Sermon: "Giving an Account of the Hope that is Within Us," May 21, 2017

Sixth Sunday in Easter
1 Peter 3:13-22
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Today I want to talk about a topic that can make us uneasy. An activity that is often considered distasteful, rude, and inappropriate in our society, and even in many churches. This topic is evangelism, also known as the “E-Word.” If you’re not sure what evangelism is, on the basic level the word evangelism comes from the Greek evangelion, meaning “Good News.” Evangelism is basically sharing the Christian faith, the Christian message with other people. And unfortunately, evangelism has a bit of a bad rap these days. And I’ll admit for many good reasons. Nevermind the inconvenience of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons coming to the door. Evangelism, spreading the good news has often been done in a way that pushes away. Rather than drawing them close.

The great Canadian author Margaret Atwood has a story called “The Scarlet Ibis.” The main character named Christine sets out on a trip to see the scarlet ibises of Florida. Ibises are a bright red sort of flamingo-ish bird. On the way, Christine gets in to a conversation with a woman who says she used to be a missionary. Atwood writes:

Christine had been raised Anglican, but the only vestige of this was the kind of Christmas cards she favored: prints of mediaeval or renaissance old masters. Religious people of any serious kind made her nervous: they were like men in raincoats who might or might not be flashers. You would be going along with them in the normal way, and then there could be a swift movement and you would look down to find the coat wide open and nothing on under it but some pant legs held up by rubber bands. This had happened to Christine in a train station once.[i]

I mentioned this in my weekly email, but before I was a Christian I had many experiences like this. At University, I was in the food court, minding my own business. And three people came to sit with me out of the blue. They asked a few general questions, like what's my name, what I was doing in terms of classes. But suddenly the trenchcoat opened. "If you died tonight," one of them asked. "Do you know where you'd be going?" The intentions were definitely better than public nudity for sure, but it had the same effect. They didn't know me. They didn't need to know me. They assumed I was headed for hell. They just had just assumed they had something I needed and wanted my attention long enough to deliver.

One writer calls this "Flasher evangelism." Unfortunately, this is what most people think of when it comes to "sharing the good news." Outside the church, but inside, too. Because something as intimate, something as personal and significant as faith has come across as indecent exposure at worst. Or arrogance at best. So it's no wonder people tune out, or run away as fast as they can from evangelism. Because it's done in a way that pushes people away. So it's no wonder that it has a bad rap.

Evangelism has a bad rap thanks to people’s bad experiences. Which has made many of us timid at best, terrified at worst about sharing faith. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do sometimes is bring up faith because I don't want to look like I'm getting ready to unbutton my trenchcoat. We don't want to be treated like flashers. And that that's reasonable. And yet, it’s so important in the Christian tradition that the four accounts of Jesus’ life—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—are called the four gospels. It’s something that Jesus himself does—“turn around and believe in the good news!” he says in Matthew. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says in Luke, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” And he also instructs his followers to do the same, with Jesus commanding them in the longer ending of Mark to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation (Mark 15:16).”

Evangelism, sharing faith, sharing the good news was not only central to Jesus’ mission. He tells his disciples to do the same. So those of us who wish to follow him can’t simply ignore it. It needs to be taken seriously.

And you know, I think our reading this morning from first Peter can shed a little light on this problem for us. Because Peter gives us three key points that can help us reclaim sharing our faith from the flashers.

First, Peter says sharing faith is important. It’s important because it gives us a clearer sense of where we’re at in our own journeys. "Always," Peter says. "Always be ready to make you defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is within you.” Peter says to have your answer ready, and always be ready to give it.

There are those of us who haven't decided where we are on the spiritual journey. But then there are those of us who have grown up, and even made a Profession of Faith in front of others, yet aren't clear on what we believe or why we believe it, let alone why that's worth hearing. So Peter's telling us that before we can ever do anything, we need to have some clarity as to why our faith matters at all. If we don't know what draws us to faith, we can forget our friends or our neighbors. Not to mention our children or grand children being drawn by what we say. Sharing faith isn’t just about other people—it’s about us, too. It’s about coming to know our own faith better, to know it more deeply, more intimately. To be honest, a lot of us just simply don’t know our own faith well enough to discuss it with others, even though we’ve been churchgoers all our lives. This is where bible studies are hugely important. Small groups, the Alpha course, Disciple Bible Study.

