May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Do you remember the old Lassie television shows? Maybe you have heard of them but never saw them. One of the running jokes about that show was the fact that almost every episode included Lassie's young friend, Timmy, getting into some kind of trouble and Lassie running home or to some other responsible adult for help. It seemed like all Lassie had to do was to run up to one of these people, start barking loudly without stopping, and suddenly that person would follow Lassie to help Timmy. Many parodies have made fun of this recurring scene by depicting the adult somehow understanding every bark that Lassie speaks: “What Lassie? Timmy's fallen into a well; and it's getting dark and cold; and the mountain lion is circling it? We'd better go get the sheriff!!” I think that if the average Lutheran was to put together an educational video on evangelism, he or she would prefer it to look like that! Where you all can just go out and repeat the preacher's stuff about justification, righteousness, soteriology and other theological phrases that sounds like barking out loud to much of the world, and people around us say: “What's that? You want me to come to church with you; and hear the good news of Jesus; and serve him in all that I do? I'd better get going!” Nope, it just doesn't work like that.
The story of Jesus calling his disciples from John 1 is a story of what evangelism is all about. It is a story that is very fitting to hear during this season of Epiphany where we focus on themes like light, revelation and vision. In the story and the verses leading up to it, John the Baptist reveals Jesus as, “The Lamb of God.” He is revealing one who was anticipated for centuries, the one for whom he came to prepare the way. And Andrew, one of John's disciples, begins to follow Jesus at that point. Jesus shares that short phrase: Come and See! It is an invitation into Jesus' life, an invitation into a relationship where Andrew's life will be changed forever.
And so the next day, where our Gospel lesson picks up, Jesus and Andrew and Simon Peter begin to call others to “come and see.” He makes connections that these people can understand – he doesn't dispute the fact that most will doubt that anything good can come from Nazareth; he just bids them to “come and see.” He does not get caught up in Nathanael's wandering about how Jesus saw him once before, but he encourages them that they will see many great things if they just “come and see.” Jesus is setting the stage for his entire ministry but revealing to the men who will be closest to him the wonderful love and goodness that he is about to show the world.
So, what does this passage have to say about how we Lutherans are to go about the task of evangelism, of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others? At first it makes it sound easy doesn't it? “Simply live like Jesus wants you to live, and when people ask you how it is that you can be that strong, loving and caring, just say, “come and see!” Now, while there may be something to this exercise – evangelism at its best is witnessed in the actions of faithful Christians who live out wonderful sermons in what they do – we know that we fall short of this calling regularly. And part of our sinfulness is to take credit for what we do for people instead of giving the glory to God instead. I am much like the average Lutheran Christian person – looking for the easy way to reveal Jesus' love to others, something that will not make me step out of my comfort zone too much!
I guess that for me, evangelism has to do with effectively revealing Jesus' presence in our lives so that others can experience that presence as well. It is not something relegated to an evangelism committee or a pastor only; It is a task that takes a person from just being a “nice enough lady or fellow” to being someone who has experienced and recognized God's love in his or her own life, and wants to share that love with others. Christian evangelism, as we are called to be about it, is not to cram our faith down another's throat or question their eternal destiny or threaten them with hellfire – that tends to sound like dogs barking to the stranger who doesn't have any connection to you. Instead, evangelism is about offering an invitation to come and see what God is still doing in and through Jesus and the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him.
But as simple and as non-threatening as these words are, I wonder how many of us here have ever uttered anything remotely like them. I wonder how often we have said them, not only to people who came to church one Sunday but to folks we meet in our daily lives. I don't say this to point fingers, but rather to highlight the reality that inviting people to meet Jesus in your life and in the life of the church that you go to is not easy. It is a challenge, since studies have shown that the key factor influencing persons to attend a church for the first time is a personal invitation. It's not the size or reputation of the church; it's not the sign out front, the website or the ad in the paper; it's not the beautiful or simple building; it's not the service times, style of worship, or quality of the music; it's not even the brilliant preaching of the minister. All those things have value for building the community that becomes established, but the number one reason people give for coming to a church for the first time is that someone invited them personally. Just as Philip said to Nathaniel, someone said to them, “Come and see.” That means that the future of the church depends greatly on ordinary, everyday Christians like us summoning the courage to invite someone to come and see what we have found in the community of the faithful that is Clinton Heights Lutheran Church.
Have you found something that is important to you at church? Are you able to name it, and to share it with others? Please prayerfully think about a couple of things now: what is your favorite thing about the life we share in this faith community? Would you be willing to invite someone you know to come and see and share this aspect of our congregational life that you enjoy? We have a wonderful story to share as a congregation – it is the story of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! We may not be the biggest church around, and we may struggle in one aspect of life or another. We may argue about what we feel is important in our church, but I hope that you join me in saying that we have a wonderful Christian family here. I also hope that you join me in saying that we would love for everyone in this community to see Jesus in our church and join us as disciples. That takes some work, though. It takes Bible study, prayer, conversation, and most importantly, it takes interacting with family and friends about the faith. The reason Lassie could get those people to follow him to the well to save Timmy was that he knew them and they knew him. Even though they did not understand all of his barks, they knew that he was trying to get their attention in order to do something good. I know that our culture is no longer invested into participating in a faith community. That is what makes this “simple task” of evangelism such a challenge.
As I say all of this, I also know that the future of the church is without a doubt in God's trustworthy hands. And the same Spirit who descended on Jesus at Baptism is still working among us. Indeed, the Spirit that inspired Philip and Andrew, who reached out through their efforts to others, and who overcame even the skepticism of Nathaniel is still offering all kinds of people all over the world an invitation to “come and see” and creating in them the desire to do just that.
May the Holy Spirit continue to work through you, me and our congregation to reveal the presence of the living Lord, and may our congregation be a place where people are constantly invited to come and see the presence of the Lord at work. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.