“I’m with the Society of St. John the Evangelist,” I told the clerk.
“Society of St. John…” she repeated slowly as she wrote. “Society of St. John the what?”
“Evangelist,” I repeated.
She looked puzzled. “Umm… could you spell that for me?”
‘Evangelist’ isn’t a word in everyone’s vocabulary. For those who do recognize the word, it is likely to be associated with those who publicly proclaim the gospel on street corners or on television, or those who button-hole passers-by to ask whether they have been saved. For many – Christians and non-Christians alike, ‘evangelist,’ ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’ are not words that carry a positive connotation…
…which is odd, given that the word ‘evangelist’ derives from a Greek word (euangelion) that means “good tidings” or “good news.” Evangelists are those who proclaim good news. Most everyone enjoys receiving good news, so it should strike us as curious that so many are put off by the efforts of Christians to share their faith.
Perhaps the message that we are actually sharing, by our words or by our actions or both, doesn’t seem like “good news” to those who hear it.
This may be because their hearts are not open to truth. Even Jesus experienced resistance and rejection from those who turned away from God’s truth and refused God’s love.
But it may also be because we have failed to communicate the message of Jesus in ways that enable others to recognize it as “good news.” Recent polls in this country have shown that Christians are widely perceived by non-Christians as intolerant, judgmental, hypocritical and superficial.1 We are criticized for being more interested in imposing our beliefs on others than in engaging in responsible dialogue with them about questions of life and faith. The way we speak and act does not always reflect that we are people who have “good news” to share with others. Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual leader of India in the last century, is reported to have said to those who attempted to convert him to Christianity, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”2 We ourselves may be at fault – for misrepresenting the message.
Tonight we remember St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel and the patron saint of this community. Perhaps we can draw on his gospel (the “good news” to which he testified) to recall what it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming and how we are supposed to be proclaiming it.
What is the ‘good news’ that John proclaims?
First and foremost, John tells us that GOD IS LOVE (cf. I Jn 4:16), and that God loves each and every one of us. The message of John is first and foremost a message of love: God loves us, and when we receive that love we receive power to live as beloved children of God (Jn 1:12, I Jn 3:1) and to share God’s love with others. That is good news for us and for many others who are hungry and thirsty to know that they are loved! In the Fourth Gospel, the chief characteristic of a disciple is love. The message we proclaim and the way in which we proclaim it must first and foremost be characterized by love.
John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). God didn’t just say God loved us; God acted in history to show us that breadth and depth of that love. In Jesus, the Word which was in the beginning with God “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:1,14) so that we could see and know God’s glory. “No one has ever seen God,” the Evangelist reminds us, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18).
Jesus was sent into the world by the Father so that we might know and trust the love of God for us.
He is God’s icon, the image of the God we cannot see (Jn 1:18, Col 1:15) who reveals to us a “Father” whose heart is full of love for us. When we know Jesus, we know God, says John; when we love Jesus, we love God.
John tells us that Jesus is…
….the light that illumines the darkness of our world; a light that cannot be extinguished.
…. the bread that comes down from heaven; feeding, nourishing, and sustaining us day by day.
….the living water that refreshes us and quenches our thirst; a spring that never fails.
…. the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name and who protects, leads and nurtures them.
…. the vine to which the branches are connected and from which they receive their life.
In him, says John, we find salvation. In him we find healing and hope. In him we find “eternal life,” the very life of God abiding within us. In him we learn to love as we have been loved. John’s testimony is a testimony to Jesus, the revelation and incarnation of God who has chosen to dwell among us.
Jesus embodied God’s love for us most clearly by laying down his life for us, his friends. Like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies so that it might bear fruit (Jn 12:24), so Jesus came to this world, offering himself for us, and teaching us to imitate him in this way of self-giving love. “No one has greater love than this,” he tells us, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13) This is what he has done for us, and it is what we are to do for one another (cf I Jn 3:16).
Our essential task as evangelists is to bring others to Jesus. In him they will discover themselves to be beloved children of God. In him, says John, they will find their true life.
John tells us that those receive God’s love have received “eternal life.” It is their privilege and joy to abide in God and to experience God abiding in them – now. Even now they are made one with God in Jesus, no longer servants but friends (Jn 15:15). About these friends Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Certainly this is “good news”!
We cannot proclaim this good news unless we ourselves have received it.
We cannot expect others to be transformed by it unless we ourselves have been transformed.
We cannot offer love unless we have first received love.
“We love,” the author of First John reminds us, “because he first loved us” (I Jn 4:19).
Near the end of his gospel John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31). This is the goal of an evangelist – to relate the good news to others so that they too may come to put their faith and trust in Jesus, and find the life that is offered in his name.
What is our message? That God loved us so much that he gave his Son Jesus to share our human life, to live and to die as one of us, to be raised to new life, a life that we now share with him and in him, a life which is eternal and that can never be taken away. It’s good news. Very good news.
And how shall we bring this message to others? With love.
With the same love with which we ourselves have been loved.
With the love that lays down its life for the other.
With the love that takes up a towel to wash the other’s feet.
With the love that draws the other closer.
With the love that honors and sees beauty in the other.
For “see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are” (I Jn 3:1). Bring the message with love, the same love with which God has loved you.
I’m proud to be an “evangelist” of that Good News. How about you?
1 To learn more, visit www.changingthefaceofChristianity.com, a website dedicated to reversing negative stereotypes of Christians and helping Christians to be more like Jesus Christ.
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