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January 22, 2006 (Sunday 3 · Time after Epiphany)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Grace and Peace to you from God our loving Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
I have some bad news for you good people of LCH! I hate to be the one to break this to you, but I’ve been meeting with the Ministry Planning Task Force for the past four months, and ...evangelism has been identified as one of our goals.
I think we all know that in a lot of Lutheran churches “evangelism” is the four letter word with 6 extra letters! And that may be true of LCH as well. I know talking about evangelism is something you probably look forward to as much as getting teeth pulled, or maybe it is more like being asked to pull someone else’s teeth, but that’s not the way we need to think of evangelism. So today we’re going to bite the bullet here and do some thinking about evangelism. It’s kind of hard to avoid with a text like this, so we’ll have to give it a shot and try to stay strong.
In today’s text Jesus tells his disciples that if they follow him they will become fishers of people. And that’s what they become, whether they recognize it at first or not.
In fact, all Christ’s disciples, including each of us, become fishers for people, whether we recognize it or not. Being fishers for people—being evangelists—is part of our identity as believers.
It’s important to understand what this means and recognize our own evangelism, especially during the Epiphany Season. Because as Pastor David shared with us last week, Epiphany is a season when we have the green light to “GO” spread the good news about Jesus, and to invite others to “come and see” the same way Jesus did.
But most of us probably feel we drag our feet doing this because our minds are so full of other misconceptions of evangelism. And there are valid reasons for these misconceptions.
Usually when we think of evangelism, it is understood as something we “do.” Going out into the world and converting people to be Christians. Or going up to someone on the street and telling them what they need to do to be saved. But usually we associate evangelism with something other people do—something other churches do.
Usually we associate evangelism with people that hand you something like this. (Webmaster’s note: Here he showed a small tract.) Now I think some tracts are pretty entertaining, especially the ones about Grandma helping Suzy stop listening to the Devil in her rock music or the ones that try to scare you into asking, “If I die tomorrow, will I end up in hell?” Some tracts are actually pretty good though, and I know faith has been created in my friends through well placed tracts.
But they’re not always well placed. One place that probably lost a few converts was when customers left tracts on tables at my aunt and uncle’s restaurants instead of a tip. I’m sure they thought they were giving me a valuable tip, but it was not the one I wanted when I was busing tables. Not cool and not a good evangelism tactic in my opinion!
Another way we see people evangelize is by proclaiming their own righteousness while declaring others unrighteous. I remember going to a U2 concert at the TacomaDome in Washington State a few years ago and seeing people representing Christianity with a huge wooden cross shouting “repent” as concert goers entered the building. I got very upset. After all, how misinformed does a Christian need to be to protest U2?
I practically consider U2 concerts as church attendance, and they’re one of the ways many people are exposed to Christian values. Their lead singer, Bono, has gone just about everywhere in the world for Christ’s sake to try to end poverty, fight AIDS, forgive debt, and end famines. But there are people that in the name of their understanding of evangelism will even stand outside and protest U2 because they don’t fit some other idea of what a Christian is supposed to be.
We’ve all had a few too many negative experiences with these types of evangelism, and it turns us off from even considering evangelism as something we would ever want to be accused of “doing.”
But there’s another way to understand evangelism: to believe that if we are a church and we come together in Christ’s name and in the name of the Trinitarian God, then we are a part of God’s mission and we are called to be evangelists.
As Lutherans we believe that evangelism is part of “who we are” through what God “does for us” in baptism. It’s not about any one thing we “do.” Evangelism is about spreading the good news of what Jesus does in us!
Just because evangelism has a checkered past, it shouldn’t be a four letter word for us. It shouldn’t scare us into silence or scare those we talk to about Christ.
We need to reclaim the joy of sharing our salvation story as the heart of our evangelism, but there are many barriers for us.
Even if we want to evangelize, we are intimidated because we think, “If we are to go fishing for people, then we need to be the bait.” We think we need to be so attractive, so perfected in our faith that others can’t resist wanting to become like us. That’s what we think our role is in the fishing process. We’re the bait!
Another way that is common to think about this process of fishing for people is that we are the ones casting the line and doing the work of pulling people in.
Both of these concepts seem to make a lot of sense. But they lead us away from our most basic Lutheran theology. In these models the strength of our evangelism comes from “our righteousness.”
But that’s not our theology, and I don’t think that’s our experience as part of the church. We believe we are saved by God’s righteousness through Christ, not our own righteousness. And when we evangelize, it is not about our righteousness but Our Lord’s!
You see, Jesus wasn’t talking to fisherman who used bait to catch fish. These weren’t sportsfisherman. They used nets. They pulled fish out of the water. They captured fish, they did not entice them.
