Go and make disciples of all nations. . . . I am with you always, until the end of the world. (Matthew 28:19-20)
This was Jesus’ final command before he ascended into heaven. In a lot of ways, it sums up his whole ministry—as well as our calling. From the beginning of time, God has always wanted to see the entire world come to Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord. And so, just before he left us, he entrusted us with his mission. It is now up to us to continue Jesus’ work of teaching, preaching, and ministering so that more and more people will come to know him and his love.
When we look at the way the first Christians accepted Jesus’ call, we can see that fasting had an important part to play. So in this article, we want to explore how we can find new energy and focus for our mission as we take up the practice of fasting.
From Humble Beginnings. From the beginning, the first disciples were eager to put the Lord’s command into practice. But numerous circumstances limited their missionary field to the towns around Jerusalem and Galilee. Ironically, it took a time of persecution for the gospel to move out into the larger, non-Jewish, world.
St. Luke tells us that with the death of Stephen, the first martyr, a "severe persecution" began against the church in Jerusalem, causing many of the believers to flee the city (Acts 8:1). It is ironic that this persecution became the catalyst for an evangelistic thrust that took the good news into Samaria, Judea, and territories even farther afield. It is even more ironic that it wasn’t the twelve apostles who paved the way—even though Jesus had told them to. Rather, it was other people, largely unknown to us, who ended up spreading the gospel in the cities they fled to.
These unnamed believers were probably ordinary people like us, everyday men and women without much training in theology or evangelization. But while they may have been lacking in "professional" credentials, they had everything that anyone needs to evangelize: They loved Jesus. For wherever there is a love for Jesus, there is a desire to tell other people about him. And wherever there is this love and this desire, there is also the Holy Spirit, bringing his blessing and opening doors for the gospel.
The church belongs to Jesus, and he will see to it that his word goes out. He will even use the hardships of life, just as he used persecution in the early church, to move us to share his gospel. Jesus wants each of us to reach out to offer his words of life to a world that is dying in sin. He is asking us the same question he asked the prophet Isaiah: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And he longs to hear each of us echo Isaiah’s answer: "Here I am; Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8).
Hungry for God’s Leading. What does this story of expansion and evangelization in the early church have to do with fasting? It seems that the early apostles themselves fasted—and especially as they sought the Lord’s guidance in spreading the gospel. That’s how the leaders of the church in Antioch discerned that God was calling Paul and Barnabas to embark on a deliberate, concentrated missionary journey throughout Asia Minor (Acts 13:1-4).
What a contrast to the typical way people make decisions today! The common approach is to use reason and logic, especially when faced with an important choice. It only makes sense to let the facts of a situation discern the path for us. But here at Antioch, the apostles chose to fast so that they could discover God’s plans for them. In this, they were putting into practice the words of the psalmist who prayed: "You are my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead and guide me" (Psalm 31:4).
These men didn’t come to this decision lightly, either. They brought specific questions and concerns before the Lord as they fasted and prayed: "Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations, but how should we do this? Where should we go? Whom should we send? How will we pay for it? Should we consult the leaders in Jerusalem? What are we hoping to accomplish?"
Did the elders at Antioch just pray and hope God would answer them? Not at all. Surely they reasoned through the questions and sought creative, practical answers. They probably even disagreed on some points. But they also knew that reason, argument, and discussion were not enough. They knew they needed guidance from the Spirit as well. And so they fasted and prayed.
As they fasted, they felt that God was calling them to set aside Paul and Barnabas for the mission. So they placed their hands on the two men and sent them on their way (Acts 13:3-4). This was probably the first master plan of the early church—and the beginnings of Paul’s career as a "master builder." His missionary work—a project that spanned nearly twenty years and saw the founding of churches all over the Mediterranean Basin—all began with this potent combination of prayerful fasting and reasoned discussion.
What a key for us as well! As individuals and families, we all face important decisions: "Where should I work? Whom should I marry? Where will we live? What do we hope to do with our children?" In our parishes, we ask: "What should our liturgies look like? How should we care for the needs of our parishioners? What about the poor? What programs of education and evaluation should we take up?" But no matter what decisions we face, one question should always be at the center: "What does God want?" And the best way to answer this question is to follow the example of the first apostles: Make sure you are praying and fasting!
Fasting Can Change History. Antioch is not the only place where we see fasting and prayer linked with receiving guidance from the Lord. 2 Chronicles tells the story of King Jehoshaphat, who ruled Jerusalem in the middle of the ninth century b.c. During Jehoshaphat’s reign, the Moabites and the Ammonites sent a vast army to make war against Jerusalem. Terrified by the prospect of war, Jehoshaphat declared a fast throughout his kingdom. He also gathered the leaders at the Temple, where they prayed together for God’s help. In response, the prophet Jahaziel told the Jews: "Do not fear or lose heart at the sight of this vast multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s. . . . take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf" (2 Chronicles 20:15,17).
The next day, Jerusalem’s soldiers gathered on the battlefield. Rather than raise swords and spears, they raised their voices in worship: "Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever" (2 Chronicles 20:21). The Chronicler tells that God confused Jerusalem’s enemies, so that they began attacking each other. What looked to be a disaster for the Jews was turned into a stunning victory, all because of prayer and fasting!
Similarly, in February of 1756, King George II of England called for a day of solemn prayer and fasting to stem a threat of invasion by the French army. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote: "The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God hears prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility." Later in a footnote, he added: "Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted."
Fasting and prayer bring God’s power to the world. The missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas marked the beginning of the church "making disciples of all nations." From that point on, the course of Christianity was set—and it all began with prayer and fasting. History shows us that what happened in the past can happen again.
Acts 29. Did you ever read chapter twenty-nine of the Acts of the Apostles? Probably not, since the Book of Acts has only twenty-eight chapters. Brothers and sisters, we are Acts 29! We are writing Christian history every time we do something for God.
The past few years have seen a revival of traditional forms of prayer in the church. Many parishes now sponsor eucharistic adoration. The Holy Father has encouraged us to rediscover the treasures of lectio divina in reading Scripture. The rosary is becoming popular again. New lay communities have also sprung up, becoming a force for spiritual renewal. But for all that has happened, we have yet to see a comparable revival in the practice of fasting. Who knows? Perhaps the time has come.
So let’s heed the call to fast this Lent. Let’s be like the leaders of the church in Antioch, asking the Holy Spirit how each of us can serve him and be his witnesses. Let’s be like the people under Jehoshaphat and fast together, asking God to work powerfully in the world. Jesus promised that our asking, seeking, and knocking will not go unanswered.
Let’s also spend this Lenten season telling the Lord that we need more of him and less of us. Let’s show him that we are willing to deny ourselves during these forty days so that our church can become an even greater witness to the gospel.
May we all become bright and shining stars in this world, proclaiming the glory and majesty of Jesus, our Savior!