“Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:15-17
Evangelism is a word that carries many connotations, not all positive. Many of us cringe at the thought of evangelizing our family members, friends and neighbors. Others have had their doors knocked down one too many times by proselytizers from other denominations or religions and are not keen on joining the club. Others feel confident and passionate about bringing souls to Christ.
I think the Apostle Peter gives a great ‘Intro to Evangelism’ class in his letter to the churches in Asia that we’ll hear this Sunday. Remember that he is writing to a small group of Christians who are surrounded on every side by non-Christians. He is writing to encourage them when they receive threats of death to not be afraid. He begins this section in his letter by saying,
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”
In America, Christians can sometimes get a bad rap. We’re not always the most liked people in our society. But I believe we, American Christians, need to question whether those who hate us in our society hate us for doing good, or because we precisely do not follow St. Peter’s words in this letter in our interactions with unbelievers. (I know, it’s a hard question to ask, but a healthy dose of humility might be needed for this one!) We often care more about making sure everyone else follows the rules than we do about responding to those who approach us with gentleness and reverence (v 15). We criticize and attack the world’s actions rather than living out our joy so fervently that they can’t help but be attracted to our lives, come to us, and ask us why we have this abounding joy. (v 15) We argue relentlessly with our fellow Christians about theology and lifestyle choices rather than choosing to focus on what we agree on (being ‘like-minded’) and loving one another. (v 8) We fight culture wars with anger rather than repaying evil with blessing, always choosing to be compassionate and sympathetic. (v 8) We walk around with our noses held high because we are morally superior rather than showing humility that God has invited even us to the table, bestowing upon us more grace than we’ve ever deserved. (v 8)
St. Peter doesn’t tell us to go around making sure that all those who are unbelievers act with the same moral integrity that we do. He says our lives will do the talking and they’ll be attracted to our lives IF we live out of an abundance of hope, love, humility, gentleness, etc. The world is thirsty for hope and love, not judgment and cliques. St. Paul describes evangelism in another way, “Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thess. 4:10-11)
And so it begs the question: What if we tried a new approach to evangelism? Many of us are afraid to take the first step in reaching out to unbelievers. What if we followed Peter’s instructions? He lays it out pretty clearly in this Sunday’s second reading: ‘Be prepared and ready. Live out your hope so abundantly that people will be attracted to your life, not repulsed by it. When someone does approach you about your faith, be gentle and reverent. Have good conduct so no one can say a single negative thing about you. Be like-minded, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, and humble. When people say bad things about you, return the attack with a compliment.’ (1 Peter 3:8-9, 15-17, my translation)
Do I believe this means we should never begin the conversation about faith with someone around us unless they bring it up first? Not at all. I believe that when we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, we will feel that gentle nudge to approach the conversation, but only out of love, humility, and gentleness. At the same time, the Spirit has given us all different gifts and many of us are called to evangelize in a prophetic and loud way! But for those of us who feel confused on where to begin, 1 Peter is a great place to start. Let’s let our radical love, our abundant hope, our good conduct, and our humility do the talking for us – “then they will see the good that we do and bring glory to God.” (Matthew 5:16, We are the Light of the World)