– After Easter, we read from the book of Acts that focuses on what happens for the disciples after the Resurrection. It’s the story of the birth of the church or, as the pastor of my sending parish used to say: “It is the story of the Holy Spirit”. We call it the Acts of Apostles / what the Apostles did but it could be also the “Acts of the Holy Spirit” / How the Holy Spirit acted through the Apostles.
– We can truly see the Spirit at work through Paul in the passage we have today – how Paul was moved by the Spirit. His zeal for the Gospel is amazing. Evangelism literally kept him up at night! Not only it kept him up at night, but it wasn’t a thought he was willing to dismiss when the sun came up. He acted on it, he acted on the intuition / inspiration the Spirit sent him. Paul was willing to cross the sea to go spread the good news. Greece was the other end of the known world!
– I am sure we can all admire Paul’s zeal / have some respect for that but maybe we also wonder what such a story has to say to us today. A lot of us have ambiguous feelings about evangelism, and maybe rightly so. After 2000 years of Christian history, we have to admit the mistakes of the church, and not only its mistakes, but also its sins and sometimes its crimes as we carried on the mission. In the name of bringing the Gospel and making Christians, a lot of abuse of power have been committed. It was not only in the past centuries. I recently read the book “Boy Erased” in which Conley describes how his church sent him to “conversion camp” to “cure” him from his homosexuality and the psychological (as well as the physical) violence he had to endure from his religious mentors.
– And so when we grow more aware that we can be Christians w/o holding universal truths on what to think and what to do, or at least w/o wanting to impose our vision on others, the task of evangelism can be problematic to us. We don’t want to be dismissive of other people’s religious experiences, we don’t want to sound judgmental about their behaviors and most of the time, we simply don’t believe that people will go to hell if they don’t read the Bible and confess their faith in Christ. In our days, its seems that anyone can easily learn about Christianity and we will be happy to answer their questions, but doing what Paul did? Do we really have to go overseas to tell foreigners about Christ, or should we really go and speak to this stranger on the side of the road about our beliefs? We may feel some embarrassment…
– What is interesting though is to realize that actually the disciples wondered about that as well, and were confused about what Jesus expected from them, and how they were to carry the mission after him. The passage we read today from the Gospel is part of this long section in John’s caught between the last supper and the washing of the feet and Jesus’ passion: chapters 13 to 17, also called the Farewell discourses, that summarize Jesus’ teachings. It is Jesus’ legacy if you will. All the things Jesus wanted to say to his disciples and also all the questions they wanted to ask before he leaves them. And what is surprising is that the disciples asked him very concrete and practical questions: In those chapters, Thomas says to Jesus: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”, Philip says: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us”, and today, Jude says: “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” (the question has been cut) – in other terms: Why and how are we to carry the message when you could simply make yourself obvious to everyone?
– Well, to all those questions, Jesus does not respond directly. He asks his disciples to trust, to keep his word, to believe and as of today, he asks them to love him. And to me, this is really a key statement. Jesus, as he prepares himself to leave this world and summarize his teaching and his expectations to his disciples, is simply asking them to love him. There is nothing practical or “results oriented” about that. And it seems to me that when we think about mission or evangelism, we too often think about “The purpose driven life” as Rick Warren put it. Why should we follow Christ, what is it that is going to change, what is the gain for us and how would others benefit from it? To what Jesus responds that it is not about life improvement, it is about being with God through him. Being at home with God and dwelling in God’s love.
– Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to evangelize to tell people what to believe, what to think or how to improve their lives or even to make them better people, he asked them to evangelize so they may have a chance to experience the love of God that was shown through his life. To this, there is no more justification than that. Why do we love our God? For the same reasons that we love our spouses, children and friends. Because it is good to love, because we are made to love and love in itself is the ultimate end. We love because that’s what we are meant to do and even more, love is what we are meant to be. We are not complete on our own. Right? That’s often what we hear from people after they meet someone of have their children: I was not complete without them. And it is true as well with God. In his life, death and Resurrection, Jesus shows us that we cannot be complete, cannot be completely human without God.
– We think about that today as we celebrate “Rogation Days”. Honoring the creation, we remember – and we have just heard it in our psalm – that all creatures are made to praise God, to rejoice in God and to be with God. If we are to be made complete, no one is to be excluded. I know this is not always the way we understand things, especially in Revelation, but when we hear today that “Nothing unclean will enter the Holy city, nor anyone who practices abomination and falsehood”, we should consider it’s not about excluding certain types of people, it is about being freed from the evil that prevents us from living a life of love. We think about Revelation as this time of judgment, when the coming down on earth of the city of God is actually the gathering of all people.
– Again and again, and that’s the sense of the book of Acts, we see the Spirit at work to gather all the people. We know now that the universe is perpetually expanding, but so is the love of God. That’s the sense of the book of Acts and of the Christian mission: reaching out, gathering and reconciling what have been divided: creation, people and God. Because we cannot be complete without one another, and maybe, maybe, we also have to consider that God cannot be complete without us. As I was pondering the why of evangelism, mission and the meaning of Paul’s zeal for the Gospel, a quotation from a Saint sent by a friend came in my inbox. This Saint said: “Sometimes it feels like Jesus cannot be really happy without us”.
– “Sometimes it feels like Jesus cannot be really happy without us”, it may be a surprising thought and yet, in those three chapters of the Gospel, as he prepares to go back to his Father, as he keeps comforting and encouraging his disciples, I started wondering at some point if it wasn’t harder for Jesus to leave his disciples than it was for them to be left, not that Jesus needed them, but because of such a great love he had for them.
– What would it change if we’d really believe that God created us because God chose not to be complete without us, not to be fully satisfied / happy w/o each one of God’s creatures? I wonder how we would think about our lives and what we would think about our church, about people around us, and how we would feel about those who are left on the side of the road. Maybe this is how Paul felt too. He came to Macedonia having this big dream of people pleading him to help them, but in the end he just met a small group of women gathered at the river. Yet he reached out to them, maybe because he felt that Christ could not be completely happy without each one of them.
– Yes, this quotation from this Saint seems surprising, but I think it nails it in the sense that, at least, this how we experience love: When we choose to love someone, we cannot be completely happy without them. When we let someone in, we know that we will never be completely happy without them anymore. We make ourselves vulnerable when we open our hearts. Maybe what we are embarrassed about in evangelism is not so much forcing our convictions or sounding judgmental, maybe the hardest part is this vulnerability, reaching out to others, sharing with them what is really meaningful to us, what makes us feel alive. Because in the end, it’s not about sharing our ideas or our certainties, it is about sharing how we experience God’s love, how we see the Spirit at work in Jesus, in the church, in the world, and it’s about showing love in our lives, in the same way that God’s love was shown in Jesus. People won’t learn about God by reading books or even attending services! We get to know God by the love that we share.
– So today, Jesus invites his disciples and invites us to stop being shy. He said to them, as he says to us again today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” but open your hearts. Because Jesus’ legacy is that he gave us the greatest power of all, the power to love. And we see that it is all that it takes: Paul opened his heart to Lydia, and Lydia opened her heart to God, her house to Christ’s followers, experiencing literally Jesus’ promise that God will come to make a home with her. Thinking about the church as our home is also the sense of Rogation Day. Maybe inviting people to our church, to be part of our community should not be more intimidating than inviting them to come to our home and share a meal with us, because this is really what being a Christian is all about. Nothing more, but nothing less. Amen.