This is the ninth in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond. For links to earlier posts in the series, see below.
IX. Being Centered in Christ for Evangelism’s Hard Work: Gentleness and Strength
To do evangelism, we will need two things I see in the gospel: gentleness and strength.
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
In this Gospel passage, Luke depicts a strident Jesus, with his face focused on Jerusalem like a river on its ocean. Jesus decides to move forward into his passion-mission with singular focus and despite all opposition. However, along the way, Jesus is showing his disciples, and all of us, that his form of leadership is different –strong but also gentle and compassionate.
In our culture, we do not usually link those two ideas – gentleness and strength. But the gospel finds them compatible and complimentary- they are fruits of the spirit.
In the Gospel passage, Luke begins to ratchet up his story. The engine of the Gospel shifts from first, to second and now into third gear and Jesus and his rag-tag group of followers begin the climb to Jerusalem. The decision has been made by Jesus in the context of His prayer – the deep love he hears from the Father. Jesus has decided what to do – go where it leads, cost what it will.
The geographical direction Jesus sets is through Samaria. Due to the violently inhospitable Samarians, most Jews would naturally travel the long way around to the East of the Jordan River, through Perea, to avoid Samarians– especially if they were on their way to Jerusalem. But Jesus strides into Samaria –like a modern American deciding to hike through Iraq. The Samaritans hated the Jews at least in part because the Jews hated the Samaritans – who had developed their own form of the Bible, their own liturgy, their own mountain for worship, and their own mystical writings. There was vicious distaste, distrust and distain on both sides. Their very similarity fuelled their hatred.
And, of course, a lack of hospitality in the desert is more than a matter of being impolite. The denial of hospitality in the desert is a matter of life and death. Jesus resolutely decides that it is through this inhospitable, unkind, oppressive region that they shall travel. And of course, they are ruthlessly rejected. So, in a flash of anger and righteous indignation, James and John ask Jesus if they may flex some hocus pocus of their own asking to repeat Elijah’s trick of raining fire down on opponents. Have you ever seen anyone burned alive? I have. It is quite a suggestion to make on one person…let alone on a nation.
Jesus is appalled! Jesus – striding at the head of the line to get to his mission in Jerusalem, physically turns around on James and John and rebukes them. Jesus flatly refuses to identify himself with Elijah, the fiery reformer of Second Kings. He will not drop fire on those who are unkind to him. He will not turn on those who deliberately turn on him. He will not be a conquering king. There is no insecurity in Jesus. He can afford to be gentle precisely because he sets aside his instincts for self-protection, defensiveness and aggression. His gentleness is not flaccid or weak. His gentleness is very strong, precisely because it is real gentleness – the kind which comes from spiritual abundance – form the source of gentleness– from knowing who one is.
Gentleness is so often seen as weak – even flaccid. But here we see a different model. Getting something done without bashing through it. Being that deep river instead of a wild, whipping, out –of-control hose – whirling around like a rabid snake -responding to cruelty and oppression with a resolute determination which is strong but not itself cruel or oppressive. The old adage that we should “fight fire with fire” is actually being reversed in this gospel. We fight fire with cool, baptismal water.
Words are so important and can help us here. The root word of gentle or gentleness is not a weak word. It is actually very strong. The “gen” of “generous” or “generation” or “gentle” or “gentile” or “gentry” or “genuine” or “genitalia” comes from the Latin word “gentis” which means race or clan or family. And the root of the Latin is from “gignere” which means to “beget” or to “come from” (as in Peleg begat Reu and Reu begat Serus and Seru begat Nahor…” ). We moderns often roll our eyes and skip the “begat” passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, but they are really very important…they are always, without exception, formulae which highlight an important passage to follow – these passages mark power.
Jesus was gentle because Jesus was aware of his rooted-ness in God. Jesus was gentle because he lived out of a place of spiritual abundance. Our calling is to that same awareness. We are Easter people. One can wear a tie or a cassock – we can wear a clerical shirt or a habit- we can wear a white doctor’s coat or an academic gown – one can wear black or purple – we can put on anything – dress up as anything. But the real test is not what we look like or what we say or what we wear. The real test is what we do – how we treat each other – as people- as nations. What we do is connected to hearing and knowing who we are – as members of one, connected humanity.
God’s central commandment is a call into the powerful gentleness of love. That is what we are doing in Come and See Campaigns – we are, with quiet confidence, together – inviting people to come and see where Jesus is at work. It’s not even about whether we think our church is pretty enough or well organized enough or has music or liturgy stirring enough – our job is to invite.
We have only to listen to God’s whisper of generous love always flowing through our souls like a great river– really listen to the Generous One of Love speak to us out of our Baptismal waters. And then turn to someone and tell them about how it has changed our lives.
In the end, Evangelism is nothing more than knowing we are loved by God (liked even!) and telling the world this good news. It sounds so simple but it is very hard work on many levels. This gentleness and strength will come to a clergy-person, a warden, a vestry and a congregation when their spiritual lives have the ballast of prayer, study in a mindful and balanced life. Evangelism, like stewardship, emerges out of deep, abiding, strong spirituality. The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign is designed to give function and form to the fire in the belly of those whose spiritual life is deep enough and vibrant enough to want to get out there and invite the hungry world to our churches – places where we beggars just found food.
The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire. The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign Manual is online and the 7 minute video summary can be found here.
This is the ninth and last in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond. Click for earlier installments: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8. Check out Charles’ blog for the full text. And check out the Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Toolkit, on its website.