Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Friday, November 18, 2016

COMPASSIONATE EVANGELISM: A Non-Judgemental Approach to Sharing the Christian Faith

(The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara. Evangelism Summit. Dallas, TX. 11/18/2016)

I will begin with a testimony: I believe all of us, children of God, have been given spiritual gifts to be used for God’s glory. As priest in the Episcopal Church, I believe my gift-mix is pastor-missionary-evangelist. With God’s grace, I use this spiritual gift-mix when I pastor a church, plant a church, revive a church or grow a church.

In the national church level, I serve as Missioner for Asiamerica and Pacific Islanders Ministries. One of the new things we want to do is ANDREWS –a mentoring program for our diverse constituencies, the 7 ethnic convocations: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islanders.

ANDREWS means “Asiamerica Network of Disciples, Revivalists, Evangelists, Witnesses and Saints.” I have a booklet for you to explain what it means.

In the local level, I serve as a very part-time revivalist of declining parishes. Three years ago, even as full-time missioner in the Episcopal Church, I was used by the Lord to revive a declining parish in Queens, New York. When I first came to St. James in Elmhurst, New York the average Sunday attendance was 20 and they had $93,000 deficit. The church was a candidate for closure as some churches had been. By God’s grace, I led the church to a revival and evangelism program. After my three-year contract, I left the church with 150 Sunday attendance, $43,000 surplus and a clear plan for continued development. Today, I am at Holy Trinity in Hicksville, Long Island addressing a program called RED-Revival, Evangelism, Discipleship.

One of my evangelism stories involved Seema. She came from a Hindu background, a Brahmin, the highest class in the Indian caste system. It was Christmas Eve of 2015. Seema and two other Hindu friends stopped by to listen to our Christmas pageant. After the midnight mass that followed, she stayed behind to ask me one question, “Father Fred, I listened to your sermon and I want to become a Christian. How do I become one?”

One thing I learned in India’s history was about Mahatma Gandhi. He was fascinated by Christianity but as a Hindu, he “could not put Christ on a solitary throne.” So I told Seema that I respect her religious background and make no judgment on the Hindu religion. As a Christian however, I told her I believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” Then I shared with her a brief narrative on the life and person of Jesus Christ and prayed for her.  I gave her a copy of the Bible and gave some specific scriptures to meditate upon.

A month later, Seema came back and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Together with a few  others, she joined the Baptism Class and learned the ”Baptismal Vows” in the Book of Common Prayer. I baptized her on Easter Sunday of 2016. She continues to be an active member in the Episcopal Church, even when I am no longer a priest in that congregation.

As Christians, it is our bounden duty and joy to share our faith, to call people to repentance, and when they are receptive to our message, to lead them to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  But how many of us know how to share our faith and lead others to Christ?

Looking back to the conversion of Seema, I kept on wondering. What if she did not wait for me and asked an average church member the question, ”How do I accept Christ?.” What answer would they have said? I can only imagine one thing they would say to Seema: ”Let’s go to Father Fred.” This is because I have not taught them how to evangelize, I have not taught them how to share their faith, I have not taught them how to lead others to Christ.

Many of our typical Episcopalian members are “sacramentalized” but not evangelized. When asked, why are you a Christian, they respond with “I am a cradle Episcopalian; I was born a Christian.” Well, the fact that you were born in a garage does not make you a car. So even if your father and mother were Christians and you were baptized Episcopalian, these do not mean that you know your faith and consistently growing up into the full measure of the stature of Christ.

There are three imperatives in the Christian journey: “You must be born again;” “you must be filled with the Holy Spirit”; and “you must be a servant of the church.” This is a progressive step towards discipleship in Christ.

