In the first paragraph of our Gospel reading we have John’s counterpart to the baptism of Jesus. Here in John’s version it is cast in the form of John the Baptist bearing witness to Jesus. The story ends with John proclaiming, “I have seen and testify [bear witness] that this is the Son of God.” Then what follows is an encounter with Jesus by two of John’s disciples, who become followers of Jesus, and this leads to a third encounter. Two of the three disciples are named in the story, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. They become disciples become someone bore witness. Both stories are about faith sharing.
The questions that are asked are full of spiritual symbolism and meaning. When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” we should read that as an invitation to look into our own souls and ask ourselves what we are looking for in life. What is it that we want? Some folks are so busy just trying to survive, to protect their family and loved ones from danger, to make sure they have enough to eat, or that they can get an education, or that they are safe, they hardly have the time or energy to explore any deeper existential and spiritual meanings. If life were fair, which of course it isn’t, everyone would have the same opportunity to explore the existential and spiritual meaning of that question, but life as we know is not fair. (And part of our work as disciples of Jesus is to do what we can to make it fair for people when the system is rigged against them.) Think about that question. What are you looking for in life? What are the people you are most close to and care most about looking for in life?
John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” This is not intended to simply be understood as a question about where Jesus was living. The word that is translated “staying” is the very same word used in other places in this Gospel for discipleship. For example, it is used in John 15:4 where John develops the imagery of the grapevine to talk about discipleship. In that passage Jesus says, “Abide in me [that’s the word], stay in me, dwell in me, as I abide [there is the word again], stay, dwell in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides/stays/remains/dwells in the vine, neither can you unless you abide/stay/dwell in me.” So when they ask, “Where are you staying or abiding?” on a deeper level the question is, “Where do you find your source of meaning? From where do you draw your energy, your life force, your vitality, your passion? What inspires and empowers you and gives your life meaning and purpose and fills it with hope? What is it that makes you the loving person you are?
When Jesus responds by saying, “Come and see’” he is issuing an invitation to become something. The capacity to see – what we see, how we see – has deep spiritual significance and meaning in John’s Gospel, and not just in John’s Gospel, for this is true of the rest of the New Testament as well. What we see and how we see is the key to spiritual life and personal growth. Jesus is inviting them to explore for themselves, to experience for themselves, his source of faith, hope, and love.
So how do we go about entering into this sort of conversation with others? How do we bear witness? All of this relates to what Christians have generally called evangelism. What is evangelism and how should we go about it? Obviously, Christians have different opinions about what evangelism is and its importance. Your understanding of evangelism may differ from mine and that’s okay. No one speaks an infallible word on the subject. And I can only tell you what I have come to think about it and how I think we can best go about it.
First, let me say what I think evangelism is not. Evangelism is not simply maintaining or growing or expanding the institution. But let me quickly add, that doesn’t mean the institution is not important. As a church we function as an institution, as an organization. That may not be the essence of who we are or what we are about, but we exist as an institution, and there is something to be said about maintaining and growing the institution. That’s not what evangelism is, but it has its place. If the institution is a viable, helpful, enriching, life affirming institution, then maintaining and growing the institution has an important place. But that is not evangelism.
And as important as maintaining or growing a healthy institution may be, it’s important to distinguish the two. My first calling right out of seminary was to be part of the ministerial staff of a very conservative, Southern Baptist church not too far from where I grew up. My responsibility included teaching at their Christian school and pastoring a small satellite congregation that was considered a mission of the mother church. So while we were a separate congregation we fell under the umbrella of the main body. I thought things were going well at the congregation I pastored. We were healthy and attracting some new people. My wife was doing some great work with the children. In fact, when I resigned they were more upset that they were losing my wife than me. And really, we were doing quite well, I thought. The senior pastor didn’t think so. His point of contention was that we were not baptizing enough people. Now he and the church we were affiliated with subscribed to the theology that If you did not believe in Jesus as your Savior you would have to face eternal damnation. If you believe that, that indeed is a powerful motive for evangelism isn’t it? If you really believe that your loved ones will be damned forever if they do not believe in Jesus then you should be compelled to do anything and everything to get them to believe. Right? So we might understand why the pastor was so concerned about evangelism. However, that was not the main reason he was upset with me that we were not baptizing more. That was his theology, but that was not the reason. Our numbers at our little church contributed to their numbers, that is the numbers of the mother church. The people we baptized went on their church record. And it was clear that his intention was to put his church on the top ten list as one of the top churches in baptisms in the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Before I judge him too harshly, I have to pause to consider my own motives and admit that my own motives may not be as pure as I think they are. We all operate out of mixed motives.
