Questioning Evangelism

Today we grapple with the knowledge that God is both the problem and the solution, the search and the treasure, the hunger and the sustenance that lie at our very core.

It is God for whom we long most deeply, God whom we sometimes find it so difficult to feel and perceive, and it is God who is the endpoint of all our journeys, in this life and the next.

Remember the algebraic equations that made your 5th hour class a living hell all the way through eighth grade?

They all had some incomprehensible string of letters and numbers followed by the dreaded phrase: “Solve for x.”

God is the x hiding in the string of letters and numbers and the x in the final worked out solution.

But we are forever thinking we have reached the solution only to discover it leads to another question.

Paul and Jesus teach us today about how God is both the question and the answer.

We begin with Paul in the book of Acts in a fantastic evangelistic moment.

We Episcopalians are not exactly well-known for our skillful and enthusiastic evangelism, so we could stand to take a few lessons from Paul in this text.

The first thing to note about how Paul approaches the Athenians is how respectful he is.

He does not dismiss their spirituality out of hand.

He does not tell them, “You people have got this all wrong, let me tell you how it really works.”

He affirms them for their ardent and active spiritual lives, saying, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

He meets them where they are and recognizes that their spiritual lives did not begin the moment he walked onto the scene.

We need to be mindful of that fact as we consider how we might be more effective evangelists.

Every person we encounter has a long and complex spiritual history about which we may know and understand very little.

We need to show people that we respect their spiritual journey and we are interested in it, just as Paul was interested in the spiritual journey of the Athenians.

Notice next Paul’s attention to detail in learning about the Athenians’ spiritual past and influences. “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship,” he tells them.

When we are hoping to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with someone, we need to begin with this same curiosity.

It is not about telling, but about asking.

It is not about proclaiming, but about listening.

A conversation with a friend or an acquaintance in which we never say anything like, “Let me tell you about Jesus,” or “Our church meets at 8:30 on Sunday mornings,” in which we make no declarative statements at all, may be the finest evangelism we ever do.

The best way to evangelize is to ask questions.

Ask that person what he thinks about God.

Ask that person how she found the strength to get through cancer.

Ask that person what keeps him up at night worrying, or where she finds beauty and meaning in the world.

For what is the Good News of Jesus Christ?

It is that God is love, and God came to earth to be present with us and among us.

You are conveying that good news far more effectively by your listening and encouraging presence, a presence that builds a relationship, than by thinking you have to follow some formulaic script about falling short of the glory of God and needing salvation.

That’s where Paul began—with the Athenians’ questions.

He began with the monument to the unknown god, because that was the way in which the Athenians were expressing their hunger for the knowledge and the presence of God.

If there is one thing I am more convinced of every day, it is that the hunger for the knowledge and the felt presence of God is a human need that is as deep and as urgent and as basic as the need for food and water and shelter.

God is the food and the water and the shelter that nurtures and sustains our souls.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the soul would read the same as the one for the body: food, water, and shelter for our spirits.

We need a home.

And no one knows that more than Jesus.

He tells us today, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

That is another way of talking about the spiritual hunger that burns within all of us.

The struggles and the tragedies of life have a way of making us wonder if there is really anyone in charge, if there is really anyone looking after us, if we are just cast adrift on the uncertain currents of life to fend for ourselves.

We feel like orphans, that there is no loving parent watching over us to make sure we have what we need and are guided into maturity.

The reason we have this feeling is alluded to by Jesus earlier in this passage.

He tells us that the Father has sent an Advocate to be with us forever. This, of course, is the Holy Spirit.

But consider this rather specific and unexpected term: the Advocate.

In what circumstances would someone need an advocate?

When that person is on trial in front of a court of law is the first example to come to mind.

Because who is the counterpart to the Advocate?

Who is the person bringing the case against us?

The Adversary.

The Adversary is one of the Hebrew Scriptures’ names for Satan.

This feeling of being orphaned and alone and unable to sense the presence of God, trapped and beaten down by the circumstances of life—those are things that the Adversary is hoping to take advantage of, drawing us away from our better selves and our sustaining God.

So Jesus promises us the Advocate, someone to stand up for us, to counter the lies of the Adversary, to defend us.

But the interesting part is that the Greek word used here, Paraclete, has a number of other meanings as well that add a great deal of richness to our understanding of the Holy Spirit.

In addition to the Advocate, Paraclete can mean Counselor, Comforter, Helper, Mediator, even Broker.

Consider what all those terms mean for how the Holy Spirit acts in our lives.

The Counselor is someone who is wiser that we are and gives us sound advice—even tough love sometimes!

The Comforter holds us close and wraps us in warmth and love and reassurance.

The Helper—someone who wants us to grow in Christ and gives us assistance and insight and challenge to go deeper in our spiritual lives.

The Mediator—someone who helps us communicate with God better.

The Broker—well, I’m not sure how that translates to the spiritual life. I’m guessing it ties into Jesus’ instruction to us to be wise as serpents but gentle as doves. We’ll save exploring that for another sermon.

But consider what all these roles of the Holy Spirit accomplish.

Go back to Paul in our lesson from Acts, observing the spiritual hunger and confusion of the Athenians.

Every identity of the Holy Spirit is an answer to a specific aspect of our spiritual hunger, to our feeling of being orphaned.

The Advocate answers our being trapped by sin and assaulted by the Adversary.

The Counselor answers our confusion and ignorance.

The Comforter answers our loneliness and pain.

The Helper answers our weakness and failures.

The Mediator answers our inattention and ineptness in communicating with God.

The Broker? Well, I’m still not sure on that. I need the Mediator or the Counselor to teach me what the deal is with the Broker.

And so returning to evangelism, a task that to us often feels overwhelming and confusing, remember what Jesus says to us: “I will not leave you orphaned.”

The Holy Spirit is sent to us and surrounds the entire evangelism effort with grace.

The Holy Spirit is the one who strengthens and equips and empowers us to evangelize, and the Holy Spirit is the answer to fill the needs of all the spiritually hungry people who are building idols just like the Athenians, idols to success and money and status and power and materialism.

The Holy Spirit is the question and the answer, the listening and the speaking, the alpha and the omega.

God is not calling most of us to make eloquent speeches in front of the Areopagus like Paul.

But we are called to share our faith, to invite and encourage and help people to move from the life of spiritual scarcity that is chasing worldly comfort and success, to the richness of the life of faith.

But we do not have to do it alone.

Rather than trying to generate some brilliant argument or force our convictions onto other people, we are advised by the Counselor and helped by the Helper to simply step into the conversation already begun with every individual soul by the Mediator.

We are to listen and to question and to extend the loving hand of friendship to others—just as the Holy Spirit does to us.

We need to let the Holy Spirit evangelize us even as we seek to evangelize to others.

We need to acknowledge the depth of our spiritual hunger, because that is what will enable us to meet and share and minister to the hunger of others.

Rather than feeling like orphans alone, we can then be beloved children of God together.