The Provocation of Evangelism

July 7th, 2019     Proper 14

Lk 10:1-11,16-20

Today’s gospel reading, Jesus’s sending of the 70 disciples, invites us to think about something rather embarrassing and uncomfortable. Yes, I am talking about that one subject that, more than sex or politics or death, is guaranteed to make Anglicans squirm in their seats: evangelism. It is almost a dirty word, a word so laden with so much unsavoury history, so much malpractice, and so many prejudices, that we would be happy to lose it altogether.

I get it. I get that the word implies for many of us a sense of superiority, the patronizing assumption that we have to turn other people into Christians like us before they are acceptable to God. I get that the goal of getting others to accept Jesus as their personal lord and saviour makes many of us cringe because it is simplistic, because it may not even very accurately reflect how we experience our own faith, let alone that of people of other backgrounds.

The problem with evangelism is that it has so long been the monopoly of evangelicals – by which I mean a group within the church with a particular theology of the atonement, a particular spirituality, a particular ecclesiology, and a particular ethics. Now I am not saying there is anything wrong with being an evangelical: it is a fine tradition that produces many Christians of deep faith and commitment, who have done much for the church. But it is one direction among many; and their account of evangelism, which I think we have taken for the thing itself, is only one account among many possible ones. And because much of the liberal Western church has found it necessary to reject this account of evangelism, we are left without much sense of evangelism at all, and have largely forgotten about it.

The thing about the gospels is that when we really listen to them, when can set aside our religious assumptions and really let them wash over us, when we trust them enough to let them take us where they will – is that they can lead us to strange and unsettling places. And maybe that is a good thing.

Jesus’s sending of the 70 certainly takes us to a strange place. It is a world that looks nothing like the familiar world of the church we feel at home in: Jesus is sending them into radical poverty and vulnerability. It is a world that looks magical and superstitious to us, with its curing of the sick and casting out of demons, a far cry from the rationality of responsible pastoral practice. We may wonder if it has anything to say to us today.

On the other hand, Jesus’s practice of evangelism also looks nothing like what we have come to associate with the word and distrust: the earnest pressuring of others to submit to Jesus Christ as personal lord and saviour, and so become just like us. So maybe it does have something to teach us after all.

I’m not going to attempt to sum up what this passage teaches and present you with a complete theology of evangelism. That wouldn’t be helpful, and I really don’t think that’s the way we are supposed to treat the Bible. Rather, let’s just open ourselves to a series of provocations that this passage might give us. There are actually a plenty of aspects of this story that might serve as provocation, but I will confine myself to five.

First provocation: I am struck by the urgency of this passage. ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ Now, that may seem offensive, as it has often been understood as reducing people to mere fodder to be gathered in by the church. That would be to read the metaphor too literally. For an agricultural community, the reference to the harvest would be a clear call to urgency: precious crops cannot be allowed to spoil in the field. In other words, people are lost, people are suffering, people need something that has been entrusted to us.

And that is a quality we have lost. The urgency is still present in the evangelical model: it is bought at the cost of a theology of personal redemption that envisages God as ready to damn everyone who does not confess Jesus. Understandable if we don’t find that convincing or true to the gospel. But without that, the church has been left with little sense that the gospel may be a matter of urgent importance. We seem to share in the conviction that middle-class North American society is an “I’m okay – you’re okay”, morally indifferent kind of space. Against this background, the gospel is simply one consumerist lifestyle choice among others, not a matter of any urgency or ultimate import.

The second provocation is how the work of evangelism begins: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’ Evangelism is to take place in the context of a relationship built on peace. As we reach out to others, we should be expecting not lost sinners, not empty vessels to be filled up with our wisdom, but people of peace. “Sons of peace” is what the Greek reads, and if we can look past the gender exclusive language, what a wonderfully helpful expression that is for how we meet others. When we encounter our neighbour, whether Muslim or Hindu or atheist or none, we should look on them as children of peace. People of good will, if you will. If we approach them with good will, and find it reciprocated, then and only then do we have the relationship of peace on the basis of which we can learn from each other.

A third provocation: Jesus sends his disciples in complete vulnerability. What a contrast to the way the church has traditionally done evangelism: showing up thinking we have all the wisdom and all the answers and all the resources, condescending to give gifts to the poor benighted people. Jesus, in contrast, sends his disciples out with empty hands, dependent on the kindness of others.
Instead of over and above, we are to come alongside people, to meet them as equals.

What do we bring to that relationship? What is the content of the message that Jesus sends his disciples out to deliver? That is the fourth provocation. Because if we are paying any attention at all, we can’t help notice that it bears absolutely no resemblance to what we normally think of as the content of evangelism. It is not about accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour, not about being baptized and becoming a Christian, not about reciting and believing any creed. The simple message at the core of Jesus’s own ministry is the same message he gives his disciples to carry to others: that the Kingdom of God has drawn near.

We all know how important the Kingdom of God is in Jesus’s ministry. But heirs as we are of two thousand years of theology that has largely ignored this teaching, it is so difficult for us to give it the place in our proclamation it would seem to merit. What does that even mean? How do we translate that into 21st century terms? What would evangelism look like, if that were the centre of the good news we are sent to proclaim?

I’m not going to attempt to spell it out, because the answer is so much bigger than any neat summary. It must be an ongoing provocation in all our attempts to proclaim what Jesus asked us to proclaim. Let us just say this: for Jesus and his disciples, it would seem to have to do with proclaiming the care and presence of God for people who had been marginalized and excluded by traditional religion, who had been taught that their lives were worthless and expendable. God knows there are enough people like that in the world today. To them Jesus proclaimed the living presence of God, quiet, hidden in plain sight, at work in this world to heal and bring new life.

Something like this, surely, must be our very raison d’etre, the message we are called to share with this world. It implies an even more provocative question: do we believe it ourselves? Have we been trained enough at looking for the signs of God’s Kingdom that we have a strong sense of God’s presence come near us in our daily lives? Have we seen enough grounds for hope that we can be ambassadors of hope to a world dragged down by cynicism and despair?

One final provocation: the seventy return to Jesus rejoicing. Joy, it seems, is an essential part of Jesus’s call to evangelize. And not a joy that is a triumphalistic rejoicing at success: “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The joy Jesus calls us to is the joy of knowing who we are, of knowing we are beloved of God; and we do not need to seek affirmation by success at ministry, by influencing and controlling others. Joy is the natural response to the reality of the kingdom: as we experience God at work in this world, in the words of the old hymn, how can I keep from singing? And this too is a provocation for the church: because it challenges us to look into our own hearts, and to find and live that deep joy that so often gets lost in the anxiety and busyness of church life.

It is an experience we have time and time again with Jesus. We think we know him, and indeed we do: as we love him, we know him enough to know that love is true and reliable. And yet the closer we look at him, the stranger and more challenging he becomes for us. Not someone we can know as a theory, we can control with our knowledge: but someone foreign to our way of thinking, exotic, dangerous even, leading us out beyond our comfortable certitudes into a new and exciting territory. Thanks be to God for the provocation of Jesus, pushing us out of our comfortable church existence into an urgent, subversive, joyous engagement with the world around us.