So what is evangelism? If evangelism is not maintaining or growing the institution, as important as that may be, and if it is not saving people from eternal damnation (and some of you may believe that is what evangelism is, and if you do that’s okay, but personally I don’t), so I have to ask myself, “What is evangelism?” My very simple definition of evangelism is: Helping people discover who they are. And who are they? The same as who we are - the children of God. (Remember last week's sermon). They are children of God. We are all the sons and daughters of God, even if we don’t know it yet. So I define evangelism as helping people discover who they are, helping people discover that they are the beloved daughters and sons of God. I define discipleship as helping people become who they are. Evangelism is helping people discover who they are; discipleship is helping people become who they are.
So how do we do that? I loved the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story. In that movie Branch Ricky, who is the general manager of the team, helps Jackie discover and become his best self, his true self. In many ways he mentored him, he encouraged him and empowered to be someone special, to be a model and inspiration to others. I have no idea if this was historically the case, but it was certainly so in the movie.
When Branch Ricky first calls Jackie in and invites him to be part of their organization, he is forthright and upfront about the kind of abuse that would be heaped upon him, as the first African American to play in major league baseball. Jackie’s first response is: “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Branch Ricky says, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back. People aren’t going to like this. They’re going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow they will say the Negro lost his temper, that the Negro doesn’t belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things, that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior, [Branch Ricky was a devout Methodist] you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”
Branch Ricky, in a sense, was issuing a call, dare we say, a divine call? Dare we say that his voice was the voice of God calling Jackie to be the best he could be, to live out his identity as a son of God in very difficult circumstances. Jackie responds, “You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. And I’ll give you the guts.”
There is one scene where Jackie faces unrelenting verbal assault from the manager in Philadelphia. And Jackie almost losses his composure, he comes ever so close to giving in to his instincts to fight back, to return the wrath, blow for blow. Jackie is angry, and he retreats inside the doorway to the locker room and smashes his bat against the wall. Branch Ricky meets him there. He tells Jackie that he can’t fight, but he also tells him that he can’t quit, that there are too many people who believe in him and respect him.
Jackie asks Ricky if he knows what’s it’s like to live day in and out with all this hate and contempt poured out on him as a kind of scapegoat. Ricky says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness – 40 days – all of it, only you.”
Jackie says, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie says, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.” As the Dodgers take the field, Ricky puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” The question is, “Are you going back out there and take your position. Are you going to live out your identity?” Jackie says, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He goes out and ends up scoring the winning run.
I don’t know how historically accurate that is, but what a great illustration of how we can bear witness, how we can call out the best in one another, and how we can invite others to discover who they are.
Back in the 1990’s, Rodney Stark, a specialist in the sociology of modern religion, applied his methods to ancient Christianity. He discovered in his research that Christianity spread at a rate of about 40 percent per decade, which held steady over several decades. He discovered too, that people came to Christianity not primarily because they experienced dynamic worship or were hearing great sermons. It wasn’t great logic or compelling arguments that reached them. Rather, they entered into Christian faith through relationships. As Christians looked out for one another, took care of the poor, the sick, and the most vulnerable, valued the gifts and contributions of each member, especially widows and orphans, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, their friends and neighbors took notice.
I love what Richard Rohr says. Rohr asks, “Why did Jesus come?” He says, “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”
Maybe one of the things we can do to help people discover who they are is invite them to consider a different image of God. That God is not primarily this stern Lawgiver who condemns and excludes people who do not conform to God’s holy standards. Rather, God is primarily a great Lover, who loves all his/her children unconditionally and wants their very best.
We can do what Jesus did. We can invite people to the table of fellowship and friendship. We can welcome people the way Jesus did. We can accept all people as God’s children no matter how different we all may be. And we can affirm their capacity to bear God’s image and reflect God’s love whoever they are and wherever they go. We can do our best to really love people with Jesus’ kind of love. We can do our best to treat one another with compassion and dignity and grace and say, “Come and see.” Come and experience for yourself the magnitude of God’s love and discover who you really are – God’s beloved daughter or son.
Our good God, give us an interest that goes beyond our own well-being and inspire us to participate in a story that is much greater than our own little story. Help us to have the passion, the courage, and the will to find ways to say to friends and others, “Come and see.” Give us a real desire to help one another discover and become who we are. Amen.