In this two-part sermon series starting today, I talk about a word that makes many Methodists uncomfortable: the E-word… evangelism. Whereas we Methodists distinguish ourselves as Christians who love and serve so many people in our world, we are often reluctant to say “why” we do it. Yet the need to say why has never been greater.
Increasingly, people in our community don’t understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. We can be confident, however, that if they knew, many of them would say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In fact, many of them are waiting for people like us to help show them the way.
Sermon Text: John 4:19-39
Last week, at Oxford University, the very famous atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, debated Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There weren’t many fireworks in the debate. It was a polite and respectful conversation—which isn’t a surprise given how kind and gentle a man the archbishop is. But something remarkable did happen. Dawkins admitted that he is not actually an atheist. He is merely an agnostic: while he doesn’t think God exists, he’s unwilling to say for sure.
This was a remarkable admission. But what was more remarkable was how Dawkins responded when asked how certain he was that there wasn’t a God—to put a number on it, to give us the odds. He said that, in his opinion, the odds against God’s existence were 6.9 out of 7.
And I thought, “Huh… So the odds for God’s existence, Dawkins would say, are 1.43 out of 100, 1 in 70. Those really aren’t bad odds for Dawkins. Because from his perspective, we are already incredibly lucky to be here.” Scientists who study the universe say that the emergence of human life after the Big Bang comes down to six universal constants, six numbers. These numbers are so precisely determined that a “minuscule variation in any one of them would have made both our universe and human life, as we know them impossible.”
For example, if the force of gravity “were to be varied in strength by one part in 1040,” you and I would not be here right now to talk about this. There are five other constants that also demonstrate a kind of fine-tuning that we would expect if, for example, the universe had a Creator. Otherwise, as Dawkins says in his book, we’re just very lucky. So let’s see… the odds for God’s existence, according to Dawkins, is about 1 in 70. The odds for just getting extremely lucky are one in 1040, or higher. According to Dawkins’s own logic, which is likelier? He should go ahead and believe in God.
This just scratches the surface of the problems with Dawkins’s “scientific” case against God. There really is no scientific argument against God. I’ve written frequently about these problems on my blog over the years.
I give credit to Rowan Williams for having the courage to take on someone like Richard Dawkins. As scripture tells us, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.” Defending our faith like this is one small part of what it means to do the work of evangelism—the E-word. Evangelism is that part of our Christian life that we Methodists promise to live out when we say that we’ll serve Jesus through our “witness.” At least if you joined the church since 2008, you made that promise. But regardless of when we joined, none of us Christians is off the hook. We’re all supposed to be witnesses for Jesus.
Here’s the thing… I have a confession to make: I would much rather go toe to toe with a belligerent atheist like Richard Dawkins over the question of God’s existence in a highly publicized debate than speak a word of witness, to offer a word of testimony, to share my faith, with my next-door neighbor. Simply bringing up my Christian faith in conversation with neighbors, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances outside the safe and comfortable confines of church makes me uncomfortable.
And I have a feeling that I’m not alone. That’s the main reason I’m doing this sermon series. We Methodists tend to be very shy about witnessing; we’re not very good at it. [Must use words! Evangelism is not just hospitality.] And yet, the need for doing it couldn’t be greater, more pressing, more urgent than it is now.
I know at least one of you remembers the late Bill Landiss, a near-legendary campus minister of the Wesley Foundation at Georgia Tech for over 40 years. He told a story once that might even be true. He was on a plane once—and this was probably 50 years ago. He reached into the seatback in front of him where they have the barf bag and the in-flight magazine, and he found, to his surprise, a Playboy magazine. Someone had left it there. So he was reading it… For the articles, he said! There was an elderly woman sitting next to him who saw him reading this offensive magazine, and she was beside herself with disgust. She didn’t know Bill or anything about him. She finally said, “Young man, are you saved?” And without skipping a beat, Bill Landiss said, “No, ma’am. I’m a Methodist minister.”
There are many morals to this story. One is, if you’re a Methodist minister, you shouldn’t be caught reading Playboy—or doing anything inappropriate because you never know who’s watching. And besides, God is always watching. We should live lives worthy of our calling. Another moral is that we shouldn’t be self-righteous and judgmental. It was Bill’s reading of this magazine that motivated her to try to witness to him. We don’t witness because we have all the answers, and we have it all together, we are perfect—and this person we’re talking to is obviously a hopeless sinner bound for hell. No. As someone said once, Witnessing is “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
Another moral is that there are far better ways to approach the subject of Christian faith than to blurt out to a complete stranger, “Are you saved?” Besides in our day and age, who would even understand the question?
