January 24, 1999
And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."
Jesus begins his work. And how does he begin? By announcement, "The Kingdom of God is here." Then by invitation, "Come, follow me." Good News begins in the heart of God, in God's determination to have a family. God shows a relentless resolve not to leave the world to its own devices. Think of the Bible as a long story of God's refusal to leave us to ourselves. For Christians, Jesus is the supreme act of God's eternal self-communication, God's determination to have a family at all costs.
The word "evangel" means "good news." It is news, something that comes to us, rather than something derived from us. It is good because it is something that God does before it is anything we do.
This is difficult for us. Mainline, liberal Christians often think of religion, as something we do. Church is where we come to get our assignment for the week - work on your sexism, your racism, God has no hands but our hands. Suffocating moralism pervades. Where is the good news in that?
Like those first disciples, we reach out to others in the name of Christ because. in Christ, God has reached to us. That is evangelism. Yet our shrinking membership, our loss of virtually an entire generation of youth, indicate that there's not much good news being done among us.
We have been poor evangelists. We didn't want to get lumped with those tasteless "evangelicals." We are shy, unwilling to say much about our faith to others. But mostly because we suffer from a limp theology of Good News.
Luther spoke of the Gospel as the "external word," that which comes from us from the outside, that which is more than we could have contrived ourselves. The Gospel comes to us, rather than from within us.
We all know people who appear to have certain vague inclinations toward something "spiritual." This not the same as the Good News of Christ. Christians are those who believe that the Gospel proclamation of the life, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ remains the normative path to God.
Paul says "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes from the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17). There may be religions that come to you through long walks in the woods, or pondering your psyche, of gazing up at the stars. Christianity is not one of them. This faith comes from the outside, by hearing something we would not have known had not the church told us.
Theologian, Karl Barth, thus said that the main difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is a "noetic difference." That is, Christians are not necessarily better people than non-Christians, nor smarter. We are simply those who have heard something whereas non-Christians have not yet heard. As Isaiah says, light has come into our darkness, light not of our own devising, and that makes us see differently.
Last summer I was speaking to a group of Canadian Christians and someone asked, "Do you think we ought to try to convert people to Christianity?"
"Sure. Go ahead and give it a try. Of course, since you're United Church of Canada, it probably won't work, but go for it!"
The group didn't like what I said, not because I quoted today's gospel about the fishing and the catching, but because they said I sounded arrogant, culturally imperialist, exclusivistic in my suggestion that Christians were in the business of catching other Christians.
But note the assumption behind, "Ought we try to convert people to Christianity?"
The assumption is that you've got these innocent, untainted North Americans wandering around, then you've got these pushy, arm-twisting Christians who want to corral everybody, converting them into our narrow, culturally bound point of view.
Yet surely one thing we've learned from critical, post-critical studies around here is that everyone has a point of view, everybody stands somewhere, everyone has been "baptized" into some culture. It may be that culture that we celebrate and inculcate around here at 11:00 am on Sundays or it may be the more officially sanctioned culture of consumerism, the culture of the modern nation state, but be well assured that everyone has been "converted" into something. Or in the words of Bob Dylan, "everybody serves somebody." So the issue is not "Will I be converted into a culture?" but rather which pushy, arm-twisting culture will have its way with my life?
I told my Canadian friends, "I don't know why we should abandon everybody in Nova Scotia to the clutches of late twentieth century North American capitalism. Why must Jesus defer to that? Let's go ahead, put our stuff on the table, argue, demonstrate that Jesus really has the capacity to make human beings more interesting than The Spice Girls and see who's left standing at the end."
Our problem, in catching a few fish for Jesus is not that we are so respectful of different cultures, so open minded and pluralistic, our problem is that we find it very difficult to imagine any culture more powerful than the one sanctioned by the Pentagon, the White House, AMWAY, and Toys 'R Us.
It is a claim of Christian faith that these cultures are to be overcome, conquered in baptism. The biggest adversary to the gospel is not that so many people around here are skeptical, critical intellectuals but rather that many of us are rich, whereas the gospel of Christ tends to tilt toward the poor and dispossessed. Therefore the gospel is going to be abrasive toward those cultural expressions to which we cling and which we have tried vainly to find meaning for our lives.
The good news of Jesus has been in conflict with every culture in which it has found itself including the very first culture it encountered. In just about six weeks we'll see where all this open handed fishing got Jesus and his people - a cross.
When I came here somebody wanted a rule that no one could proselyte anyone else on campus for his or her religion. If we could just stop these religious people from their efforts to put the make on everyone, then we would have no campus religious conflict. The Religious Life Staff quickly discovered that, on campus, everybody's in the proselyting business. Everybody's trying to put the make on everybody, and I'm not just talking about zealots in Women's Studies. It's all conversion, baptism, persuasion, enlightenment (to use some of our words) and why should Christians and Moslems be excluded from the transformative fun? It's all metamorphosis.
It's not good enough to say, "Well, all religions are but different paths to the same place." Any religion I know bout claims to be true, like Botany. You can't say that all faiths say fairly much the same thing and be fair to different faiths. There is no way for religions to avoid bumping up against each other by denying true differences.
We Christians must repent of our unfaithful attempts to coerce others into believing in Christ. We are not permitted to do that, not because we believe in "tolerance" but rather because Jesus does not permit us violence and coercion. The only way that Jesus allows us to do our fishing is through persuasion, argument, and conversion.
However, it is of the nature of Good News to want to share its joy with whomever will listen. As Christians we ought to be intensely curious about the faith of others, we ought to listen, both in order to understand our neighbors better, and also better to understand ourselves. However at some point we long for the opportunity to witness, in word and deed, to the truth that we have found, or more properly the truth that has found us, in Christ.
I challenge you this next week to do a little fishing, to attempt to share your faith, perhaps even using words, with one person whom you know. Try to express why you are here. Invite someone to come here next Sunday when we'll have a really good sermon. Do one visible act of Christian charity to someone in need in the name of Jesus.
See where it gets you.
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