal of demons. Their proclamation was that there is forgiveness – absolute and total. But it was also what they did that was the force of that proclamation. With repentance is forgiveness. Forgiveness is to be healed – physically and psychologically/emotionally. “Confess your sins to one another . . . so that you may be healed.” James 5:16
The Gospel is good news.
The people came to the lake (Gennesaret) to hear the Word of God . . .. Jesus sees Peter and the sons of Zebedee struggling to catch fish, and he tells them to cast on the other side, a little farther down. The word of God speaks – go out a bit farther, cast a little deeper – do not be afraid, have faith, and you will do as I do – communicate the provision of God: the good news.
It is human to need a Purpose – have purpose. Being purposeful, intentional about what you do. but to find meaning, to understand your purpose in this moment is a matter faith because it means going farther and deeper into and past a horizon that is unknown. And that is for all of us.
But for those who are gifted as Evangelist, it is about the people – sharing what is good and beautiful about who Jesus is. The evangelist is about understanding the audience and speaking in the local vernacular. It is about knowing what the people need and actually being instruments of God’s provision by going and being with the people, helping to build what is broken, bring what is lacking . . . like medical supplies, clothing, medical services, etc.
And this is precisely what Beth and Joel will be doing in the next month . . . Following the offering we will commission them – commit to praying for and with them as they go
What are you hearing from God? How is God gifting you, the Spirit persuading you? Cast the net deep – are you willing to go deep, deeper still? We don’t do it alone – we do this church thing together. Will you cast deep with me, today?