The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 22, 2023
Scott Sunquist tells the story of Mary, a drama major at a large university. The professor of her introductory acting class had asked all the students to present to the class “something extreme”. Mary decided that, as a Jesus follower, she’d write a love song to Him and sing it.
Alice presented her “something extreme” just before it was Mary’s turn. Alice took a Bible and led her fellow students outside to a nearby trashcan, where she read verses about God’s commanding the Israelites to destroy nations. As she read each verse, she exclaimed, “Who’d ever believe in a God like that?” Then she ripped out the page, lit it with a match and flung it burning into the trashcan. Hers was indeed “extreme” drama!
Mary’s presentation followed immediately. She took up her guitar, said a brief prayer under her breath, and sang her love song to Jesus. Everyone stilled; and then with class over, they all left – all, that is, except Alice who approached Mary in tears. “That was beautiful,” she said in a quiet voice. “That’s a God I want to know. Can you help me know Jesus?” The two women started to meet; and, before long, Alice began to follow Jesus.
Jesus calls His followers to encourage others to follow Him. It’s significant that, in today’s scripture, as soon as He invited those men to enter into a life with Him, He promised to turn them into people who’d invite yet others into it. Doing evangelism is for Jesus integral to following Him.
I understand why “evangelism”, “witnessing” and “converting” are for many ugly words. For such activities have often been distorted and perverted. I think of a Peanuts comic strip in which Lucy declared herself a great evangelist. When Linus responded “Huh?” she replied, “I convinced the kid that sits next to me in class that my religion is better than his.” “How did you do that?” Linus asked. Lucy smiled and said, “I hit him hard over the head with my lunch box!”
Jesus modeled how evangelism is to be done. When Jesus invited those fisherman to become folks who “fish for people”, He was Himself fishing for them and hoping to catch their hearts with the prospect of joining Him in an adventure to uplift and enrich others’ lives.
Jesus was all about seeking out and reaching out to those who had yet to discover how great a life they can have from Him. That’s why He looked for people who, following Him, would also fish for people in a respectful way that is anything but heavy-handed, manipulative or smacking of a snow job. Jesus simply held up a possibility, made clear both its costs and rewards, and invited folks to give it a try.
In today’s scripture He spoke of evangelism by a metaphor drawn from the familiar, everyday experience of the fishermen with whom He was then talking. If He’d been talking to farmers, He’d very likely have spoken in terms of planting seeds from which joy and peace would grow; or, if to carpenters, in terms of building a house in which all could find a home and a family.
Jesus wants followers who, in imitation of Him, open their hearts, ears and, yes, mouths to those outside their immediate circle of the like-minded folks and who, with love, introduce some to new possibilities for their lives.
That’s how His followers can keep in close and constant contact with One who keeps going out to reach out, whether or not anyone else joins Him. They just need to go out with Him and create conditions by which new people might receive God’s gracious gift of a still better life, however good their present one may be.
To follow Jesus in the way of evangelism does not take any heroic, masterful performance from us. It just takes deferring to the agenda of the One we call Lord and serving it however we can. Though we may feel ill-equipped and unprepared to do evangelism, Jesus will be glad for our company however good we are at it. And He knows we’ll learn as we go and get better with practice.
Resent research has found out why some people excel in a field of endeavor while others remain mediocre in it. It turns out that the most decisive factor is not intelligence, talent or a good network of support, but a long-term commitment to persevere and practice a pursuit. And what ignites that commitment? Not looking within oneself so as to tap one’s willpower, but looking outward and upward to something beyond oneself that catches the heart and summons one into a greater life. Jesus comes to us from beyond us and summons us into a greater life. He captivates our imagination and kindles our passion. He makes us fall in love with Him and want seek to stay in touch with Him. But we can only stay in touch with Him if we follow this Savior who’s ever on the move, ever going out to bless others with His good news.
We don’t have to become excellent at doing evangelism. And we certainly don’t have to do it all on our own. We just have to do what we can, and collaborate with others doing it as well. Consider how different people played different parts in MIT Professor Rosalind Picard’s becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Growing up, she realized she was very smart. Being led to believe smart people don’t need religion, she embraced atheism and dismissed believers as uneducated or stupid. In her student days, she baby sat. One of her favorite families was that of a very smart couple, a doctor and his wife. They stunned her when they invited her to come to church with them. But, when she kept begging off with one lame excuse or another, they tried a different tack. They suggested she read the Bible, starting with Proverbs of all books! But she found it so full of wisdom that it motivated her to read the whole Bible. As she did, she felt a strange sense of being spoken to. And she began to wonder whether there might really be a God.
Then a fellow college student invited her to his church. This time she made no excuse. She became a regular attender, and eventually felt moved to give God a try by asking Him to make a difference in her. He made a profound and wonderful difference, and she committed to follow Him the rest of her life, which she is doing to this day.
God needs little from us to do something big in the life of someone to whom we reach out; but doing the little we can is crucial to His doing what we never could. Let us then follow Jesus and practice evangelism.