Thursday, November 13, 2014

Elevator Speech

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

The Rev. Charles Simeon
(form Wikimedia)
Charles Simeon, a young undergrad entering Cambridge in 1779, prepared to receive communion for the first time. He was given as preparation material a 17th-century tract called The Whole Duty of Man, a document that taught him he could only receive the sacrament if he scrupulously followed God’s laws. He became depressed and discouraged at this theology, as he heard in it that it was all up to him to make himself worthy before Christ—and he knew himself to be a sinner.

Later that year Simeon was given a different document, Instructions for the Lord’s Supper by Bishop Thomas Wilson. The theology here reassured him that by no amount of good works could make himself worthy before Christ, but that Christ, in his sacrifice, had done all the work necessary to reconcile him. In this theology Simeon experienced true salvation, and it inspired him to become a priest, preacher, and evangelist. Upon his ordination, Simeon was given the congregation of Trinity Church, Cambridge, and he held that post for the rest of his life—over 50 years.

In the early 19th century, Simeon became known as the leader of the evangelical movement in England, spreading the good news of Christ. He was a great supporter of English missionaries worldwide. The historian William Lecky said of him and as friends in the evangelical movement that “they gradually changed the whole spirit of the English Church. They infused into it a new fire and passion of devotion, kindled a spirit of fervent philanthropy, raised the standard of clerical duty, and completely altered the whole tone and tendency of the preaching of its ministers.”[1] Indeed, his preaching is what Simeon is most remembered for, and he published sermon outlines in order to assist many other priests in crafting their own sermons. Simeon was, to his core, an effective communicator.

Last weekend a group of us represented St. Paul’s at Diocesan Convention, our annual gathering of all the congregations and ministries of the Episcopal Church in Western Washington. The theme was “So That All Might See Jesus.” One presentation we heard was the concluding report from a task force that has met for the last two years, a task force that included our own Brad Howard. They called themselves Outside Church Walls.

Of the wisdom they taught us about how we Episcopalians can bring the church to people outside the range of our church walls, the one that stuck with me most was this: Episcopalians tend to be great and “what” and “how,” but not so hot on “why.” Why do we come to church? Why do we get involved in ministries here and elsewhere? Why do we pray? What is behind all this? What does it do for us, anyway? In short, they said, if someone asked you, in an elevator, “Why are you a Christian?,” would you be able to give a compelling answer before one or both of you leaves the elevator? What is your elevator speech? If we can’t explain to others why we are Christians, we certainly can’t expect them to understand us, let alone join us in our joyful faith and work.

I decided to tweet my own response from the convention floor. After all, limiting myself to 140 characters seemed like a great way to get my speech down to elevator length. I worked with language I had thought through before. And here’s what I came up with:

I am a Christian because Jesus says, “Love. It'll hurt; it might even kill you. But believe me, it's the only thing that works.”

Charles Simeon learned from his experience with dueling confirmation preparation tracts how important it is to communicate well, so as not to mislead people into impoverished theology. He preached simple, straightforward sermons—certainly nothing short enough for a tweet, but his preaching resonated because it spoke to people where they were, putting them on the spot to clarify the essence of their faith.

In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus putting Peter on the spot, and using his birth name: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Hidden in the English text but clear in the Greek is the fact that in Peter’s answers, he tries to wiggle out of the question. In essence, Jesus asks Peter whether Peter gives his entire self to Jesus, heart, mind, body, and soul, and unconditionally so. But Peter replies that he maintains a strong liking of Jesus that could certainly be called love—a dedication, to be sure, but more like dedication to a best friend than dedication to the divine. Jesus asks him again and receives the same waffling reply.

Finally, Jesus changes his language to match Peter’s: all he asks is whatever dedication Peter can muster, and Peter, probably in tears, confirms that this is what he can give. But we know that Peter will not stay stuck in that lesser love. He will give the rest of his life obeying Jesus’ commands: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” He will even give himself to Jesus in his martyrdom.

Jesus loves us, this we know. And Jesus will always meet us right where we are. But he loves us too much to let us stay there. Jesus keeps calling us into the kind of life in which there will always become more of us to give to others, not less of us to protect from harm. Jesus teaches us as he taught Peter: “Love. It'll hurt; it might even kill you. But believe me, it's the only thing that works.”

With that in mind, what is your elevator speech? I’m going to ask you right now, in fact. Imagine that we’re in an elevator. And let’s just start with one word or phrase. If you could boil your faith down to one word or phrase—knowing that this is not at all a fair representation of your entire faith, but knowing you have to start somewhere—what word or phrase would you be certain not to leave out?


This week, work with that word or phrase. Develop it into a tweet if you like—a 140-character limit. Or go a couple sentences longer, but not more than that. Be focused and dedicated to giving a compelling answer, not a waffling answer. Speak the deepest joys of your heart. Be prepared to answer the question, “Why are you a Christian?”


[1] Biographical details and quote from Holy Women, Holy Men (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2010), 676.

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