We need a sense of inner clarity about our own faith--why it matters to us--before we can share it with others. So always be ready, Peter says. Readiness comes from first-hand knowledge of our subject. It comes from experience. “Be prepared. Flashers are often very well prepared. But what Peter has in mind is different than being ready to unbutton your trenchcoat at a moment's notice.

Second, Peter says that sharing faith always begins with our own experience with God. Always be prepared he says, "to give an account of the hope that is within you." The hope that is within you.

So often faith is thought of as information. Or a set of beliefs or ideas. "God exists," or "Jesus is God." But simply knowledge of our subject, a set of ideas isn’t enough. It happens sometimes for sure (C.S. Lewis talked about having his imagination baptized). But rarely do people come to interest in anything simply by ideas. Instead, Peter talks about sharing the hope that is within us. It's something good, the positive difference it makes in our lives. "I wandered around without any purpose in life... but because of Christ now I'm a better husband, father and friend." "My life used to be bound up in addiction, trauma or pain. But because of Christ I've found healing, I have a future." "I used to be selfish and self-centered. But because of Jesus my life is devoted to caring for and advocating for people who can't care for themselves. "Be ready to account for the hope that is within you," Peter says.

According to Peter it comes from within us. It's something internalized. The fire that has been lit in our lives by grace. Sharing our faith is important because it's bearing witness to God's work in us in the hope that the same hope that it can be at work in others too. Not just that there is a God, but the difference God makes. The difference Jesus makes. That's where it begins.

 And finally, faith is only faithfully shared out of sense of deep respect. And even deeper love. When you give an account of the hope that’s within you, he says, “do it with gentleness and reverence."

Gentleness and reverence, he says. Gentleness and reverence are the key words here. So often evangelism is done in a way where we have everything figured out, we've got it right, and we are right. We can do it out first out of a sense of judgment. People need to change, and we have what they need to change. “If you died tonight, do you know where’d you be going?” You can’t blame anyone when what you’re sharing seems like anything but good news. But gentleness is different. Gentleness is great care. It’s kindness. It’s wanting the best for the person, rather than what we think they want. There’s nothing gentle or reverent about flashing. But to show reverence for someone is to show respect for them. And who they are as they are. And isn’t out to manipulate them, to scare them with damnation. Or convert them (which is the work of the Holy Spirit, anyway, not ours). Someone who actually wants the best for them. Often they’ve seen a difference in that person’s life. And they want it, too.

Our faith is worth sharing not because we’ve got all the answers. But we’ve discovered something beautiful, something real. I mean, we’re more than willing to share our favorite restaurant or store, sharing it with evangelical zeal, hoping that other people can experience this awesome thing that we have. So you’d think we’d be able to do the same with faith—the thing that makes all the difference in the world—in the same way.  Out of love for love’s own sake. If you’re doing that, says Peter, then you’re doing real evangelism. Then you’re being an authentic herald of Good News. Rather than a faith-based flasher.

So I’ll tell you right now. Sharing faith, evangelism comes with a lot of baggage, it’s true. It’s been done in so many ways that irritate, alienate, and even seriously harm other people. But evangelism itself isn’t the problem. It’s the way it’s been done. Where evangelism has been pushy, arrogant, and impersonal, we are encouraged to always be prepared to share the work of grace in our lives. Not because we’re better than people. Not to “convert” or change them. But because we have been given a beautiful gift, one that’s makes all the difference in our lives. One worth sharing. Sharing with patience, humility, and out of a sense of deep love for the people God loves. That what God has done for us, is not limited to us. But is done out of love for all for all. Peter shows us that faith is worth sharing. But that there’s a more excellent way to do it, too.

 

And you know what the best part is? The best part is you can leave your trench coat at home.

 

Amen.

 

[i] Margaret Atwood, “Scarlet Ibis,” as quoted in John Bowen, Evangelism for Normal People, 19.