The “Great Commission,” as it is called, is found in Matthew 28:19-20.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Matt. 28:19-20
When I have attended Evangelism conferences in the past, this scripture passage set the foundation for everything else. Euangelion in Greek, Evangelium in Latin—this word literally means Good News. Evangelism is the active process of teaching and preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ to a broken and needful world. And yes, we are each called to do that. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ commissioning, we can sit back and admire the Disciples’ fortitude, courage, even their divine appointment. We might even think, “lucky them!” Then we realize, Jesus is speaking to us as well. He has commissioned you.
I have a print that hangs in my office of a beautiful stained-glass rendering of the commissioning. The window used to be above the altar at the seminary chapel in Alexandria, Virginia before it burned, so I’m grateful to have the window preserved in this print. I have used the imagery many times over the years as a teaching, as it was handed down to me when, so long ago, we sat gazing on the real thing in glass: here is Jesus, his hand raised in teaching and blessings, sending out his disciples two by two. At his feet, robed disciples in muted colors and eager poses receive their call. But wait! Why are there only eleven? That’s not right! Did they run out of glass? Artistic energy? Is the 12th figure supposed to be Judas, already absent after the great betrayal? The unfinished number is unsettling, causing one to get involved in the setting, to study it more intently—until you realize what the preacher/teacher I once heard expound on that window revealed. As he looked ceremoniously out over the congregation sitting there gazing up at the stained glass: “There are 11 disciples pictured in the window. The 12th disciple is…sitting in the pew. The 12th disciple is … you.”
When we think of evangelism, I believe this is what we think of—and what we are afraid of. At some level, we each know that Jesus has called us to live life in him, and that at some point this may not be to our liking. Happy to be called, Lord, so happy to be called by you. But, um, could you give me something different to do?
Being told to go out and teach and preach can send anyone screaming from the room! In some circles “evangelical” is practically a dirty word; something us Episcopalians would not want to be associated with. And yet it literally means "of the Gospel". Are you telling me you don’t want to be associated with the Gospel and godly living? Not everyone is called to teach or preach. Evangelism defined this way is the description of a set of specific gifts of the Holy Spirit and the call to use those gifts for Christ. But what if you don’t have those gifts? Are you not being called to witness for Christ? Remember, beloved; Christ’s call is unique to each and every one of us. I do not answer a call extended to another disciple; I answer the one extended to me.
In Acts of the Apostles 1:8, Jesus calls all his followers to a way of life that does not require a special set of gifts; rather he asks for something in our control (and also, sometimes not!): our devotion and love. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” You’ve heard the wisdom in the contemporary observation: “Your life may be the only Bible other people may read;” or in one of the hymns we loudly and proudly sing: “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; they will know we are Christians by our love.” The ability to witness is simply the practice of intentional living for God.
To be a Witness for Christ is simply the practice of meeting every day in love with God and giving God credit for all that is. A Witness for Christ simply lives and moves and has their being as they always have, and are, with the addition of the vocal practice of acknowledgment. “It sure is a beautiful day…” “Sure is, and I thank God for it.” Giving Jesus credit for our happiness or our hope, when in conversation with someone who can't find either happiness or hope, invites that person to think in a different manner. This is the witness of every Christian and its potential is amazing.
Witness speaks for itself out of who we are. Witness sits down, is present, listens, and waits for God to act out of our own testimony. Witness walks alongside, lives life with others, and responds to what we see. We are witnesses by being the people of God and sharing the natural way of devotion in which we live.
You may one day be called to Evangelize; in the meantime, you are always called to witness.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†