Preached at Alger First United Methodist Church on Oct. 4, 2015
Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40
Well here we are in the midst of this series we’ve been doing called Transforming Evangelism. If you haven’t been here for all of this, let me bring you up to speed. Week 1, we talked about how Jesus has called us all to this work of sharing our faith-this is an expectation of a follower of Jesus. Week 2, we talked about how this work does not happen on individual basis, but within a community. Week 3, we talked about how this work of telling others about God won’t happen if we ourselves don’t know God in the first place. And last week, we finally got to the work of proclaiming the Gospel, which is probably what all of us think of when we think of evangelism. But proclaiming is really just honestly sharing your story about your experience with God.
One of the things I’ve been saying through this whole thing is that evangelism happens through relationships. The door-to-door, gospel tract method might have some value. But this other idea of relational evangelism is an important concept. Now I hesitate to put a label on this or talk about a relational evangelism method because that makes it sound fake and what I’m talking about is this very genuine, honest, open way of sharing your own personal story with those who you already have a relationship with.
Now I realize that this idea of sharing our faith with our friends and family can be kind of a weird thing.
I’m good friends with a guy I met at ONU, we’ll call him Bill. Bill was a music major like me, and a couple years younger. He was in some of the same ensembles and groups I was in, and he was also one of my fraternity brothers. Through getting to know Bill, I could hear that he wasn’t a Christian. I kind of made note of it, and then decided that if the Holy Spirit wanted me to say something, I would. But the thought of sharing my faith with him made me kind of uncomfortable, you know?
So last year, when I was a senior at ONU, I found out that he was taking Introduction to the New Testament, because he need a Religion gen ed. He knew I was a pastor and apparently thought that I knew something about the New Testament and started asking me all these questions about what he was learning in class. I thought “This is such a great opportunity!” Right? So he and I started talking about what he was learning in this class. It would always be on Thursday night because we discovered that the 235 Grill down Main Street here has wing night on Thursdays. Have any of you been to this? The best wings I’ve ever had, hands down. So we would drive there, order our food, talk for a while, pause for 15 minutes to devour our wings, and then talk some more.
But for some reason, I was reluctant to talk about my own faith with Bill. Sure he had questions for me, and we started out talking about those, but for some reason, I was reluctant to talk with Bill about my own beliefs, faith, who I thought Jesus was, all that stuff. I just didn’t want to share my faith with him. It would put me in a really vulnerable spot. I might not say something right, I might offend him, I might look stupid. Right? I thought that it would change our relationship in some way.
Maybe you’re reluctant in the same way. The thought of sharing your faith with a spouse, a coworker, a family member is just weird to you, it doesn’t sit right. It puts you in a vulnerable spot, right? You think it could make you look stupid. You think it could change the relationship in some way. It just makes you uncomfortable for some reason, right? Maybe you’ve tried it before and it hasn’t gone well. Maybe you’re thinking that sure, Jesus expects his followers to share their faith story with those around them, but you would almost rather pass out gospel tracts on the street then tell your best friend about your relationship with Jesus. Or maybe you don’t want anything to do with it, and you just want to forget that evangelism is a word at all.
These are all ok places to be in. But I want to help us think and grapple with this. So let’s look at what the Bible has to say about this, ok?
Could you turn with me to Matthew 22:34-40? While you’re turning there, let me set up the context for you, ok? This is an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, some of the religious authorities at the time. Most scholars think that this exchange happened during the Tuesday of Holy Week, the week before Jesus was crucified. So before this exchange, Jesus had entered Jerusalem to his adoring crowds on Palm Sunday and he had thrown the vendors and money changers out of the temple, so he was making a pretty big ruckus and attracting a lot of attention. So the Jewish religious leaders decide to challenge Jesus, to push against Jesus’ supposed authority. So they’ve challenged him twice, and then they say this.
“When the Pharisees heard that he [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)
Now the question the legal expert asked Jesus, about what’s the greatest commandment, might seem strange to us. But we have to remember that this was in the context of the Jewish religion in the first century. The religious authorities and teachers held that there were around 613 commandments that ordered their lives together. With this many commandments, one of the conversations that religious teachers and thinkers had at the time was about which commandment or commandments were the most important-if you followed those commandments, the rest of the Law would come with it.
So Jesus steps into that and reduces the whole law into two incredibly profound statements, taken right from the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, being, and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Do those two things, don’t worry about anything else, and you’ll be fine. This is not news to most of us, right? A lot of people know this quote of Jesus’.
Now the truth that I think Jesus could have in this for us today is that our faith is, at its core, relational. It’s about relationships.
It’s not primarily about having the “right” beliefs or the “right” knowledge, it’s not about knowing enough about the Bible, it’s not about attending church every week. All of that is very important, we need all of those things as well, but they’re not the core of our Christian faith.
It’s all about how we are in relationship with God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” Our faith is how we are in relationship with God.