Having said all that, this woman did get one thing exactly right, and if you hear me say nothing else today, hear me say this: She was exactly right to be concerned about the salvation of her neighbor. God came into the world in Jesus Christ because God was passionately concerned about our salvation. God came to save us from our sin, which has separated us from God and damaged our relationships with one another and our relationship to God’s Creation. Look around you can see the consequences of sin everywhere. Unless God does something to solve the problem of our sin, we will be eternally separated from God in hell.
I realize that hell is not a popular topic, but it’s real—as is the possibility that people we know will go there unless they repent and find the saving grace that comes from God through Jesus Christ. Make no mistake: people don’t go to hell for failing to believe in Jesus. People go to hell because their sin has separated them from a holy God who does not tolerate sin. God is, in fact, angry about sin. The biblical word for God’s anger is “wrath.”
A loving God can’t tolerate sin. God’s love and God’s anger go hand in hand. Pastor and theologian Tim Keller describes it this way:
When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.
And because all of us have sinned, all of us are in trouble because of it—at least without God doing something about it. Fortunately, God loved us too much not to do something about it. God launched a rescue mission beginning way back in Genesis chapter 12 with the call of Abraham and the establishment of a covenant people, Israel. That covenant was fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not sin, but on the cross he became sin for us, in our place. Our sin was dealt with and punished. And now, through faith in Jesus we, too can find forgiveness of sin and new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only that: once we give our lives to Jesus Christ, “the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
And this is all such incredibly good news. And we experience this good news in so many different ways, as we’ve been hearing in video testimonies for a few weeks now. If this is good news for us, why wouldn’t we want to share it? Don’t we share other kinds of good news with people? What prevents us from sharing this good news?
Keep in mind: in most cases, we’re not talking about sharing this good news with the Richard Dawkinses of the world. Most people we know and come into contact with are not militant atheists. They’re not even agnostics. The vast majority of people in our community believe in God and many even call themselves Christians. But many don’t know who God is or what being a Christian means. If they did, I believe that many of them would gladly repent and say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, and they would be saved.
“For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ 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? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
That’s why we’re here. We’re here to bring that good news! We’re not here simply to reach Christian families who are new to the area and are looking for a church home—although we do that, and that’s a worthy goal. And we’re not here simply to strengthen the faith of Methodist Christians in Alpharetta through excellent programs and small groups—although we do that, and that’s a worthy goal. And we’re not here simply to make the world a better, more just, more loving place through missions work to the our community and to the world—although we do that, and that’s a worthy goal.
We are here primarily to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ. We are here to bring people into a saving relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are here to make new disciples of Jesus Christ—even as we strengthen existing disciples.
And that’s why we must not be afraid of the E-word any longer. That’s why we must witness.
When I first went into ministry eight years ago, I served a small Methodist church part-time while I went to seminary full-time. The church was in a small bedroom community north of Macon. The church was started by a group of Methodists who split off from the First Methodist Church in town. For years, the First church thrived while this little church languished. When the D.S. appointed me to this little church, he told me it had been a mistake to start this church in the first place. “There aren’t enough Methodists in town,” he said, “to support two Methodist churches.”
“Not enough Methodists!” Are you kidding me? If that’s our attitude, we have lost our way as a church, and we’re finished as s denomination. Because it’s true: there aren’t enough Methodists to go around. But who cares?
Listen to me: We can let all the good people of Northpoint and all the good people of Stonecreek and all the good people of Perimeter Church and all the Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Episcopalians in Alpharetta do their good work of evangelism… and guess what? There may not be enough Methodists left over, but there would still be plenty of lost people left over for us to reach.
“Open your eyes,” Jesus is telling us this morning. “Open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest.” People outside our walls are ready to receive Jesus Christ and be saved, if only someone would invite them.
Will we love them enough to do that? Evangelism… witnessing is an important part of what it means to love God. And each of us, with our unique personalities and gifts, has a role to play.
Next week we’ll talk in more depth about how we do it, but today’s scripture gives us a clue: [Samaritan woman: “Come and see a man who’s told me everything I’ve done.”] Come and see. When we witness, we’re mostly just telling people to come and see for themselves what we’ve discovered. We’re telling people about our experience with the Lord. No one can argue with that!
Here is your assignment. You have a notecard in your bulletin. During this next week, reflect on this question: “What difference has Jesus Christ made in your life?” Write down an answer and bring it back next week. I want to begin the sermon time next week by reading some of them. O.K.?