By Susan Brown Snook
Long ago, when I was a young junior accountant working for a major accounting firm, the brightest spot of our working day, for me and the other junior accountants, was when we would head out to lunch. We had several favorite restaurants, one of them a fair hike to the other end of downtown Houston. On the way to this restaurant, we always passed a particular street corner that one street evangelist had chosen as his own. He would stand there and yell about the coming apocalypse, pointing at people and calling them to repent. And his favorite line, which in his mind somehow made perfect sense, was, “Queen Esther saved the Jews!” Now I had grown up going to Sunday school, but somehow missed the story of Queen Esther, and now that I know it, I still don’t really understand why he felt that particular point was the one to make on that street corner.
The thing about it is this: if anyone needed evangelizing, it was me at that point in my life. Yes, I’d grown up in the church, I’d heard the stories of Jesus, I’d loved the idea of a Savior who could calm the storm and heal the sick and give his life because he loved me so much. But by my mid-20s, I’d forgotten all that. I was too busy with my career. If anyone needed to meet Jesus, it was me — to remember that he loved me, to remember what was most important in life, to reorient to the most important things in life — love and caring for God and for other people. I needed an evangelist — but yelling at me to repent because Queen Esther saved the Jews did not address my needs. That kind of evangelism was way too easy to resist. The kind of evangelism I needed was someone who would help me get in touch with what had always been most important to me, who would help me see that what would bring meaning to my life was not success in my career, but abiding with Jesus.
What is evangelism? At heart, it’s bringing good news to people — good news of salvation, of reorienting one’s life, of a relationship with God that will bring deeper, even ultimate, meaning to human life, that will transform people from inside out. Evangelism is not beating people over the head with your ideas. Evangelism is not knocking on people’s doors and demanding whether they know where they’re going when they die. Evangelism is not convincing people to pray a particular prayer that acts as some kind of magic spell that will allow them to get into heaven. Evangelism is not yelling a catch phrase over and over, like “Queen Esther saved the Jews”! Evangelism is simply sharing good news of something that makes a difference in your life with someone you care about. And today’s gospel is one of the best examples of evangelism there is.
Today’s story is the first time we hear Jesus’ voice in John’s gospel. John begins his gospel with his version of the Christmas story — which has nothing to do with Bethlehem or shepherds, and everything to do with the Word of God, who was one with God from before time began, taking on human flesh and coming to dwell on earth. Then, like the other three gospel-writers, John tells us the story of another John — the baptizer, who appeared in the wilderness and began preaching and baptizing. And then, like in the other gospels, Jesus shows up — rather quietly and unassumingly, just mingled in with the other folks listening to John the Baptist preach. In John’s gospel, we don’t hear the story of Jesus’ baptism — instead, we hear John the Baptist testifying about what he saw when he baptized Jesus — the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and remained with him. That’s an important word, remain, and we’ll come back to it. And by that sign, John the Baptist understood that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and he started sharing that news with everyone.
John the Baptist understands who he is and why he is there — and his ministry, beyond preaching repentance and baptizing, is to point to Jesus and share what he knows, tell people what he has seen, urge people to follow Jesus, not himself. The second time he does this, a couple of his curious disciples follow Jesus. In the other three gospels, the first words of Jesus are words of power or prophecy. In John, Jesus’ first words are a question: What are you looking for? This question falls flat in English — but in Greek, it is What are you seeking? What’s important to you? What’s missing in your life that you are hoping to find? It’s the question that evangelists yelling about Queen Esther or demanding that we repent to avoid the flames of hell never ask — what is really important to you?
It’s a question we all should be asking ourselves, as individuals, as families, as a congregation: what are we seeking? What holes, what empty spaces, are in our lives and in our communities? What is it we really need, not just our physical needs but our emotional, relational, and spiritual needs, at the very foundation of who we are? The first key to evangelism is finding out what people are actually seeking, caring about what’s missing, understanding how a relationship with God can help.
The disciples answer Jesus’ question with a question — Where are you staying? Like most things in John’s gospel, this is a question with many layers. “Staying” in Greek is the same word as “remaining” — meno — and it appears five times in this passage: twice in speaking about the Holy Spirit remaining on Jesus, three times in talking about where Jesus is staying. And the same Greek word appears at numerous other crucial points in John’s gospel: after Jesus miraculously feeds the crowd with bread, he tells the people not to work for food that perishes, but for food that remains for eternal life; he promises that he will abide (remain) with those who abide in him; he says that wherever he stays or remains, people have the opportunity to believe.
So when the disciples ask where he is remaining or abiding, they are asking not about his motel or where he’s pitched his tent, but about where the Son of God is. Where can we find you? What can we do to be with you, to abide with you, to receive the gifts you are giving, this bread of life that remains for eternal life? Where can we go to remain, abide, stay with the Lamb of God?
And that’s the real question, isn’t it? The question is, what is the meaning of life and how can we find it? If God has come to abide with us in Jesus, how can we abide with him? If we are truly abiding in the presence of the Lamb of God, how does that change us and how does that call us to act in the world? I am convinced that abiding in the presence of God — in prayer and worship and in our thoughts and beliefs about the world and in the actions we take as a consequence — transforms us from the inside out. It fills the empty holes in our souls, it reorients us toward the things of ultimate significance, it gives us love to share with others.
And that’s the key to evangelism, which is the calling of every Christian. Evangelism begins with noticing — as John the Baptist noticed Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit remain on him; as the disciples noticed John the Baptist’s words and decided to follow and discover more; as Jesus noticed the disciples and invited them to come see. Evangelism begins with noticing where God is in our lives, how God has transformed us. It means thinking back in our own story, remembering key moments of God’s presence with us. So:
- I remember a moment in my life at the altar rail, when I was deeply troubled, but had a sudden overpowering sense that God was there with me.
- I remember the baptism of my daughter, feeling the presence of a loved one who had died recently, and realizing this was a moment of deep holiness that tore open the curtain between heaven and earth.
- I remember witnessing a miracle of healing, realizing God had used me as God’s agent, completely unsought and undeserved.
You have moments like that too, moments you’ve known God was present without a doubt. Those moments are the reason you continue to seek Jesus, continue to look for the ways he can fill you with the bread that remains to eternal life. The first step in evangelism is to notice where and when God has been with you.
The second step of evangelism is speaking. Supposedly St. Francis said preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words — well, I don’t like that saying. For one thing, St. Francis never said it. And certainly our lives should speak our values, but I believe words are necessary for people to know why we do the things we do. Francis devoted his life to preaching with words; John the Baptist pointed the way to Jesus with words. Speaking the gospel with words doesn’t necessarily require any theology or argument — it begins with sharing how your story has transformed you, telling your story.
The third step in evangelism is to invite — as Jesus said to the disciples seeking ultimate meaning — just come and see — come and spend some time, come and experience what it means to be in presence of God, come and let God’s love seep into you from a community devoted to sharing God’s love. Andrew went and found his brother Simon and invited him along to share the experience with him — changing the world as Simon became Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built his church. Like Andrew, we can’t change people. It’s God who changes people and fills the empty places in their souls — but we can invite people to discover what’s changed us.
Queen Esther saved the Jews? Well, maybe. That’s a pretty exciting adventure story if you read it in the Bible. But more exciting is this: Jesus loves us. Jesus saves us. Jesus wants to abide with us, and us with him, to eternal life. That’s good news.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Susan Brown Snook is Bishop of San Diego.