Sunday, February 7, 2021
So you may spread the gospel
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Paul is above all an evangelist. He spent his entire career establishing churches and spreading the gospel. Paul is operating in the years after the resurrection and his call was to go out to the Gentile population and begin to introduce them to Jesus and what would eventually be known as Christianity. During Paul’s life what we now call Christianity was not yet a distinct religion and the break with Judaism was still at least 40 years away. That really didn’t happen until 100 CE. Paul is focused on building communities of believers not “churches” as we know them. That in itself may just be the most important lesson we can learn from his letter to this fractious young church in Corinth.
As I mentioned last week, Paul is working with the young church in Corinth which was just getting started. Worship did not look like what we consider tradition here. The form of the Eucharist was just beginning to form and being Christian could be dangerous. They were certainly the minority among what we would call a pagan society. I would imagine that those who worshipped the various gods at the many temples may have considered themselves good religious people doing what the gods commanded and didn’t understand this new religion with just one God and this Jesus person. It was tough being a Christian in Corinth.
I am reminded of a contemporary example. My wife Wendy was working on a master’s degree in theology at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in Cleveland in the mid 90s. The college allowed people to audit some of the classes and there was an obstetrician in one of her classes. He was a devout Moslem but most of his patients were Christian. He wanted to understand his patients and believed he needed to understand their faith to achieve this. As they talked through many of the gospel stories and discussed Jesus, he asked deep insightful questions that really made the rest of the class who had always been Christians really consider what they believed. Talking to this Moslem was probably similar to what Paul and the early church had to do.
Chapter 9 is a continuation of what we talked about last week in chapter 8. How to lead and build a church is ultimately what Paul is talking about. What I want to focus on is verses that make up the second half of our passage. Paul says he became all things to all people in order to teach them the gospel. In the Message version he says “I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.”
We need to remember that people come to church from a wide variety of backgrounds or in some cases no background at all. I was listening to one of the podcasts from the National Church in the Way of Love series (which I highly recommend) and there was a school chaplain talking. It was Lent and she was reading one of the gospels with the students. She had just finished the crucifixion and was going to read the resurrection story form either Luke or John I don’t remember the next day. One of her students was a volleyball player and missed the next class for a tournament. When she returned, she asked the chaplain, “So how did the story come out? What happened?” Puzzled she asked the girl a couple of questions and then it dawned on her. This high school student attending a private Episcopal High School had never heard the full Easter story. She didn’t know anything about the resurrection. For her Easter was bunny rabbits, eggs, and candy.
That was a real wakeup call for this chaplain. It should be a wakeup call for us as well. We are in a world that knows less and less about our faith except what they see on television or read online. Much of that is not a pretty picture so we have a lot of work to do. What I have found is that they all come from a different background, different understanding of God and “church.” No one approach works except for what Paul is talking about today.
I have a book on evangelism on the shelf in my office. It is titled The Way of Celtic Evangelism. The premise is that St. Aidan, St. Columba and St. Cuthbert all monks in the Celtic tradition had great success in re-introducing Christianity into Northumbria, the part of England up by the Scottish border in the early to mid 600s. Now as most of you know my previous parish was named after St. Aidan and I’ve done a good bit or research into him and how he spread the gospel. He did it by doing exactly what Paul is talking about. Let me explain.
Christianity came to England via the Roman Empire. When Rome collapsed modern day Great Britain was conquered by tribes of Vikings and other pagans and Christianity pretty well disappeared except in Ireland. King Oswald had become a Christian and was seeking help in reintroducing Christianity to his kingdom in Northern England. The first priest that was sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury was a total disaster. He considered the people too uneducated and basically too stupid to bother with. Oswald then turned to Columba and his monks in the monastery on the Isle of Iona off the Irish coast. Columba sent Aidan and he founded a monastery at Lindisfarne a peninsula on the coast that becomes an island at high tide every day.
Now the fact that he founded a monastery was the first change. Aidan realized that the previous priest had come from a large city and followed the normal process of getting the rich and well educated together, converting them and building a church in the city. The problem was that there were no cities in Northumbria and it was mostly peasants and small villages. Aidan knew what these people needed and a monastery was just the thing. The monastery provided a school to teach the people, a rudimentary hospital to care for the sick, a market place to sell their goods and finally a place to worship and learn about the Christian God. He met the people where they were, he got to know them and understand them. His monks had empathy for the people because soon all the monks were from Northumbria. They were the sons of the people and understood the people.
In the language of the Diocese of Texas he built missional communities. Our diocese is committed to this approach and this is something that we can be part of as we move out of the pandemic. Getting in touch with our community and finding out what the needs are and then helping meet those needs. This will draw people in who don’t even know they are looking for a church, because what this provides is first a community that knows and understands them. Wendy at Christ the King hopes in the next year or two to start just such a community because the people in her church do not look like the neighborhood around them. In her case they will probably start with a soccer program for kids that can’t afford some of the other programs around. I’m talking with Jason Evans about how we might start to explore this idea here. We made a start with Katy Christian Ministries when we started the tutoring program that was interrupted by the pandemic. The question we need to explore is how do we connect with the people just outside our door.
These are plans and opportunities for us as a church, but you individually have opportunities. Listen to people you talk to, listen to see if they are seeking a connection with God. People are seeking connection and may not even know that we may have the answer to them. It’s even easier right now, you don’t have to invite them to church, just invite them to tune into our livestream. Give them my contact information, I’m happy to talk with them.
The most important part of evangelism is to listen first. Be empathetic and listen to what the person needs or is seeking. Then don’t be afraid to invite, invite them to explore, not join, but explore who we are at St. Paul’s. I’m here to help you. Remember it isn’t any one of us who ultimately draws the person to our church, it is the Holy Spirit, we just need to give a little nudge and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does.
Paul really is onto the essentials of good evangelism and each and every one of you can be an evangelist. It is what God wants all of us to do in our own unique way. Just like Paul, we are called to share the Good News with everyone.