May 6, 2018, Bridging the Communication Gap: Evangelism for Normal People – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I think that one of the greatest challenges we face as Christians, both in our personal understanding of the Bible, and maybe even more in trying to share our faith with other people, is that even when two people are speaking the same language, even when they are saying the exact same words, they are very often hearing and meaning completely different things.
Those of us who were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition remember when the Mass was changed from Latin to English. All of a sudden the words we heard and the responses we made were in our own everyday language. Way back in the 1500’s, one of the main points the Protestant Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, were making, is that the Bible had to be translated into the language of the people, so that every person could read and understand it for him or herself. We take it for granted now that we can pick up a Bible anytime we want, and read it in contemporary English, and understand what we are reading, but that wasn’t always the case.
And yet, even though we are reading words in a common tongue, it is important to remember that common understanding is something we need to seek carefully and thoughtfully. Communication not something we can take for granted.
Just for a trivial, non-theological example, think about the word “soon”. Say you are a little kid, and it’s one week before your ninth birthday, and you ask your Mom or Dad when it’s going to be your birthday, and they tell you, “Really soon, honey!” Your parents say the word “soon”, and they are thinking of the seven short days that are left before your birthday, and all that they have to get done. They have forty hours or more of work ahead of them, on top of household chores and errands. The birthday party means extra grocery shopping, extra house cleaning, and extra cooking to do. The more they think about it, the more that date feels like it’s coming at breakneck speed.
You, on the other hand, being an eight-year-old child, have already been waiting absolutely forever to finally be nine years old. Those next seven days are an eternity. You get to hand out invitations to the kids in your class; that will be fun. But then all there is to do is to wait, and wait, and wait – day after day after day after day. Seven days! How can your Mom and Dad possibly call that soon?
Our different situations and experiences cause us to hear the same word in entirely different ways. With something like waiting for a birthday party, the problem of communication is just a little thing, but there are time when we fail to communicate with people in ways that are much more serious, and even potentially destructive. And that is never more true than when we are trying to communicate the life-giving substance of our faith in Jesus Christ.
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as evangelists, but we all do it. It is a natural thing for us to want to share what is most precious to us, with our family, or with our friends and neighbors, or with someone we meet who is in need of comfort. And real evangelism is never just a matter of reciting Bible verses at people and expecting their minds and their lives to be changed by our well-chosen selection of chapter and verse. That is true first of all because it is only by the inner work of the Holy Spirit that people’s hearts are healed and made new, and that is not something we can make happen.
But it is also true because different people generally hear things differently. And because of that, understanding, even in the case of words that seem obvious to us, is not something we can take for granted. I was thinking of that when I was studying the readings for this week.
When I read John’s gospel, I am always struck by the way that John shows everything that Jesus taught, and everything that Jesus did, through the lens of love – Jesus’ love for the Father; the Father’s love for the Son; the Son’s love for his friends and the people he meets along the way; the community of love that Jesus establishes. I am always comforted by reading John’s words. But I wondered what today’s reading would sound like to a person who had never, in their whole life, experienced unconditional love. What would that person hear, for instance, when Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” and “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”?
Obviously, human love is never perfect, but some people have really never known love without strings attached. I have known children who have grown up feeling that they can only earn the love of their parents if they meet certain requirements. If they work hard enough, if they get good enough grades, if they lose enough weight, if they conform to whatever standards their parents have set for them, then and only then do they have any chance of deserving love.
And all too often children who have lived in that kind of uncertainty are the very ones who grow up and find themselves in relationships or marriages with the same pressure to perform, to live up to the other person’s standards or satisfy the other person’s needs, always in the desperate hope of earning the love their hearts are starving for. That’s the dynamic that is most often at work in relationships that are abusive. That is often one reason why women who have suffered violence keep returning to the relationship, even at the risk of their own safety.
To such people, it might be that that “if” makes Jesus’ love sound like every other love they have known – just something they have to earn, something they will only deserve if they can live up to his standards – standards that are probably too high for them to reach anyway. But we, who have come to understand something of the love that God freely offers us in his Son, not only because we have read about it in the Bible, but also because we have experienced it in our own lives – we have the ability and the responsibility to help communicate to that person what unconditional love is, and that it is something that has already been offered to them.
One way we can help someone find a deeper understanding of what Jesus says in the passage is by helping them read the wider context, because people who live in fear sometimes have a hard time seeing the whole picture. He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” But he also points out that our friendship with him is not based on anything we do. “You didn’t choose me,” he tells us, “I chose you.” It is so incredibly reassuring to know that we belong to Jesus purely because he wanted us. I think sometimes we kind of get used to the idea that God loves us, as if love were just a duty that Gods have. But it blows your mind when you think that he also likes us. The Son, who is greatly loved by the Father, has chosen to love us and to call us his friends. If we know that, then it helps us to understand that the obedience that Jesus asks of his friends is not some kind of condition for his approval. What he asks of us is that we abide, that we remain, in the love that he has already freely bestowed upon us. That is the truth of this passage – or at least that’s a really important part of the truth of it – and as we seek to understand the words of the Bible better for ourselves, we can help other people see and hear more clearly as well.
But there are other ways to communicate Jesus’ commandment of love to people whose experience makes it hard for them to understand. One of the best ways to communicate with people is to share your own story with them. What experiences in your life have made the love of God real to you? It has seemed to me that the most powerful experiences I have had of God’s love have been in times of my own weakness or loss or fear. It is rarely – I would say, it is almost never – very helpful to share stories about how great our faith is and how victorious and perfectly full of joy our life is as Christians. It is discouraging to the other person whose life is maybe not so victorious and perfect, for one thing. It is much more helpful to share stories about God’s faithfulness to us when we were at our most needy and even unworthy – “God’s power made perfect in our weakness” – if we have the humility to share them, those experiences are of the greatest value in communicating the love of Christ with another person.
At the very beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes in his long and convoluted way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Paul is saying that when we experience the love of God, especially in our hardest, most sorrowful times, he transforms our pain and sorrow into a blessing as we are able to communicate that same love and comfort with others, often in the very simplest way, just by telling our story to someone who is also suffering. Those who have dealt with cancer themselves are often best able to speak with someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Those who have lost a child, or a spouse, are particularly equipped to communicate with someone dealing with the pain of loss. Women who have suffered abuse can more readily connect with a battered wife. When God enters into our pain, it becomes an opportunity for healing.
But then there are times when words just seem to fail us altogether. Have you ever met someone whose experiences and understanding are so entirely foreign to your own that it sometimes feels like there is an invisible wall of incomprehension dividing us from them, almost as if we are speaking two different languages. Sometimes the fault is our own, because our communication is hindered by our prejudices or fears or judgments. But there will be, there are, times when we meet people who are suffering in ways that are so far beyond our experience that we feel completely inadequate to say anything at all.
But no matter what barrier there is between us and this other person, we can still help someone understand the love of God, in the most basic way, and that is simply by doing it. In fact, no matter what words we use, no matter how well we are able to use them, we can only communicate the truth of who God is and what he does if we are also living it out. We can only communicate the love of God if we are actively loving.
Dorothy Day once said, “Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?” We might also say, “Since when are words the only acceptable way of communicating with people?” It will sometimes be that we share our faith with other people by helping them better understand the Scriptures. It will often be that we share our faith with other people by offering them our personal stories in all humility. But it will always be that sharing our faith means being living examples of God’s love and grace – because without that, all of our words will fail.