Christianity is a journey, a journey of relationship, a journey towards the ultimate destination, our union with God in Christ, the doctrine of atonement of "at-one-ment." In another way of saying, we are under construction. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, ”God is not finished with me yet.” As we journey in faith, we beckon others to join us. Jesus said in his prayer for his disciples, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

First, you must develop compassion. Matthew 9:36-38 says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

What is compassion? Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” In Greek, the word compassion gives the image of being gripped in the guts, in the intestines. Among emotion researchers, it is defined as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

In India, there is a proverb that says, “You can never know what someone is carrying until she is bumped.” The image is a woman in a village carrying a jar on her head; you don’t know what’s inside, milk or water. Then there are children who were playing around and accidentally bumped the woman and the content of the jar spilled. Now everyone knows what she has been carrying.

Yes, we can know what burdens people carry but only in the context of interaction, of relationship. We can program our action but we cannot program our reaction. That is why we need to have compassion, not just empathy to understand their burdens they carry but also a desire to help carry that burden.

The poet George Elliot wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Today, how many of us feel the pains and heartaches of millions of undocumented immigrants who fear that anytime soon, there will be knocks on their doors and they would be rounded up and deported? The President-elect Donald Trump has made mass deportation as one of the hallmarks of his presidential campaign and now that he won, the stigma of his words cut deep into the hearts of this section of the population. Are they not the massa perditiones, the ochlos, the crowds whom the bible describes as “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd?”.

How many of us feel the fear of their children, who were born here and who know no other country and yet being part of the threat to their survival? How many of us feel their dreams fading, their hopes dropping and their despair rising?

How many of feel the pains and heartaches of the Native Americans in Standing Rock, fighting for one of the few lands left to them. They are fighting and appealing for one basic commodity, water,  clear and clean water being threatened by the proposed oil pipeline. Their ancestors were the first peoples who lived here for thousands of years. Every one of us--- white, black, brown, yellow or what have you--- who come after are simply immigrants. They deserve our gratitude and respect and the remains of their ancestors buried in their land do not deserve the desecration. It is sacred ground, holy land.

How many of us feel the pains and heartaches of our neighbors: a single mother struggling to keep her children while working and going to school dreaming they could make it one day. A businessman so successful materially but empty of spiritual meaning; who surrounded himself with things money can buy but unable to find joy and satisfaction in what he does?

How many of us feel the pain and heartaches of dysfunctional family, whose relationships are ruptured by alcohol and drug addiction, unable to free themselves from the quagmire of poverty and destitution?

There is so much pain and so much heart aches in the world and there are people who constantly live in the shadow of oppression and despair. Our compassion should move us to share our faith and be creative with our desire to help.

As Christians, we believe the grace of God is sufficient. For somewhere in this universe there is a place where all the heartaches and pains of humanity are funneled into---and that place is the heart of God. And if our hearts are too small for God, God’s heart is too large for ours. Then that compassion of Christ would also move us to share our faith.

 Second, we must share our faith with humility. D.T. Niles, pastor and theologian from Sri Lanka wrote this famous definition of evangelism. “Evangelism is a beggar, telling another beggar where to find bread.”
In the economy of God, we are all sinners in God’s redeeming. If God takes his hand from my life, my lips will turn into clay.

Maya de Angelou, the poet laureate wrote:

When I say... "I am a Christian "I'm not shouting "I'm clean livin'." I'm whispering "I was lost,
Now I'm found and forgiven." When I say... "I am a Christian" I don't speak of this with pride. I'm confessing that I stumble and need Christ to be my guide.

When I say... "I am a Christian" I'm not trying to be strong. I'm professing that I'm weak  and need His strength to carry on. When I say... "I am a Christian “I’m not bragging of success. I’m admitting I have failed and need God to clean my mess.

When I say... "I am a Christian “I’m not claiming to be perfect, my flaws are far too visible
But, God believes I am worth it. When I say... "I am a Christian “I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of heartaches so I call upon His name.

When I say... "I am a Christian “I’m not holier than thou, I'm just a simple sinner who received God's good grace, somehow!

Third, we must practice non-violence in our speech and actions.
The saying “stick and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” That is not true. Violent words, vitriolic words, negative words can hurt our souls and crush our spirits.

