**I just returned home after attending the annual Apprentice Gathering. This year’s theme was “The Joy of Kingdom Living,” and all the large group gatherings and workshops focused on the six traditions of Christian spirituality outlined by Richard Foster in his 1998 book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. In keeping with this year’s theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a series of sermons on the same subject I preached back in the spring of 2012. Each week during the series, I included a bulletin insert with some suggestions for trying the practices of each tradition, based on suggestions at the end of each chapter of Foster’s book. This is the fifth week’s sermon, on the Evangelical Tradition.
May 13, 2012
Tell the Truth
I have a feeling that the tradition before us today is probably the second most difficult of the six Christian spiritual traditions.
The first, for us rational-minded Disciples, at least, is the Charismatic tradition, with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit, being led by the Spirit, gifts of the Spirit, all that kind of thing. The Spirit tends to be unpredictable, and we’re generally happier when things go the way they’re planned, according to the routine that makes us the most comfortable. So the Charismatic tradition is especially difficult for us… and the Evangelical tradition isn’t far behind.
When we hear the word “evangelical,” I think we tend to hear one of two things. On the one hand, in the news media, when someone speaks of “evangelical” Christians, what they seem to mean is very socially and politically conservative, definitely anti-gay and anti-abortion, quite possibly anti-evolution as well. When I was getting ready to be ordained I had to go through a meeting with the regional Commission on Ministry, and when I described myself as an “evangelical,” they actively discouraged me from calling myself that, because they didn’t want people confused when I used that term—and I do consider myself an evangelical Christian, even though I don’t necessarily fall into line politically, socially, or theologically with the popular understanding of the word.
But on the other hand, even if we’re sympathetic to that understanding of the meaning of “evangelical,” we may have issues because the word is a bit close to another word that a lot of us tend to fear: evangelism. When we hear “evangelical,” we think “evangelism,” and that leads us to think of fire-and-brimstone preaching, knocking on doors, or, perhaps most frightening of all, talking to other people about our faith. We don’t really like to do that—as a matter of fact, I am not sure we can do that, not all of us, not very much, because we don’t really have a vocabulary to do it that fits us.
Evangelism is, to go back to the Charismatic tradition for a minute, a spiritual gift, and not everyone has it, just like not everyone has the gift of tongues. So how can we participate in the Evangelical tradition—why should we even consider making the Evangelical tradition part of our Christian lives? If, on the one hand, “evangelical” means a particular social, political, and theological position that we may or may not agree with; and on the other hand, “evangelical” means we have to do “evangelism,” which I am guessing scares the heck out of a lot of us, then it’s hard to see much reason to learn about the Evangelical tradition or put it into practice in our own spiritual lives.
Perhaps we need to start by redefining the term, and then we can look at how it plays out in Jesus’ own life.
Our word evangelical, like evangelism, comes directly out of Greek. The word in Greek is euangelion, or as it’s sometimes pronounced, evangelion. The Old English version of the word is Godspell, or Gospel. Both these words, the Greek and the English, mean the same thing: “good news.” So, somehow, the Evangelical tradition of Christian spirituality is about good news. But how? And what does that mean for us—what does it mean we are called to do?
Let’s turn to the example of Jesus, in our Scripture reading for today…
Luke puts this incident at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He tells us a couple of very important things about Jesus. First, it was his custom to attend services at the synagogue, wherever he happened to be. He was an observant Jew who participated in the life of his faith community. Wherever he was, he attended synagogue on the Sabbath day.
Second, when Jesus attended synagogue, it was apparently his practice to read Scriptures and teach. This may well have been something that any Jewish male could do, if they so desired—and that was especially true if there was a guest in attendance. So Jesus did. He stood to read from the Scriptures—not Torah but the prophet Isaiah—then sat down to teach. This was how it was done in those days; I’m not sure exactly why, unless it was to demonstrate that the Scripture had a higher place of authority than anyone’s own words or teachings. I don’t know, but Jesus followed the custom of his day.
The point here is that in Jesus’ teaching, as portrayed in this text, the Scriptures occupy a central place. Actually, we’ve seen in many places that Jesus knows and uses the Bible—not, obviously, the Bible as we have it today, but the Hebrew Bible, the scriptures that were and are holy to the Jewish people as well as ourselves: what we call the Old Testament. Here, in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from and comments on the writings of Isaiah, from both the 61st and the 58th chapters. Just before this we see him tempted in the wilderness, responding to each temptation by quoting Scripture, all of it from the book of Deuteronomy. Other times we find Jesus in the midst of controversy with other Jewish teachers, and he sometimes tells them to go study a passage, like the one from Micah where the prophet says on God’s behalf, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Jesus’ life is centered in God’s written Word, the Bible. Since the Evangelical tradition is also known as the “Word-centered life,” it’s fair to say that part of our own participation in this tradition is to follow Jesus’ example by giving Scripture a prominent position in our own lives. I am afraid that means more than reading a few verses in the morning with a devotion in The Secret Place or Our Daily Bread. (Don’t get me wrong: it’s fine to read a daily devotion like that, but it’s not enough, not if we really want to have a Word-centered life.) What we need to do is spend a substantial amount of time reading the Bible, not just a few verses at a time but more like a few chapters.
