Monday, 19 June 2017

The 'E' word

There is a quote by Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century Spanish mystic. She said, 
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
 In the Ascension, Christ brought his body into the dimension of heaven. The Church- Christians- followers of the way of Jesus- are now the Body of Christ in the world. You and I, if we consider ourselves followers of Jesus, are now the body of Christ in the world.

What does that actually mean? It means that we go out to do as Christ would do. When Jesus saw how much work had to be done- how big the harvest was- he gave his disciples 
“authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness”.
 They were instructed, 
“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”.
 They were given authority to do what Jesus was doing. They were to cast out evil, and be agents of healing. This was a sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God. The arrival of the kingdom of God isn’t something that comes only by words, it comes by action as well. God’s kingdom isn’t about escaping this world. It is about healing this world.

At this point in their mission they were only to go to their own Jewish people- the lost sheep of Israel. There will be a time when the mission fans out to include everyone, but it starts with them. That is the nation God had been working with so intimately since God called Abraham. The blessing of Abraham was that he would be blessed to be a blessing to every family in the world (Gen 12:3). The Jewish people were the family of Abraham and so they were invited to be a part of the blessing of the nations through the messiah. Isaiah declares the ultimate mission of this family- 
“I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6).
 The calling of the family of Abraham was to be a people bringing blessing to the world.

The disciples go to their own people to bring them news about the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the messiah. As they go, Jesus instructs them, they are not to receive payment for the healings. They are to travel light. Though, they are to rely on the kindness of strangers for a place to stay and for food to eat. They become vulnerable to the hospitality or inhospitality of the villages. They enter a house that will have them and they will stay until they leave. They won’t bounce from house to house on the basis of how good the food is, or how comfortable their bed is. They stay where they have been welcomed.

They look for people of peace, which means open and hospitable people. They don’t worry so much about those who are not people of peace. Jesus mentions Sodom, which we read about in Genesis 19 as an incredibly inhospitable place. They are looking for people of peace as they go about their mission of healing, banishing evil, and therefore proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the Messiah.

What might this mean for us? In general, I think Anglicans have almost given up on evangelism. Either we don’t believe in evangelism, which means we don’t believe Jesus has anything to offer the people we encounter. Or we feel frozen because we don’t know what to do.

Evangelism has become a dirty word. There may be good reason. We hear people speak about not wanting someone’s religion "shoved down their throat". Or we hear about someone being a "Bible thumper". Thinking about evangelism can bring to mind someone wearing a sandwich board that says “repent, the end is near”.

One of my professors at seminary, John Bowen, wrote a wonderful book called "Evangelism for 'Normal' People". One of the most interesting parts of the book is where he looks at peoples' experiences of evangelism. He has a very interesting quote by Margret Atwood from her book 'Bluebird's Egg'. In the book a woman gets into a conversation with a woman who tells her that she used to be a missionary. Atwood writes,
"Christine had been raised Anglican, but the only vestige of this was the kind of Christmas cards she favoured: prints of medieval or renaissance old masters. Religious people of any serious kind made her nervous: You would be going along with them in the normal way, and there could be a swift movement and you would look down and find the coat wide open and nothing on under it but some pant legs held up by rubber bands. This had happened to Christine in a train station once"

Atwood is saying that to be on the receiving end of a certain kind of evangelism is repulsive and disgusting. It is like experiencing a flasher. Atwood is giving words to a fairly common attitude in our society. How might some kinds of evangelism feel like experiencing a flasher? It is inappropriate to the depth of the relationship. Something that should be an expression of intimacy is used as a form of power and violence. It leaves one feeling victimized and like we have not been treated as a person- an individual. If Atwood is accurately describing how the average person experiences evangelism, then no wonder ‘evangelism’ has become a dirty word.

What might our Gospel reading have to teach us here? First, the disciples look for people of peace- People who are open to hearing what they have to say. It doesn’t mean these people are automatically convinced that what they are saying is true. It means they are genuinely open to hearing what they have to say. If people are not open, or are hostile to what we have to say, then we let our peace return to us. We don’t let them steal it. Some will always be hostile to the Gospel. It was true in Jesus’ day and it is true in our own day.

We also make ourselves vulnerable to the hospitality of the other person. We don’t come in with all the answers as if no one can offer us anything- food or wisdom or anything. To be autonomous in that way is to be closed off from genuine relationship. It is to come to them from a superior position of independence and power. To hand someone a tract is a one way conversation that assumes you have nothing to hear from the other person. We are vulnerable to what they have to offer. This can be scary. When we make ourselves vulnerable we might be changed or hurt. We might not know what to say, or what to do. When we are vulnerably welcomed into someone’s life we will encounter things that will challenge us.

One way of being vulnerable with someone is by listening to them. Ask someone what they believe about spirituality. Ask them if they believe in God, and then just listen. They may eventually ask you what you believe, but these kinds of conversations should not be one-sided. Some people are desperate to have these conversations, but don’t have someone safe to listen to them.

We also don’t come with only words. There is a sense in which our evangelism should always be accompanied by some good works that are banishing evil and offering healing. The sign of the kingdom having come is some kind of healing. It might be emotional healing, or the healing of a relationship, or a physical healing, or some other kind. Some, like the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, argue that the primary way the world should encounter Christians isn’t through church services or televangelism, but though the good works Christians are doing in the world. We hear a lot about the bad things Christians are responsible for (and we should not be naïve about those things), but the world has been profoundly effected in a good way by Christians.

In the book Atheist Delusions Theologian and historian David Bentley Hart argues that in the ancient world Christianity gave freedom from fatalism (the sense that human beings are powerless to effect change). Christianity freed people from fear of the occult. It gave dignity to human beings who might not have otherwise had any (like slaves, women, and children). The influence of Christianity elevated charity above the ancient virtues (xi). Christians throughout history cared for widows and orphans, set up almshouses, hospitals, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, the abolitionist movement that worked to end slavery, The civil rights movement (under people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). Hart states, 
“the quality of charitable aid in the world today supplied and sustained by Christian churches continues to be almost unimaginably vast. A world from which the gospel had been banished would surely be one in which millions more of our fellows would go unfed, unnursed, unsheltered, and uneducated” (15).
 He argues that our modern notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providing for the poor, legal equality, and basic human dignity would have been largely unintelligible in a pre-Christian Europe.

We dare not lose this side of our faith. We cannot be resigned to words and ceremonies only, as important as those are. When we give up on good works, we give up on evangelism. Good works are a sign that we are living as people of the kingdom right here and right now. The healing around us is evidence of the kingdom’s presence. As Jesus said, 
“let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
 This doesn’t mean we brag or show off. The works should be more visible than us, but we can’t help but bump into people as we go about passing along God’s blessing.

The kingdom of God has come. Where the will of God is done the kingdom of God has come. It may not be fully developed, but it is continuing to develop and some day it will fully envelop this world. That is the promise. And we get to be a part of this as we seek people of peace to share in the healing work of the Gospel.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Follow @RevChrisRoth