As we begin this sermon this morning, I want you to do something for me. I want you to reach out to the person nearest to you, take their hand and squeeze it gently for a moment. . . . now let it go. . . . You have just demonstrated the most effective and powerful means of Christian evangelism, one person reaching out to another person with the touch of love. The truth is, many of us were first taken to a house of faith as we physically held the hand of someone who cared for us. Someone’s nurture and encouragement embedded a seed of faith within our soul that has shaped our existence. If we were honest in our analysis of our spiritual pilgrimage, we could probably trace it to a series of personal touches and influences that shaped our faith into what it is today. We are indebted to people of faith who came before us and invested spiritual capital in us. And the truth is, they were indebted to people of faith who came before them and invested spiritual capital in them. Indeed, the entire movement of Christianity can be traced to one person putting an electric touch upon another person, who put an electric touch upon another person, who put an electric touch upon another person, maintaining a long continuum of faith and influence that stretches all the way back to Jesus’ original calling of the disciples.
Take the example of Timothy. He was the product of a pagan Gentile father and a Jewish mother who defied the conventions of her own religion to marry outside her faith. Then she became a Christian. Young Timothy must have wondered about his identity: was he Gentile? Jewish? Christian? Along came Paul, who was Jewish, Christian, and a product of Gentile culture, who proceeded to put an electric touch of faith on Timothy’s life. Paul encouraged him as a father would nurture a son. Indeed, Paul refers to him as his child, and he was, at least spiritually. Paul invested himself so intimately and effectively in Timothy’s faith that the young man matured into a great Christian leader. Paul even referred to Timothy as an apostle of Christ, a term Paul used with reference to virtually no one, save occasionally himself. Having felt Paul’s touch, Timothy became Paul’s touch. Timothy became Paul’s hands and feet. We talk about Paul sending letters. No: Timothy delivered them. When Paul wanted to know what was happening to a small church in Thessalonica, Timothy delivered Paul’s letter to them so he could assess the young church’s situation. When Paul wanted to know what was going on in Corinth, he sent Timothy with a letter, though he knew he was sending Timothy into a situation fraught with tension. When Paul worked in an emotionally-charged atmosphere in Ephesus, Timothy was by his side. When Paul was in chains and needed a letter sent to reassure the church at Philippi that he was okay, Timothy did the job. Paul’s touch electrified Timothy, and Timothy proceeded to travel throughout the Mediterranean world touching thousands of lives, communicating the story of Christ through a personal touch of faith.
Of course Paul wouldn’t have been there to touch Timothy’s life with the Gospel unless Paul had received a Gospel touch from somebody else. When he was Saul, persecutor of the church, after being confronted by the voice of Christ and blinded by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul dithered in the dark about his future. In his mind’s eye, Paul had an image of a man named Ananias coming to lay hands upon him and restore his sight. The trouble was, Ananias did not see himself in that role. Ananias had doubts about whether he could serve as God’s instrument of blessing. He had more doubts about whether Saul deserved to be blessed. But in obedience to God, Ananias went to that persecutor of the church and said, “Brother Saul,” and he touched him with an electric touch so that the Scriptures say that “scales dropped from his eyes,” and Saul rose to become Paul who rose to become the champion of Christ whose ministry would touch the lives of millions.
Do we ever ponder those striking words of Jesus to his disciples and also to us? He says, “I give you the keys to the kingdom, and what you bind on earth, I bind in heaven, and what you loose on earth, I will loose in heaven.” Those are powerful, frightening, awesome words! You and I have been given the key of the Gospel of Christ to unlock the spiritual potential of other people’s lives! You and I have been given the key of Good News to open somebody else’s existence up to the Spirit of God! What will we do with that key? Will we treasure it? Will we stuff it in our pocket? Will we throw it away? Or will we use the key to the Kingdom that God has to unlock lives and help them realize the liberating power of God’s Good News? spiritual potential?
For after all, that’s all the Evangel is: It is God’s Good News. We hear the word “evangelism,” and we conjure up images of a packed stadium, with hundreds of people streaming down aisles toward a celebrated preacher. There is no Biblical parallel for such a scene. Evangelism in the Scripture is intimate and personal. Even at Pentecost, where three thousand people became Christians and began to form the church, the story began with the disciples “giving with great power their witness of the resurrection.” Even the conversion of three thousand began with a few peasant fishermen and tax collectors sharing Good News of how Christ had changed their lives. In fact, the word “evangelism,” is related to and derived from our word for “angel.” The “evangelium,” “the good news,” was delivered by an “euangelos” – a “good messenger,” a ”good angel.” When we deliver God’s good news we are being a “good angel,” we are being an “evangelist.” And of course, good news is irrepressible. When a young lady receives an engagement ring, does she hide that finger? No, she displays that ring proudly. This weekend, while I was in Birmingham helping sift through my parents’ stuff, we watched an old video my mom took of the Christmas moment when my children learned that we had given them a very old “new” car as a present. Mom captured them jumping up and down, hugging each other, screaming for joy. Within twenty minutes they had shared that good news with their vast network of friends. But the strange thing is, you and I are often more apt to share good news about a great Mexican restaurant or a good movie rather than the good news of Jesus Christ. How is it that we are willing to speak about matters that are superficial and yet are reluctant to be evangelists about the things that matter most? How seriously do we take our role as good angels?
