Becoming missionary disciples

"Resurrection of Christ," Michael Corneille the Elder, Wikimedia "Resurrection of Christ," Michael Corneille the Elder, Wikimedia

How to overcome the obstacles to sharing the good news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death

Pope Francis speaks a lot about the New Evangelization and of the need for all Catholics to become missionary disciples. This is not a new message. The Holy Father is building upon the consistent teaching of his recent predecessors. We should even say that Pope Francis is emphasizing something that Jesus himself teaches in the Gospels.

Before we go further, it’s important that we understand what the word evangelization really means. We can best understand this term from the opening line of Mark’s Gospel, which serves as a title for the entire work: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” The word evangelization is derived from the two Greek terms eu and angellion which literally mean “good news” and were used in the pagan imperial world of Jesus’ time to refer to military victories of the emperor.

For Christians, the ultimate victory that changes and defines our lives is not won on a battlefield but on the cross of Calvary — it is the victory of Jesus Christ over the forces of sin and death that alienate us from God and one another. It is the victory of Jesus — who is the good news of God the Father — that radically redirects every part of our lives. When we speak of the Gospel of God, we are speaking not primarily about a message but about a person: Jesus Christ.

To evangelize means that we first receive and respond to the victory of Jesus in our own lives and then become instruments who help others experience that victory in their lives as well. This twofold dimension of first receiving the gift of faith (relationship with Jesus) and then sharing the gift of faith with others was entrusted to us in our baptism when the priest or deacon blessed our ears and our mouths — the ears are a symbol of receiving the gift of faith through hearing, and the mouth is a symbol of sharing the gift of faith through speech.

Recognizing God’s victorious presence

The first step in evangelization, then, is to recognize the victorious presence of God in our lives. While this might sound obvious, it should not be taken for granted. Christianity is not primarily a message, a philosophy, or even an ethical or charitable system. Christianity is first and foremost a radical commitment to the person of Jesus. Everything else must flow from the comprehensive, exclusive and eternal claim that Jesus makes on each of us in our baptism and to which we surrender in an act of trusting faith. The first important step of evangelization for each of us should be to realize God’s effective presence and to respond in a permanent act of complete self-offering.

God’s victorious presence and saving action can be known in a variety of ways. Perhaps it’s through a moment of intense spiritual awareness in prayer or before the Blessed Sacrament. Or it might be through a particular “God moment” when we experience unmistakable divine providence. Perhaps it is in the context of serving the poor, feeding the hungry, or other corporal works of mercy. It might even take place in a gradual way as we grow in relationship with God through daily prayer and reception of the sacraments combined with the practice of virtue.

What is essential in this first step is that we realize in a personal and objective way that God loves us, God is with us, and God forgives us. It is also essential that we respond to this realization by saying “Yes” to the relationship God is offering us through his presence and by letting Jesus become the Lord of every part of our lives. That is what it means to become a disciple. As a person lives out the implications of Jesus’ Lordship in their lives, it will gradually transform their priorities, values and actions to reflect the mind and heart of God. That is the process known in the Gospels as repentance.

The second step is to then become a missionary disciple, which means that we willingly and eagerly pass on the good news of God’s victory so others can receive it, recognize it and respond to it in their lives as well. To better understand how this is done, we might consider the many other ways we share good news with others. For example, when we see a really great movie, we will tell our friends about it so they can enjoy it as well. Or when we have a truly outstanding meal at a restaurant, we relate that news to others so they can dine there also. We even take initiative in sharing good jokes so others can enjoy the humor. We have probably shared the good news of cars, electronics, sports and so forth with others because we want their lives to be improved by sharing our positive experience.

So why is it any different when it comes to sharing the good news of what God has done for us?

Fear is one of the key ways Evil tries to undermine the faith of disciples.

‘Be not afraid’

I would propose that there are some very real obstacles that can prevent us from becoming missionary disciples, and it is important to identify and remove them one at a time. The following is not a comprehensive list of all such obstacles, but a summary of some common ones.

First, many people believe that faith is a private experience that is only meant to be expressed between themselves and God. In order to overcome this obstacle, we have to note the difference between faith that is private and faith that is personal. Our relationship with God (faith) is always and necessarily a personal experience precisely because it is a real encounter. However, our faith is not meant to be buried within us and concealed like a lamp placed under a bushel basket. (see Matthew 5:14-15)

Rather, the good news of God’s victory is something that the Lord intends for all humanity, and so Jesus tells us to share our experience of that good news with everyone (literally “shout it from the rooftops”). (see Matthew 10:27) Jesus has rather harsh words for those who receive the gift of faith and keep it only to themselves. The strongest of these teachings on the need to multiply the gift of faith is found in the parable of the talents. (see Matthew 25:14-30)

A second obstacle that can prevent people from sharing their faith with others is fear. It is for this reason that the most frequent saying of Jesus in the Gospels is “Be not afraid.” Our Lord knew that fear can paralyze a disciple. Fear is one of the key ways Evil tries to undermine the faith of disciples. For some it is the fear of rejection because others may not believe them or accept what they have to say. Some may fear being ostracized or perceived as radical because of their overt sharing of faith. In our secular culture, we can even fear going against the expectations and norms of a nonreligious culture by introducing faith into our public conversations.

