PS 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
1 JN 3:18-24
The triumphant evangelicalism of the Easter season readings (where the first readings are from Acts) tends to make me a bit uncomfortable. I was raised in the Bible Belt where certain Christians seem to think Jesus’ great commission is the most important thing he ever said, and take Paul as more of a role model than Jesus. And really, I often struggle to really like Paul.
In our first reading, filled with the zeal and confidence that often follows conversion, he goes around Jerusalem speaking boldly about the Lord and arguing with unbelievers. My husband noted laughingly at this first reading that the church is filled with peace and consolation after the apostles send him away to Tarsus. It makes me think of so many Christians that I have known, Catholic and Protestant, who are so intent on winning souls that every conversation with an unbeliever (or a person of a different denomination for that matter) becomes an opportunity to convert through argument and apologetics. These conversations grow so tiresome and I think are at the heart of the reason that people who might find Christ so attractive find Christians so distasteful.
The point is that the evangelical spirit, while necessary (in fact, Catholics are trying to renew it in themselves with the New Evangelism) can be very destructive to the church if it becomes reduced to just words. Our second reading reminds us that Christians are called to love not just “in word or speech but in deed and truth.” The reading goes on to note that Christians are called not only to believe but to “love one another just as he commanded us.” The US Bishops expand on this by characterizing evangelization broadly:
Yet there are familiar ways by which evangelization happens: by the way we live God’s love in our daily life; by the love, example, and support people give each other; by the ways parents pass faith on to their children; in our life as Church, through the proclamation of the Word and the wholehearted celebration of the saving deeds of Jesus; in renewal efforts of local and national scope; in the care we show to those most in need; and in the ways we go about our work, share with our neighbors, and treat the stranger. In daily life, family members evangelize each other; men and women, their future spouses; and workers, their fellow employees, by the simple lives of faith they lead. Through the ordinary patterns of our Catholic life, the Holy Spirit brings about conversion and a new life in Christ.
There are several striking things about this statement but I want to highlight two. First, evangelization is not just, or even primarily, telling people about Jesus. Evangelization happens by living out Christ in our daily lives through service, caring, and sharing. Second, it is through a pattern of life that the Holy Spirit brings about conversion. In other words, we don’t win souls. The Holy Spirit wins souls as Christians about living ordinary lives centered on the extraordinary love of the Christ they believe in who commanded that his followers offer food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, succor to the needy, mercy to the sinner.
If our lives become disconnected from our message, the message itself not only cannot take root but might even be an instrument of harm. People who may find a home in the church otherwise may balk and even turn away if they feel their dignity and freedom is being assaulted by believers.
What I really like about the Catholic New Evangelization is the focus on self-evangelization: “The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. . . The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.”
This brings us to our gospel for this week from John. Jesus tells his disciples:
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
. . .
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
In light of the question of evangelization, the gospel reminds us that discipleship begins with a deep rootedness in Christ. The disciple bears fruit not through self-sufficiency but by coming to share in the existence of Christ Jesus.
This does not mean that we need to disconnect personal faith and piety from the mission to evangelize. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. By deepening our own faith in Jesus Christ through prayer, worship, sacrifice, and service, we plant the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of those around us. This is what the New Evangelization reminds us. We do not necessarily need to first go forth and make disciples. By becoming a better disciple ourselves, we make Christ known to our neighbor and bring the Good News.
Preach the gospel and use words when necessary. It is still a good motto for Christian evangelization. As we continue to experience Easter joy in this fifth week of the Easter season, let us not forget that a large part of the reason the early church was so successful in winning souls is not just because of the message they preached but because of the way the early believers were “being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord.”