Every one of us who is gathered here today, is here because we have been evangelised by someone else. Each of us is here because another person has shared with us their faith in Jesus Christ. We may be surprised that that is the case. But whether we have realised it before or not, each of us has been nurtured into our faith, because none of us were born as followers of Jesus.
I am aware that just using the word ‘evangelism’ might fill us with warmth, or indeed with horror or fear. So what do we mean when we talk about ‘evangelism’ as Anglicans? Back in the 1960s Bishop George Reindorp, the Bishop of Guildford in England wrote that the purpose of evangelism is “to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that [people] shall come to put their trust in God through him, to accept him as their Saviour, and serve him as their King, in the fellowship of his Church.”
Whether we realise it or not, someone has done that for each one of us, in order for us to be here, because as I have already said, none of us were born with the knowledge of what Jesus has done for us already pre-loaded in our brain; none of us were born as followers of Jesus.
For some of us, our coming to faith may have been rather dramatic, like it was for the man that we have just heard about in our Gospel reading, who had lived in the tombs, ravaged by something sinister that had prevented him from living in normal community with others, but who through one short encounter with Jesus was made whole and restored to his full human dignity once again.
For those of us who have had a dramatic moment of coming to faith, we would probably have to admit that it was not nearly so spectacular as the events depicted in our Gospel reading – there were probably not demons, and swine running down the hillside in our own experiences. But nevertheless for some us, through participation at a special retreat or conference or event, or hearing a sermon that seemed to speak directly to us, or a change in our life circumstances that led us to re-evaluate what we were doing, or the challenge of the example of the life of a Christian friend there was a dramatic moment of coming to faith for us. We might be able to pin-point a key moment, or time or event when something extraordinary took place, that propelled us forwards into faith: a dramatic moment when it seemed as if the lights had suddenly been turned on.
For others of us, our coming to faith may have been and may continue to be, a rather less dazzling experience, more like the experience of watching a plant on the window-sill during summer which slowly bends towards the sun light. We might turn the pot around so that the plant is facing into the darkness of the room, but it will not take long for the plant to begin to move again in the direction of the light. Hearing about Jesus through conversations in our family as we were growing up, coming to understand the good news of the Gospel bit by bit through attendance at Sunday School, or through religious education at school, or through coming to Church with our parents. There may have been no tangible special moment, just a sense that God has been with us as we have continued to be faithful in our journey; not so much like a light being turned from off to on, but more like the dimmer switch being slowly and incrementally turned upwards, so that little by little we have come to understand the light of God’s love shining upon us.
This weekend we celebrate Mothering Sunday, more properly called Laetare Sunday. Each year on the Fourth Weekend in Lent we relax a little from our Lenten discipline, in the middle of Lent for a kind of day off before we continue with our Lenten disciplines in our journey towards Holy Week. And as a sign of that we eat a piece of sweet Simnel cake as a contrast to the austerity of the rest of Lent. Historically and for many centuries, Mothering Sunday had nothing at all to do with mothers. It was the day on which people returned to their Mother Church, the Church from which they had originally been taught the story of Jesus, for what was also called Refreshment Sunday. One of the great traditions of the day, which is seldom practiced anymore, was that the congregation would form a circle around the outside of their church building, and holding hands, embrace it for all that it meant to them, which was known as ‘clipping the Church’.
But in more recent times this weekend each year has very happily given us a day not only to give thanks for the nurturing that we have received from Mother Church but also to honour and celebrate our own mothers as well. It goes almost without saying that for many of us, our experience of coming to faith owes a great deal to the teaching and loving nurturing of our mothers who quietly and carefully gave us the good news of Jesus, and for whom we give thanks today.
For some of us there will have been one particular defining moment of coming to know Jesus, as it was for the man in our Gospel reading today, and for others of us there will have been a whole series of smaller moments that nurtured us along the way. But whichever of these descriptions most appropriately gives voice to our personal experience, evangelism is never simply about a moment, it is always part of the process that extends throughout our lifetimes, our journey of discovery into life with Jesus and his Church. The important thing for us to remember, whichever of these experiences most closely expresses how coming to faith has happened for us, is that none of this ‘just happened by chance’ it was the result of evangelism, whether through a special event or quietly over time. Someone has told us about Jesus, in such a way that we have become his disciple, and continued to faithfully follow him.
Our Gospel reading today is a wonderful story about evangelism in which Jesus himself is the one who brings the good news of God’s love to the man who is living a life that is ravaged by all that is destructive on the outskirts of the town, but who through Jesus is restored to wholeness. If we do not listen carefully to the encounter we might miss the most significant thing that it has to say to us about the task of sharing the good news of God’s love – the task of evangelism – for us today; because Jesus is not the only evangelist in the story.
It is little wonder that this broken man who is restored to a new way of living is desperate to leave with Jesus and his disciples in the boat, and to travel on with them. But Jesus instead tells him to return to his home town to declare to others what God has done for him. So what started as Jesus’ work of sharing by word and action the good news of God’s love, turns into a second work, as the man who is restored to fullness of life becomes, himself, the evangelist who in turn will tell others what God has done for him to the people of his own neighbourhood.
Evangelism is not about standing on a soap box at the local shopping centre and preaching to passers-by, but neither is it about presuming that people will come to faith in Jesus through our passive osmosis. I hope that none of us will be sucked into the temptation of saying something like, “evangelism is what the evangelicals or the new churches do best, and it isn’t really for us.” It is precisely because we know that each of us, through a whole variety of different ways, have been nurtured through evangelism into a life of faith, that we cannot simply say that ‘evangelism is for people who like that sort of thing’.
The simple fact is that we do not have a choice as to whether we will be witnesses for Christ or not. Through the very fact that our families, neighbours, work colleagues and friends know that we are Christians we are already, like the man in today’s Gospel, witnesses for Jesus to them. The more appropriate question is therefore not whether we will be witnesses for Christ or not, but whether we will be good witnesses or bad witnesses for Christ.
Neither can we say that evangelism is what is needed in overseas countries, or at least for people who live a long way away from us. There will always be a need for evangelists to go out on behalf of the Church to share the good news of the Gospel in foreign lands, but this man in our Gospel story is commanded by Jesus to tell people what God has done for him in his own neighbourhood. There is no reason to suggest that what Jesus called him to do, is not our task as his followers today as well. In my imagination I can see how excited people would have been to see this man, that they had known and probably feared, now transformed by the power of God at work in his life. His testimony of what Jesus had done for him must have been both compelling and convincing for them.
I do not say any of this because I think that evangelism is easy. Certainly the culture in which we live has changed a great deal during our lives, and it would be true to say that the society around us is less receptive to hearing the good news that draws us together here in the Church than in some previous generations. But it would be worth remembering that this task has not been easy in any generation, although the reasons for this have been different in each. When we join ourselves with the heroic ministry of the first apostles, the first disciples of Christ, we remember that they risked everything to share the story of Jesus with others, despite the cost.
Our Gospel reading today contains two stories of evangelism. The story of a man who is restored through the power and love of Jesus, and the story of the same man, who goes on to share the good news of God’s love with others. Each one of us is here because someone else has told us the good news of Jesus. On this Mothering Sunday weekend we particularly give thanks for Mother Church and for our own mothers, and all who have nurtured us into faith in Christ.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus brings a man to wholeness and calls him to share what has been done in him with his neighbours. We are challenged today to remember that we too have been entrusted with the task of sharing what God has done for us with those who live around us.