Homily: January 18, 2015
2 EPIPHANY, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park
In the early centuries of the Church,
many men and women took to heart Paul’s message about renouncing the world
and retreated to various desert monasteries and hermitage sites.
There they contemplated scripture, compiled wisdom sayings,
and grew ever closer to God.
Periodically they would leave their retreats
and make a pilgrimage or travel to see other brothers or sisters.
One of the best known of these desert fathers and mothers is Sarapion the Sindonite, who lived in Egypt in the 4th Century.
Among the many stories told of him
is that he once travelled on a pilgrimage to Rome,
where he heard of a celebrated recluse,
a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out.
Skeptical of her mode of life, being a great wanderer himself,
Sarapion called on her and asked her, “Why are you sitting here?”
To which she replied, “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”
I am not sitting. I am on a journey.
Every Christian could apply these words to herself or himself.
To be a Christian is to be a traveler.
Our situation is like that of the Hebrew people in the desert of Sinai:
we live in tents, not houses, for spiritually we are always on the move.
We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart,
a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days of the calendar,
because it is a journey out of time into eternity.
One of the most ancient names for Christianity,
recorded in the Acts of the Apostles,
is simply “the Way.”
To claim as our identity that we are people of the way, people on the way,
is to emphasize the practical character of our faith.
Christianity is more than a theory about the universe,
more than teachings written down on paper;
it is a path along which we journey—
in the deepest and richest sense, it is a way of life,
a way to knowing, loving and serving God.
There is only one means for anyone to discover the true nature of Christianity,
as with any of the world’s paths to God.
It involves stepping out upon the path, committing oneself to this way of life,
and then beginning to see for oneself.
So long as we remain outside, we cannot properly understand.
We also need to be given directions before we start;
we need to be told what signposts to look out for, and we need to have companions.
Indeed, without guidance from others and the support of fellow travelers
it is scarcely possible to being the journey, let alone proceed with vigor.
But directions given by others can never convey to us what the way is actually like;
they cannot be a substitute for direct, personal experience.
Each of us is called to verify for herself or himself what we have been taught,
each is required to relive the tradition they have received.
“The Creed,” says one writer, “was never intended
to be a series of intellectual propositions
to which one flatly says yes or no;
it is first and foremost an expression of an experience of God;
it does not belong to you unless you have lived it.”
I would expand that to say no affirmation of faith can be yours until you have lived it.
No one can be an armchair traveler on this all-important journey.
No one can believe at second hand.
God has many children, but no grandchildren.
All of which has great implications for how we do faith formation at all levels,
providing food for the journey and offering continual opportunity
to experience first-hand this Way that leads to eternal life.
It has implications as well for our expectations of each other as Christian community. And, with regard to this morning’s gospel,
it has particular implications for how we do evangelism.
Ah yes, the dreaded “e” word.
I’ve never been sure quite why, really.
Evangelism is walking our talk, sharing our journey of faith with others,
introducing them to the Way and helping them get started on it.
One might call Philip the first and greatest evangelist.
He encounters Jesus, who is the Way, a path to God, and follows him.
And once he has the opportunity, he tells his brother what he has found
and he invites Nathaniel to experience for himself: “Come and see.”
Later, as told in Acts, Philip meets the emissary of the Queen of Ethiopia,
instructs him in the Way and baptizes him into it when asked.
These two episodes contain the kernel of evangelism:
as Christians, we have two stories to tell—the story of Jesus and our own story.
In the coming together of these two stories, under the wisdom of the Holy Spirit,
personal witness is the catalyst for spreading the Good News.
It carries authority.
Mind you, as I implied a moment ago, telling is not converting.
We do not convert people or change their hearts—only God does this.
If evangelism is reduced to a matter of techniques,
or catching people at their most vulnerable time,
then it becomes manipulation.
So we tell the story of Jesus in such a way
that others are invited to begin the journey for themselves.
We tell our own story as well, witnessing to God’s love active in our own lives
and serving as living demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. And in this dual telling, the living Christ is made manifest
and becomes the agent of conversion.
To speak in images, Christ is not with me, the evangelist;
I do not bring Christ to another or another to Christ.
He is between me, the witness, and the other, the listener.
I point to Christ; I draw a picture of him. I tell his story. I sing his song.
But ultimately it is Christ himself who meets the other person
as she or he makes a decision to step out on the Way.
I hope I am being clear that above all else, evangelism is personal.
It is more a relational thing than it is a dogmatic or propositional thing.
It means giving to the other something of the way
Jesus has made a difference in your life—
often at the place where you have hurt the most,
and perhaps still hurt from time to time.
Jesus-disclosure comes through self-disclosure,
through making oneself open to another, through vulnerability.
We all respond much more to how someone treats us or feels about us
than we do to their simply telling us something.
The success of telling the story has little, if anything,
to do with the evangelized immediately reciting
a one-sentence formula to get saved on the spot.
Jesus himself warned of the futility of seeds that spring up quickly
only to be scorched by the sun because they have no root.
To go back to my earlier image, it is the personal betweenness that matters,
that enables the roots to grow deep.
But Theo, someone will say, I’m a private person.
I find it very difficult to talk about my faith or to share my journey with another.
After all, I don’t want to intrude on their beliefs.
Shouldn’t religion be a private matter, just between me and God?
A few years ago there was a Star Tribune commentary to just that effect,
in which the author put forward the position that her religion was her business
and no one else’s.
She recommended a return to an older model of conversation about religion,
one that would say, “I’m sorry, that’s a private matter; I don’t talk about that.”
Needless to say I think the author deeply mistaken.
That may have been an older model, but it’s certainly not the oldest model,
as we have heard today, nor is it a very Christian one.
Nor, in a time when we are trying to understand the deeply held positions
of other people who hold other religious beliefs,
is such isolationism very helpful.
As Christians all we have to do to refute such a position is point to Matthew 28,
in which the evangelist imagines Jesus specifically telling his followers
to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and preaching the Good News.
The gospel of Mark, in its long ending, has a similarly imagined conclusion:
the women at the tomb spread the word to the other disciples, and now I’m quoting:
“And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west,
the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
Talk about the betweenness of Christ in evangelism!
This is the Church’s oldest model of conversation about religion,
and it has been passed on to us:
we are to tell the story of Jesus and to share our own story,
to invite others to step out on the Way
and begin a journey in Christ and in fellowship with others.
Like Sarapion and the hermitess, each of us will do this in a different way,
but we cannot escape our responsibility for the task.
Every time we repeat the baptismal covenant, as we just did last week,
we as a community, we as individuals, promise that we will
“proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”
Evangelism, dear brothers and sisters, is incarnational;
each of us, in our body, in our lives,
makes manifest the goodness of God.
So unless you have your fingers secretly crossed,
when you leave this place the next words on your lips
to the next person you see should be “Come and see.”
The world has a hunger, a need, a void, that Jesus is capable of filling.
“Come and see” is the message of the Church
to those outside who seek the Way of enlightenment;
“come and see” is the word to the curious
who seek to know from the outside in.
Each of us who have already answered the call to “Follow me,”
who are already embarked on the journey, however tentatively,
who seek to know Christ from the inside out,
have a tale to tell and the joyful duty to offer what we have found,
the riches of our storehouse,
to that hungry world.
“We have found the One!
We have seen the Way!
Come and see!”