Rev. Mark Schaefer Foundry United Methodist Church May 6, 2018 2 Samuel 4:5–12; Matthew 11:2–6

Friends, I am here to talk to you about JEE-sus.  The only Son of God, our Lord!  He came to us from heaven, lived among us and DIED for our sins on the cross! Can I get a hallelujah?  But the story did not end there, friends, no, it didn’t. Because he ROSE again.  He came back from the dead so that ALL would know that God has given us a gift of life from the dead, of eternal life through the blood of his precious son, Jesus Christ!  Can I get an amen?

I don’t know how long I can keep that up. That gets kind of exhausting for a Methodist from Upstate New York.

word cloud of sermon text
Image courtesy wordle.net

But I am willing to bet that something close to that kind of religiosity is what many of you think when you hear the word evangelical. Something about loud, emotional preaching. Charismatic religious leaders with huge congregations or tent revival meetings and altar calls, people weeping in the aisles. Lots of jumping up and shouting “Hallelujah!”

Or maybe your mind goes less to the worship style and more to the implicit theology: exclusivist claims to salvation, an emphasis on individual—often sexual—sin rather than systemic sins like poverty and racism, a preoccupation with whether you’re in or you’re out. A lot of asking questions like, “When were you saved?” (My favorite answer to that question is: “2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.” Feel free to borrow that one.)

Or maybe it’s the particular set of political beliefs that tend to come with the Evangelical theology: social conservatism, lack of inclusion toward the LGBTQ community, a strong support for law-and-order justice, a strong military, and other traditionally conservative political positions.

However it’s understood, for many Christians who do not so identify, the word evangelical has left something of a bad taste in people’s mouths for a while. In fact, fifty years ago, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form our current denomination, they didn’t choose to be called the sensible combination of their names—the Evangelical Methodist Church or the Methodist Evangelical Church—they instead dropped the word evangelical and opted to carry over united, instead.

But all of this is to say, that there is a lot of discomfort around the word evangelical. But what does it mean for us, really? Is there a sense of the word that those of us on the other side of the theological aisle can embrace? Despite all of the connotations that we perceive when we hear it, what does the word actually mean?


On a basic level, Evangelical means “Gospel based.” It comes from the Greek word εὐαγγελιον euangelion meaning “good news” or gospel.

Now, at first, this word was meant to be in contrast to those Christians who based their doctrine on things other than the scriptures, specifically, the Catholic Church which derived much of its doctrine from its accumulated theological tradition rather than directly from the scriptures themselves. Thus, Evangelical was a term that meant something like “according to the gospel” as opposed to “according to the church.”

In Germany, for example, the word Evangelisch simply means “Protestant.” (By the way, when I typed that word into the Google translation software to double-check, I still had my translation set to Latin and the site rendered Evangelisch as haereticus “heretic”—so, it appears that the Vatican may still have some lingering feelings about the Reformation, or at least those writing in Latin, anyway.) To this day, the Lutheran Church in German is simply the Evangelische Kirche and its sister church in the US is the ELCA—The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Now, in America, from the 18th century onward, the term evangelical referred to those who affirmed the importance of a personal experience of salvation, known in the heart. This experience of salvation was seen as a central and essential element of Christian faith.

And during the heyday of what was known as the “Evangelical consensus,” there was an agreement that this affirmation of the experience of God was accompanied by a commitment to outward expression of faith, frequently in acts of “piety” and “mercy”—which we would call “worship, devotion, service, and justice.” This was particularly the case among those Christians whose traditions emphasized the assurance of salvation, the new birth in the believer as a result of one’s justification and pardon of sin, and the gradual sanctification of the believer under the power of God’s grace. And especially those traditions whose founder himself had come to this theological understanding after years of tutelage by pietist Moravians who emphasized the religion of the heart and who himself had had the experience of his heart being “strangely warmed.”

So, yeah, I don’t know how to break this to you all. But Methodists are … Evangelical.

Wesley was absolutely convinced of the power of God’s justifying grace to work a change in us that regenerated us or that gave us a new birth. This, in turn, precipitated an assurance of salvation that he believed was every Christian’s birthright. It was these experiencesof salvation that was what drove the early Methodists to work for prison reform, seek justice for the poor, establish schools and universities, fight for abolition, and so on. We did these things because we were evangelical, not despite being so. The Social Gospel was an outgrowth of Evangelical Christianity.

Now, in the early 20th Century, the Evangelical consensus began to collapse. The progressive social gospel was viewed with suspicion by more conservative elements and there arose a divide between those Christians who saw sin as a primarily personal issue and those who saw it as a societal problem.