Last year a number of us did the “Bible in 90 Days” challenge. The goal was to read the entire Bible, every word of it, start to finish. To get through it in 90 days is a major commitment, about an hour of reading every single day. It’s a good thing to do, because nowadays very few people—even church people—can honestly say that they have read the entire Bible. But it doesn’t leave time for asking questions and trying to find answers, doesn’t leave time to sit with words or phrases that really intrigue us.
That’s why the Bible in 90 Days program has suggestions for what to do after reading the Bible in 90 days. They suggest things like starting at the beginning and reading the whole Bible again, but at a less breakneck pace; or joining—starting, if necessary—a Bible study group where difficult passages could be examined more closely. (They said a person could also simply go through the 90-day process over again, too.)
The goal was simply to have a nodding acquaintance with what’s in the Bible. But a nodding acquaintance, while it’s a good start, isn’t really enough foundation on which to build a Word-centered life. That takes deeper study, really reading and wrestling with the Scriptures.
Again, a few verses a day with a devotion isn’t enough to do that—although it’s not a bad thing to do anyway.
I don’t know if it still does, but the Our Daily Bread devotional booklet has, with each day’s devotion, the suggested passages one should read if one wants to read the Bible through in one year. The Daily Lectionary found in the Book of Common Prayer (if you don’t have one of those handy, I can tell you where to find it online) is designed so that a regular user of it can read most of the whole Bible in two years; and the Daily Prayer section in the back of our hymnal will take you through most of the Bible in three years—with a Psalm for each week, intending that we end up with those memorized.
To live a Word-centered life, we need to spend a substantial amount of time reading, studying, perhaps even memorizing, the written Word of God in the Bible. But Christian theology has long recognized a threefold understanding of the idea of the Word of God. One of these is the written Word, of course.
Another is the incarnate Word, which is Jesus Christ (if you want to memorize Scripture, by the way, I think you could do worse than to memorize the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John, the part where the Evangelist says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”). A Word-centered life—actually, a Christian life, in general—is a life focused on learning about Jesus, the stories of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, and on trying to follow his example, a bit more closely every day. It’s a life with Jesus Christ at its center.
But there is a third understanding of God’s Word in Christian tradition… and this is where the difficulty comes in for us as we try to incorporate the Evangelical stream of Christian spirituality into our lives. In addition to God’s written Word, the Bible; and God’s incarnate Word, Jesus Christ; there is also the spoken Word.
When I stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, what I am attempting to do is speak God’s Word. I’m not supposed to be up here just telling you what I think—I’m supposed to be speaking God’s Word. Preaching is one way that God’s Word continues to get spoken, but it isn’t the only way.
Teaching is another one; if you’re leading a Bible study group, a Sunday school class, or even a youth group, you are also about the business of speaking God’s Word. But teaching isn’t the only way God’s Word keeps being spoken.
If you’re talking to someone about your faith, telling them about Jesus, about what difference being a follower of Jesus makes in the way you live your life, you’re speaking God’s Word. (You are probably also sharing good news—the gospel, the evangelion.) The Evangelical tradition of Christian spirituality says that every single one of us centers our life in God’s Word—in God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, and in God’s written Word, the Bible—and it also says that each of us is sometimes called to speak God’s Word.
Not all of us are called to be preachers, and not all of us are teachers. But any one of us may find ourselves in conversation with a friend, sharing the good news of Jesus.
It’s not necessarily about knocking on doors, or knowing some special formula—the “Four Spiritual Laws” or how to ask some total stranger, “If you died today, do you know where you would go?” (I have no idea what the Four Spiritual Laws are, myself, and couldn’t any more ask that question of a stranger than I could sprout wings and fly. Besides which, I don’t think it’s a very good question, since I believe being a Christian is about a whole lot more than just whether the elevator goes up or down when I die.) It’s not about knowing any particular words to say; you don’t have to fill your conversation with a lot of “Praise the Lords” or quote Bible verses to make your point.
Actually, if you are familiar with the Bible, and are following Jesus, and if you truly have taken the time to get to know the person to whom you’re talking, you will know exactly what to say to them.
Perhaps even more important, as we learn from St. Francis, we preach the Gospel at all times, using words when necessary. Let the Word of God be spoken through our actions, through the way we do our jobs, through the way we raise our families, through our involvement in our community, through what we say to people even if we’re not specifically talking about Jesus; and then if someone notices something different about us, and they ask us why we’re different, then we can tell them simply, “Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”
The Evangelical tradition of Christian spirituality is about the Word of God—written, incarnate in Christ, and spoken by us. It’s about centering our lives in the Word and it’s about spreading the Word—the Good News, the Gospel—to and throughout our world.