Sermon for 1/31/21: Evangelion? What in the world is that?

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4 Epiphany

Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 18:15 – 20; I Corinthians 8:11 – 13; Mark 1:21 – 28

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and in earth.  Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  Amen

And they were all amazed, so they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching! Mark 1:27

Sometimes, it takes an extraordinary event, something either positive or negative, that reaches deep into our hearts and minds to bring us to our senses, something that, like the Pauline experience on the road to Damascus, awakens us out of a slumber that we were not aware of, something that causes us to consider whether we have been sleepwalking without being aware of our condition.  So, it was this week with me, when I opened my email account and read a message from a total stranger—at least as far as I knew—who had sent me the following inquiry.

“Hi, Rev.!  I got your email address from your church’s webpage and I’m writing because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since this pandemic and I’m looking for a church where I can be among people who love Christ.  I’ve been following some of your sermons on FaceBook, and I’m thinking about giving St. James a look, but I know that the virus is keeping you all from your church.  That’s a wise move, but that’s not why I write.  You see, I am an evangelical Christian and I need to know if I would be welcomed by your congregation….”

I was at once terribly excited, overjoyed even, but also dramatically shocked.  My excitement was that even during our lockdown, we could give praise to God that we, though not a large, corporate-sized parish, might still be able to provide a spiritual home, a respite, to a fellow sojourner in The Way.  My shock was of greater concern.  I had to ask myself whether we—if not to this stranger, then perhaps unwittingly to others—had somehow not lived up to the code of welcome required of all Christians as stated in the rubric recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew: ‘Lord, when did we see you ….” (Matt. 25:31f.)  I did respond, and I pray affirmatively to the inquirer.  However, since then I have reflected many hours on this not-so-subtle suspicion of a self-described “evangelical” that he would not feel at home among any group of followers of the Nazarene.  His statement puzzled me beyond measure.  Have we perhaps failed in living out the “evangelion,” the gospel of Good News?

The lectionary appointed for today, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, introduces us again to an early display of the Good News, the Evangelion, which marked the entire ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  The first “miracle” performed by Jesus, as recorded by Mark, is significant (as all “firsts” in any category of endeavor usually are).  This first miracle is emblematic of who Jesus is and how his special ministry as God’s Messiah was to be displayed and perpetuated.  I repeat: Jesus establishes—not only in his words, but also with a visible deed, to all who were assembled—the direction that his ministry would take: He had come to make whole, to make well, those who, for whatever reason, had been shunted to the periphery.  This was his way of giving The Good News, the “evangelion,” a visible, tangible, constructive form.  This was exciting to those assembled around this young man out of Nazareth, not only to listen to him call for a return to the intended ways of their forebears, but to see in real time what that change was.  The Good News could be experienced and verified.  That was such a life-changing experience of the assembled that “… at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:28)

As our own nation sets before us all the task of healing and reconciliation, my professorial side makes me want to pose so many questions that “the sermon time” in our liturgy would not permit a response to each.  Still, I raise several.  How have we followers of the Nazarene neglected our obligation to define and to elaborate for the world, but especially those in our nation, what the word “evangelical” means for Christians, regardless of institutional or denominational affiliation?  Why have we allowed the media to give to one group of professed Christians, and not to all, the proprietary right to designate themselves as “evangelicals?” 

Moreover, why do we accept the phrase “the evangelical right,” and not demand equal opportunity to declare an “evangelical left?”  Why, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, do we accept any use of the terms “right” and “left,” at all when speaking of the Good News of Christ?  Have we allowed a particular form of worship to define what is and what is not “evangelical?”  Have we tolerated, to the detriment of Christ’s message, a corruption of the “evangelion” of Christ?  I suggest to you, that such shorthand, imposed upon us and used by us, diminishes the true meaning of “evangelion.”

“Evangelion” is Greek in origin.  It means “good news” and was the term assigned by the early writers to what you and I know as the Gospels, the recordings of the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth, which received further elaboration in the epistles.  The medieval German monk, Martin Luther, made the word a household term when he called in his day for a return to the “evangelion,” the Good News of the Gospels, the Bible.  His was a call for simplification in order to rid the church of pretension and superstition and the attendant abuses.  It is from this one word “evangelion,” that ‘evangelist,’ ‘evangelism,’ ‘evangelical,’ and the like derive.

The parish church of St. James that I have come to know in these few brief years that I have been with you in ministry, is one that has erected and is always mending a big tent that offers shelter and a Eucharistic Banquet to diverse peoples and opinions.  And to the people who enter that tent to collect their thoughts, and to rest a bit, and to partake in the Holy Banquet before returning to another part of God’s world, we say this: “If you are trying to understand what God’s will in your life is, you are welcome to join us under the tent, for we just may surely learn from you even when we do not agree uniformly on every topic.”