The older I become, the more my mind gravitates to fairy tales, for at their core they speak enduring truths. In pondering this subject of the electric touch of the Gospel, what came to mind was the tale of the Magic Swan. Do you remember it? The youngest of three brothers, persecuted and pummeled by his older siblings, fled to the woods where he was befriended by an old woman who told him that he must travel to the city to find a new life. She told the boy that down a path and under a tree he would find a beautiful swan tethered. She said, “Go unfasten the swan and take it with you. This swan will be so beautiful that everyone will want to touch it, and when they do, say, ‘Swan, hold fast!’ and the person will be stuck to the swan”. The lad did as the woman told him, and sure enough, he hadn’t gone far before a worker saw him leading this swan, and the young man came to ask if he could pluck a feather. The boy said sure, but as soon as the worker touched the bird, the boy yelled, “Swan, hold fast!” and the worker was stuck. The worker started screaming, and his cries attracted a young milkmaid who came to his aid, and as soon as she touched the worker, the boy cried, “Swan, hold fast,” and she became stuck, too. Soon the boy had attracted a huge menagerie of people, a merchant, a banker, a baker, a clown, a mayor and the mayor’s wife, a great chain of diverse people fastened together in a long chorus line. They entered the capital city, where they were spied by a princess in a tower who had never before smiled in her life. But when she saw this motley train of people stuck together, she started laughing, and her laughter so delighted her father, the king, that he gave the princess’ hand in marriage to the young man with the swan.
Fairy tale? Yes. But also the story of the Christian faith. The history of our Christian faith is a great line of diverse people all linked together by the electric current of God’s Good News. The Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark who became a confidante of Peter, who was a good friend of Barnabas, John Mark’s cousin. Barnabas also became a friend and confidant of Paul, whose touch changed Timothy’s life. But Paul and Timothy never would have met had not Paul first come to know Timothy’s mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. Christian tradition says that the apostle John established Christianity in Ephesus. He was succeeded as bishop by none other than Timothy. Timothy’s life and faith recruited John the Elder as the next pastor. John the Elder recruited Polycarp as his successor. Polycarp baptized Iranaeus, who became Christianity’s first great theologian, whose work brought hundreds of people into contact with the Christian Gospel. Biblical evangelism was never primarily the evangelism of strangers. When you analyze the story of the development of the Gospel, it reads like a Dickens’ novel or a small southern newspaper. The Christian story is a series of intimate personal touches that electify lives with the current of the Gospel.
Every college football fan knows the importance of December, when all the five-star recruits sign their letter of intent with the University of Georgia (and the one-star recruits sign with Georgia Tech.) But when those kids commit to a particular institution, that action is not the result of a single visit or call. No, that commitment reflects a long process of relationships that probably started back in middle school. When a kid commits to an institution it is because someone has invested in a long process of nurturing that led to that commitment. The same is true when someone walks down the aisle to make a profession of faith or walks down the aisle to join this church. That walk down the aisle is a single, punctiliar action, but that decision is the result of a series of contacts and the support of an entire network of relationships. But how much time and energy do we expend as recruiters for the Kingdom of God? How many contacts do we make on behalf of that fellowship of believers known as Vineville Baptist Church? How seriously do we take our role as those who have the potential to unlock the spiritual potential of others. How seriously do we take our role as those to whom Christ has given the keys to the Kingdom of heaven? Then again, are you truly and fully committed to God’s Kingdom and to this church? For the truth is, you cannot be an effective recruiter of others until you are first fully committed to God and this church as well. Only then can we exert a truly powerful electric touch on behalf of the Gospel.
Some years ago, USA Today published an article on fighters for the Muslim terrorist movement known as ISSIS. 95% of them were recruited to their cause by family and friends. 95%! That startling fact caused me to ask a question: Are they more serious and passionate about their enterprise than we are about ours? I think back to what Matthew records as our Lord’s final words to his disciples. If the Gospel of Matthew is to be believed, our Lord’s last words to us were not, ‘Go build a great building.’ He didn’t say, ‘Go create a great budget.’ He didn’t say, ‘Serve on a bunch of important committees.’ He said, “Go and make disciples.” Go recruit for God’s Kingdom! Go make disciples! Electrifying lives, nurturing people in faith, bringing people to the banquet table of faith, these are not ancillary or optional activities in our Christian faith. These activities are meant to be the heart of our faith! And Christ promises us, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Some years ago I was in the hospital room of a woman facing a complicated surgical procedure. Her face registered great angst. But her daughter said to her, “Mama, don’t worry. Whatever they do to you, and wherever they take you, I’ll be right there, too.” Her daughter’s assurance brought almost instantaneous comfort and calm to that woman’s tense face. So, too, wherever we go as ambassadors for the Kingdom of God, and however we fulfill our role as practitioners who communicate God’s Good News, in whatever capacity we seek to be “good angels,” we need to always remember, we do not work alone – our Christ is with us, even to the end of the age. And as we fulfill our role as those who exercise the electric touch of the Gospel, we will recruit the next generation of believers to carry on God’s eternal narrative of redemption. Such is our responsibility and our great privilege as those who have claimed the name of Christ.