After the Scopes Monkey Trial about teaching evolution in the public schools took place in the 1920’s the term Evangelical arose as an alternative label for a conservative Christian who wasn’t quite a fundamentalist. And the more progressive, Social Gospel Christians were content to let them have the label.

Reeling from the embarrassment of the Scopes Monkey Trial, most evangelicals withdrew from active engagement with public life and opted out of organized participation in politics. This retreat was so great that the language of Evangelical Christianity, disappeared from the collective awareness. Whereas an old Evangelical concept like being “born again”—or as John Wesley would have called it “regeneration” or “new birth”—once made it into Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” now journalists no less respected than Walter Cronkite had to explain to his viewers that they’d looked into it when Jimmy Carter had claimed to be a “born-again Christian” and discovered that this was not something completely new.

The mainline traditions that had come out of the evangelical tradition, had not just abandoned the label of evangelical, we’d abandoned the language of evangelical Christianity, such that our sense of being “evangelical” in any way was lost. Evangelical now meant what the conservative Christians had claimed it as: a conservative Christian who wasn’t quite a fundamentalist.

But that is a depleted sense of the word. The term evangelical is not just a subset of a subset—it’s meant to encompass us, too.


What does it mean, then, for us to claim to be evangelical?

At its most basic level, to be evangelical is to be rooted in the gospel—in the good news. To share the good news. But what’s the good news? Because there are some times when we hear something touted as good news, that isn’t actually that good.

In the TV show Futurama, there’s a running gag wherein Professor Farnsworth, owner of the Planet Express delivery service, will come into the meeting room and make an announcement that always begins with “Good news, everyone!” But the announcements tend to be things like:

  • Professor Farnsworth from Futurama“Great news, everyone! You’ll be delivering a package to Čapek 9, a world where Humans are killed on sight.”
  • “Good news, everyone. Tomorrow you’ll be making a delivery to Ebola 9, the virus planet.”
  • “Good news, everyone! Today you’ll be delivering a crate of subpoenas to Sicily 8, the Mob Planet!”

With Professor Farnsworth there is a disconnect between his assertion that he’s bringing good news and the nature of the news he’s actually bringing.

We see something of that in the passage from 2 Samuel that we read earlier. In that passage we read of the aftermath of the dynastic struggle that follows in the wake of David succeeding Saul as king of Israel. Baanah and Rechab found Ishbaal the son of Saul and slay him while he was taking his noontime rest. They behead him and ride all night to deliver the head of Ishbaal to David, clearly expecting to be rewarded for this. David’s reaction is quite different:

“As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, when the one who told me, ‘See, Saul is dead,’ thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag—this was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more then, when wicked men have killed a righteous man on his bed in his own house! And now shall I not require his blood at your hand, and destroy you from the earth?”

The men who did this and who reported it thought that they were bringing good news to David, just as the one who brought the news of Saul’s death did. But in neither case was this actually good news. David has enough sense to know that the death of these men—a political rival and his innocent son—might have been seen as politically expedient but can hardly be characterized as “good.” It’s important to understand that news that might be advantageous to you is not necessarily synonymous with good news.

I think this is the case with so much of what is held out as “good news” in contemporary Christianity, and part of many people’s responses to the word evangelical is because the Gospel that is frequently encountered doesn’t seem to be good news.

Somehow, the proclamation of Christ’s victory over death and sin gets translated into an almost Professor Farnsworth version of the Gospel:

  • “Good news, everyone! The overwhelming majority of the human race is condemned to eternal hellfire and damnation!”
  • “Good news, everyone! The key to salvation is intellectual assent to a very specific set of extraordinary propositions that must be believed without any trace of doubt!”
  • “Good news, everyone! It doesn’t matter how loving your Hindu and Muslim neighbors are, because they have not accepted Christ as we do, they can expect an eternity of psychic torment when they die!”

Does any of that sound like good news to you? Sure, it’s good news for the people who happen to fit the narrow definition of the faithful, but it’s hardly the kind of thing that would be understood as good news to anyone else. This sounds closer to the “good news” that brought word of the deaths of Saul and Ishbaal.

Now, if you’re one who is worried about your own eternal fate and someone were to tell you that you have nothing to fear because you are one of those for whom Christ died, then, yes, that would be good news. But it’s hard to see that proclamation being understood broadly in the same way to people who didn’t have that angst. If I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in God or life after death, telling me that I’m going to hell unless I adopt a particular creed wouldn’t sound like good news in the slightest.