In this country, we have free speech but we have taken them as license to bully, to insult, to discourage, and to break the spirits of others. The recent election was filled with vitriolic words, lying words, threatening words, insulting words, hate words, violent words. Their deleterious effects are still felt even today. We have heard of the increase of children being traumatized by the threats they heard on television.

Words have power and energy. They can inspire us, comfort us, and enliven us. Or they can hurt us, maim us, even kill us. We need to use our words to better the world, not make it more miserable. Even a simple “Good Morning” or “Thank You” can make someone feel like they are worth something.

I like the words from the Book of Proverbs 25;11 which say, ”Words aptly spoken are like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

So, what comes out of your mouth?

Are you quick to make a rude remark?
Do your words fluctuate with your moods?
Do you defend what you like and attack things you don’t?
Are your words made up of gossip, negativity, and complaint?
Do you use words like loser, stupid, and idiot, imbecile?
Do your sentences end with a sneer and rolled eyes?

 We have the power to bless people or to curse.

The Book of James say,” The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”  - James 3: 2-13

So if you want to be used by God as the bearer of the Good News, you must develop a "golden tongue." “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of them who bring Good News, Good News, announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness, Our God reigns, our God reigns!”

Seek God for healing and forgiveness, and your heart will blossom with the love of Jesus Christ. Only when we truly walk in the Spirit of God, will our words reflect what is in God’s heart.

So having cleansed your heart with malice and wrong intentions, having rid your tongue from all manner of aggressive, judgmental and arrogant words, you are ready to become bearers of the Good News of salvation. This is evangelism with no value judgment of others but only with compassion, humility and graceful words.

I’m still in the process of working out a formula for faith sharing but from what I learned in the past, the following outline has worked. I call this the ABCDE. When a person has expressed a desire to become a Christian I help him or her to work through ABCDP (Accept, Believe, Confess, Decide, Pray):

  1. ACCEPT: Accept that there is a God who loves you and cares for you. He loved you so much that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16). This God is not a tribal God but a universal God. He has no partiality because He created all human beings unique but also equal before Him. Accept that you need God. St. Augustine said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in human hearts that cannot be filled except by God Himself.” Jesus said "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; but apart from me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
  2. BELIEVE:  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I come to give you life and have it abundantly.” And in John 14:6, he says “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In Acts 4:12, Peter declared: “Salvation is found in no one else, but in Jesus, and there is no other name under heaven given to men.” The name “Jesus” means Savior.
  3. CONFESS: Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. The central affirmation of the Christian faith says: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” The resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Because Jesus lives again, we can face tomorrow.  If we confess our sins to God in the name of Jesus Christ, we will be forgiven and move on to live a transformed life.
  4. DECIDE: Make a decision that will transform your life by accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, Redeemer and Lord. Decide to be baptized in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world. Then talk to your priest or pastor about Baptism.
  5. PRAY: Lead the person to this prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for loving me so much. You gave Your Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die for me on the cross; and because He lives, I can face tomorrow. I confess that I have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and now desire to receive Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Give me your Holy Spirit to be with me forever and to guide me along the path of new life and growth. Lead me to a church that shall help me to grow in my faith. I freely give myself to your leading, O my God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Let me now conclude my presentation with at least three reminders about the nature of evangelism:

First, evangelism involves the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of persons. 
Ultimately, we are simply instruments in the hands of God. Evangelism, the proclamation of the Good News by words and deeds----and sometimes silence--- is a divine-human cooperation. God calls and we respond; God initiates and we follow; God leads and we act.

There was a story of a little boy who found a lot in his neighborhood. It was full of weeds, junks and garbage. He felt the call to clean it up, to cultivate it and to plant a rose garden. And he did it. In due time, the roses grew and the flowers bloom. As he stood there admiring the work of his hands, a priest came by and equally admiring, said: “Wow, Young man, look what God and you have done for this garden. It’s so beautiful!” The little boy replied, “Yes, Father; but you should have seen it when it was left to God alone.”

