Church Army Commissioning Service, Sheffield
Thursday 8th July 2004An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Now you could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that the church's attitude to evangelists was simply to wind them up and let them go; preferably as far away as possible. Well the fact that the church at large often winds up evangelists is, of course, something to ponder in itself. But that's another matter.
But that's exactly the opposite of the impression we have from the afternoon's reading from Ephesians. God gives the gift of being an evangelist to some people for the sake of the whole church, for the health of the whole church and for the maturity of the whole church. All the gifts we hear about are given so that the church may grow up, may come to exercise its proper maturity, may grow to its full extent, may enjoy its full intelligent, creative freedom. That there are evangelists in the church is one of the ways that God uses to make the whole church mature.
No gift in the church is just given for its own sake, for an individual's sake or even just for one task. It is given so that the church may be itself and may grow up. And with that sense the ministry of the evangelist is as central, as basic to the health and maturity of the church as the ministry of the pastor or the teacher or whoever else.
And why exactly is that? Because when the church understands that the gospel is there to be given, the church understands what it is about. If the church lives on the fiction that the gospel is a bit of news that you had better keep to yourself if you are wise, the church fails to be the church, the church fails to grow up. But when you understand that this gift is given into your hands so that it will, so to speak, bound out of your hands into the life of someone else, then you are beginning to get the reality.
All God's gifts are given to be shared. The gospel is always for me and my neighbour, and my neighbours neighbour and my neighbours, neighbours neighbour, to the ends of creation. The gospel will not sit still. And the ministry of the evangelist in the church tells all of us that that is the character of the gospel. Only as we realise that do we go more deeply into the truth that the gospel is surprising, astonishing, transforming. Not something that belongs to us or ever could belong to us. Not something that is ever willing to be locked up in us because it isn't ours, it's God's. Not just words of God but life from God. Life that so unlike our life that it promises something greater than death. And that word of life, given into our hands, must never lose its character of surprise. The good evangelist, I think, goes out to do his or her work because they are still surprised by the gospel; it's still so astonishing that this word of life should have come to us that we have to tell people about it. And in a church which is always a bit prone to think well, we're used to this, we know the end of the story – that element of surprise is crucial and life giving. It's not all that common, perhaps, to quote Oscar Wilde in a sermon, but there's one very good story about Oscar Wilde as a student when we was doing his New Testament Greek examination, believe it or not he did an examination in NT Greek. And he was asked by the examiners to read a bit of the gospel of St Mark. And so he read and translated parts of Mark's story of Jesus' crucifixion. And after a while the examiner said, thank you Mr Wilde, that's quite alright you can stop now. And Wilde said oh no I want to go on I want to find out how it ends. That was doubtless one of Wilde's better jokes. But because we all know how the story ends we sometimes lose that element of life giving amazement.
And God knows what he is up to – as usual – when he gives the gift of evangelist to the church because without the evangelists amazed surprise and eagerness to share that surprise, the church might just descend deeper into its own human cynical boredom.
This afternoon we thank God that there are some surprised people here. They may be surprised simply to be here at having got through the course, they may be even more surprised at having been chosen, pinpointed by God and his church to be evangelists. But I hope and trust that they are surprised because of God, and because of God's good news. And we thank God that there surprise is being witnessed to here today so that the rest of us may remember just for a bit, perhaps we've got bored and perhaps we've got used to it and perhaps we've got sort of accustomed to the idea that we know how the story ends. But if we turn to the gospel reading for this afternoon, we find another bit of that picture filled out. The surprise is such that those who are surprised by the joy of God go out without any preparation, without any security, without a planned itinerary, without even a change of socks. They rush out greeting nobody on the way, they rush out without a backpack, they rush out without provision and forethought because they are so amazed they have to tell someone. That's the picture that Jesus himself gives us of the evangelist. And while I'm not necessarily suggesting that in your ministry you don't take a change of socks, or you don't take a backpack or you don't plan. It is worth remembering that at the heart of it all there is that terrific urgency: we need to say it, we need to get out there. And really nothing else matters and we've nothing else to give but what we've been given by God.
Really the heart of the evangelist's ministry is not a set of skills, a set of buttresses to keep the structure upright, a set of supports and footnotes and all the rest of it. The heart of the evangelist's task is just to say this is what I've been given. It's not mine, I didn't deserve it, I didn't expect it. It is of God, not of me. It is of God, not of the church. It is the word of freedom, the word of liberation. It is not part of any agenda that the world sets, it is itself because God is himself. That is all we have to say.
Now, of course, around that there grow all kinds of techniques and practices and plans that help perhaps to keep some of the more obvious mistakes out of the way. But finally, finally we have to come as evangelists to the world and the church in a kind of poverty – 'nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling'. I have nothing to say except that God has put into my hands and my heart the reality of absolution and hope and new life that is the word of Jesus. Not just the word about Jesus but the communication, the self giving of Jesus in his Holy Spirit. That's what I'm here for and it is so amazing, it is so surprising that finally I have to cut through everything else and just to say that.
The church is healthy when the church lets itself be surprised by God. The church is unhealthy, divided, bored, depressed, alienated when it has lost that sense of wonder and amazement; when it has become accustomed to the gospel and attempted to domesticate the gospel in turn. To those being commissioned this afternoon, I would say with all the force I can command, don't domesticate the gospel and don't be domesticated by the church. You are not the pet hamsters of the church, you are not extras tacked onto the outside that the church will shelf and forget about, though it may feel like that at times. You are there for the life and health of the church and you will do your job if you keep your surprise alive. If day after day, you are able to say 'new every morning is the love our waking and uprising prove', or in the biblical words from which that is taken, from Lamentations curiously, 'God's mercies are new every morning, great is his faithfulness'. The daily opening to God in prayer, the daily opening of God's word in scripture, the daily opening up of the world that that produces, the hidden glories of the world – all of that is part of keeping the surprise alive. And part of that too is the kind of discovery that you'll make again and again in your ministry, of the surprising presence of Christ in places where in places where you thought he hadn't gone before you. One of the things I suspect every evangelist learns is that there is no where Christ hasn't gone before you. And that again is what we're being told in the epistle this afternoon, Christ has already gone to the furthest places of the lower earth, wherever we go he's there before us, wherever we are liable to meet him and to say, 'well there's a surprise I didn't expect to see you here'.
Keep your surprise alive and you'll keep the church fit, and you'll keep the church growing. We hope in numbers but we know in maturity and understanding and holiness.
And may the word of life live in you, and leap from your hands and your tongues and kindle life in all those you meet.
© Rowan Williams 2004