Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The word for that is “evangelism” and in the 21st Century in a liberal protestant church like ours “evangelism” is a dirty word.
The word evangelism is harmless in itself; it means the zealous dissemination of something we profoundly believe in. It means “propagating for a cause.” You can evangelize your health club or the model of car you drive.
No, it’s a dirty word not because of what it means (indeed very few dirty words are dirty because of their meanings) but because of its associations:
Evangelical, Evangelist, Televangelist.
In a modern context, evangelism is when you are accosted on the street or on your own doorstep by someone who is selling something you don’t even want to talk about.
And from its earliest inception, that has always been true. Evangelism is when some self-righteous stranger tells you about Christianity. And it seems like, historically, that something is something you really don’t want to hear.
For example, that being Christian means being a white eastern European male. Only.
Or that the beautiful and practical clothing of the people of the Andes must be traded for Eastern European garb in order to embody Christian propriety.
Or that the breathtaking music of Sub-Saharan Africa must be replaced by the music of Bach and Beethoven in order to be sacred.
Or that the awe inspiring images of the deity and Holy Spirit to be found all over Asia are heretical graven images and must be replaced with the image of a white man and a Holy Spirit we can’t describe (we only know their depiction is wrong).
Evangelism is responsible for the darkest moments in the history of the Church: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, complicity in Nazi and Stalinist atrocities.
Evangelism is a secretly corrupt man in an expensive suit in front of a podium with no evidence of Christian images anywhere near him…. or worse excessively violent images… telling you who among your acquaintance is damned.
Evangelism is, I am afraid, a word which has been used to justify more bloodletting, more physical and emotional and cultural violence than any other in any language that I can think of. And that is not because of what it means.
Evangelism is obnoxious at best, horrific at worst.
Or is it?
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Where is the line where Jesus tells us that the only way to be Christian is our way? Where is the part where he tells us to oppress others? To punish them for diversity, to destroy anything unfamiliar that threatens our self-righteous ego-centric definition of faith?
Maybe it’s Paul. Jesus was always good at telling us what to do, Paul was good at telling us how.
Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?
But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed
Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
There’s nothing here about killing other people, there’s nothing here about homogenizing culture or even worship. The “how” that Paul seems to be advocating here is not “tell” but “do.” Not “oppress” but “live in peace with.”
Paul tells us this, my brothers and sisters, because that is what Evangelism REALLY is. It is doing, not telling.
And here the really shocking part: we are, all of us, all the time, unwillingly, unrelentingly and whether we like it or not, evangelists.
Because when we are in the world, when we hold the door open for the man with his arms full, when we put our shopping carts back in the cart corral, when we pause to be thankful before a meal, when we swear like sailors as the train goes by… every moment of every day we are Christians and we are representing for Christ.
All Paul is saying is, we have to be more intentional: be aware of what we are doing. Imagine in every moment that we are wearing tee shirts that say, “I am a representative of Christ.”
Now, that doesn’t mean we have to be saints. Paul says explicitly that we don’t have to be perfect, even Christ was half human. It means we have to try to be perfect, we have to “fake it till you make it” or “dress for the part you want” or, and I know we’re all sick of it but, it means you should ask yourself “what would Jesus do?”
In the words of the mahatma: we have to be the change we seek in the world.
And this is the way Evangelism really works. I can tell you how great my health club is, but if I really want you to know, to understand the experience as I understand it, I will give you a visitor’s pass. If I want to experience the difference between my minivan and Tina’s mini cooper, I’m going to have to take it for a test drive.
That’s it that’s all we have to do.
Because the Holy Spirit does the rest. Because maybe that person you met today goes home and says, “All Christians are not Oral Roberts or Pat Robertson (no relation, thank you very much). I know a really great woman in Winnetka, a really great one. And she’s a Christian.”
You see, evangelizing is not so much something we do as it is something we assist the Holy Spirit in doing. Evangelizing, in its truest form, is when we demonstrate the glorious feeling we have when we are in touch with our divine nature. Evangelism is when we follow the still small voice inside of us, the grace placed there by our creator. It is when we seek to know the spark of divinity that is present in every other living creature. It is when, thorough our actions and impact on the world, we open other people to their own divinity and blessing. Then, in that moment, the Holy Spirit can spread wide her wings and fill that person with an understanding of how blessed and brilliant a creation he or she is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Evangelism is not necessary to conversion. That divine spark, that “prevenient grace” is present in everyone and it can be turned on with or without the intervention of any other person.
But in this text we are called to ask, “How can I help? What can I do to share the joy I feel in my faith with other people who aren’t there yet?”
And in the 21st Century we add, “without making them unfriend me on Facebook?”
How can we help the process along? Well, we cannot hope to change an entire culture with sweeping reforms and testimonials broadcast over the airwaves. But we can hope to change one person at a time, the way all good viruses are spread: with a handshake, with a hug.
Evangelism works through contact, not coercion. Plenty of sentences have begun with the words, “I know what’s good for you.” None of those sentences resulted in real evangelism.
So I’m going to ask you to think about this, this week. How can I, in my own life, in my personal interactions, in my own little insignificant way, how can I be the change I seek to see in the world? How can I embody my experience of God? The loving and wonderful creator of all things? How can I be guided by the Holy Spirit to walk in the footsteps of my Redeemer?
If we let ourselves be guided by those questions, we will be evangelists in the truest sense of the word: in action, not word, in fact not theory… in faith and in the name of Church.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”