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September 7, 2016, 10:58 AM

Earning Our Wings


Matthew 28:16-20, CEB
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
 
“Earning Our Wings” (Evangelism & Acceptance)
 
Rachel Held Evans recounts this story in one of her blogs concerning evangelism from 2013:
 
Mark spoke in chapel every other year, usually in the spring, which was about the time I’d accumulated too many absences to cut. A former college basketball player with an imposing six-foot-seven frame, bald head, and booming voice, Mark travelled the country telling Christian college students about his evangelistic exploits, challenging us to “wake up from our apathy” and start witnessing to people before they died and went to hell. 
Mark said his favorite place to witness to someone was on an airplane.  “It’s a captive audience!” he shouted from the stage. “I mean, the target is literally strapped in next to you!” 
[He probably said “person,” but all I could hear was “target.”]
Mark suggested we begin a conversation with our seatmate by asking if they knew where they would go spend eternity should there be a catastrophic failure in the plane’s hydraulic system and we all went down in flames. If that doesn’t work, he said, we should drill the person on how many of the Ten Commandments they might have broken, revealing their need for a savior—Ever committed adultery? Ever lied? Ever disobeyed your parents? Ever coveted your neighbor’s things? You know, make a little small talk about idolatry and death and then tell them about Jesus. 
At the end of chapel, Mark always announced he would be going to the local park that afternoon to evangelize. He would take a group of students with him, but he needed those students to stand up and publicly pledge their commitment to process. 
“Who’s going to live for Jesus today?” he asked. “Stand up right now if you’re ready to take the gospel seriously and live for Jesus.” 
 
That is the popular definition of evangelism—and the nightmare of introverts everywhere. Rachel Held Evans is what is called these days a “progressive evangelical,” along with popular author, Brian McLaren. These progressive evangelicals were raised in conservative or fundamentalist congregations and are deeply called to be evangelists, but their call does not lead them to Mark’s understanding of evangelism. They are striving, in their books and blogging, to help Christians everywhere to see evangelism in a new light, and to demonstrate an evangelism that goes hand in hand with acceptance and love of others.
 
So what is evangelism if it isn’t only defined in the example Rachel gives us from Mark, the chapel speaker? Evangelism is a word straight from the gospels, straight from scripture. It is an English adaptation of a beautiful Greek word, euangelion. And this word is a compound word—remember from your English classes—a word that is the joining of two other words together to create a new one. Euangelion is the joining of Eu, which means good, and angelion, which means message or news. Evangelism is sharing good news, and an evangelist is the messenger bearing the good news. But look closely at the end word in euangelion. Angelion is also the word angel. Angel is Greek for God’s messenger. An evangelist is an angel, bringing God’s good news. Another word we use for good news in the church is gospel. Gospel also literally means good news. Today’s reading comes from the Gospel of Matthew, the good news according to Matthew. The authors of our four gospels are often referred to as evangelists. They composed good news to share—our four famous angels.
 
Now that we have had a brief English-Greek lesson, I want to talk about another famous angel, but one that is far removed from the four gospel authors in our New Testament. I want to remind us this morning of the angel associated with the sermon title today—“Earning Our Wings.” Anyone here know which angel goes with that title? (Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life) Yes, the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Quick, quick recap of a very long movie: George Bailey, the main character, has decided life is not worth living and is going to kill himself by jumping from a bridge into the river on Christmas Eve. Clarence, his 2nd class guardian angel, is sent to stop him, to save his life and help him see that life is worth living. Over the course of this long movie, this slightly inept angel shows George what the world would be like if he had not been around—showing him his town, his family, and his friends in dire straits because George was missing from their lives. We learn also that Clarence, if he can save and redeem George, will earn 1st class angel status and will thus earn his wings. In the end George is redeemed, sees his own worth, and returns to this family filled with joy… and Clarence earns his wings.
 
I bring up this movie classic as we explore evangelism and acceptance because I firmly believe we are all called, in some fashion, to be evangelists and to share the good news of God. I believe we are all angels and I think Clarence is a bit easier to identify with then gospel writers or popular depictions of heavenly winged creatures. If you have seen the movie you will remember that Clarence is a bit goofy and bumbling. His heart is true and his intentions good, but he is a far cry from the mighty Gabriel bringing Mary word of her impending pregnancy and the birth of God-with-us from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. For us to entertain the idea that we too are angels, bearers of God’s message to the world, perhaps it helps to think of ourselves as those still earning our wings.
 
Our gospel reading-good news reading-today is the end of Matthew’s gospel, the very end. If we were reading Matthew’s account straight through to today’s verses, we would have seen “God-with-us” born and would have traveled with him throughout his Sermon on the Mount, through parables and miracles, travels and teachings. We would have witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection, and now find ourselves standing on a mount once again, hearing ourselves sent forth with a commission. This commission is very specific. Let’s look at it again, even though many of us could recite it by heart—Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you.”
 
This Great Commission is a command, so the action verbs take center stage. We are commanded to go and make. Go and make what? Disciples. What are disciples? Well, if we have been reading Matthew’s Euangelion, we have been traveling with disciples for most of the book. What are disciples? Disciples are those who follow Jesus, who seek to learn what Jesus has to reveal about God and to embody God’s way of living in their lives. The disciples are those who walked with Jesus, spent time in Jesus’ presence, together, as a group, as a community. Disciples are those who experienced Jesus together and who are then commanded or commissioned by Jesus to go and make more disciples.
 
What might that entail? Well, Jesus tells us in the command. It entails baptism and teaching. And isn’t that the essence of being a disciple? A disciple is like an apprentice or a student—learning, emulating, practicing, asking questions, growing in their understanding and experience. Discipleship is about relationship. It is about a community doing all of this together—learning together, practicing together, modeling Jesus’ way of life together, questioning, doubting, growing, becoming stronger, together. And going out, together, inviting others to experience the community and the way of life the community is committed to. Evangelism. Euangelion. Learning to fly, together.
 
We cannot ‘go and make’ if we don’t know the essence of the good news we are to be messengers for. That good news is the life found in living the way modeled by Jesus. Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, loosened the chains of anger, greed, materialism, hate, and despair, and offered us an opportunity to walk freely in love, joy and peace. That is indeed good news. As we continue to grow in understanding and to gain experience in Jesus living, we go out together to show the world this resurrection living. We are living invitations into community and new life. Acceptance means we love people as we find them. Acceptance means that they are free to say no to our invitation, to say ‘I’m not sure,’ to say ‘give me some time’ without recrimination. Because being a disciple, living Jesus’ way, means we continue to love them, pray for them, spend time with them, regardless.
 
And who knows, even if they don’t join us in this community, their encounter with us should be an encounter with Jesus. And Jesus can work wonders in just the briefest of encounters. Who knows what seeds are planted in just a few moments, a few loving words, a gesture of acceptance and joy.
 
We are God’s angels, God’s messengers of good news, by our words and our actions. We are God’s angels through our living and our sharing. Our live together in this community is a life of sharing and practicing and exploring and learning, earning our wings—our confidence in being sent forth as living invitations.  Let us not be afraid of evangelism. Would not the world be better if Jesus living became contagious, if discipleship flourished? Isn’t the current plight of our nation and our community, with so much fear and distrust and division, calling for us to invite others into a new way? How many different forms might that invitation take as we journey forth day after day after day? We do not go alone, for “look, Jesus himself will be with us every day until the end of this present age.” Amen.

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