Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 13 August 2017
Trinity 9 E&B – Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
On every PCC agenda, in obedience to Capital Vision 2020 (our diocesan version of the Kingdom of God), we have an item called ‘making new disciples’. It is usually the shortest item on the agenda because, of course, we solved that long ago, as evidenced by the long queue to get in here this evening. It is a priority in the life of all churches and a mild embarrassment in most. Paradoxically, where it isn’t a source of embarrassment it probably should be: if your church finds multiplying the congregation easy it is almost certainly not preaching the gospel. The gospel isn’t easy. But that’s another sermon.
This evening I want us to consider briefly the relationship between preaching and evangelism. People often look back to the first evangelists, among whom Paul is the maestro. Paul needed to talk to people about the faith, because it was new. We heard him this morning stating the obvious about that situation:
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
Just now we heard an example of him preaching and we should have noticed that it is not only not very successful: it also isn’t very good.
Most of Paul’s reported evangelistic sermons were in synagogues, the same environment in which he had previously been a fierce opponent of Christianity. That would have been a challenge, but one well within his comfort zone: having been on one side of an argument is usually excellent preparation for arguing the opposite. But this evening he is addressing a more difficult crowd: they are not only not Jews, they have no conception of monotheism. The Roman overlords called Christians atheists, because Christians rejected the vast Greco-Roman pantheon. Paul found an excellent rhetorical strategy for this context by the time he reached the Areopagus in Athens – the famous sermon about the shrine of the ‘unknown god’. But this evening Paul’s sermon is less effective.
To be fair, he has to start by refusing to be welcomed as a god. There’s a bit of local history behind this – an old story of the town failing to welcome Zeus and Hermes and being zapped as a result. So the priest of Zeus is playing it safe when he sees miracle-workers in town (Paul and Barnabas have just healed a crippled man), welcoming them as reincarnations of the previous divine visitors.
In the face of this pagan overenthusiasm Paul tries to lay the ground for the Christian revelation by talking about the one creator-God. To his auditors, this would have sounded like just another crackpot eastern religious theory. Shorn of his familiar scriptural context it is interesting how little he has to fall back on. This ought to feel familiar: our society is also biblically illiterate; there is now little context of scriptural information, let alone faith, for us to address. To be fair, Paul doesn’t get the chance to develop his catechesis because a group of angry Jewish opponents catch up with him, stone him and leave him for dead. We know that he survives to preach another day, moving on to Derbe, but a Billy Graham crusade this isn’t.
So what about missions and so-called evangelistic preaching? The Billy Graham crusades have a mythic status in 20th century Christianity. The problem with them, which we’ve seen again more recently with the Alpha course, is that people find it hard to sustain the buzz of that moment of conversion; they either keep trying to repeat the experience or drift away. Or, as Paul would find elsewhere, churches planted in the wake of drive-through evangelism often go off track and produce rival leaders who alter the brand. Again, a story familiar to modern independent churches.
Billy Graham was mostly talking to an audience who knew some scriptural context, people for whom the Christian God was a familiar idea, but who just weren’t really signed up to active faith. Our challenge is more like Paul’s in Lystra. We are talking to a world which doesn’t know the background story. We speak in a climate of indifference and apathy, if not hostility and derision. My father’s evangelical certainties were altered for ever by missionary work in China where people often asked why, or from what, they needed to be saved. We are now in that place in England.
Can Paul teach us anything useful about our context? I think he can, but his rather thin Alpha course-like sermon this evening is not it. Perhaps the final verses of Acts tell us what we need to know. In Rome, after a final appeal to Jewish leaders which met with limited success, we read that
He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Rome, not Jerusalem, became the centre of the new religion. Paul’s proclamation was now situated in a community. Deep evangelism requires perseverance, stability and welcome, the long haul, ‘living with’ people and always being prepared to give an account of the hope that is in us (which means being seen to live in such a way that people can see we have that hope).
Where we are now, preaching is part of the liturgical nourishment of faith. It is, as Paul writes elsewhere, ‘from faith to faith’ (Rom. 1.17). He didn’t have churches like this one to bring people to. We all have to be Christians in such a way that others will want to come and see. Preaching is for church. Evangelism is for life – and for all of us.