Faith Acts (III): In Opportune Moments
by Louise Westfall
When Governor Polis signed a ban on so-called “conversion therapies” this Spring, he noted how the treatment used to change people’s sexual orientation — long-discredited by the American Medical Association and mainstream mental health organizations — has been psychologically damaging and emotionally hurtful to its victims and even been linked to increased rates of depression and suicide; adding “These bills truly underscore the idea that Colorado is a state where everyone can be their true selves and live the life they want.”
I wonder if some of us have understood evangelism as spiritual “conversion therapy” designed to change people from one religion–or no religion–to the true religion, Christianity. That might explain our reluctance to share our faith with others, for fear we run roughshod over their true selves, judge them to be inherently “wrong” and in need of conversion, and even cause harm by suggesting they should become something other than who they are. The picture of white people journeying to the ends of the earth intent on civilizing and “converting the heathen” is a gross stereotype, but if evangelism isn’t something like this, then what is it?
To proclaim the good news (what the word “evangelism” actually means) is part of the church’s calling. Jesus commissioned his followers with this task. Recently the Presbyterian Church (USA) has described the characteristics of a vital congregation, and invited the churches to reflect on our own practices and perspectives around them. Your session took up characteristic #2 at our meeting a couple weeks ago: A vital congregation engages in intentional, authentic evangelism…that shares the good news of Jesus Christ, not just acts of kindness…because it is intrinsic to the church’s identity… The deafening silence that engulfed the room in response to that description signaled our ambivalence. And then, like a river bursting through a dam, out poured the comments. Evangelism always feels coercive, judgmental…I’ve invited people to come to church—is that enough? I just don’t know the right words to say so I don’t come across like a Bible-thumper…it feels like we’re selling something and they’re not buying…
The summer sermon series on the Biblical book known as “the Acts of the Apostles” reminds us of the distance between the early Christian movement and what came to be the institutionalized church. The book thrums with life, as the followers of Jesus, energized by his Spirit, eagerly and joyfully share good news in ever-widening circles. While I appreciate (and am part of!) organized religion, I think it’s essential we return to our roots to explore the “acts” of these remarkable people. As we remember what they did—and why–perhaps we can open ourselves to fresh winds of that Spirit, and find our own faith and practices renewed.
Today’s text offers a different version of “evangelism” than the stereotypical “conversion therapy” we’ve rejected. I invite you to find it (on page 1000) and follow along as I read it, and then keep it open, as I’m going to draw directly from it for our consideration of evangelism best practices. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles in the eighth chapter at the 26th verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church. [Acts 8:26-39]
What do you notice about the way Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch unfolds? First, we see that God directs this work. Philip didn’t sit down to develop a strategy for reaching a whole group of people. Instead, he listened to an inner nudging pointing him toward one particular person. So he got up and went. Did he wonder what was going to happen? Did he have a speech prepared? Did his heart pound as he approached the chariot of a complete stranger? Who can say?–except that none of those things deterred him. He stepped up in faith…
…and dazzled the man with a brilliant sermon. Well, no. He asked a question. He met the Ethiopian where he was, and engaged him with the thing that mattered to him. Philip didn’t go in with an agenda or a one-size-fits-all tract outlining the plan of salvation. The fact that we learn about the Ethiopian’s position with a pagan ruler means that their conversation included some get-acquainted chat. Philip didn’t come knocking on his door at dinner time either, but waited for an invitation before proceeding. The text doesn’t record the words he used to proclaim the good news, but we can imagine he told stories of his time with Jesus–the way he loved people, healed them, and described life in a completely different way than other teachers. He must have related the Isaiah passage about a lamb led away to be slaughtered to Jesus’ death on the cross, but wouldn’t have ended the story there. How he communicated Jesus’ spiritual presence with him now must have been particularly compelling because it’s the Ethiopian who asks to be baptized, not Philip pressuring him to make a decision.
In this text, faith acts in an opportune moment. And it’s a good model for sharing faith today.
What if we followed Philip’s lead and opened ourselves to perceiving opportunities that just might be created through God’s hands? What if we intentionally got acquainted with our neighbors and listened as they shared their questions, perspectives and world view? One of the reasons we installed a prayer wall on the outside of our building is to learn the concerns of the people who walk Sherman Street daily. Honestly, just the presence of the wall–and the sign inviting folks to share their concerns–have softened the brick wall that for many constitutes a barrier to finding the warm community inside.
