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Telling the Story: A Sermon for Evangelism Sunday

Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done… In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan. He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all night long with a fiery light. He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Matthew 28: 16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.


In the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. this Sunday has been designated “Evangelism Sunday,” so I’ll make evangelism the focus of this sermon. In another sermon about evangelism, I noted that that word has become an embarrassment for some Christians, because the public has come to associate evangelism with smooth talking T.V. and radio hucksters who present an intolerant and anti-intellectual version of Christianity. I’ve said before that mainstream Christians need to take back the word, “evangelism,” from fundamentalists who have tarnished it in the public’s eye. But, to take back the word, we must have a viable alternative, and that’s a big order. It’s a big order, because if we hope to succeed in presenting the good news of Jesus to modern people we cannot simply reiterate ancient phrases. Evangelism could be done that way in Christendom, but Christendom is passing away in America, and religious diversity is increasing. We cannot take it for granted anymore that John Doe knows the Bible, so “telling the old, old story about Jesus and his love” requires much more creative communication these days.

After nine-eleven many churches across our land, including Hanover, began to reach out to non-Christians in an unprecedented way. Last January members of Hanover met with members of our neighboring synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, to study together the fundamentals of Christianity and Judaism. We also began hosting monthly suppers to open a wider circle, which now includes Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Bahais. I’m discovering that our church is not alone in promoting such interfaith fellowship. We are part of a grass roots movement. What’s happening? Christians are reaching out not to convert, but to dialogue. We are reaching out because we sense that religion could very well become a catastrophically divisive force on the planet. We do not want holy war, and so, we have begun to try to get to know our neighbors better.

They, in turn, are reaching out to us. On Friday I took part in a press conference to publicize an interfaith conference which Wilmington Muslims will host on October 14th. John Hynes, a priest from St. Catherine of Siena’s Catholic Parish, Cannon Lloyd Casson from Saints Andrew and Matthew Episcopal Church, the Reverend Lawrence Livingston of the Mother AUFCMP Church, and Pastor Cheryl Jensen of nearby Peninsula McCabe Methodist Church, also took part. At that press conference I mentioned that when you reach out to begin an interfaith conversation, you must also be ready to reach in, into your own heart and mind. You have to be ready to reexamine, and perhaps even to change, your own faith. As any married person knows, you cannot be in a significant relationship without having that relationship change you. I think that that will prove true for interfaith dialogue as well as marriage. As Christians reach out earnestly–not to convert others to our way of thinking and worshipping, but rather, to learn respectfully about their perspectives and traditions–I believe that that dialogue will prod us to re-examine and alter some of the ancient ways we have conceptualized our faith and conveyed it to non-believers. I believe that such dialogue will eventually transform how we “tell the old, old story of Jesus,” how we think of and do evangelism.

When I was preparing a sermon to remember the anniversary of nine-eleven I downloaded some questions for study from the PCUSA’s web site. These questions were in the form of a catechism. A catechism is a list of questions and answers for instructing novices about fundamental Christian beliefs. This particular catechism was published in the aftermath of nine-eleven because Presbyterians are, as I said before, reaching out to non-Christians as never before. The drafters of this catechism wanted to provide guidance to Presbyterians as they “reflect on the challenge we face in dealing with peoples of other religions.”

Here is the very first question of that catechism: “Is Christianity the only true religion?” And here is the answer:

“Religion is a complex matter. When used as a means to promote self-justification, war-mongering or prejudice, it is a form of sin. Too often all religions–and not the least Christianity–have been twisted in this way. Nevertheless, by grace, despite all disobedience, Christianity offers the truth of the gospel. Although other religions may enshrine various truths, no other can or does affirm the name of Jesus Christ as the hope of the world.”

Now, I find that response both amusing and disappointing. Of course Christianity is the only religion that affirms Jesus Christ as the hope of the world. That’s a tautology. It merely states a basic Christian belief. It does not argue for the truth of that belief; and that’s precisely what one wants when one asks: Is Christianity the only true religion? So, I find the response evasive, whether or not it was intended to be. I see it as a way of avoiding the inevitable self-examination which must ensue if Christians venture into earnest and rigorous interfaith dialogue. Why does Christianity affirm that Jesus is the hope of the world? That’s the truly interesting matter in an interfaith conversation between Christians and non-Christians–not that he is (according to Christians), but why he is.

If we face that question squarely and answer it forthrightly, must we end right back in a fundamentalistic, exclusivistic position? Must we find ourselves “telling the old, old story of Jesus” the same way missionaries did in the nineteenth century, namely: you must believe in Jesus as the only son of God and Savior, else you are surely going to hell? The embarrassment of mainstream Protestants in doing evangelism is that historically we received the gospel through Biblical literalists–people who by in large did not believe non-Christians had spiritual truth of any kind. Nowadays, in a much more religiously diverse society, we want to separate ourselves from that exclusivistic heritage. We want to be inclusive and tolerant now. But we aren’t practiced in doing evangelism other than the way our forebears did.

In July Alice and I were blessed with our first grandchild, Greta Sophia, which translates “pearl of wisdom.” Matt and Lisa, her mom and dad, are reading to that little baby even before she can sit up. They want her to be more than literate. They want her to be wise. And so, they are thinking about her religious education, as well as her worldly one. When Alice and I were raising our sons, giving them a religious education was easy. We took them to Sunday school. We didn’t think twice about that. But in today’s U.S. cities, which are becoming more and more religiously diverse, young parents do think twice. In part they do because many are not satisfied with “old time religion,” not satisfied with ancient dogmatic responses to their spiritual questions. To Matthew, much of Christian belief doesn’t make sense anymore, because it’s based on pre-scientific ways of thinking. His bride, Lisa, is from a Jewish family, but they have never practiced their religion. So, a non-practicing Presbyterian and a non-practicing Jew want to give their daughter a spiritual toehold. They are typical, church. Believe me, they are typical! So Christians can no longer assume that the truths we have historically celebrated about Jesus will be obvious even to our children, let aloneoutsiders. Like the first Christian apostles, we need to do apologetics as we do evangelism. That is, we need to substantiate our faith as well as describe it. But we cannot do this in the same way that the first apostles did, for their world was so very different from ours.

As we live with and work with non-Christians, and as we seek to avoid holy war in this time of great terror, how can we tell the story of Jesus honestly and sensitively, respecting the spiritual wisdom of people outside the Christian circle? Some Christians say that we can’t do that–we can’t accept the possibility that anybody besides us has spiritual truth. But, I have found that if I think of Jesus not as God walking about on earth, but rather, as a person filled to the brim with God’s spirit, so that Jesus became an icon for God, then I can hold up Jesus as the hope of the world without disrespecting the faith of others who relate to God by another way. For to believe that Jesus was Spirit-filled does not preclude the possibility that the same Spirit that was in him so completely has also been in others, and continues to be in others– both inside and outside the Christian circle. Now, I know that some Christians find that thought heretical. Well, so be it. One has to have the courage to stand by the truth as one sees it. Jesus certainly demonstrated that.

I’ll close this sermon with a portion of our Psalm from this morning:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”

What a wonderful statement to instruct modern evangelists, this ancient Hebrew text! We received dark sayings from of old, it says, meaning not foreboding sayings, not lugubrious sayings, but sayings that are mysterious, hard to get clear at first, sayings that require light for clarification. And how do faithful people shine that light? Through parable, says the text. We cannot express spiritual truths by direct discourse. Spiritual truth is always metaphorical, because metaphor is the only way we can grasp the ineffable which lies beyond this world. We modern people must not abandon the metaphorical religious task. We must not hide the dark mysteries of our religious heritage from our children because of our dependence upon science or our preoccupation with the material world. We must keep re-examining and re-expressing our conviction that Jesus is alive through the Spirit. We must find ways to explain to modern, skeptical people that Jesus is a living metaphor, that he shows the nature of God better than anyone whom the world has ever known; and that following in his way is indeed the hope of the world.

Resource Types: Articles and Interfaith.

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