The fish did not make a choice to be caught or not to be caught.
One moment the fish were in their own world, living beneath the surface of a whole other reality, and then they were caught, pulled out of their own reality and into a new one. And they had to die to that old reality before they could become alive in the new one.
Sound familiar? That’s what happens to each of us in baptism isn’t it? We die to ourself and are pulled up into new reality with Christ.
But no one wants to think of themselves being captured into faith. That sounds like we’re pulling teeth again.
Many of us already feel captured by too many other things in this life: our work load, bills, addictions, loneliness, sickness. We often feel caught by life. We don’t want God to catch us as well. We don’t want to be oppressed into faith.
But that’s not the reality of our faith story. The reality of our situation is that we are held down by these other powers in life that control us. They have us captured. And Jesus, in catching us, is pulling us away from those things out of his love for us, not because he wants to control us. In showing his love for us on the cross, Jesus frees us from all that holds us captive. Our story is connected to his story, and that is where our evangelism comes from. That is our story to tell!
We have all been pulled into the net with Jesus. We have been captured by a loving God. God so loved the world—so loved you—that Jesus came to us to let you know that truth. We have found ourselves in a loving relationship with someone, and when you are in love with someone, it usually changes your life.
When you find someone that you want to spend your life with because you are so in love with them, that means there are some things about your old reality that need to die in order for you to fully claim the new reality of this love.
It is this type of life-changing transformative love that we experience in Christ’s relationship with us as well. When we find ourselves in the kingdom in which Jesus calls us, we are captivated. We are caught! And we will never be the same.
This love and faith are a scary business that requires us to die to ourselves to have new life in Christ.
Jesus announces the kingdom, in our text, before he calls the disciples away from their work. Jesus is evangelizing too, proclaiming the good news, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” This proclamation of the kingdom is one in the same with the call to the fishermen to “follow.”
Being a part of the kingdom means proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life. When we all want to be Lord’s of our own life, that means we are going to have to die to an old idea of what reality is supposed to be about. But that’s what we’re caught up in. And we may just be caught up enough to put Jesus first and follow as the disciples did.
Why would we do this? I don’t think it’s our choice. I think it’s something being done in us and through us. It’s part of what happens when we are pulled out of our old reality and into the boat with Jesus.
And immediately—before we’ve even caught our breath—Jesus says we are to become fishers of people. How can we do that? Where do we start? I think that work has already been done as well!
If we think about that work of evangelizing being “our work to do,” we will get very intimidated. It’s too hard. There’re too many people to reach, and we know that we don’t have all the answers.
That’s where our theology comes in again. It’s not our righteousness that saves us, and it’s not our righteousness that makes us good evangelists or good fisherman.
It’s God who is doing the work. God is the fisherman not us. We are God’s tools for fishing. Once caught, we become the net God uses to fish for others.
And like all nets, we are full of holes. We are not perfect. But nets are supposed to have holes; that is how they catch fish!
When we usually hear fish stories—fish tales as we call them back home in the fisherman’s paradise known as Wisconsin—we talk about the fish we once caught that was this big (holding his hands far apart to show the size).
But when we fish for people, we tell the story of how Jesus once caught a sinner that was this big (placing a hand to show his own height). Our greatest evangelism comes when we tell the story of God’s work of salvation in our own lives.
Then I can say, “even though I’m full of holes, God uses me to spread the good news to others. I have been caught by Jesus, and now he is using me to reach others.”
And I think that that is why you are here today, too. You have been caught up in God’s grace. And you are a part of a community of others that are in the same net, and we gather here to remember how Jesus has ventured into our lives and pulled us in. Isn’t that why you venture into this building every Sunday morning?
Sometimes we forget that we gather to hear this story so we can go and tell others that the good news is real for us and invite them into our kingdom community!
This week, as I was thinking about this text, I noticed that the gate of the church (the Punahou Street gate) looks a lot like a net, and in the middle of that metal work, some theologian put a fish.
To me that is a reminder of the evangelism we are a part of through our baptism and as part of this church. This can be a symbol for our own Lutheran evangelism: starting in our captive hearts, lived out in our communities, and spread to the ends of the earth, one story at a time.
As we enter and exit this church we can remember we are a part of that net. We are a beautiful catch of fish—it can’t be denied—but are we letting God use us as the net as well? Are we proclaiming God’s grace to others? Are we telling the story? Our story? The story of Jesus’ love catching hold of us?
God has good news for all people, and we are already caught up in that kingdom reality. How we share it—how the Lutheran Church of Honolulu is used as part of that gospel net, catching people up in this good news—that is going to be a great fish story! And I can’t wait to tell it!
May the peace that passes all understanding capture and keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord! Amen.
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org