It’s also all about how we are in relationship with others. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” These are the two commandments that we can just hang our hat on and say “I’ve got to do that. Before I think of doing anything else, I have to make sure that I’m doing these two things-loving God and loving people.” And I think the goal of the Christian life is to get to the point where everything we do flows from these two commandments, everything falling under either loving God or loving people or both.
So if our faith is, at its very core, all about relationships with God and with other people, that means that our evangelism, the way that we share this faith of ours, should happen within relationships as well. Right? Being a follower of Jesus comes with the expectation that you will share your faith. That’s kind of big truth in our faith, right? And that work of sharing your faith is all about how we are in relationship with God and how we are in relationship with other people-it happens best when it comes out of those relationships. So let’s see what that looks like.
It’s all based around three R-words: Reflect, Report, and Respond. So let’s unpack these.
This work of relational evangelism is first all about reflecting God’s love to others. Think of it like your life is a mirror, and with everyone who enters in and out of your life, you are reflecting the amazing and all-embracing love of God to them. There are two steps to this.
We have to first mirror what it means to love God. We’ve got to start by loving God ourselves, right? So we’ve got to start by doing those things that put us in touch with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, right? We talked about this a couple weeks ago when we talked about how essential it is to know God. This is where reading your Bible, praying on a daily basis, committing yourself to come to worship and be with your brothers and sisters in Christ here comes in, these are the things that we can actively do to love God.
But then we’ve got to reflect that love to others. The book of James says that if we say that we have faith but we don’t show it, then our faith is dead. So how do we reflect God’s love to others? By simply loving people. If you see someone in need, help them out. Be a good person, put others’ needs before your own.
This work of relational evangelism is also all about reporting God’s love to others. Now I don’t really like that word, reporting, but it’s another R-word, so it went with the other two. What this means is that we don’t only reflect God’s love to others, but we do actually tell others about God. Reflecting God’s love can seem innocent and non-invasive, right? But we are God’s heralds on Earth, we are the only mouth that God has, so we are called to tell others about this amazing love.
Now to do this work of telling others about our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we have to be in relationship. It’s not necessarily very effective to just tell some random person off the street about this. But when it happens naturally in a friend or family or spouse relationship, there’s a deeper impact.
Think of it this way. When you go to buy a car, you might talk to some of your friends and family about what car you should buy, see what cars they drive and how they like them and all of that, and get some recommendations from them, right? I’m guessing that when you actually go to the car dealership, their recommendations are probably going to carry more weight than the professional car salesperson’s, right? Because you’re in relationship with these people and you know that they have your best interests in mind. It’s the same with this work of evangelism. The Gospel just means more when it’s coming from someone you know.
But through this, we have to remember the third word-Respond. When you share your faith story with a friend or coworker or family member, and when you tell them about our God, we want them to respond, right? Ideally respond by wanting to know more about this Jesus and finding out more about this faith and eventually stepping into a relationship with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. But we have to remember that they’re not responding to us, the ones telling them about this Good News. They’re responding to the Holy Spirit, right? So our job in this is not to bring about a big, emotional conversion moment or even a mental agreement that we are right. Our job is to invite a response by reflecting the love of God to them and telling them about it.
Now, I want to make sure I help you get practical about this. Because if you claim to be a follower of Jesus, this work of sharing your faith is something that is expected of you. If you don’t claim that, that’s fine, but if you do, it comes with this expectation. Jesus’ last recorded words on earth were telling his disciples to go to the people of the world and spread this Gospel message around, baptizing people in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey what Jesus said.
So I’d invite you to think about a few things here.
First, think about someone in your life who you could share Jesus with. If you remember all the way back to the first two weeks of this series, for those of you who were there, I had you write down the name of someone in your life who didn’t know Jesus and asked you to commit to praying for them for a week and then invite them to church the next week. Maybe you’re thinking of them, maybe you’re thinking of someone else-someone you already have a relationship with who you could share Jesus with.
So think of that, and then I’d like you to reflect on these two questions. How are you going to show them the love of God? And how are you going to tell them about the love of God?
The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, has a mission statement. “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” As a United Methodist congregation, we fall under that mission statement. Evangelism is the first step of making disciples, it’s how people hear about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and our faith. It is the first and very necessary step in discipleship.
The end goal of all of this is the transformation of the world. And doesn’t the world need transformed? This past week there was another school shooting out in Oregon. Racism still infects this country, as the Black Lives Matter movement tells us. The refugee crisis over in Europe and the civil war in Syria just brings more and more atrocities to our attention. The world is broken, and it needs put back together. It needs to be transformed. This work we are doing in sharing our faith and this thing called evangelism is beginning the process through which the world can be transformed. We are bringing God’s kingdom into the lives of those around us, and in doing that we bring God’s kingdom one step closer to realization in this world today. Don’t you want to be a part of that? Don’t you want to help bring about this transformation? This is what we’re doing in evangelism. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of this.