Fear of failure creeps in when we believe that the sharing of our faith won’t make any difference in the lives of others. There can even be the fear of having to expend time, energy and creativity, because helping lead others to faith is usually an extended process of gradual conversion that requires many, many respectful, insightful and challenging exchanges over the course of weeks, months and even years.

For others, it is the fear of insufficiency or inadequacy that leaves them paralyzed, because they believe that someone else can share the faith better than they can and so they stay silent when presented with such opportunities. This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all fears but hopefully it can serve as a starting point to assist you in identifying and dismissing your fears when it comes to sharing the gift of faith in Jesus.

The AnnunciationThe Annunciation, Dieric Bouts, The J. Paul Getty Museum

Don’t stop short

A third obstacle is the temptation to stop short in sharing the good news of how God’s victory in Jesus has changed our lives. Sometimes we feel content to witness Gospel values but not ready to proclaim Jesus as the reason for those values. The reason we live ethical and moral lives is because of Jesus. We serve our brothers and sisters in the distressing disguise of the poor because of Jesus. We educate the young, heal the sick and welcome the stranger because of Jesus.

If we are not intentionally and clearly connecting our Christian life with our relationship of faith then we are really no different from anyone else who’s doing similar work. Christian disciples do all good works for Jesus first and foremost. In this way, service for others becomes love of God made clearly visible. It is how we manifest our love for the Lord who loved us first. (see John 21:15-17)

The apostle Peter understood how essential is the connection between Christian witness of life and Christian profession of faith when he encouraged disciples of the first century to always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asked them for the reason of the hope that was within them. (see 1 Peter 3:15) Every Catholic institution and individual disciple must be ready to explain our motivations and actions in terms of our commitment to the person of Jesus. This is not always a comfortable topic, and it is often preferable to speak of values, teachings or the good example of others. However, as Matthew 10:32–33 reminds us, we are to communicate Jesus himself and not just his message; we are to acknowledge Jesus himself as the basis of our lives, and not only his values. If we are not introducing others to Jesus himself then we are stopping short of sharing the good news of how God’s victory has changed our lives.

A fourth obstacle is procrastination. Sometimes people think they should wait to share the good news of God’s saving action in their lives until they feel sufficiently prepared to do so. The problem is that they may never feel such confidence or sufficiency. This hesitation may turn into endless procrastination.

It’s important to remember that being a missionary is part of discipleship. There comes a point in our growth as a disciple when we can’t progress any further until we start sharing what we have already received. Jesus demonstrates this in the Gospels when he sends his own followers (disciples) on mission to share the good news with others after they have been with the Lord only a short time. (see Mark 6:7-13) We might expect that Jesus would have waited until much later in the Gospel, when his followers had years of experience with him and had explored the detailed meaning of his parables. That is not the case. Jesus knew, and we need to know, that our personal growth can stagnate unless we are readily and openly sharing with others the grace God has given to us. Those who feel that they have hit a spiritual brick wall in their faith life would do well to reflect on this serious but subtle obstacle to becoming a missionary disciple.

We evangelize because other people’s salvation depends on it.

Salvation hangs in the balance

Other obstacles exist when it comes to readily sharing our faith with others. Certainly we could include such things as complacency, secularism, personal ignorance of the faith, or even that type of clericalism which mistakenly believes evangelization is only the responsibility of those ordained, in religious life, or employed in ministry positions, rather than an essential action for all disciples.

I think it’s important to also remember why we are called to evangelize. The answer is both brief and urgent. We evangelize because other people’s salvation depends on it and because we are entrusted with the responsibility of effectively sharing with them the good news of God’s victory.

The Lord reminds us in Matthew 10:40–42 how blessed people will be when they accept and respond to the good news that is offered to them. That motivation was meant to encourage the early missionary disciples to persevere when they encountered resistance, rejection, intimidation and indifference. They have wonderful, life-changing good news to share with others, and nothing should deter them in their ministry.

Jesus reiterated this awesome responsibility to evangelize, and the blessings to be shared with those who are evangelized, when he ascended into heaven and sent the apostles on mission in Mark 16:15–16. Indeed, those who believe and are baptized will be saved. If we love our neighbor, then how could we possibly want, or settle for, anything less for them? That is what it means to be a missionary disciple.

Northwest Catholic - March 2018

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.