29 September 2013

Being Evangelical

Isaiah 40:6-11; Mark 1:1, 14-15; Romans 1:1-6, 16-17

19th Sunday after Pentecost/ 29th September 2013

Evangelical. It’s a theologically-politically-emotionally charged word, isn’t it?  Some Christians are eager to claim it for themselves; others are quick to disown it and run far away from it. It’s sad, really, because it’s one of the most beautiful and significant words found in the Bible. Yet, oddly, it looks like the word “evangelical” is standing in the need of prayer—and healing, even redemption. The word needs to be reclaimed and habilitated by the Church. 

            What do you associate with the word evangelical?  Someone who’s excessively emotional about the faith?  Someone too eager to tell you about Jesus? Talks a lot about Jesus and wants you to believe the same thing about Jesus?  Reads the Bible literally? Generally, theologically conservative?  Are your associations negative or positive?  Do you use the word to articulate your faith or are you reluctant to use the word?

            It’s unfortunate that the Church has to take the time to flesh out the meaning of this word.  It will have different meanings depending upon where you sit along the theological spectrum between conservative and liberal. 

            It’s also unfortunate that the word has become associated with what is known as evangelicalism, which is a particular current within the wider Protestant movement.  Evangelicalism has been a part of American Christianity since the early 1730s, represented by great preachers such as John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770), both Methodist, and the Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Evangelicalism informed the great revivals and camp meetings held out on the American frontier that sparked the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, evangelicalism merged with the rise of fundamentalism, making it difficult, at times, to distinguish the two.  After the Second World War, evangelicalism gained more visibility in American society through the popularity and success of Billy Graham crusades and the emergence of evangelicals in politics.  Evangelicalism as a movement then became fused with a conservative political ideology. Think of the Moral Majority. One became associated with the other, which is ironic given that evangelicals in the early 19th century were social and political liberals/progressives who led the abolition movement in the 1840s and 1850s and urged the reformation of society, including the care of children and women working in the dark Satanic mills of New England.

            One of the leading historians of American evangelicalism is Randall Balmer, who teaches at Dartmouth. Randy was one of my professors at Rutgers College (he was among the first to ask if I ever considered a call to the ministry).  He’s currently writing a biography of Billy Graham.  Randy suggest that evangelicalism “is a quintessentially North American phenomenon, deriving…from the confluence of Pietism, Presbyterianism [of course], and the vestiges of Puritanism. Evangelicalism picked up the peculiar characteristics from each strain – warmhearted spirituality from the Pietists (for instance), doctrinal precisionism from the Presbyterians, and individualistic introspection from the Puritans – even as the North American context itself has profoundly shaped the various manifestations of evangelicalism: fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, the holiness movement, Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and various forms of African-American and Hispanic evangelicalism."[1] As you can see, it’s very complex.

            But what is an evangelical?  If you go to the website of the NationalAssociation of Evangelicals, an extremely powerful, influential organization in American society, you’ll see that evangelicals emphasize conversion (having a “born-again” experience); missionary zeal and social reforms; a high regard for and obedience to the Bible; and a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of humanity.  Depending upon how one articulates these theological claims, my guess is that even a theological liberal can affirm many of these views.  In fact, the first sentence on their page under the heading “What is an evangelical?” reads the following:  Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” Hearing this you might be saying to yourself, “That’s me!”  Maybe you’re an evangelical and didn’t know it. 

            I can affirm that sentence.  I take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  By that definition, that makes me an evangelical too.

            Actually, I have no problem taking on that label (providing it’s correctly defined). Much harm has been done by adding “–ism” to the end of the word, turning it into an ideology.  The fact that we might be reluctant to take it on tells us how much the word is in need of redemption.  I’m under no illusion that one sermon from me (or even many) can redeem the word in the Church and the wider culture.  I think it’s too late.  The damage has been done.  It’s been coopted and usurped by forces, particularly political ideologies, which have seriously distorted the faith.  But I’m not giving up the word.  The Church shouldn’t, can’t give up the word.  I’m not willing to concede its meaning.  I can’t concede it because I take the Bible seriously.  And the Bible is explicitly clear:  an evangelical is someone who shares the euangelion, and the euangelion is the message of good news.  That good news is the gospel.  It is God’s good news, the good news that God is faithful, forgiving, full of grace and truth, a God whose undying love comes to bring good news to the captives and release to the prisoners and ushers in a new kingdom, a new realm.

            An evangelical is an evangel, a herald, someone who announces good news.  We heard it in Isaiah, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, 'Here is your God!'" (Isaiah 40:9). Isaiah was an evangelical.

            When we read from the first chapter of Mark we find that Mark, too, is an evangel, a messenger.  Listen again to 1:1, “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Mark’s gospel is telling the good news.  Mark’s an evangelical.

            Later we find that this is, indeed, what Jesus came to do:  “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent [meaning, change your mind, change your way, turn], and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). And note the order of salvation (ordo salutis) here:  the good news is proclaimed, the kingdom has come near, therefore repent and believe – not (!), repent, believe, and then God will show up.  (So many Christians get the order wrong.  Getting the order right makes all the difference.)  Jesus came to tell the good news of God.  Jesus was/is an evangelical.