To the best of my recollection, no warden, vestry, or bishop had announced to me when I was offered the privilege of ministry in Teele Square that St. James had forsaken the “evangelion” of Jesus of Nazareth, that St. James had declared null and void the written word as recorded in the New Testament and supplanted it with a philosophical treatise or secular tract on ethics.  I like to think, “evangelion,” “the Good News,” is very much a part of who we are, who we strive to be, what we proclaim, and what we try to live, however imperfect our efforts may be.  “Evangelion” is the foundation on which St. James, a group within the Church universal, rests.  In the true and basic meaning of the word, St. James Church is all about being evangelical.

Thus, I wrote back to the sender of the correspondence that he would always find a home, a resting place, among us evangelicals.  We welcome dialogue, debate, questions.  A fair question to be posed to us by anyone who enters our doors would be, as based on today’s gospel: What uncleaned spirit have you at St. James removed from those who come to you or meet you even outside your doors?  How have you endeavored to restore to wholeness, to health, and to full membership in society, those whom God has sent your way?  How have you demonstrated that the God whom you proclaim as the governor of all things both in heaven and on earth can be seen in the face of Jesus of Nazareth, with you being that face?  That would be a fair question, for Jesus showed to all how the Good News, the “evangelion,” the presence of God is to be lived and can be seen.

Jacob wrestled with the messenger of God.  Prophet after prophet argued with God.  The Apostle Thomas gives us a clear example that faith that has not questioned or been tested is not faith, but blind obedience.  Thus, I said to my writer, to require that we renounce the intellect with which God has endowed each of us, in order to accept one individual’s definition of what God is saying to His people, is to ask us to ignore Biblical evidence of what it means to be evangelical.  And I believe that God in Christ has renewed his contract with us and provided us all, and not only me, with a means of salvation, a way of finding our way back to God.

“Evangelion,” “The Good News,” “beholding the glory of God in the face (i.e., in the person) of Jesus, the only begotten son,” what does this all mean?  How or when will we know that we have seen the glory of God?  After all, that is what Epiphany is all about.  I return us to the Old Testament and to the incident between Moses and God.  On Mount Sinai Moses pleaded with God for a special dispensation, for a special personal showing, as it were, for reassurance that he, Moses, was doing the right thing. 

Moses was with God on the mountain that day but wanted to experience God’s presence even more profoundly.  Moses wanted to see God’s face.  He wanted God to act as his personal savior, a savior from the ire of the dissatisfied Hebrews.  It sounds to me as if Moses, despite all he had seen and heard, was once more the skeptic whom we had met when God spoke to him from the burning bush.  “Prove to me that you exist,” Moses seems to say.  The face of God Moses did not see, as his vision was obscured by the fire on the mountain.  Still, so convincing was this display of divine presence that all the people gathered proclaimed: “Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness.” (Deut. 5:24)

Moses was not, and will not be the last person, to ask for some proof of God’s existence.  You may have forgotten the words transmitted back to earth in 1960 when the Soviet cosmonauts announced, upon their return from space, that they had looked for God up in space, in the heavens, but had not seen God.  And therefore, God must not exist.  God’s face was seen neither by Moses nor by the cosmonauts, but God’s glory was revealed to Moses.  The angels at Bethlehem announce God’s glory in the birth of Jesus.  And Epiphany reminds us of that uniqueness of Jesus as the revelation of God’s glory.  God’s glory has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  But now, I’m beginning to drop back into church talk, theological jargon.  So I try again.

We know what electricity is, not because we can see, taste, touch, hear, or smell it.  Rather, we know electricity by what it does or can do: it provides us with light, it cooks food, it plays music, it provides transportation, it aids communication.  We know who God is not because we can see God, but because we see what God does.  It is our core belief, as Christians, that we see the face of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  An added dilemma, of course, for us is that we did not see, in a physical sense, even the face of Jesus of Nazareth.  We have only his “evangelion,” his Good News.  That is exactly what the Gospel or “evangelion” wants us to understand when Mark records for us his recollection of the first miracle of Jesus who made whole again the man, emblematic of the world, emblematic of God’s creation, which is afflicted with an unclean spirit.  

The “evangelion” that Jesus preached then and has left for us to ponder and to accept or reject, is not a “feel good,” pietistic revelation of God.  Rather, it is an assertive, perhaps by today’s definition a radical, extremist “evangelion,” one that puts people and their needs front and center.  Hear once again how God wanted us humans to know that Jesus was his chosen one, His face, and how Jesus proclaimed his right to that title:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news “evangelion” to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Lk. 4. 18 – 19; Isa. 61. 1 – 2)

When non-Christians inquire of us concerning the glory of the Lord, what they are asking, so I believe, is a simple thing:  How do we show the face of God?  What is our special relationship with God that would help them understand what or who God is?  St. Paul cautions us, in the portion of the letter that immediately precedes today’s Gospel, to proceed with great care what face of God we show.  He cautions us to refrain from the use of language or to engage in behavior that confuses or that only a few will understand because such will confuse and diminish the “evangelion.” What the Apostle Paul and everyone since has instructed us is this: With our baptism into the faith of Christ, we become evangelicals.  Evangelion, the Good News, is not owned by one group, but is rather God’s call to us all to carry his glory in our own faces, and those faces can and must shine with the same radiance seen in Jesus, the messenger peace.  Amen