The Second Sunday after The Epiphany
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 1:43-51

 


Remember the story about the little boy riding home in the car with his mother after his first Sunday school class? His mother asked, “Who was your teacher?” The little boy squirmed in his seat for a moment and then answered: “I don’t remember her name, but she must have been Jesus’ grandmother because she couldn’t talk about anyone else.”

Well, in the call of the first disciples as described in the Gospel according to John, something similar to the little boy’s “grandmother of Jesus” assessment takes place. First, an epiphany happens. We heard this story last week. John the Baptist encounters Jesus. The result? All he can talk about from that point on is “the Lamb of God.”

The ball starts to roll. Two of John’s disciples, one of whom is Andrew, then encounter Jesus through the witness of John, and they spend a whole day with him. And what is Andrew’s response? To talk about Jesus—going straight to his brother Simon Peter, who himself comes to encounter Jesus. What happens next? It doesn’t take the Archbishop of Canterbury to figure out what Peter will spend the rest of his life doing—talking about Jesus.

Next, Philip encounters Jesus, and afterwards, he returns to Bethsaida and finds Nathaniel, sort of Israel’s version of W.C. Fields (half comic and half cynic), who meets Philip’s “grandmotherly” description of Jesus with a contemptable remark: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But it only takes a brief encounter with Jesus for Nathaniel’s prejudice to be healed.

The whole episode unfolds like that old television shampoo commercial: “You tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends. . . .”

So what can we learn from these encounters? What is John trying to teach us with this story? Well, it’s pretty clear to me that there’s a lesson here in evangelism. Frederick Buechner, in talking about evangelism, says that we have two stories to tell: the story of Jesus, and our own. And in the coming together of these two stories, under the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, personal witness is the catalyst for spreading the gospel. It carries authority.

Now, mind you, this telling is not converting. Only God converts people. We don’t. Not our job. Though we sure try hard sometimes, don’t we? Try to bring people over to our way of thinking. But if evangelism is reduced to the “right technique” or to catching people at their most vulnerable time (which is sometimes taught), then it ceases to be evangelism and it becomes manipulation. Not only does evangelism lose credibility; but it gets a bad name. It becomes strictly associated with finger-pointing, Bible-thumping preachers, and holier-than-thou “we’re the only REAL church” Christians and those “turn or burn” roadside signs. It’s what causes many mainline Christians to cringe at the very mention of the word.

But Evangelism – Christian witness – is important. True evangelism is an offering. It’s an invitation. It’s not a threat, and it’s not something that can be forced upon someone. It can’t be an act of coercion.

Someone once said that evangelism isn’t so much about Christ in me or Christ with me, as it is about Christ between me–between me, the “witness,” and the other, the “listener,” meaning that Christ is the agent of conversion. As witnesses, as evangelists, we point to Christ. We draw a picture of him. We tell his story (in our words and our actions), but, hopefully, it is Christ himself who finally meets the other person. And because Christ is between, we are both converts—the talker and the listener—because the other points to Christ as well. To do evangelism properly, effectively, we must listen as well as we talk.

So what else can we learn about evangelism from today’s gospel? I think the multiple encounters in the reading teach us that evangelism is personal. It is more a relational thing than it is a dogmatic or propositional thing. It means giving to the other something of the way Jesus has made a difference in your life. “Jesus-disclosure” comes through self-disclosure. It comes from telling people who Jesus is for you, and not what Jesus ought to be for them.

That means that the success of “telling the story” has little, if anything, to do with the evangelized immediately reciting a one-sentence formula to get saved on the spot, like the TV evangelists who tell their viewers, “Just close your eyes and repeat after me: ‘Lord I love you. And I am sorry for all the bad things I’ve done. And I ask you to just come into my heart and save me, and I’ll give you all the glory and praise–and serve you forever. Amen.’ Now send in that 20 dollars, if you can, and be doubly blessed.” And then they move on to save the next soul.

And I’m not making fun of TV preachers or questioning their sincerity. All I’m saying is that kind of evangelism does little to nurture a person in the faith or to sustain a relationship between that person and Christ, and that person and the Christian community. It’s non-relational. It’s an impersonal introduction: “Bob, Christ; Christ, Bob,” and then walking away.

And the result is, either a short-lived artificial conversion, a superficial conversion (just like the introduction), or a confused understanding of what the Church and evangelism and community and relationship and fellowship and stewardship and worship and faith and commitment to Christ are all about. It just doesn’t take, as they sit alone in their living rooms, having church alone, and mailing in their support.

It’s the futility of sowing seeds on rocky soil, where the crop springs up quickly, but only to be scorched by the sun because it has no root. There can’t be a Christ between, because there’s nobody on the other side.

What I want to hear the TV evangelist say after praying that saving prayer is, “Now get out there and go to work! Get involved. Turn off the TV & go find a faith community. Develop a relationship with Christ through others. Give some time away. Give some money away. Tell your story to others, and listen to their stories, with Jesus in between.”

The encounter between Jesus and the first disciples was filled with that “betweeness.” In those encounters, the disciples felt the reality of the words professed. In other words, the telling was consistent with the showing. Their initial response might have been to words, but the proof was in the actions. What they were told was what they saw; what was preached was what was practiced. & like anybody else the disciples responded much more to how someone treated them, or felt about them, than they did to someone’s simply telling them something.

Bruce Larson, a Presbyterian minister, and former director of an organization called Faith-at-Work, once conducted an experiment. He asked literally hundreds of people two questions: 1) Who has had the greatest influence on your life? and 2) What happened to make it so? This was what he determined:

The person who influenced the respondents the most, though in most cases, clearly a “superior” to them, nevertheless treated them as an equal. Hierarchy wasn’t a conscious consideration in the relationship, although it easily could have been. Instead, it was a relationship between peers.

Furthermore, these people having a great influence on their lives didn’t just provide them a service; they were a friend and a servant as well. They were real. The influential people were genuinely interested in hearing what the other person had to say. In other words, they had a great respect and concern for the other as an individual, and always treated them with dignity.

They were also open and honest about their own weaknesses. They didn’t come across as “having it all together” or being wholly self-sufficient. They honestly owned their humanity, and expressed the fact that they had needs and shortcomings like everyone else.

And when they did have needs, they didn’t hesitate to ask for the other person’s help. They understood “mutuality” in a relationship.

And although Larson used other terms, he concluded from his study these were the kinds of people through whom the “miracle of betweenness” could and did happen. They were the ones most effective in being evangelists for the gospel. Purveyors of the Good news.

I think those of us who would be evangelists of the Gospel of Christ would do well to take their witness to heart. And to remember in our personal relationships the simple rule of making “Jesus sandwiches.” That is two people with Jesus in between.

And if we can do that, then not only will we be good evangelists and growers of God’s kingdom, but we’ll be members of a larger family of God.

We will be those who live and witness in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen.