At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus expanded his mission to the outlying territories, commissioning 70 disciples and sending them out to heal, to prepare for his upcoming arrival, and to preach a simple message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (see Luke 10) They go out in pairs and they’re to be fixed, solely, on that kingdom and its message. They carry pretty much only what’s on their back, and they go in haste – “greet no one on the road,” Jesus tells them. They are solely dependent on God’s intervention, and their only livelihood is to knock on doors and spread the message.
This is what we tend to think of as the dominant form of evangelism: door knocking. I don’t know if this makes me a bad priest, but I’ve never knocked on a door to talk to a complete stranger about God or their faith life or the Christian church. Nor have I ever started a conversation by saying, “Let me tell you about Jesus…”
But I tend to think that I’ve won some souls to Christ and I’ve been a decent-enough ambassador of God’s good news. Sure, I’m a work in progress, as you are, too. And I’ve never gone out with an agenda to convert people and I, too, am comfortably surrounded by plenty of creaturely comforts. But through my life’s witness, in general, and, from time to time, my own words, I know God has acted through me. I think it’s time to spread that good news, as well.
The Episcopal chaplain at the University of Maryland – one of the campus ministries in our Diocese of Washington – has been developing over the years what he’s called “relational evangelism.” It’s not door knocking, and it’s pretty agenda-free. Maybe some might say it’s not evangelism, per se, but I can see God acting in and through this kind of strategy, too. It’s all about relationship. Think about it: as you get to know someone, what do you learn first about them? What they do, where they grew up, if they have a family, and other basic facts of life. Then, over time, as a relationship develops, that person might share with you their hopes and dreams and aspirations; what’s on their heart. After even more time that person might share with you their struggles and sufferings and shortcomings. God is in that, even when God’s name isn’t necessarily used and even when you’re not trying to get that person to come to church or accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. In fact, the degree to which you, yourself, open expose your own deeper hopes and hurts will determine the degree to which that other person will do the same. In that truth, then, there is the gentle yet profound hand of God working, developing something new, something truly worthy of being called “good news”, something which is life giving in the boldest sense of that term. What’s to say that relational evangelism isn’t as effective or gospel-sanctioned as knocking on doors or setting out to win souls to Christ? Who’s to say that God isn’t acting in and through that deepening relationship, and your own ability to show forth His grace in you.
On a campus of 41,000 students, the Episcopal campus ministry in College Park, Maryland might attract 41 or so … and that’s on a good day! That handful of students and inquirers and faithful are getting what you get in the Episcopal Church every week, every time we gather for worship: they and you are getting a full dose of Jesus. Ours are not necessarily “seeker friendly” services, although we try to be welcoming and hospitable at the same time. What we’re doing in here – and they are doing at the University of Maryland Episcopal campus ministry – is giving people a full taste of God in Christ, in the hopes that you and I will continue to become the Body of Christ on earth. That’s why I paraphrase a sermon from St. Augustine every time I invite you to come and receive Holy Communion; in just a few moments you’ll hear: “These are the gifts of God for the People of God. Become what you receive: the Body of Christ.” We’re all works in progress, of course, and no one among us has got it all figured out. But in our destination as well as in our journeys – as broken and marked by fits and starts as they surely are – we are reflecting or, I should say, we are capable of reflecting God’s abundant, just, gracious, and life-giving kingdom, right here on earth.
It doesn’t matter, then, how many people are in worship – whether it’s a tiny campus ministry on a huge university campus or a small parish church in a rural setting or a grand cathedral. It matters, only, how deeply a few might touch and taste the kingdom of God, right here on this side of heaven, and in being touched might, in time, touch others and share His grace – even when they’re not trying, even when they’re not using the right ‘buzz’ words, only as relationships deepen and they find themselves standing right in the very place where God would have them be: which is the now and the present of their lives.
I take this from the scriptures, of course; in particular, the wonderful story about Elisha and Naaman which can be found in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman, we learn, is a decorated and notorious military commander, but he suffers with an awful case of that debilitating ancient disease: leprosy. From a slave girl, Naaman learns about a certain prophet who lives in Samaria – that being Elisha – and sets out to find him and, hopefully, find some healing and relief. When, through a series of events, Naaman and Elisha are poised to meet, the prophet doesn’t even come out of his house. No, Elisha sends word that that great General is to go to the Jordan river and dip in and out seven times. That’s it.
What’s Naaman’s response? He’s enraged, insulted, and hurt. He’s not at all pleased. “He won’t even come out of his house to greet me?!” Naaman says, insulted, his ego surely bruised. Add to that, why would Naaman take a dip in that little, dirty, trickling creek – the Jordan River – while back in his home there are much more beautiful, lush rivers? He left and headed for home, not only let down but enraged, the scriptures tell us. A servant approached Naaman, however, and gave him a little nudge: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” At that, Naaman went to the Jordan, washed seven times, and he was healed.
What did Naaman go to Samaria to see? A prophet, a man, someone to heal him? Or did he, in fact, go to a foreign land only to find what was in front of him the whole time? Removed from his comforts and distractions, perhaps Naaman was able to see the truth for the first time – that God, his God, was always already working in him and all he needed to do was the simplest (and yet hardest) thing in the world: listen, trust, pay attention. So often in life we overlook the simple things, the present reality, those gifts which stand right in front of us, day after day after day. This life, for one, and those who accompany us on our journey – our friends and family and co-workers and associates. All of these are gifts. Opportunities to show forth our own innate talents, as well as those challenges which remind us that we aren’t perfect – that this life is all about stumbling forward, and doing so with the courage to remember that we need God’s grace and good friends. All of these are gifts, presents in the fullest sense of that word. And it’s all been right in front of us, these incredibly simple and straightforward things which we, too often, overlook on our attempts to become better or different or someone we’re not, yet.
“The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus preached and told his disciples to say the same: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” I hope you know this and, truly, I hope you get a small taste of this today, in worshiping, in hearing and receiving and taking and becoming. And I hope you not only have the courage to let this truth in but also to let it out, to share it in your life and in your own relationships. Not by way of an agenda or mission but simply and wholly because you can’t help but want to become His Body and live in the freedom of His kingdom, alone.
A sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland