“THE GOSPEL IS GOD’S”
The Church Forward: Evangelism
Matthew 22: 15-22
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
January 22, 2017
I’ve always hated the word belly. I just can’t stand it, and the only time I ever say it is when I talk about how much I hate it. I have a friend who hates the word, “coil.” If you want to get her angry, just say “coil” and that will do the trick. She can’t stand it. You have a word like that, don’t you?, a word that you can’t stand for some obscure reason? Well, I know we all have at least one word because we are Presbyterians. For us, there is one word that makes us cringe more than any other, and that word “evangelism.”. We aren’t very good at talking about it, much less doing it. For many of us the word “evangelism” means lots of bad things. It means standing on street corners holding up placards. It means imposing our religion on other people. It means focusing on an area of faith that we associate, perhaps, with a church that we left behind. For whichever reason, the word evangelism often evokes feelings of discomfort within us. It may not be as bad as the word belly, but we struggle with it.
To be blunt, this has to change. There was a time when evangelism was pretty easy in our country. In those days, the Presbyterian form of evangelism merely involved unlocking the doors. Today it’s a much more complicated thing. Nowadays, evangelism has become a multi-media, 24/7 endeavor. For the churches that are good at it, it is often their sole focus. At least as much energy is put into those who are not in the church as those who are. Evangelism is a constant drive, and that is what it takes. The reason for this is simple. Americans aren’t as religious as they used to be. As a people, we are changing. The fasting growing religious group in America is called the “nones.” These are people with no religious affiliation whatsoever. They make up 23% of Americans. For those of us not gifted at math, that is 1 in 4. For younger Americans it gets worse. 35% of millennials, those born between 1981-1996, have no religious affiliation. That’s more than 1 in 3.
The Church is just now coming to grips with this reality, and the Presbyterian Church has been amongst the slowest to react and adapt, although every denomination is not feeling the effects of this change. Lots of reasons have been done to try to determine what has happened to the nones, why they have bailed out of religion. Some of this is just a natural correction. The era following WWII was anomaly in American history, when almost everybody went to church. Also, more people are just admitting that they don’t believe anymore. Further, some of the nones cite science as a reason for disbelief. I will let Mike McHargue, when he comes in a few weeks, tackle that one. But there is an issue, not a main issue but one that I think is important, that I want to deal with today, and it is this. Specifically it is the belief amongst the nones that the church is too involved in politics.
Many of those outside the church believe that, in order to be Christian, one must belong to a specific political party. They feel that the Church has been entirely too partisan in recent decades, and that if they do not hold those same political beliefs across the board then they will not be welcome in the church. We can see how they may feel this way. As they see pastors and churches wade deeper and deeper into the political arena, often endorsing politicians who have little in common with the mission of the Church, they become skeptical about the Church’s motives and they also find it difficult to fit in if they do not hold those beliefs. Thus we can see that the American Church’s relationship to politics, particularly partisan politics, has played a role in alienating people from the Church. This is a problem, and it is a problem with which Jesus was familiar.
Jesus lived in a politically charged climate. He was a Jew living in the Roman province of Judea. He was in a place where tensions between the religious and observant Jews and the occupying Roman forces always simmered just below the surface. That is why his enemies thought it would be so easy to trick him. They sent some Herodians and some religious leaders in training to trap him. The Herodians were friendly to the Romans and the state, while the disciples obviously represented the religious establishment. They asked him about taxes. One way or the other, he was stuck. If he said, “pay your taxes,” he would anger the religious people. If he said, “don’t pay your taxes,” he could be arrested for treason. There seemed to be no way out. But you know there was. Jesus asked for a coin, he didn’t carry one, that’s important, and he looked at it. On one side it had the picture of Tiberius Caesar and on the other, his mother Livia. It had the words, “Tiberius Caesar, worshipful son of the divine Augustus,” written upon it. If anything would anger observant Jews, it would be a coin like this. So he took the coin, gave it back to them, and said, “give to the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In this way, Jesus separated the Church and the State.
Now, a couple of important caveats here before I move along. First, Jesus doesn’t dismiss the state. His acknowledgement that Caesar should get his due was a tacit acceptance that government is not inherently evil. You don’t have to have antipathy toward government as a rule of your faith. Further, he doesn’t say we shouldn’t have political beliefs. While Scripture constantly reminds us not to put much truck in politicians or leaders, it never tells us we shouldn’t have beliefs. And we are free to allow our faith to influence and shape those political beliefs. None of this is a problem. What is a problem, and what this passage reveals quite clearly, is that the work of human government and the work of God in this world are not the same.
No government or political party can represent the interests of God in this world. This is a vital point for us to make and embrace. Whatever our political leanings, we should never confuse them for the work of God in this world. Ever. Period. Full stop. And this brings us back to evangelism. As we move forward in this world, it is critical that we make clear that political belief is not a prerequisite for faith. You do not have to be an adherent of one party or the other to be a faithful Christian. This can be proven simply by looking around this room. We are a politically diverse congregation, but does that diversity hinder our work as the Body of Christ. It does not. Does it hinder our ability to love one another? It does not. We have got to be clear to these upcoming generations, and to people outside the church, that while we all have political beliefs and leanings, they are not required to hold our identical beliefs if they want to follow Jesus.
Evangelism is a new reality for us. No longer can we afford to just sit back and allow things to unfold however they may. But we also have to be mindful and aware of the ways in which we communicate about this church and our own faith to those who are on the outside. There are always going to be people who don’t have faith and don’t want to be in the Church. That is a reality. But nobody should stay out because they are worried their politics are wrong, or because they believe we are too involved in the politics of the day. And we should remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ belongs to no party. It belongs to God and God chose to reveal it to us, and God dictated the form and content of that Gospel. We are called to share that Gospel with all whom we meet, whatever their politics may be, and we are called to love our neighbor no matter who they voted for. Your central identity as a person is that you are a beloved child of God. That is the message we are called to share. Let us share it with boldness, love, and humility. Amen.