January 15, 2023
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 15, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
From the Gospel according to John, “Jesus said, ‘Come and see.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Typically, Epiphany Season scripture lessons include stories about Jesus’ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, his gracious welcome of, and interaction with, the Samaritan woman at the well, and all those other really nice feel-good stories. But not this year. In fact, this year presents us with the most unlikely of scripture passages.
Now the overall theme of Epiphany as a season that celebrates the manifestation of God revealed in human flesh remains constant. And that theme urges us to notice, to look for, and be more cognizant of, the many ways God’s presence continues to be manifest among us, how God’s on-going work within us continues to transform how we think, what we value, and how we live, and to realize, as I shared last week, God’s grace and presence is often made known to us in and through the most unlikely of persons – persons like you and me. And that theme is always the same year after year, and rightly so. But our scripture lessons this year, especially our gospel readings do not include many of those feel-good stories I mentioned, but rather, offer some of the most unsettling and challenging words of Jesus.
And it is today’s reading from the Gospel according to John that sets the ball rolling. You see, while our gospel lesson sounds like a repeat of last week’s story about Jesus’ baptism (as told by Matthew), when this particular passage from John is read in conjunction with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and Isaiah’s own story of faithful ministry, its message becomes a challenge: A challenge summed up in one word: a word that sets most Episcopalians running for cover. It is the word that we least like to hear. No, it’s not sin. It’s not repent. It’s not even we’re out of coffee. No! That word is Evangelism! (I think I just heard a gasp!)
Now, I have to tell you that having wrestled with these texts all week, I find this message of evangelism both timely and personally intriguing. I say timely because it seems that every periodical or survey about the Church today suggests that the Church is dying; that it has lost its influence; in fact, it really has no purpose anymore. And I say intriguing because the truth is, evangelism is something that should be welcomed and celebrated not just by clergy, but every follower of Jesus Christ. But let’s face it: it’s not. Like many of you, the very mention of the word “evangelism” conjures up all sorts of memories involving overly zealous folks trying to convert me to their way of interpreting scripture. More often than not, their approach included guilt, coercion, judgment, threats, and intimidation, and none of what they said could ever be described as the Good News of God in Christ. Thankfully, our lessons this morning describe a different kind of evangelism, an evangelism that is incredibly simple just as it is powerful and transforming.
Isaiah proclaimed that he was called to a specific mission and ministry. He was called to urge God’s people to return to God’s values and ways not so that they would feel better or even good about themselves, but rather, so that through their commitment to demonstrate, to exercise God’s justice and mercy in every aspect of daily life they would be a light – an example – to their communities and nation. A light that offers a way to live in unity with God and neighbor – even neighbors far different from themselves. But remember, as God told Isaiah, “It is too light a thing” or “it is too easy” for you to serve Israel alone. See, God’s desire is for all the nations of the world to be restored to unity with God and one another. So God says to Isaiah and to the nation of Israel, to all of God’s people, “I will give you as a light to (all) the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This reading from Isaiah reminds us that as people of God our mission is always urging us to look far beyond our own selves and circumstances. We are called to lead others to God, to Christ, and in so doing, lead them to lives of wholeness and restoration. Oh, Father Allan, “Lead people to Christ?” I’m not an evangelist. Guess what? Neither am I. So let’s go on.
St. Paul, in the opening remarks of his letter to the Church at Corinth, expressed his joy that the Corinthian Church “(is) not lacking in any spiritual gift…” and that they continue to grow in faith and fellowship together. But, then Paul adds, the Church is not given these gifts in order for members to feel good about themselves. These gifts of God are given and received so that we might be empowered for even greater ministry. Paul says the Church is not called to exist for her own benefit. The Church is called, as our Catechism says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Paul, like Isaiah, says that all of us are called to ministry and that ministry goes way beyond our own selves. Just as our faith is never static, so it is with mission and ministry: it is forever growing and urging us to proclaim the good news of God in Christ to others.
“But, Father Allan, I told you: I am not an evangelist!” I know. Neither am I. At least not in the way evangelism is often practiced and described today. And that brings us back to our reading from the Gospel according to John. While other gospels offer meticulous details about Jesus’ baptism and what happened when, John simply shares his observations: I saw Jesus coming towards me and I realized he is the Lamb of God. He adds I observed a dove descend upon him.” John simply shares his observations and experience of Jesus with his friends – kind of like if someone asks why we attend this church and we tell them it’s because we have seen Jesus at work among us as we seek and serve Christ in all persons. John shared his observations and two of his friends, his disciples, decided to follow Jesus themselves. And Jesus invited them to get to know him, to come and see. And that experience changed their life. And all it took was noticing God’s presence and paying attention to it.
Theologian David Lose, reflecting on this particular gospel reading asks, “Could it be that simple? At its heart,” Lose says, “evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.” There’s that Epiphany theme again of being cognizant of God’s presence. And that Epiphany message becomes evangelism when having noticed God’s presence, what God is doing in our lives and responding to it, that transforming work of God begins to be noticed by others. So much so, they ask what’s going on. And all we need do is simply invite them to come and see: come and experience it for their own selves. That is evangelism and nowhere does it involve or require holding up signs that say “John 3:16” in an end zone or going door to door asking, “Have you found Jesus?”
Our scripture lessons this morning affirm that not only are all of us called to be evangelists, but that the most effective evangelism is that which is demonstrated not in what we say, but in how we choose to live our daily lives, choose that which demonstrates as Isaiah and Paul affirmed, God’s transforming mercy, forgiveness, love, and grace. And being effective evangelists is the eternal challenge for every Christian because, as affirmed by the Late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday and ministry we celebrate this weekend, God’s work in us, and our work and mission in this nation and the whole world, our call to embody God’s grace, mercy, and love, never ends.
Friends, the Epiphany urges us to look for, and be cognizant of God’s presence and grace that offers to transform our hearts and minds so deeply that it changes how we live. And that requires action. And evangelism is no different: it requires a commitment to demonstrate the healing, welcoming, redeeming, and reconciling power of the gospel as we have seen and experienced it our own selves. The kind of evangelism modeled by John the Baptizer simply asks us to share our experience of God’s grace with others. It is an evangelism that is a way of life that upholds the dignity of every human being – even our enemies and those with whom we prayerfully and passionately disagree. It is a way of life, an evangelism, that doesn’t coerce, but rather serves Christ in others, binds up the wounds of the sick, welcomes the stranger, houses the homeless, clothes the naked and feeds the hungry. It is an evangelism that comes from the very heart of God who invites the whole world to “come and see” that presence of God alive and at work in us.
Our collect this morning prayed that each of us “illumined by (God’s) Word and Sacraments, (and how we choose to live) will shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory” and thereby, make God’s grace and love be known to others. Friends, that shining is called evangelism. And that is our mission. That is our ministry because that is who we are. Evangelists! And for that privilege, that revelation, that Epiphany in us, let us not just say, “Thanks be to God” but live it. Amen.