A sermon based on Genesis 28:10-19 and John 1:43-51 preached January 18th, 2015.
It was her first ride in a New York City subway. She was nervous. Natalie had never been to New York City before. She was more of small town girl. She was used to big, green, sprawling fields and quiet nights filled only with the sounds of crickets and cicadas.
New York City was a concrete jungle. You had to search the city to find a blade of grass. That’s what she heard anyway.
Natalie was going with a couple friends, all of whom had been to New York City before, so she felt comforted by that, but she had watched too many one-hour crime dramas on TV—most of them set in the city—so her imagination ran wild at times.
They were taking the subway in, and as she and her friends descended the stairway into the underground maze of tunnels, she gripped her purse tightly to her side. The subway doors swooshed open then closed quickly behind the crowd that packed into the car. She kept her eyes to herself. So did her friends.
There was a man who stood up as the subway car began moving.
Have you ever thought about what happens when you DIE,
the man shouted.
If you were to die today and stand before the gates of heaven, and you were asked, ‘Why should I let you in.’ are you prepared to answer?
Natalie didn’t remember the rest of what this man shouted into the crowd on the subway that morning, except for what he did last: He condemned them all to hell and then had the nerve—the utter audacity—to pass his hat around to take up an offering.
What happened that morning to Natalie really happened, and is recounted in an article in the magazine Presbyterians Today.
This morning, we’re talking about the “E” word. Evangelism. It’s a word that makes us cower in our pews. It’s a cringe-worthy word to many of us Presbyterians, because we relate the word—the whole idea, really—to stories like Natalie’s. We relate evangelizing to experiences where people take advantage of others—where they take a captive audience and hold them even more captive with the sorts of words Natalie heard that man shout that morning.
Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door like vacuum cleaner salesmen—but for Jesus—asking to barge into our homes, disturbing our privacy, and stirring the pot.
If that’s what we’ve been taught evangelism is, then there’s no wonder why we Presbyterians are terrified by it. We aren’t ones to shout on subways, or hold picketing signs up in the air, or wedge our foot in the door of a neighbor rejecting our invitation. But I don’t think any of those ways of evangelizing work anyway. Those ways might scare the devil out of someone,but why would anyone ever respond kindly to someone shoving faith down their throat?
As it turns out, none of those ways of evangelizing are biblical anyway. No where in the bible does it tell us to say,
Have you given your life to Christ?
Do you know where you will spend eternity?
What we have instead are stories like this one about Jesus calling Philip and Nathaniel as disciples.
I think this passage has a lot to teach us about evangelism—biblical evangelism.
But, before we get into that, I have a couple questions for you: What made you come to church today? Why are you here? And if you can remember the first time someone told you about Jesus, what made you pay attention? What made you seek out Jesus for yourself?
Most of us would probably answer one of those questions the same way I would: I was a cradle Christian. I just grew up this way. That’s the start of the story, at least.
Why did I stay a Christian and a church-goer? Well, the answer is tremendously boring: My parents made me go to church. In that sense, going to church was kinda like eating my broccoli. I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself really, but it was good for me. But if I went deeper, I’d start telling you better stories about how, once I became a teenager, I liked going to church because my friends were there. I liked being with them in youth group.
My 15 year-old self would tell you, that God was okay too, but really I just loved being around his friends at church. But God was there in my friends. God was there in those new relationships I was making. And those new relationships happened only because someone invited me to come. Some one along the way said to me:
Come and see. There’s good things happening here, and I want you to be a part.
Come and see.
That’s how it all starts. We didn’t end up here at Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian Church by accident. Someone came up to us and invited us to be a part and we thought we’d give it a shot. That’s why we’re here, that how it all starts. That’s what evangelism is. It isn’t so much,
Believe exactly what I believe or else!
It’s more like
Come and see.
Come and see!
Those were Philip’s first words to his brother Nathaniel after Philip encountered Jesus for the first time.
Jesus was seeking out disciples—people to teach and have follow him along his way. Jesus’ first words to Philip are
Philip sees something compelling in Jesus—something he can’t say no to, and at once Philip runs to find his brother Nathaniel. And Philip explains to Nathaniel that the One they’ve been waiting for is finally here—Jesus, from Nazareth.
And Nathaniel, well, he seems like the more skeptical of the two. He says to Philip,
Can anything good come from that place?
And here’s where we should pay close attention—right here at this moment, because it’s right here that Philip could have responded to his brother’s cynical question in so many different ways. Philip could have gotten defensive. He could have scolded his brother for his distrustfulness and pessimism. Philip could have tried on his own to convince Nathaniel of something about Jesus. He could have given Nathaniel some of his own opinions. He could have listed all the reasons he could think of as to why Nathaniel should meet Jesus. But he did none of those things. All Philip said to his brother was,
Come and see.
Come and see. As if to say,
There’s no reason for me to advertise Jesus to you. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway. Just come and see for yourself!
Come and see. Come and see what Jesus is doing!
Come and see, because I want you to experience the same thing that I just experienced.
Come and see, because why wouldn’t I want to share something that matters to me with someone like you who matters to me?
Everyone’s been telling me to go see the movie Selma about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So after all those invitations—all those,
You have to go see it! It’s so good!,
why wouldn’t I want to see it for myself?
And that’s just a movie. Why wouldn’t I want others to experience something much more important than that—like a relationship with Jesus.
Come and see.
Think for a moment about what effect those words have on us when we hear them in our everyday lives. Don’t they generate a sense of excitement in us? If a friend came up to you and said,
You just gotta see this!,
wouldn’t it peak our curiosity? If someone thought of you enough to invite you to be a part of something, wouldn’t you be flattered that they thought of you enough to share in it with them?
Come and see.
Simple and inviting and warm words. Not persuasive at all, are they? If someone came up to you saying those words, they wouldn’t reach out to twist your arm. They’d reach out and grab your hand and gently lead you along.
Come along and be a part of something!
See, that, my friends, is all that evangelism is. It’s not persuasion but invitation. We don’t have tactics. All we have is a story to tell. And why wouldn’t we want to share it? Why wouldn’t we say to others,
You matter to me, so I want you to join in and be a part of a story that matters to me.
Brian McLaren is a Pastor and an author, and he has a big web presence. He wrote an article about his church explaining what the members were like. He used words and phrases like “caring” and “kind” and “non-judgmental” and “open minded” and “critical thinkers” and “service-oriented” and “compassionate.” I scrolled down to the bottom of that webpage where the comments were and I was astounded my how many people said something like,
I never even knew a church like yours existed! Where are you, and how can I be a part?
I don’t live anywhere near your church, but if a church like this exists anywhere around me, could you help me find it?
There are lots of folks out there who think all churches and all Christians are the same: a bunch of small-minded, judgmental, closed-off, ignorant folks who huddle together on Sundays to remind each other of what the 1950’s were like.
See, they’ve been blinded by their preconceptions of church just like Nathaniel was blinded by his preconceptions about Jesus:
Can anything from Nazareth be good?, Nathaniel said skeptically.
We can easy hear people say something similar about Church:
How could anything coming out a church be good?
There’s a misplaced cynicalness about who we are, and great misunderstanding about what we do here, isn’t there?
I wonder what would happen if we looked at evangelism differently.
come and believe the exact same things we believe.
But more like,
You matter to me, so come be a part of something that matters to me.
That’s all Philip said to his brother. Think about who you could say those words to. That’s all that evangelism is.
Come and see. Come and see what Jesus is doing among us.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!