The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Today, I want to talk about evangelism. Ooooh, I know. That’s a scary word for almost all of us.
If you were raised in a more Evangelical church, I imagine you have some degree of pain and fear, maybe even trauma, around this word. Most of us former evangelicals were taught that evangelism is getting people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior to save them from hell. Our first priority is to make sure we’re saved, and as soon as that’s covered, it’s our job as Christians to make sure everyone is saved.
And on the other end of the spectrum, if you were raised in The Episcopal Church, or another mainline denomination like Lutheranism or Congregationalism, evangelism is what those other Christians do. It’s intrusive and impolite and honestly a little tacky. We “respectable” Christians mind our own business. We don’t presume anyone’s faith or spiritual needs.
They seem like very different approaches, but when you get right down to it, both reactions are rooted in the same assumption, the same foundation: that evangelism is about “saving sinners.” Most evangelicals heartily adopt this stance, and most “progressive” Christians heartily reject it.
And I heartily disagree with the assumption that that’s what evangelism means. I am here today to reclaim evangelism. It is an essential tool of our faith, but not in the way we think. It is about salvation, but not in the way we think.
The word evangelism comes from the Greek, originally meaning “communicating good news.” It’s also where the word angel comes from: a messenger of good news.
I think today’s epistle from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is, at its heart, about evangelism:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. That means we each carry in us a unique manifestation of the Spirit that is essential to the common good. We are, each and every one of us, essential to the thriving of our community, our world. The unique gifts the Spirit gave you are essential. Yes, I'll keep saying it: who you are is essential. Not in spite of your quirks and all the ways you’re different from others, but because of them. God made you, the Spirit endowed you with your particular manifestation, and you are essential.
That, my friends, is good news.
Because, and this’ll sound familiar because we talked about it last week with baptism, evangelism isn’t about salvation from sin. Evangelism is about salvation into belonging.
I don’t want you to come into this place feeling like you are defined by your sins, like your primary faith responsibility is overcoming those sins. Yeah, we all need to work on overcoming our sins, but not because if we don’t we’ll go to hell. But because our sins hurt us, they hurt our neighbors. And when we hurt ourselves and our neighbors, we cut ourselves off from our community, from our belonging.
Evangelism isn’t about salvation from sin. Evangelism is about salvation into belonging.
We don’t need to save people from their sin. Christ already did that. Grace is everywhere, always available to us. We are already forgiven. That’s what resurrection is all about.
What we do need to do first is to recognize the manifestation of the Spirit in the people around us and affirm them.
“Wow, you really have a knack for making space for people with whom you disagree.”
“I’ve never seen art like that before. It’s beautiful.”
“I love your courage in speaking truth to power.”
“Your comforting presence with people who are suffering is incredible.”
“I had no idea you could sing like that.”
The next thing we need to do is invite them into a community where their gifts can thrive. Maybe a community where you’ve found your gifts can thrive.
Ooooh, I know. That word “invite.” It makes a lot of us squirm. In fact, I’ve been told several times since I got here that St. Luke’s is “Gresham’s best kept secret.” And I’m like, Why are we keeping it a secret? But I think it’s because we’re uncomfortable inviting people to church.
I was talking to Deborah Dobrenen a few weeks ago about evangelism, and she admitted to me that as a former evangelical she wasn’t comfortable with it. And I looked at her and said, “You and Bill have been two of St. Luke’s biggest evangelists.” I pointed out to her all the people she’d invited to church and who are now becoming part of our community. And she said something like, “well, they were sharing about some struggles they were having with their faith, and I thought they’d feel comfortable at St. Luke’s.”
And that’s we hit on something that I think is essential to evangelism. There’s an old saying I learned in my own spiritual journey. I don’t know if it's Jewish or Buddhist. It goes, “There is no answer without a question.”
There is no answer without a question. I think so much of the evangelism we see is trying to force answers onto people who aren’t asking questions, trying to convince people of ideas that don’t feel relevant to their lives in that moment.
I don’t think Deborah and Bill are rushing around Gresham saying, “Have you heard about St. Luke’s?” to everyone they encounter. And I wouldn’t want them to. But it seems to me that Deborah and Bill are listening for questions. They’re paying attention when people in their lives seem to be looking for something. And they don’t claim to have THE answer. From what I can tell, Deborah and Bill experience a lot of joy here at St. Luke’s. And when they’ve heard their friends tell them in so many words that the joy in their faith had faded, they’ve invited them into the joy and belonging of this community. Where we’ll see their particular manifestation of the Spirit and celebrate it. Where they are essential.
That’s what evangelism is all about. Paying attention to the questions and longings of people around you, and inviting them into the joy and belonging that I hope you experience in your faith, that I hope you experience here at St. Luke’s.
We are called to invite people into a belonging that is ready for them. When they’re asking the questions, when they’re seeking belonging. When they’re ready. And maybe St. Luke’s isn’t their answer. That’s okay. But I hope we can be a helpful step on the journey.
In this time of Covid, we have been so isolated. So polarized. So afraid. So lonely. Each of us needs to know that we are essential now more than ever. Each of us needs belonging now more than ever. I get so much joy from this community. So much affirmation. So much love. I get the sense that a lot of you do, too. St. Luke’s is a special place. So let’s spread the good news. Amen.