Spread the Word / The Mountain Evangelism Series: Going Forward with Words and Deeds
By Fr. Liam Muller | Trinity Episcopal Church, Rutland
(Editor’s note: The following was Fr. Liam Muller’s Homily and Rector’s Report, delivered during Mass at Trinity Church Rutland on January 28, 2018.)
Immediately after bidding Peter, Andrew James and John to follow him, Jesus and his small group of followers made their way from the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, and the primary place Jesus would make his home away from home while carrying out his ministry. Capernaum is about a day’s walk from the Sea of Galilee and is fairly nondescript—which is a nice way of saying it’s not much to look at. After setting up shop there—we’re not really sure for how long—Jesus and his followers made their way to the local synagogue to observe the Sabbath and, I feel fairly certain, so that Jesus could meet some of the locals.
Now, I don’t know how your first day of going to a new church went, but I think I can state with certainty that no one in the congregation on that day cried out because they had an unclean spirit residing in them. In fact, in the history of going to new places of worship, this probably qualifies as the most unusual first day—ever.
But let’s back this up a bit: Even before the man with the unclean spirit cries out, another incredibly odd occurrence takes place. From our Gospel passage we’re told: “When the Sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.” Does this happen to you a lot? Do you go to a new place of worship and start teaching people you have never met before—and not just teach them, but teach them with authority! Is this a thing?
Do you go to a new place of worship and start teaching people you have never met before—and not just teach them, but teach them with authority?
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in an unfamiliar place for the first time, rarely—if ever—do I feel called to get up and teach; with or without authority. My initial reaction to being in situations like this—believe it or not—is usually reticence and shyness—at least to start with.
Further, I’m not quite sure how I would react if a stranger came into this house of worship and began teaching. Would I listen or sit there trying to figure out a way to get them to stop? Would I blow them off and disregard them as crackpots? Would I be welcoming and hospitable? To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure but I think we can all agree that this would be a pretty unusual event in the life of this or any other parish.
And if that weren’t odd enough, imagine having a person from the congregation yelling, probably at the very top of their lungs: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Work with me here and be as honest as you can: What would your reaction be if all of the above happened here, on the same day? My guess is that someone would call 9-1-1; someone else—or maybe several someone else’s—might politely ask the screaming person with the unclean spirit to quietly and politely exit the premises. For certain I think it’s safe to say all of us would be pretty freaked out.
But what does Jesus do and, by extension, what should we do? Jesus does not rebuke the person, rather he orders the unclean spirit to “Be silent, and come out of him!” Of course the unclean spirit does leave the man and here is where the reaction of the people in that synagogue long ago and our reaction would be fairly identical: They were all amazed just like we would all be amazed, if not completely stunned.
This gospel passage concludes by telling us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” This was before Instagram, cell phones, instant messaging, texting, YouTube and the like. Can you imagine how fast something like this would spread these days? But the fact that Jesus’s fame spread so quickly because of these events is the source of the message for us on this fourth Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday of our Annual meeting.
Jesus’s fame spread because of the authority with which he taught and because of the merciful deed he performed
Simply put, Jesus’s fame spread because of the authority with which he taught and because of the merciful deed he performed—or put another way, his fame spread because of his words and deeds. Regarding Jesus’s words, I think it’s a safe bet that the people in that synagogue had heard many people expound on scripture and on the law—it was after all a fairly common occurrence and a main reason for synagogue meetings. That being said, I am positive they had never heard anyone like Jesus before; and in hearing him they took what he said and spread it around, to the degree that his fame grew and grew. Likewise, they had probably never seen—or even heard of—a person being called “the Holy one of God” by a demon only to have said demon rebuked and cast out not by trick or ritual but by his will, which was the will of God. Yeah, that gave people something to talk about—and that is clearly what they did.
But what if they hadn’t said anything? What if they heard and bore witness to what Jesus did among them and they collectively said, “Meh,” and went about tending to their busy lives? What if their attitude was, “Well, that was cool; however, you won’t catch me telling anybody—what might they think?” We know that they did none of the above and we know, without needing to be told, that it was their words that spread Jesus’s fame throughout the land: We know this because we’re STILL talking about it. Yes, we know that they did this, and we also need to know that this is what we need to do as well. We need to do this with the same fervor, with the same passion and for the exact same reason: We need to spread the word about Jesus through our words and our deeds.