            And look at Paul, he, too, was an evangelical because his love for the message of God runs through the center of his life and through every epistle.  The message of God, what God reveals to us about God through Jesus Christ, the new life he offers in and through him, that’s the gospel, the good news for Paul.  The gospel is his treasure. He’s ecstatic over it, full of zeal, eager to live it, eager to share it, even suffer for it if it’s unpopular, if it makes people uncomfortable.  In fact, he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

            When an army of the Roman Empire was engaged in battle, depending upon the outcome, a message was sent to the nearest city or back to Rome.  When the Romans won, an evangel was appointed, someone who would run and spread the news, saying, “Good news! Victory! Good news! Victory is ours!”  It’s this notion of telling good news, not the good news of Caesar (which could be really bad news if you were on the losing side), but the good news of God, which influenced the early church’s use of this word.  Caesar doesn’t have good news for us, even when he wins. It’s God who has really good news. This is a word worth spreading and sharing and getting excited about. This is a message of power, which demonstrates the proper use of power fused with love (unlike the raw, destructive, oppressive power of empire).  The early church, Paul, the writers of the gospels, picked up this image, this role of the evangel as a way to say this is what we’re called to do, this is what we’re doing when we share the gospel, tell the gospel, articulate the meaning of God’s good news, engage in mission and advocacy and seek the reform of society.  It means we are being evangelical.  That’s what we’re called to do.

            During the Reformation of the 16th century, “evangelical” was the term used to designate a follower of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others seeking reform of the Church.  Evangelical was synonymous with being Protestant.  The label Protestant came later.  To this day, the major Lutheran denomination in the United States (which is a theologically liberal denomination) retains in their name the word evangelical, the ELCA is Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In many Roman Catholic countries, especially in the Latin world the term evangelical is still used to refer to a Protestant. In some places, evangelical means specifically “reformed” or Calvinist, not Lutheran.  Today, the Evangelical Church in Germany, formed in 1948, is made up of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and other Protestant denominations.  But it means more than just being a Protestant.  Anyone who shares God’s good news is an evangelical.

            Dorothy and I are evangelical every time we proclaim the good news of God.  You and I, together, are evangelical every time we proclaim and share and embody the good news of God, whether it’s here or where we work or live. 

            It’s important for us to reclaim this word (at least internally, for ourselves) because there are far too many people who have not heard God’s good news; sometimes the news people hear about God’s people is not good.  There was a time when Presbyterians and other Protestants didn’t have to worry about sharing the gospel—it was assumed.  The majority of Americans grew up in the Church, identified themselves as Christian.  We didn’t have to think about the gospel.  It got to the point that to be American meant to be Christian.  Because we already “have” the gospel, our call was to spread the gospel elsewhere, overseas.  But those days are over.  The Church of the 1950s and 1960s, even the Church of the 1970s and 1980s is gone and there’s no going back.  For many of us the Church of our childhood and youth is gone, and it’s never, ever coming back.  This is difficult to accept.  It’s tough to hear.  The Church I was trained in seminary to serve is gone.  But God isn’t calling us to go back, but to be present in order to open to the future that God is offering us.

            On Thursday evening, Baltimore Presbytery gathered for worship in Glen Burnie, MD.  It was Peter Nord, our general presbyter’s last meeting with us.  Peter preached a powerful and challenging sermon.  After ten years here in Baltimore and forty years of ministry, he gave witness to the changes that are occurring all around us.  He reminded us, ministers and elders together, that close to 50% of Americans have never walked into a church, have never studied the Bible, do not know the stories, do not know the gospel.  How will they know unless they hear it?  Or see it?  Or feel it?  How will they know unless someone tells them, shows them, demonstrates it in tangible, life-changing ways.  And why would anyone want to step into a church?  Being kind and nice are not enough.  “Why would anyone step into a church when so many Christians are filled with judgment and go to war in the name of God?” Peter asked.  Why would anyone want to be Christian?  Why would anyone want to be a Presbyterian?

            What if one of the 50% approached you, what if one of the 50% invited you to coffee and a slice of cheesecake at Atwater’s—their treat—(Atwater’s has the best cheesecake, by way, but I digress)—and she asked you: tell me what is this thing you Christians talk about…the gospel, the good news?  What is this good news?  What would you say?  What would you say?  She probably wouldn’t want to hear you repeat what you learned in church school or hear what the Church teaches, the “party line.”  She would want to know what you know—in here, within your heart and soul—what you believe, but more than what you believe, what you know, what has gripped you and claimed you, and won’t let you go, this gospel that you treasure and cherish.  What is this good news for you?  At this point along your journey, whether you’re 13 or 93, what is God’s good news for you?  What would you say? What would you say?

[1] Randall Herbert Balmer, Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), vii-viii. See also The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (Baylor University Press, 2010).

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