When we share our story, we show that we’re human, and in our humanity, reveal the Divine in every single one of us.
And here’s the heart of it, friends: what we’re sharing with others is good. It’s life-giving. It’s not something that is supposed to make them different from who they are, but to be more fully aware of who they are–a beloved son or daughter of God. Someone of infinite worth and intricate design, whose life has meaning and purpose. If we start with that premise, the “opportune moments” seem to come more often. Do any of these sound familiar?
*I just don’t have time to do it all! I’m overwhelmed with responsibilities at home and work. But I’ve got to keep up! Everyone is depending on me.
*Another birthday??!!! I refuse to accept that I’m 60…ish. That sounds…old! Where has the time gone???
*My best friend has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They’re going to try chemo, but the prognosis is iffy.
*I’m so stressed out! AP classes, soccer, student government—I hope that will be enough to get into the college of my dreams. But what if it’s not? What if I’m not Ivy League caliber??!
*Our last kid has flown the nest. We’re happy of course, and there are plenty of options out there, but we’re not exactly sure what this next phase of life holds.
*I’m discouraged with the direction our country is headed, and wish I could do more to change things.
With a little imagination, can we think of these conversations as opportunities for talking about faith? Can we hear the questions or fears underneath the words, and then respond? Oh, not with advice and certainly not with a sermon, but with story; our stories, pieces of experience, insight, truth, descriptions of what we’ve come to know (however incompletely) about God, God’s work in the world, and what difference that makes for the way we live. Can you share a time when you felt buoyed up by something–someone?–beyond yourself? Do you have an example of experiencing a gift beyond what you deserved? Have you been through a hard time and felt a light guiding you? Can you relate to someone else’s hurt or doubt? Tell it, because it communicates empathy and helps to discern meaning in life’s constant flow. Maybe it starts with a question: what particularly concerns you about turning 60? Could I give you contact info for my massage therapist? What do you think you will miss most about your children’s absence? Where will you locate your purpose when the hard work of parenting tapers off? Or maybe it’s an invitation: Those photographs of immigrants struggling for asylum here are heartbreaking. My church is organizing support for refugees coming to our city–would you like to participate too? And sometimes it’s a simple statement of what you know to be true: You are so much more than your grades and achievements. You are a wonderful person just because you are.
When we share our story, we show that we’re human, and in our humanity, reveal the Divine in every single one of us. It’s less about “conversion” to something different and more about conversation that helps us recognize the God already there, imprinted in our very being.
Authentic evangelism avoids judgment, criticism, condemnation, in favor of love and acceptance. I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes courage to love—both in words and actions–and it comes through faith and practice. I’ve shared previously one of the ways I practice: when dining in a restaurant with friends, when the server brings our food, I say “My friends and I are going to pray now–is there anything we can pray for you?” It never gets routine, and I can tell you that the worst that has ever happened is the server says “Nope—I’m fine.” Many more times, the server mentions something–a job search, an ill family member, a struggle–and leaves it to us to offer in prayer. It’s a gift we can give, without any expectation of return…a seed planted that by the grace of God may bear fruit farther down the road.
I wonder if there are simple, daily practices that help us experience God more consistently: things like pausing a moment at meal times to offer a prayer of thanks; connecting the awesome beauty of nature and science to their Creator; writing down prayer concerns and remembering them each day; understanding the work we do as part of God’s work in the world, contributing to others’ well-being. It’s easier to share good news when it’s something with which you’re already familiar.
In my study Bible, this text is titled “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” and I think that provides one more insight into authentic evangelism. The man was an outsider–geographically, as a foreigner from Africa, and religiously (as a eunuch he would have been excluded from temple worship and community life). To experience Philip’s welcome and learn of Jesus’ inclusive vision brought the message alive for him. He came away from the encounter with a different understanding of God’s love for him. He went on his way rejoicing.
Friends, may we be evangelists, sharing the distinctive good news of divine unconditional love. May we show it, may we tell it, here and in the world out there. And may God send us also on our way rejoicing. Amen.