A few days ago I was standing in the ruins of Pompeii. It was amazing to see the extent of the devastated town, and to get a glimpse of the life and culture of that city that was so dramatically and suddenly destroyed in AD79.
Religion played a significant part in the life of the citizens of Pompeii. As well as its temples dedicated to various gods, many of the households had niches for small statues of deities which, according to the scholar Mary Beard, were used not for household corporate worship (akin to Victorian family prayers) but for the personal devotion of individual household members. Religion was personal and quite individual.
We live in similar times. In a city where all the major world religions are present, and where an enormous amount of “what works for me” private spirituality, the public and specific truth-claims of Christianity – so taken for granted in previous ages – seem difficult to sustain. However, as we shall discover in the forthcoming celebration of Holy Week, the events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus occur in history – not first in the realm of private, subjective spiritual experience – and make particular claims about God’s purposes in and for our world. From the outset, the disciples were sent out, personally convicted of the importance of proclaiming the good news of Jesus to the whole world. Many citizens of the Roman Empire – mainly poor, but some wealthy – joined the “Jesus movement” and themselves proclaimed the salvation that comes through Christ to the whole world.
Which brings me to the ‘E’ word: evangelism. Part of being a Christian disciple seems to have been the call to bear witness to and proclaim the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We do this, of course, through our actions (although the idea that St Francis of Assisi once told his disciples to “Go and preach the good news: use words if necessary”, seems to be a myth). But Jesus people preach Jesus crucified and risen in words as well.
We have fallen out of the habit of speaking of Jesus in our words. Using the ‘E’ word in the church today presents greater challenges to most of us than using the one that begins with the following letter! And yet to be evangelists – being people who speak of Jesus – is what we are being asked to do in the 21st century Church of England. The challenge of numerical decline, which is far more real outside of our major cities is being met with a call from our Archbishops for us all to rise to this challenge. They are asking us to make the week of 8th – 15th May 2016 – the week leading up to Pentecost – a week of prayer with a focus on three things: that our own relationship with Jesus would deepen, that we all may grow in confidence in sharing our faith with others, and that others would respond to the call of Jesus Christ to follow him. We will be thinking about how we can respond to this invitation to prayer for evangelism at St Mary’s in the coming weeks.
The ‘E’ word may not have been a common word in our Church over the decades gone by; but, for the sake of the Good News of the Kingdom, we have the challenge to make it become a more comfortable and commonplace part of the way each of us follow Jesus Christ in the years ahead.
I wish you all God’s blessing in Holy Week and Easter this year.
Canon Simon Butler