Thursday, March 13, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: How?

Last week we looked at why we should tell people the gospel. We looked at both the practical reasons and the spiritual ones. And it's important when you embark on any task to understand why you are doing it. For instance if your spouse tells you to grab something for dinner, the way you go about it and what you get depends on whether it's for the whole family or just the two of you or if you have guests. If there are kids involved you will probably pick up things they will actually eat. If it's for the 2 of you, you might stop by a favorite restaurant or pizzeria and pick up something you both really like and don't get to eat often. If you are entertaining guests, you might kick things up a notch.

This week we are starting to get into the “how” of evangelism. And there are 2 important things to know when you want to communicate something: your message and your audience. But before we get to those I want to build on what we said last week and show how the “why” influences the ways we communicate.

You can only be effective at delivering a message if you are passionate about it. That's why in the days before cell phones when your teenager relayed a phone message to you, it tended to be incomplete or garbled. If the message was unimportant to them, they just jotted down a number and you were lucky if they remembered the name of the person who called or what it was about. 

Where do we find the passion we need to communicate  the gospel? For completeness, I mentioned several reasons “why” we should share the good news but the key reason is that we should do so out of concern for the spiritual welfare of others. That's even more important than the fact that Jesus commanded us to. When we pass on the gospel out of a sense of obligation, we will probably communicate that along with the message. And it won't elicit much of a response if the person thinks we are only telling them this because we are being made to do so.

We should share the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done for us out of compassion for those struggling through life without Jesus. Because that will dictate how we communicate it.

First and foremost, we should communicate it with our love. In John 13:35, Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The mark of the Christian is love. One of the big reasons young people are leaving the church is that they don't see the ethic of love being carried out as it should. Would you take advice on weight loss, however well researched, from an obese doctor? Why should people believe what we say about love if there is little evidence of it in our lives?

So our second point is that we must proclaim the good news with our lives. St. Francis is supposed to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” Wikiquotes lists this as disputed but a possible source of the idea is Rule 11 of the Franciscan order where it cites 1 John 3:18, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.” Or as the Good News translation puts it, “My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.” That idea is seconded by James when he says, “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Later James writes, “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18b) He is not contradicting Paul or saying works save us. He is saying that true faith changes one's life and such a change will be evident in how one lives and what one does. Jesus himself says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

True love begets action or else it is the kind of daydream love adolescents have for the cool guy or hot girl in class, the one they can't bring themselves to talk to. If we really love others we will do things for them. What kinds of things? Jesus gives us a good list of things to begin with in Matthew 25: giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty; taking in strangers; giving clothes to those who need them; taking care of the sick; and visiting those in prison. James, Jesus' brother, adds the frequent Old Testament concern for helping widows and the fatherless. (James 1:27)

When 6 year old Caleb White first noticed a homeless man sleeping on the streets in Detroit, he began a project of making and taking sandwiches to the homeless. Now 11, Caleb has enlisted classmates to make presents of wrapped shoeboxes that contain not only food but a hat, gloves, toothpaste and toothbrush, soap and other necessities. This last Christmas he distributed 150 boxes as well as 100 winter coats sent by an apparel company in Boston which heard about his project. They were distributed through a charity called Feed My Sheep.

Here on Big Pine Key we have the food pantry. Located at the Methodist church, its volunteer base includes people from all denominations. It is a real demonstration of the fact that Jesus fed the hungry and those who follow him should, too.

There are also ministries that provide shelter for the homeless, that visit hospitals and nursing homes, and that bring God's word and love to jails and prisons. In Africa there are several ministries helping the many widows and orphans that are the result of war, AIDS, and slavery.

Here in the states I found a ministry called Mary's Comfort which works with those who have lost husbands and fathers in any way, whether death, desertion, divorce, war or imprisonment. The statistics they have gathered from the Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services are staggering. The vast majority of the poor in this country are single mothers and their children. Of the 12.2 million single-parent families in this country, 10 million are headed by single mothers. Up to 15% of these are actual widows, women whose husbands died. The average age at which a woman is widowed is 52. 40% of the homeless are women and their children, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Considering how often the Bible talks of widows and orphans, I'm surprised there aren't more ministries like this in the US.

I hadn't heard of Mary's Comfort until I googled “ministries for widows and orphans.” I imagine most people have not heard of it. This is a major problem with the church. We do a lot of good but we are not as savvy as a lot of secular organizations in letting people know. When people think of Christians they tend to think of all the controversies that have made the news rather than all the ways in which Christians show the love of Christ for others every day.

So if we are going to tell other about God's love, we need to make sure that they see nothing in our lives that contradicts our message, or suggests that it is nothing but talk.

Finally, we must communicate the good news of God's grace and forgiveness through Christ with our lips. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The statement assumes that people will be asking us about Jesus rather than us buttonholing folks in malls and on street corners. In fact, if you look in the Bible telling the gospel is usually done in answer to a question. In Acts 2, people are amazed by the disciples speaking in tongues and ask, “What does this mean?” In Acts 3, Peter responds to the obvious questions that were forming in the minds of the people who saw the lame man walking and leaping and praising God. In Acts 4, the Sanhedrin asks Peter, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” In Acts 7, Stephen is asked to defend himself against charges of blasphemy. In Acts 8, Philip sees the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah, asked him if he understands what he is reading and the man answers with a question, “How can I unless someone guides me?” And so it goes. When they talk about the gospel, the apostles for the most part are responding to questions asked them about spiritual things. In fact, Jesus' own teachings are often given in response to questions from his opponents or his disciples or ordinary people.

Now it must be admitted that many times the questions are prompted by things Jesus or the apostles say or do. You may not have the gift of healing or speaking in tongues or other extraordinary things that draw people's attention or amazement. But you know what is extraordinary today? Taking time to help other people—taking a hungry person to a restaurant to eat or listening to someone in emotional distress or going out of your way to aid someone. And if that prompts a question, like “Why are you doing this?” or “Am I holding you up from something?” You can respond with an appropriate comment about how you are doing this because you are trying to follow Jesus. And if they ask to know more about Jesus what do you say? We will get to that next Wednesday.

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