In this morning’s epistle, Paul states,” If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.”
Through this statement there is no doubt that Paul understood his role as an evangelist was core to his life as a follower of Jesus. And, to this end, Paul spent most of post-conversion life proclaiming the gospel through out the known world.
But it’s not just Paul or people like Paul who are commissioned to make known the gospel beyond the church walls, in fact, each and every one of us is commissioned to proclaim the gospel as Paul was. At Baptism we vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News (the Gospel) of God in Christ.
This, as I have said before, seems to be the dirty little secret of Anglicanism. Many of us are too shy to talk about our own relationship with Christ, opting instead to live our faith rather than talk about it. But if we, as the church, are going to continue in existence then we need to learn to share our faith with the same zeal that Paul shared his.
Look around you and ask yourselves what churches seem to be growing by leaps and bounds in our area. In a day in age when the Episcopal Church is closing on average 36 congregations a month, and the average attendance for most congregations is less than 75 on a Sunday morning, I have to ask why the Mormons are building a new Meeting Hall on Route 5 between here and Auburn. And, why non-denominational churches keep springing up in our area, as they buy our used buildings. The answer is clear, evangelism, the proclaiming of the gospel as if commanded directly by God itself is core part of their common life together.
How do we get our message out there? How do we make known to the world around us the love of the all inclusive and loving God that so much of the world is hungry for? There is no doubt that much of the world around us, especially members of the younger generation are hostile and closed to hearing the Gospel. There is no doubt that most of those around have pre-conceived notions as to what Christianity is about that is so far from the truth, they are afraid on some level to trust what we know to be true.
And, while all of this may be true, the world we live in today is not that different from the world Paul proclaimed the gospel in over 2000 years ago. The only difference between our two worlds is that the name of Jesus is known by many today, but most, like in Paul’s day, have not met the risen Christ. Thus the challenges we face in proclaiming the faith today are the same challenges Paul faced in his day. So it seems logical to look to Paul for advice when it comes to evangelism.
In today’s gospel, Paul provides the key to his success, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win the Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law….so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law….so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that I might by any means save some.”
For many of us with modern day ears, Paul’s technique may feel uncomfortable. On the surface it feels as if Paul was the chameleon of his day, never truly being himself in any situation. This is far from the truth. In the book of Acts, there is an account of Paul preaching to the Areopogus on Mars Hill. There we get a sense of Paul’s style of persuasion when he begins his oration by discussing the Altar to the Unknown God he found in their town. He then tells them, Jesus of Nazareth is the unknown god to whom they pay homage. Paul was not about changing the gospel to fit his needs, that he was always clear on. What Paul was good at, was knowing who his audience was, the symbolic language of their area and how to use their language and symbols to explain the gospel. And this is what he is explaining to the Corinthians at the end of today’s reading from First Corinthians.
Paul’s style of evangelism has been used successfully throughout the centuries. During the days of the European Missionary movement this style of proclamation was widely used by the Jesuits and the Franciscans when teaching the indigenous people of North and South America. Wherever they landed, these fine evangelists would settle in an area, learn the language of the people and then teach the gospel. This was in contrast to the British missionary movement during the days of the Empire in which British forces would first move to anglicize the new colony and then teach the gospel as part of the Anglicizing of the area. Needless to say this style of evangelism produced more resentment of the Church than the love of God.
As modern day Anglican, we need to take our lead in evangelism from the example of St. Paul. As a congregation we need to know who and where the spiritually hungry are, and what they seek in relation to God.
A few years back, I discussed with the vestry that most of the members of St. Luke’s are not cradle Episcopalians. In fact, I told them, cradle Episcopalians are a dying breed. Look around the parish, at least 70% of those who call St. Luke’s their spiritual home have transferred in from other denominations. And for the most part, they have transferred from the Roman Catholic Church. I also told them, studies show, our niche area for growth is predominately through those who at some time in their lives have lost touch or left frustrated with the Roman Church. The question and challenge I asked, is how do we guide them to our doors.
I know for many this sort of conversation feels distasteful. We are not in the business of sheep stealing. And yet, like Paul, we too have to know who our audience is here in Camillus, what there symbolic language is, and what it is we offer that can help guide them back into a relationship with Christ and His Church.
I recently shared my thoughts and questions with Fr. Peter Williams, an Episcopal Priest received from the Roman Church. Peter told me the best way to attract former Roman Catholics is to look Catholic. That we do fairly well. Then he told me, emphasize your similarities in terms of worship, and know the subtle differences that most are seeking in a new denomination. And finally, listen. . . . listen for why people feel marginalized, pushed out or blocked from God by what they left behind, and suggest the subtle differences that may offer new perspective and illuminate a pathway back to God and the Church.
At St. Luke’s we state that our mission is to bring all people to God’s healing embrace. In today’s world, there are many who have been hurt by the institutional church and separated from God. As those who are commissioned to proclaim the gospel by word and example it is incumbent upon us to guide the spiritually wounded back to God and to God’s healing embrace that is often found at St. Luke’s
Consider letting me know you were here by hitting the reply at the end of this entry. Let me know how you responded, thought or felt after reading this homily. frcraig+