Ministry and Evangelism
A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, March 29, 2009
Text: John 12:20-33
You have just heard what has to be one of the most confusing passages in all the New Testament. On days like this I sometimes think we should change the response to the gospel reading to something like, “Praise to you, Lord Christ, we think.”
Some Greeks are attending the Passover in Jerusalem. It is clear that they are not just Greek-speaking Jews but are in fact Gentiles, most likely converts to Judaism. They ask Philip, who happens to have a Greek name and to come from a generally Greek-speaking area of Galilee, to speak with Jesus. For whatever reason, Philip goes to Andrew, the other disciple with a Greek name. Andrew then does what he is frequently pictured in the gospel narratives as doing: he brings people to Jesus, along with Philip with whom he frequently works as a team.
The careful reader of John’s gospel will have noticed that for the last several chapters, Jesus has been saying things that suggest a universal appeal of the Good News. He has sheep other than the fold of Israel who will hear his voice and come to him, so that there will be one flock, one shepherd, for instance. The arrival of the Greeks, who come looking for him, marks a climactic moment. Their very coming is so important that the gospel writer leaves them standing there as he delves into the meaning of their arrival. Like Nicodemus in Chapter 3, the Greeks are left to drift off the pages of the gospel without the benefit of a conclusion to the narrative that brings them there.
The other gospels deal with the arrival of the gentiles in different ways. Matthew tells the story of the Magi, thus presenting the gentiles as having been among the first beyond the holy family itself to recognize the true identity of Jesus. Mark tells his story in such a way as to reveal the gradual dawning upon Jesus himself of the mission to the gentiles, presenting as a climactic moment the appearance of a Syrophonœcian woman (another Greek-speaking gentile) who seems to have caused a kind of epiphany for Jesus, not just an epiphany of Jesus. Luke writes the most gentile-directed gospel of all, and overtly places the notion of a gentile mission in the birth narratives by having the aged Simeon at his presentation in the temple refer to him as “a light to enlighten the gentiles.” So this is the way John handles the idea, by telling an account of how, in his narrative, the first gentiles come to Jesus.
The point is that what distinguishes Jesus’ ministry more than any other single thing is that it blasts open the wall that separates Israel from the rest of the world, and brings to the table of Abraham all those who were formerly left out. And, speaking of Abraham, this very notion is embedded in the Covenant with Abraham, where the promise of God is to furnish descendants of Abraham as numerous as the sand on the seashore or the stars in the heavens. Isaiah picks up the theme by saying that the vocation of Israel is to be a light to the nations. Jesus fulfills these hopes and promises by willingly laying down his life by being lifted up on the cross so that he might draw the whole world to himself.
You may recall that I have bargained with you to look at Sundays’ scriptures through the lens of ministry. What does this passage have to do with ministry? What light does it shed on what you and I do as disciples of Jesus? In large part, the way we answer that will depend on how we read the story. Is the story, for example, about how we have been included? Perhaps. But consider another narrative. I once lived in an idyllic New England town. Its very name—“Newtown”—suggested an imaginary place that existed a bit outside the everyday world. It was not uncommon, I found when I moved there, for the topic of party conversations to be, “Don’t you just love Newtown?” People would frequently swap stories about how they were glad to have moved to Newtown, how much they liked—no, loved—it. But some of us noticed that there was an element in the “I love Newtown” story that went like this: “Now that I am here, I want to make sure that I am among the last to come here. Let’s do everything we can to keep the town from changing. And that means we need to limit who comes in.” I say all this publicly because it was no secret. During the thirteen years that I lived there, some of us, led by the churches, had to talk openly and persuasively about the kind of exclusionism that that attitude bred. In order to do ministry there, we had to prick the bubble of illusion that somehow we were without problems, without pain. And we had to work to dismantle the wall that separated Newtown from the “gentiles,” the others, who were unable to come in.
The single biggest reason that Jesus got nailed to the cross was his penchant for including the outsider, the other. And nothing is better attested about his ministry than that. Whether it was a teaching about a Samaritan, the healing of a woman who was ritually impure, a conversation with a morally questionable Samaritan woman, his open table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, his ministry over and over crashed the presuppositions that folks behind the religious fences were safe from invasion. Whether he believed that from the start or whether, as Mark seems to suggest, he came to that position gradually, clearly by the end of his brief ministry it was clear: no one was excluded from the realm of God.
And nothing less can characterize and shape our ministry. Like Philip and Andrew, our job is to bring people to Jesus. For us, it is not just a matter of escorting a delegation to Jesus for an interview; it is bringing into his presence and community all people who show the slightest interest in being a part of it. And it is even moreso our responsibility to issue invitations to people to come meet Jesus by meeting his community, the Church.
I am going to assume that that point needs no further elaboration. But I think we do need to spell out what specifically it looks like when we practice a kind of hospitality and outreach that mirrors Jesus’ own ministry. First, there is nothing wrong or offensive about inviting folks to come with you to your community of faith. It all depends on how you do it. “I’d like you to join me this Friday for supper at our church,” is one way. “Would you like to come with us to St. Stephen’s?” is another. Second, respect the fact that the answer might well be no. Folks may wish to decline. And if you have ever been cornered by someone’s insistence that you do something you don’t want to do, you know how uncomfortable that can be. So leave plenty of room for someone to say no, thank you. Respect for boundaries is a basic tool of hospitality.
But what about a more pointed matter, sharing your faith? The courteous thing to do is to invite someone to share their faith—or lack of faith—before we start sharing ours. To begin with, we frequently find that someone who we might have thought didn’t have much faith actually has a good deal of it. And not uncommonly, our own faith is enriched by someone else’s. I try to make it a point to ask questions rather than make statements. “What gives you strength?” “What do you value most?” It is not surprising that when we practice asking questions, we usually inspire others to ask them too. And when someone asks you a question, that is your entrée, their invitation to share your faith. What does give you strength? What is important to you? Where do you go to look for meaning?
You might well be wondering what all this has to do with what Jesus says at this climactic moment when the Greeks come seeking him. I don’t know that his parable about the seed falling into the earth and dying so that it can produce much fruit has much to say about expanding the boundaries of the community of faith. But there is something about his response that addresses our reluctance to do the ministry of evangelism (did you know that is what we have been talking about?) or anything else that might seem hard or off-putting. Jesus lets us know that nothing of worth happens without considerable risk. “A little of us has to die in order to grow again,” says El Gallo in The Fantasticks. And it is true. The only way we will ever follow Jesus is by letting go of our fears and preconceptions, and by daring to follow the example of his authenticity.
Don’t be surprised, when you find yourself doing that, if you have the strange sensation that “the hour has come.” It might be that you begin to taste what it is like to be doing what your were created to do, and finding an unutterable beauty and freedom in doing it.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2009