True Evangelism: Understanding & Love
On Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, there’s an episode about Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer who led the first expedition to sail around the world. It’s debatable to say Magellan was the first person to circle the globe because he actually died on the way around and only the crew of one of his ships made it back to Spain. The podcast host shared an interesting story that when Magellan reached the Philippines, they knew that they had reached the edge of the Far East because Magellan’s slave, a man named Enrique who had been born in modern-day Malaysia, could understand the language of the people. So technically, we should say Enrique was the first person to circle the globe. Magellan saw that the people of the Philippines clearly had had contact with “Old World” civilizations like China and Arabia. And Magellan set out to Christianize the king of the island they landed on. He told the king and the people to remove statues of other gods from their homes, and for the most part, they did. But there was one man who was sick and did not throw away his idols because he hoped they would help heal him. So Magellan made a bold deal: remove the idols and you’ll get better and if you don’t get better then you could chop my head off. They agreed and got rid of the idols, and coincidently or miraculously, the man was healed! And so that island kingdom converted to Christianity. Magellan had a new ally in this king. And he asked the king if there were other kings he was enemies with. He told him he had issues with a certain ruler on a nearby island. So Magellan, convinced he had God’s protection, decided to attack them. He sailed to the nearby island with 60 members of his Spanish crew with their guns and armor. But they got there they were met by a thousand native warriors who defeated them and killed Magellan. As I listened to the podcast’s story, I couldn’t help but see a clear lesson in evangelism. When Magellan’s method of sharing Christ involved healing and helping others, it worked. But when his method of promoting Christ involved killing other people, it didn’t work.
Of course, much of the spread of Christianity during that era involved many wars and the suppression of native religions. But during the time of the early church, we have many examples of how Christianity spread through genuine evangelism. Through partnerships and mutual respect. Through acknowledging the wisdom in existing religions and maybe even learning a thing or two from them and then sharing what Christianity had to offer. We see this in how the Gospel spread throughout much of the early church period, like how St. Patrick adapted Celtic traditions into Irish Catholicism, for example.
And the prime example of how the early church did such sharing of the Gospel is what we read today in the first reading from the Book of Acts. Where Paul is in Athens and praises the Athenians for their religious devotion. While he might’ve been upset about the statues of other gods in the city, he didn’t criticize them for what he disagreed with. Instead, he complimented them for the good he saw in their religion. He quoted Greek philosophers and praised their monument “to an unknown god.” He found what was good and true and beautiful about their religion, told them what he’d learned from them, and then added his own wisdom about Jesus. Paul spoke to Stoics and Epicureans and didn’t dismiss their spiritual wisdom, he honored it. And only after showing how he appreciated their wisdom, did he add his own thoughts about Christianity’s spiritual wisdom. Notice Paul didn’t even mention Jesus in his speech. He only alludes to Jesus at the end, once he’s already established that he respects them and has learned from them and that he might have something to say that they’d find worthwhile too. That is how you humbly and respectfully and lovingly enter into conversations about faith.
And then they were eager to listen to what he had to say. To learn more about this man God raised from the dead. Paul shared what he learned from them and what they could learn from him. It’s exactly how we should enter into interfaith dialogue. Focused more on what we can learn from each other, rather than arguing about who’s more right.
In the Gospel reading this morning, we encounter Jesus the night before he died. He is telling the disciples that the Holy Spirit will come and continue to be their advocate, their companion as he had been. This is the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that directed Jesus throughout his life. And Jesus tells his disciples that if they love him they will follow his commandments. To understand this, I think it’s best to insert a word here: “If you love me you will naturally follow my commandments.” It’s not a “if you love me then do what I say” kinda thing. He’s saying that if you truly encounter the love he’s talking about it—the love that the Father has for Jesus and that Jesus has for the Father and that both have for us—if they truly encounter that love then they’ll inevitably be transformed into people who naturally follow God’s commandments. And this most important “new commandment” that Jesus introduced just a few verses earlier is to love one another.
So Jesus is saying if you truly love Him then they will naturally love one another too. And that this promised Holy Spirit will come and continue to inspire such love in them. Continue to be their advocate, their companion, the source and inspiration of their love. And it is this love that the disciples will spread to the ends of the earth.
And so, both in Acts and in John, we see how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. We do so with respect and understanding of the spiritual wisdom of others. And we do so by living out the love that the Holy Spirit inspires in us. Like the 1960s Christian song said: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And it’s true! At least it should be. They won’t know us by our ability to debate people and win arguments. They will know us by our love. They won’t know us by our ability to defeat foreign armies. They will know us by our love. They won’t know us by our material blessing or financial success. They will know us by our love. They won’t know us by how stubborn and certain we are. They will know us by our love.
Unfortunately, Christian evangelists today have a reputation for being more interested in winning religious debates than in understanding others. That reputation comes from more fundamentalist branches of Christianity. But then we Lutherans tend to respond by not wanting to engage in those conversations at all because we don’t want people thinking we’re that kind of Christian. So the world often misses out on hearing from the more curious, open-minded, spiritual-seeker side of Christianity.
But I hope the examples of Jesus and Paul show us a new way of reaching out. Of sharing your ideas about religion and spirituality with friends and family because they’re people you care about and you’re simply sharing something important to you. Expressing your enthusiasm for religion and spirituality because the divine has been so meaningful in your life. Because you’re so passionate and excited about your spiritual journey. Recognizing that other religions and philosophies and worldviews have a lot to teach us too. And humbly sharing your own insights about the reality that you’ve come to learn through your spiritual tradition. That’s how we have loving, curious conversations the same way Jesus describes and the way Paul puts into action.
And so I hope these texts challenge us. Challenge us to make the practice of love the center of our lives. To let that love lead us into spiritual practice, acts of service, and the sharing of our faith. Love that inspires us to explore the mystery of the divine. Love that inspires us to serve our neighbors. Love that inspires us to talk to people about the questions we have, the things we wonder, the insights we’ve discovered, and the impact God has had on us. Because this love that God has for us, that the Holy Spirit grounds us in, is our guide through life. This love is gently growing in us, nourishing our souls, and developing us into more mature children of God. Thanks be to God for this love, and for the mission we have of sharing God’s love and understanding with the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.