October 14, 2018
The first rule of preaching is not to tell stories about your wife and children. Leave them out of it. It’s hard enough on them living with a man whom dozens of others call “father.” Don’t embarrass them further from the pulpit. But I have permission to tell the following story. My wife was on a flight recently seated beside a man who was reading the Bible. She asked him, “What church do you belong to?” He said, “Church of God.” She asked, “What is that?” He said “We’re an evangelical church.” What does “evangelical” mean?” she asked. He said “It comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means ‘good news’.” “What do you believe?” she continued. He said, “We believe that you must be born again through faith in Christ and then live out the message of the New Testament.” “I like that,” she said, “it sounds like our church too.” After hearing that story, I felt sorry for that man. I dread the thought of getting on an airplane and sitting beside a person who wants to talk about religion when all I want to do is read and sleep. But I was proud of her answer. She heard the message that I have preached to you many times over these many years: that we are born again to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ and we prove our faith to God by living the message of the New Testament.
My wife was right; we too preach an evangelical message. But is the Episcopal Church an evangelical church? Many within and without this denomination would say that we are not evangelical but that we are, what is called, a liberal Protestant Church. What’s a liberal Protestant church? Well, that’s a sermon for another day. Today I’d like to address the question, what’s an evangelical church? Are some churches evangelical and others not? What does it mean to be born again? Are some Christians born again and others not? Do some live the message of the New Testament and others not? Saint Paul exhorted Timothy to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season…be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist” (1Tim.4.1-5). What is an evangelist? Are all preachers evangelists? What is evangelism? This morning I’d like to offer a short teaching to answer those questions.
And I’d like to begin, where Christians must always begin, by listening to Jesus. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who listen to Jesus and those who don’t. When Peter, James and John went up on Mount Tabor with Jesus, Our Lord revealed to them His divine nature. He transfigured Himself before them radiating pure light. But Peter was so intent on talking about his own ideas for the mission of the church that he missed what God was doing right in front of him. And so, in that moment, a voice from heaven said to Peter, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to Him!” Peter learned an invaluable lesson. There are two kinds of churches in this world: there are churches that listen to Jesus and do as He says and then there are those who have their own ideas for what a church should be and do. An evangelical church is one that listens to Jesus and obeys His word.
Now to be honest, in America today when we hear the term “evangelical church” we think of TV preachers like Charles Stanley, Billy Graham, and many others who succeed in creating what are called mega churches. Many Episcopalians when they hear this quietly say to themselves: “I don’t want anything to do with that kind of religion.” But it may help us to remember that as great a preacher as Billy Graham was that the greatest evangelists of all time were not Protestants who became wealthy through preaching, but were Catholic saints like Patrick who converted all of Ireland, and Ignatius of Loyola who organized a great mission to evangelize the whole world. But the greatest of all evangelists was Saint Francis who won the hearts and minds of his entire generation by simply living the poverty and humility of Christ. Saint Francis had a wonderful saying by which he lived: “Preach the gospel always,” he said, “If necessary, use words.” An evangelical Christian is one who, like Saint Francis, listens to Jesus and lives by His word. An evangelical gives Jesus what he asks for: the commitment of his whole heart and the attention of his whole mind; not one quarter or one half some of the time, but all you’ve got all the time. An evangelical is one who is all in for Jesus. If that isn’t you, I hope after hearing this sermon it will be.
An evangelical Christian is one who lives for Jesus and encourages others likewise to make a full commitment to Him. That’s not an easy task. Not everyone is willing to make that kind of commitment to Jesus. The story of the rich young ruler that we read this morning is a case in point. When Jesus told him what He required of his disciples, that they give up everything to follow him, the rich young ruler turned away. And as he walked away Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples were astonished by this and Peter asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Peter asked this because Jesus seemed to be saying that it’s virtually impossible for any man to be saved, because we’re all “rich” to some extent. If only those who give up absolutely every material possession can be saved, then almost no one will be saved because almost no one can do that. Jesus then explained to his disciples that many will be saved but it may not be those you think. The world looks up to wealthy, powerful, well-educated people and admires them and thinks that they have an advantage, but God looks down on us all. The “rich,” as Jesus used the term, are those who are preoccupied with their status and position in this world to the exclusion of heavenly things. Our status in this world has no bearing on our eternal salvation. It doesn’t matter to God how important you are in the community. It only matters to God how important Jesus, his Son, is to you. An evangelical Christian is one to whom Jesus Christ is of first importance. If Jesus Christ is not of first importance to you then you are not an evangelical Christian. But if Jesus Christ is not of first importance to you, then what does that say about you?
