In our first reading, from the book of Acts, we hear one of the earliest stories of the spread of Christian faith. The apostles, Peter, James, John and the rest have been been preaching and healing, and many have been drawn to them by their message. The authorities are none too happy. They thought they had finished with all this nonsense when they killed Jesus, but within weeks the mission seems to be back on, and even stronger than it had been, since there were now many more people preaching the message. They arrest the apostles, but miraculously they are released from prison and rather than being warned off by their experiences, they seem to be keener than ever on making themselves heard. Once more they are summoned before the Jewish authorities to answer for themselves. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” Peter answers for them all. They can’t shut up. Their lives have been changed by Jesus, and they must bear witness to that change.
These are people who have good news, good news they can’t not share, good news which others seem to be responding to in numbers. Spreading their faith seems to be as natural to them as breathing. But what about us?
Many years ago, I was a student at Hull University. In case you don’t know Hull, the most noticeable thing about it is that it is dead flat, and as a result, the city planners tended to build their streets broad and straight. One day as I was walking home along one of these streets I saw in the far distance an elderly man on a bicycle. The bike looked pretty ancient too, but he was pedalling along as fast as he could manage as it clanked and whined beneath him. There was only him and me on this otherwise deserted street, but I became aware as he got closer that he was shouting something, and eventually he was close enough for me to make it out. “Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, “ he called out – apparently to me, because there was no one else around – “Have you given your heart to Jesus as Lord and Saviour?” By the time he got to the end of his little sermonette he had gone past me, so I didn’t get the chance to tell him that, actually yes, I had. Evidently there was no time to wait around and a world of sinners needing to hear his gospel.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, but I’ve never quite known what to make of it either. I don’t know whether he was systematically working his way round every street in Hull, or whether this was a one off declaration, for my ears only. I can say, though, that as a method of evangelism, it left quite a bit to be desired…
I’m sure we’ve all experienced people trying to spread their faith in ways which leave us cold, and it’s not just the eccentric street preachers, whether on a bike or not, who can miss the mark for us. Personally I am just as averse to the slick presentations that are sometimes on offer, with a “celebrity” who happens to be a Christian as the draw, or some other crowd pleasing sideshow to get the punters in before slipping them the message that Jesus is the answer, even if it has never really been established what the question is.
Evangelism should be about sharing good news. It is there in the word itself. That’s what evangelism means – from the Greek euangellion - good news, so what really makes it authentic and powerful isn’t the presentation, but the content. If we want to share good news, first we have to have some, and second we have to know what our good news is. It has to be good. It has to be news, but most of all it has to be ours.
The apostles were very clear about their good news. It had been born out of their direct experience of being with Jesus. As they had travelled with him round Galilee they had heard his message again and again, and seen him live what he preached; justice for the poor, dignity for those whom his society disregarded, forgiveness and love, with a way of living in which the rich and powerful did not have the last word – indeed the only word.
As they had followed him round Galilee, his disciples felt that they were catching glimpses of God in him, glimpses of the kingdom promised in the Old Testament, a place of peace where all were valued as the children of God they really were. When Jesus was crucified, though, it seemed as if all that had been no more than a delusion, nothing but nonsense. If Jesus had been right , if he had really had been speaking God’s truth, then why would God have abandoned him to die on a cross? Why didn’t he send squadrons of angels to rescue him? It must have all been a lie, they concluded. If you want to win in life you just have to play by the rules of the mighty, grab what you can and look out for number one.
But then Easter Sunday happened… We don’t know what Jesus’ disciples saw, what we’d have seen if we’d been there, but whatever it was, it was powerful enough to make them sure, absolutely utterly sure, that Jesus was alive. They understood that to mean that God had affirmed his message, that God had not abandoned him, and that he would not abandon them either as they continued to preach and try to live that message too. The joy and peace they had found with Jesus in Galilee, the sense that their lives had suddenly gone from black and white to full vibrant colour, came flooding back. It was good. It was news – to them and to others. And it was theirs, something they had experienced first-hand . They saw it and they touched it, not just, as Thomas was invited to in the flesh and blood of Jesus, but in the reality of their own transformed lives and the lives of those around them. In Christ there is a new creation, said Paul – not “will be” but “is”. If we had asked them what salvation looked like, this is what they would have pointed to – not a theological theory about getting into heaven when you died, but the revolution they were living right there and then as they discovered God at work amongst them, breaking down old barriers, bringing forgiveness and healing, a new start and new possibilities. It wasn’t an easy way of life, but the early church grew because in it people saw real love, real hope, real joy, the living witness of lives that were richer and deeper now.
When I talk to people about what it is that really matters to them about their faith, I often find that they give me the same sort of answers. For some their good news, their sense of salvation, has a lot to do with being part of a community – not a perfect one, but one where people are at least trying to love one another, trying to treat each other as equals. Where love is, there is God, says the Bible. Others find their good news in the sense of mystery they encounter in prayer, the feeling that there is something beyond them and their immediate concerns supporting them and helping them making sense of their lives. For many faith is good news because, like those early apostles, it gives strength and encouragement as they try to build justice, to do what is right. Often people tell me that they find – maybe now and then, maybe often – the “peace that passes understanding”, the sense that they are finally spinning on their true centre, drawing on living water, rooted in good soil – the images vary, but the sense is the same, a sense of rightness, of purpose, of home-coming to God.
For me, the longer I go on, the more I feel it is all those things, and more besides. When I live my life in the framework of faith, enriched with its stories, nourished in prayer, surrounded by a community of fellow-travellers, I become more and more the person that I am meant to be. That doesn’t mean it is easy, or that I don’t have all sorts of doubts, or that I don’t fail or get fed up, but it becomes something that I can’t just walk away from, any more than a tree can pull up its roots and go for a stroll.
This isn’t the sort of faith you can declaim from the back of a bicycle – and you will be glad to hear that I don’t intend to try. Nor can it be packaged into some glossy presentation – and I’m not going to do that either. It is something that must simply be lived, and allowed to spill over into the lives of others, I hope, as the good news in their lives also spills over into mine.
All those of us who claim to follow Jesus should be able to say that we are evangelical, in the richest and truest sense of the word, that we have discovered our good news; not a formula that gets us into heaven when we die, but something that helps us to live as children of God right now, that lets the fruit of the Spirit grow in us, the fruit of love, joy, peace , patience, kindness , goodness gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. The question on this second Sunday of Easter is what that good news is for us, and how others can see it lived out in our lives.