The Word Among Us

February 2009 Issue

The Message of the Gospel

Where do we begin?

The Message of the Gospel: Where do we begin?

When we examine our attitude toward evangelization, it is clear that the degree to which we are willing to evangelize is linked to the degree to which we have understood the great work that Jesus has done in us and in the church.

St. Paul was so dedicated to evangelization because he knew what Jesus had done for him, and he wanted to share it with everyone he met. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he wrote: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” ?(1 Corinthians 15:3-4). These are truths that Paul “received,” both in his personal experience and as he learned the gospel story from Peter and the other apostles.

Like Paul, if we want to hand on this good news of salvation, we need to be able to express what we have received by both personal experience and formal training. Evangelization is a skill to be learned. If we put in the time and the effort—learning the gospel, learning how to express our faith, and building relationships with other people—we will find the rewards of evangelization.

What Is Our Gospel? Filled with a desire to share his life and his love, God the Father created the universe and populated it with all kinds of wondrous things. And at the height of his creation is humanity—men and women made in his own image and likeness. He gave us the ability to think divine thoughts, as well as the freedom to choose God, to desire him, to say “yes” to him.

But God’s word tells us how darkness entered our hearts and minds: “Through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all” (Romans 5:12). Behind the personal and social sin all around us lies the mystery of evil, the reality of the selfishness that is in every human heart. God’s creatures disobeyed him by seeking their life outside his will. By doing so, they separated themselves and all their children from God, allowing death to reign where once there was only life.

Were it not for God’s mercy, that would have been the end of the story. But God promised a Savior. Genesis describes God telling the tempter: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This promise of God has been called the first announcement of the good news, or the proto-gospel. In promise and prophecy, it looked forward to a descendant of the woman who would destroy the power of evil.

Centuries later, when the time was ripe, John the Baptist began preaching in the wilderness of Judea, announcing the coming of the Messiah to the spiritually hungry, the curious, and the skeptical. Seeing Jesus and moved by the Spirit, he cried out: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Anointed by the Holy Spirit and empowered by his baptism, Jesus “went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38), and preaching the good news of salvation. Then, when the time came, Jesus was obedient to the will of the Father and embraced a painful death on the cross. But he was victorious and rose in glory, conquering sin and death. And with his resurrection and ascension into heaven, Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on all who believed, making them into a church—the sign and sacrament of God’s power in this world.

It is this Holy Spirit who empowered the apostles to go out into the world and proclaim the gospel. The apostles were transformed on the day of Pentecost from fearful, timid men into bold evangelizers, willing to risk their entire lives for the sake of the gospel. But the Spirit did more than simply propel the first Christians with the words of the gospel. He also placed a deep desire in their hearts to become more and more like Jesus. It is this desire for holiness that convinced them to put off their old ways of thinking and acting and put on the new life that Jesus had taught them about. And the result was a witness of life that matched the words they spoke—a witness that drew other people to the apostles and made them seek out the same Lord who had changed them so dramatically.

This is the heart of the gospel message. In his death and resurrection, Jesus accomplished what no one else could do: He won salvation for everyone, and he sent his Spirit to fill us with divine life and with a desire to build his kingdom. While there are many ways to express these gospel truths—using Scripture or church teaching, using real-life examples, or talking from our own experience—the clear emphasis of the gospel is this: We needed to be saved, and Jesus rescued us.

A Call to Action. In our day, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called for a new evangelization. This new millennium is meant to usher in a new springtime of growth as we take the gospel into the whole world. And we are to do it by following the example of the first believers.

If the Holy Father calls us to evangelize, he must believe that we are capable of actually doing it. He must believe that we know enough about the gospel to proclaim it to the people around us. He must also believe that we have the kind of faith—a faith founded on love for God—that will appeal to those who are lost and searching for their heavenly home.

This call to evangelize is founded on the premise that we really can do what we set out to do if we put our minds to it. Parents can learn how to raise children. Surgeons can learn how to perform delicate operations. Contractors can learn how to build homes and office buildings. If we can learn skills like these, we certainly can learn evangelization skills.

This challenge is also built on a spiritual principle that says, “Jesus has called us to be his missionaries, his evangelists.” If people are willing to pour all kinds of time into learning skills for the sake of their family or to generate income or to build their career, how much more should we be willing to learn the gospel in the hopes of bringing a human soul to heaven?

Let us bless our Holy Father. He is determined to call us to action, to express the need for every member of the church to put their hope in the gospel, to learn it by heart, and to be able to present it simply and clearly. The call to share our faith is a call to freely give of our time and our energy. But it’s also a call to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, who is the driving force behind every conversion. So let’s take up this call with determination, but with confidence, joy, and faith as well.

Proclaim the Truth of Jesus! Jesus’ victory over death is the central event of history. And that means that it should also be central in our Christian witness and in our sharing of the gospel. In his exhortation on the call to evangelize, Pope Paul VI said essentially the same thing: “The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed” (On Evangelization in the Modern World, 22).

So as you look over this short summary of the gospel message, tell yourself two things: First, I really can take this message and explain it in my own words. Second, I know that I have experienced the power of this message in my own life. I know the love of Jesus. I feel the Holy Spirit prompting me to pray and to love the people in my life. This personal experience of the power of the gospel, combined with a growing clarity about the truths behind this gospel, will propel us into the world filled with confidence that we can make a difference in people’s lives.