The Word Among Us

February 2009 Issue

Go and Make Disciples

Each of us is called to evangelize

Go and Make Disciples: Each of us is called to evangelize

Have you ever tried to evangelize someone? To share your faith in Christ with another person? Do you feel confident that you know how to do it?

We all have some sense that evangelizing is an essential part of being a Christian. After all, Jesus’ last words on earth included the command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And yet, despite these words, and even despite our inner sense that we should evangelize, many of us feel reluctant. We hear words like “evangelization,” or “preaching the gospel,” and we think it is a task only for priests or perhaps for those exceptional people who are willing to talk to strangers just so that they can share the good news. “I could never do that!” we think, quickly listing the reasons why.

But perhaps it would be better if we tried to find out how we can answer this call in a way that pleases the Lord and that doesn’t cause us too much anxiety.

Give What You Have. Probably the best place to start is by stating the obvious: You can’t give away something if you don’t have it yourself. And in the case of evangelization, you can’t help people come to know Jesus if you don’t have a relationship with him.

That may sound too harsh at first, so let’s look at it in a more positive light. Let’s look at how meeting Jesus gives us the courage and the clarity to become the evangelists he calls us to be. The gospels are filled with stories about men and women who met Jesus and were moved to tell others about him. Andrew found his brother Simon and told him: “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Philip told Nathanael: “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law and also the prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45). The woman of Samaria told her neighbors: “Come, see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he be the Messiah?” (4:29).

Over and over again, we see this pattern at work: Someone meets Jesus, and they feel compelled to bring others to him. It’s as St. John wrote: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched . . . we proclaim now to you” (1 John 1:1,3). St. Paul, too, one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists, told his friends that it was the “love of Christ” that compelled him to travel throughout the Middle East and Europe preaching the gospel and establishing churches (2 Corinthians 5:14).

It was Paul’s experience of this love that moved him to endure shipwrecks, persecution, misunderstanding, and even floggings for the sake of the gospel (2 Corinthians 6:1-11). And it was John’s deep relationship with Jesus that enabled him to endure a lonely exile on the Island of Patmos because of his testimony (Revelation 1:9). Now if Paul and John could continue to talk about Jesus despite all of this opposition, surely we can take steps to increase our evangelization. And the first step is to develop our relationship with the Lord.

Proclaim What You Hear. What was it that motivated these two great apostles to give their whole lives for the sake of the gospel? Put simply, their lives were touched deeply by Jesus, and they felt compelled to share what they had received. They heard his voice and were transformed by his spirit. And as a result, they came to the conclusion that Jesus’ voice is not one among many and that his message is not one option among other equally helpful options. No, John and Paul both knew that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

But how will Jesus’ way become our way? How will his life become our life? And more importantly, how will his desire to proclaim the gospel become our desire? It happens as we take his words deeply into our hearts. That’s why Jesus likened his message to a seed planted in the ground. Unless it finds good soil, free from choking weeds and stony patches, that seed will die (Luke 8:4-15).

We need to nurture the word of God within us so that we can bear fruit for him. We need to stay close to Jesus, meditate on his words, and ask his Spirit to bring them to life for us. Then we will have something to offer the world—something that no other philosophy or approach to life can offer them.

Jesus Wants to Send Us Out. One day, when Jesus saw the crowd of people who had come to hear him, he was moved to compassion because they were like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). And how did he respond to the people’s need? He did two things. First, he asked his disciples to pray that the “master of the harvest” would send workers into the field. And then, as if in answer to their prayers, he sent them out, two-by-two, with the charge to announce the kingdom of heaven (9:37–10:7). It wasn’t just Jesus who took up the call to evangelize. He invited his disciples—untested as they were at this point—to join him.

If we look at the world with eyes of faith, we can see that we are in much the same situation as these first disciples. Like them, we live in a world under the shadow of sin, a world where the harvest is indeed great and the laborers are far too few. And like these disciples, we too may feel ill equipped to carry out so great a task as bringing people to Christ. But just as Jesus promised them, he promises us: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). Jesus is with us, always ready to give us courage, inspiration, and hope.

Pope Paul VI, in his landmark exhortation on the call to evangelize, sounded a similar theme when he considered the world’s need for the gospel:

"The gospel message is not an optional contribution for the church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. The message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. . . . It is a question of people’s salvation." (On Evangelization in the Modern World, 5)

Paul VI understood that something vital was at stake. He saw that evangelization is crucial, because it has eternal ramifications. The primary reason we are called to share the gospel is so that people will come to salvation. Our goal is that everyone come to know and experience the love that Jesus has for them and his power to rescue them from sin.

Clearly, the message of the gospel is more than just a pleasant supplement to life. God would not have sent his Son into the world to suffer a cruel and shameful death unless it was absolutely necessary. So the question for us is: “Do I believe that Jesus is the Savior?” And we should also ask: “Do I believe that he can use me as an instrument of his salvation?”

Words of Hope for the World. We who believe in Jesus shouldn’t think that we have nothing special to offer. On the contrary, each one of us can “shine like lights in the world” as we offer them “the word of life” (Philippians 2:15,16). One of the signs of our times is a widespread isolation that prevents us from treating one another with compassion. We can become so absorbed with our own challenges and trials that we forget how much the Lord has already done in our lives. And this leads us to think that God may not work through us today to help bring people to faith.

Nothing could be further from the truth! The people we see every day need to hear us witness to our faith. We have much to offer to a hurting world. On the most basic level, we know who Jesus is and what he has accomplished on the cross. But we also have the witness of our own lives—our own experiences of the Lord and his working in our hearts and minds. And on top of all that, we have the Holy Spirit, who can take our words and our witness and fill them with his grace and power. With all that we have in our favor, how can we possibly stay quiet? God has given us so much, and now he is asking us to go out and share all of these treasures—to freely give what we have freely received (Matthew 10:8).

Let the Word Become Flesh in You. Thinking about the miracle of Jesus coming to us as a man, St. John wrote: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory” (John 1:14). Like John, we too have seen the glory of Christ because we too have heard and embraced the good news of salvation. Now God is asking us to let that good news become flesh in us—so that we can hand it on to the people around us. We really can become living gospels—living, breathing witnesses to the transforming love of Christ!