So, then,  what is good news? How do we know what counts as good news such that we should proclaim it? As in so many things, it is instructive to look to Jesus. After all, Jesus began his ministry in Mark’s gospel by saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV)

Further, we read in our Gospel lesson earlier that John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus to relay a message from John asking him if he was the one they were waiting for or should they wait for someone else. Jesus’ response is:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

There are two things to note about this passage. The first is Jesus’ answer to how it is they can know whether Jesus is the long-awaited messiah: because, among other things, the poor have good news brought to them.

“Bringing good news” is connected to the poor. If we’re looking for a test to determine what is “good news,” let me suggest that the good news isn’t news the poor would receive as such, then perhaps it isn’t really good news. Or at least, the kind of Good News that the Christian is to be bringing.

Second, all of the verbs are in the present tense:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. This means that the good news is not about something that happened centuries ago, but something that is happening even now in our midst.

If we are to be good-news based, if we are to be sharing the gospel, if we are to be evangelical then let this be our evangelion. Let our Gospel be that God is active in our midst. Let our Gospel be that we are the agents of God’s grace and mercy. Let our Gospel be one that speaks powerfully to the needs of the disadvantaged and the marginalized, to the widow and the orphan, to the immigrant and the poor. Let our actions be an illustration that we truly are bearers of the “Good News.” Let our Evangelicalism be about sharing a message of liberty to the captive, justice to the oppressed, binding up of the brokenhearted.

If we claim that as our Good News, there should be no reason to shy away from being evangelical. Nor would we have any reason to shy away from insisting that everyone should have a powerful experience of that kind of salvation, and should know the love and grace of God deeply within their hearts.


For a long time, I have argued that the Evangelical Christians have a lot of fervor but don’t always know what to do with it. And mainline Christians are really busy but we don’t always know why. That needs to end. And, mercifully, it’s starting to.

I have worked the last eighteen years on a college campus and have worked alongside a number of different Christian campus ministry communities, including Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. And if there’s one thing that’s been consistent over the years is the growing interest in the Evangelical and Pentecostal communities to engage on matters of justice. Many young Evangelicals are deeply committed to environmental justice, racial justice, anti-colonialism, and economic justice for the poor. One of my chaplains representing InterVarsity was in my office talking about the racial justice work he was doing with his students and was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Love your Muslim Neighbor” in English and Arabic. InterVarsity, folks. InterVarsity.

It’s clear that there is a hunger in Evangelical Christianity for the Social Gospel. And at the same time, there is a hunger in mainline Protestantism to connect our concern for justice to some deeper experience of God and of salvation. If you have any doubt about that, look around you: at this very moment you are surrounded by hundreds of people who come here regularly to hear your pastor preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, and then translate that into meaningful social action and sacred resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression. You all know how much Pastor Ginger talks about Jesus—and that only makes your commitment to justice and inclusion here at Foundry stronger.

The two sides of contemporary Christian faith need each other. The Evangelicals are reclaiming the outward expression of faith in social justice. And it’s time that those of us on the progressive side, especially us Methodists, reclaim the title Evangelical.

For we serve a God no less powerful, we are no less convicted of our need for grace, we have experiences of God’s love no less meaningful, no less personal than that of those more comfortable with the label.

It wouldn’t hurt for us to get in the habit of telling people why we were doing the work we were doing, of sharing the good news of God’s liberating power, of being evangelical.

Indeed, it is because of that deeply powerful experience of God, it is because we have come to understand the grace of God’s Son Jesus Christ, it is because we believe in the transformation of the self that is possible through love, the “new birth” of a person who has come to know the depths of God’s love, it is because of all these things that we go out to share a word of power, a word of justice, and a word of hope with a broken and hurting world.

Can I get an amen?


Scripture Lessons:

2 Samuel 4:5–12 NRSV • Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, set out, and about the heat of the day they came to the house of Ishbaal, while he was taking his noonday rest. They came inside the house as though to take wheat, and they struck him in the stomach; then Rechab and his brother Baanah escaped. Now they had come into the house while he was lying on his couch in his bedchamber; they attacked him, killed him, and beheaded him. Then they took his head and traveled by way of the Arabah all night long. They brought the head of Ishbaal to David at Hebron and said to the king, “Here is the head of Ishbaal, son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life; the LORD has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring.”

David answered Rechab and his brother Baanah, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, when the one who told me, ‘See, Saul is dead,’ thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag—this was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more then, when wicked men have killed a righteous man on his bed in his own house! And now shall I not require his blood at your hand, and destroy you from the earth?” So David commanded the young men, and they killed them; they cut off their hands and feet, and hung their bodies beside the pool at Hebron. But the head of Ishbaal they took and buried in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.

Matthew 11:2–6 NRSV • When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

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