In Romans 10:14, the Bible says: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Brothers and sisters, we are entrusted with a holy task, to preach the Good News.

Secondly, the supremacy and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Christianity is inclusive but its claim is exclusive: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). We must respect all religions and be sympathetic to other faiths but we must affirm what was handed down to us from generation to generation. Peter and John, in the face of persecution and threat of death, affirmed that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

 As St. Paul to the people of Athens in his famous sermon in Aeropagus, “I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and examined your objects of worship, I even found an altar with the inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ Therefore what you worship as something unknown, I now proclaim to you.”

St. Paul urges “that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all people, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Thirdly and finally, Christ is the ultimate Reality, the final answer to our confounded longings. To illustrate my point let me tell you a couple of stories; one from rural Asia and the other one from urban America.
In Asia, there’s a popular folk tale of a loving mother, a widow, who lived with his only son. They lived as farmers in a typical agricultural village. Now her son had a face that, to use a figure of speech, “only a mother could love.” In other words, he was not attractive. Now he fell in love with a woman on the other side of the mountain, who said to him, “I would reciprocate your love if you can give me the heart of your mother.” Maybe it was just a figure of speech or that the woman was wicked but the man thought about it quite a lot. He was deeply and fatally infatuated and the fantasy that he can have this woman tormented him. And one day, in one moment of madness, he killed his mother, took her heart out and hurried to offer this heart to the object of his infatuation. He ran through the fields and rice paddies and accidentally stumbled upon a rock. The heart flung into the muddy field and he recovered it. As he was cleaning up the heart, blooded and muddied, the heart spoke, “My son, my son, are you hurt?”

The bible says that Christ did not wait for us to be good “but when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If I consider my own sinfulness and disobedience, my frailty, my weaknesses, my wretchedness and imperfections, I can not but thank Jesus who suffered and died for me on the cross. I cannot save myself. I need a Saviour and He is Jesus. This Jesus is what I proclaim to you.

Now I shift to another story in the setting of urban America. There was a new immigrant woman who was lucky enough to marry a rich businessman in Wall Street, New York.  After the wedding, he brought her to his plush apartment in Manhattan where they lived for quite a while.  Being a busy man, the husband would often come home very late and when he does, having had dinner meetings, he would simply go right to bed and sleep. This went on for quite a while so this young bride had been starving for physical affection. It was at this point that a youthful sexual fantasy invaded her mind. This is a fantasy that she can actualize because she had money, she was attractive and she had opportunity. So one night, while he husband was fast asleep, she slipped out of their room, got dressed and hurried to a nearby nightclub and indulged herself.  After a couple of hours, she went back to their apartment, slipped back to the cover of their blanket and she began to sob. She was crying quietly but so deeply. And her husband asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”  And she replied, “Nothing…just nothing.”
My friends, the most empty feeling, my theological professor would say, ”the most difficult existential vacuum” is when you realize that what you thought was the ultimate, turns out to be nothing!

Yes my friends, Jesus alone is the Ultimate Reality, the Ultimate Answer, the Absolute of Absolutes. Jesus alone can truly answer our deepest needs, he alone can truly mend our broken hearts, he alone can truly wipe the tears from our eyes, and he alone can truly give us new and abundant lives. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In Him we live and move and have our being. If Christ takes His hand from my life, these lips shall turn into clay; if Jesus removes Himself from my Church, we shall be like the chicken who lost its head. We would circle around with much activity but in the end fall down and breathless and dead.
So our message to the world is, "turn, turn, to the Lord Jesus Christ. Turn to Him now with all of your heart!"
And the message to us, the Church, bearers of the Good News, is this 2nd Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, chapter 4:verses 1-4:

 “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, DO THE WORK OF AN EVANGELIST, fulfill your ministry.” Amen and Amen!


For more information, contact: wvergara@episcopalchurch.org