To grasp the depth of the humility that infuses authentic evangelism, it is helpful to explore human identity and the nature of sin. Though these are vast subjects, there are a few basic things that are important for our understanding of evangelism.
From the very beginning, God’s creative process has been a practice of separating and joining. God separates the light from the darkness to create day and night, and joins all the waters together into one place to create dry land. In like fashion, human identity is formed as we navigate a process of separating and joining. We become most fully who we are, not when we reach independence, but when we understand our interdependence and recognize that we are both separate and connected to those around us. As Miroslav Volf has said, “The boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.”
Though God desires us to discover our interdependence, the reality of human sin makes us more inclined to focus on our independence. If we think of God’s creative process as separating and joining, there is a meaningful sense in which sin disconnects what God has bound together and unites what God has separated. It disrupts God’s pattern of interdependence, making us estranged from one another and from God.
Yet as Christians, we believe in the one God of Abraham. A significant point flowing from that is reflected in the Scripture passage that began this session – the belief that all of humanity will receive God’s blessings. Through Abraham, all the families of the earth will be blessed. N. T. Wright calls this “God’s covenant-with-Abraham-for-the-blessing-of-all.” It signals that in keeping this promise, God plans to redeem the overarching situation of estrangement that affects every human being.
Considering these ideas about identity and sin, cultivating humility as an essential value of evangelism involves remembering Jesus’ remarkable practice of both renaming and remaking. He renamed people and things that had been falsely labeled unclean, thus reconnecting people and things that sin had wrongly separated. (Mark 7:14-23) Jesus also remade people and things. He took truly unclean things and made them clean through forgiveness, spiritual transformation, and healing. In this way, Jesus tore down barriers created by wrongdoing. (Mark 5:1-20, Mark 2:15-17)
The humility that lies at the heart of all evangelism is rooted in an acute awareness of the reality of sin in our world. We recognize the brokenness and woundedness that marks human life. We confess that we are no more immune to that brokenness than anyone else, whether within or outside the church. We acknowledge we are unable to redeem our situation of estrangement. We admit we are unable to rename or remake ourselves.
This humility undergirds our way of being in the world and is vividly illustrated in the metaphor of embrace, particularly in open arms. When we open our arms to initiate embrace we indicate a desire for the other; they signal that, “I want you to be part of who I am and I want to be part of you.” Open arms point to the deeper truth that a void exists because of the absence of the other. In signaling desire, our open arms also show that in a real sense the other is somehow already present to fill the void, even before an embrace occurs.
The messages of open arms are significant for evangelism and the humility that is an essential value. Open arms point to the void created by the absence of some from the divinely promised one family of Abraham. They indicate that the boundaries surrounding the one family of Abraham have been made passable and that there is an invitation to shared life, which flows in two directions