So do you see what I’m getting at? Some try to draw a distinction and say that some churches are evangelical and others not. But this is a false distinction because there is only one kind of Christian and that is the man or woman who puts Jesus Christ first in his or her life. If that isn’t you, then you may be a nice person, a very good person as the world judges such things, but you are not a true Christian. You may be a church-goer and celebrate Christmas, you may have gone to Sunday school as a kid and had parents and grandparents who were faithfully, but until you put Jesus Christ first in your life you are not really a Christian. In other words, all Christians who really are Christians are evangelical. You become a member of the church the day of your baptism. But you become a true Christian the day you know that there is no one in your world more important to you than Jesus Christ. The day you know yourself to be totally indebted to and committed to Him who died on the cross for you is the day you become an evangelical.
You want to know what’s wrong with religion in this country and why the church is in constant crisis. It’s that so many of those who self-identify as “Christian” in this country are play-acting. They don’t take sacred tradition seriously as the deposit of divine revelation. They don’t take the sacraments seriously as the means of grace, nor do the take the Bible seriously as the word of God. They hide behind the popular pagan fiction that with death our suffering ends and we all then mercifully go to a better place. They hear it said, “You must be born again” and they think to themselves, “that’s just weird; that’s not for me.” But what do you think it is to be born again? Where does that doctrine come from? It comes from the lips of our blessed Lord; it’s the central teaching of Jesus Christ. How could you come to church your whole life and not know this? “Unless a man is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God” Jesus said, “… you must be born anew of water and the Spirit” (John 3.5-8). Jesus died on the cross so that we who are condemned to die an eternal death because of sin could be born again to the new life of grace. He instituted baptism as the sacramental means by which we who are born under the curse of death put upon the descendants of Adam and Eve might share in His divine life and thereby escape that curse. This is what the saying means that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He saves us by imparting to us his own divine life and so through baptism and by faith Saint Peter said, “we become partakers of the divine nature.”
An evangelist is one who faithfully spreads that message. An evangelical is one who whole- heartedly believes it.
Let me leave you with one last thought. Evangelism began with the Romans. In the days of the Roman Empire, following a victory in battle, the Emperor would send out an evangelist to proclaim the good news of his victory. Jesus, knowing Himself to be the King of kings and Lord of lords and far out-ranking a Roman Emperor, appropriated that language and called His message the gospel. He boldly came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk.1.15). Jesus’ gospel is a proclamation of a great and glorious divine victory. Not of a temporal military victory but a universal and eternal spiritual victory, the greatest victory imaginable: a total defeat of mankind’s greatest enemy, the annihilation of Satan himself. As Saint Peter said, Christ came into the world to destroy of works of the devil. He who led Adam and Eve into sin has seen justice done to him. And with Satan defeated, human beings are delivered from bondage to sin and are liberated to live again with God as we were meant to live in the beginning, in blessed holy communion with our Creator. This is not only good news for the Jews who knew the prophecies and expected the messiah to come. But the advent of Christ is great news for the whole world; because Jesus Christ is not just the Savior of some but of all. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He delivers divine forgiveness to us all. That is why when the angels appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem the night of Christ’s birth, they said to the shepherds, “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Evangelism is the work of spreading the good news that God has come among us, as one of us, in the man Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has won our salvation by His death on a cross. All who believe in Him and are baptized in His name are born again to eternal life. Evangelism is what every church that really is a church does. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s the ordained minister alone who does evangelism. Every Christian who really is a Christian is an evangelist. You were born again when you received the Spirit from Christ in baptism; on that day the Son of God made you His own. Now make Him your own. Trust Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, to be your Savior. He will never let you down, because He who loved us enough to suffer death on a cross for us wants us to live for Him and to live with Him forever. As the man said, live the message of the New Testament. Put Jesus Christ first in your life and don’t give a second thought for a secular and increasingly strident socialist society that is perishing without Him. But do the work of an evangelist. Show a doubting world by everything you say and by everything you do that you really do believe that Jesus Christ is Lord!