We need to do this with the same fervor, with the same passion and for the exact same reason.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry—referring to the Church—uses the phrase “The Jesus Movement.” Here in Vermont, at the Diocesan level and on Diocesan Council, we’ve been referring to ourselves as “The Vermont Chapter of the Jesus Movement.” I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this phrase because it speaks to the necessity of going forward with the words and deeds of Jesus Christ into our communities and spreading the good news of God in Christ—after all, that is what a movement is and that is what a movement does.
Evangelism, which is defined by going out and spreading the Good News of God in Christ—in word and in deed—is the emphasis of our Diocese in 2018 and is the emphasis of Trinity Church Rutland as well; to that end, for the past six months I have been writing a monthly column entitled “Spread The Word” for the Diocesan magazine, The Mountain. But before I go further a word of clarity: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that evangelism is done for church growth and church growth only: It is not. Much like the earliest disciples of our Lord, we are called to spread the word for no other reason that the world so desperately needs to hear it. It is foundational to church growth not the root cause of it. Church growth, however necessary and as important as it is, comes from inviting people who have already been evangelized—not the other way around.
Here at Trinity, led by George Blosser and a team of talented people, we are beginning an intentional growth movement designed to increase the number of people who worship with us and whom we will welcome to our parish family. They will share with our Rutland community all of the amazingly good things about our parish family and I can tell you, I am excited to see the fruits of their labor. But this cannot be done and this will not be done without evangelical efforts—the spreading of the word—that I have been speaking of.
In times such as these when so many people—young and old alike—describe themselves as unchurched, the message of our Lord is needed more than ever.
In times such as these when so many people—young and old alike—describe themselves as unchurched, the message of our Lord is needed more than ever. We need to hear Jesus’s message of love, mercy, forgiveness and tolerance for all: What we don’t need to hear, and in fact what we need to replace, is the version of Christ’s message which has been mutated to the degree that it has become almost unrecognizable. No, Jesus is not okay with intolerance; no Jesus is not okay with greed; no Jesus is not okay with hatred done in his name and by God, no, Jesus is not now and has never been okay with violence toward anyone, lying to anyone or having multiple adulterous affairs. Unfortunately, that’s the so-called Christian message that’s out there today—put out by self-serving false prophets whose greed and intolerance of those different from themselves is destroying their faith—and this is why we desperately need to do as out Baptismal Covenant calls us to do: “Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”
I’m pretty sure this isn’t anything you haven’t heard before. Sometimes I feel like a broken record—that’s one of the dangers of having preached Sunday in and Sunday out for the past 12 years. But regardless of how many times I may have said it, no matter how many times I have encouraged you and urged you and—yes—cajoled you, the message of proclaiming the Good News is no less important than the first time you heard it.
Recently someone brought to my attention—wisely I thought—that I urge this action without giving enough instruction. Honestly, I think that is a really fair point and one I want to address right here and now.
First, recognize that we are all different: Some are introverts, some extroverts and some a little of both. Because of this, we all have differing ways of interacting with the world because no two of us come from exactly the same background: We differ socioeconomically; we differ in marital status; we differ in our age; we differ in when, how and where we were raised, and on and on and on: You get it, we’re all different in some way or another. So there is no one size fits all approach to evangelizing.
Despite this, as we all know, we share in “one Body and one Spirit…one hope in God’s call to us; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all.” So in addition to our very real differences we have so much that unites us, and subsequently so much to share.
But still we may wonder how we are to go about this monumentally important task and some may be under the impression that they need some kind of formal training to go about spreading the Good News. Well, wonder no more; instead listen and take to heart to what Jesus said to the disciples before sending them out to do basically what we are all going to go forth and do together:
“Do not worry about how you are to speak,” Jesus said, “or what you are to say; for what you say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mt 10:19-20)
Do not worry about how you are to speak.
Guided as we all are by the Holy Spirit, basking and being willing to share in the glorious gifts bestowed upon us all by God Almighty through our Lord Jesus Christ, I know that together we can do as those synagogue members did in Capernaum so many years ago: We can get the word out. We can spread the word. We can share the Good News. We can do this. Amen.