In the gospel of Luke, at the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, he calls Levi to "Come, and follow me." Levi's a tax collector –– a traitor to his people, hated and feared and ostracized. And without ever looking back, he leaves his tax booth, the money he was collecting, his job, everything … and follows Jesus. If only all our evangelistic efforts worked out this well!
I've been following Jesus for thirty years now, which means that as a young Christian, I did what Christians were expected to do then. I went door-to-door, annoying folks in their homes; two-by-two, we stopped people in the street to advise them to "Turn or burn." I thought it was holy to leave a tract, instead of a tip for the server in the restaurant.
I know, because the Spirit does as he pleases, that sometimes efforts like these result in someone's salvation or recommitment to Christ. But, in all honesty, in all the years I practiced evangelism in that way, I never saw it happen. And part of the result of all this is that "evangelism" has a bad reputation and is scorned and ridiculed in the media and the world, which does the gospel no good at all.
Don't call the church police on me! I know evangelism, proclaiming the good news and exhibiting the kingdom of heaven to the world, is our primary calling on this earth. But the older I get, the more I look to this passage in Luke, where Jesus called Levi, as an example of evangelism at its best.
What's the first thing Levi does after he answers Jesus' call? He invites all his friends –– tax collectors and sinners –– to a great banquet in his home … a great banquet he's giving for Jesus.
There was something about Jesus. He could see into people's hearts and tell them the truth about themselves. He did this with such compassion, such love, that instead of getting offended, people ran to invite others to come and see him. He was perfectly comfortable at a table full of tax collectors and sinners, and they were glad to have him there. He lived with the poor and the sick and the unclean and brought grace and healing into their lives. The ONLY people who felt his anger and judgment were the self-righteous religious leaders –– good churchgoers, every one. Sinners … like us … felt his grace.
Are we like that? Can we reach out to people with the same acceptance and understanding? Are we so filled with God's love that it spills over into every relationship, even every chance encounter, that we have? Do we remember our own sinfulness and allow it to keep us humble, so that we don't judge others, but love them? What DOES it really mean to evangelize?
I heard a story once about two men at an airport –– one a Christian, the other not. The Christian man began to witness. He talked about sin, repentance, the possibility of hell. The other man was polite, but not interested, and he expressed that to the Christian man. But the well-meaning Christian was absolutely on a roll and just wouldn't quit, and finally, the other man said, "Listen to me! You may love your Jesus, but it's very clear you DON'T love me. And I am NOT interested."
Hearing that story changed my life. Evangelism takes time. It's part of living our lives and serving God and coming to love and know ALL KINDS of people –– sinners, people who are poor and sick and unclean –– people just like us. The ONLY way to exhibit that kind of love is to receive it from Jesus himself, in our hearts and lives. Understand what grace really is –– not license, but FREEDOM –– freedom from condemnation, guilt, self-hatred.
We are known completely, and loved absolutely. How difficult it is for us to believe and live that! But, if we could truly understand the depth and power of Jesus' GRACE … we could offer it to others as well. Unconditional, non-judgmental, patient, understanding –– can you imagine how the people in your world would respond if that's the kind of love they received from you? You'd be a walking, talking, powerful evangelist, just as Jesus was.
What did evangelism mean to Levi? Filled with joy, relief, hope, thanksgiving, he invited everyone he knew to dinner, with Jesus as the guest of honor. He didn't have to read a book or memorize techniques. He just did what came naturally –– shared his joy, showed hospitality, made people feel welcomed –– and Jesus was right there, just as he is with us. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Levi gave his own testimony that evening. He probably didn't quote scripture, or threaten hell, or inflict guilt and shame on anyone.
All he knew was, Jesus loved him, and called him, and he had experienced healing, life-giving love. That's a testimony that comes from the heart, not an instruction book.
True love, God's love, is irresistible. It never fails. Receive God's love and grace fully into your heart, and share them with others. And watch what happens.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.