Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sharing the Gospel

One night in 1989 two friends and I were on a Sydney train travelling back to where we were staying during a meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. As happens on such occasions, there were many clergy and lay representatives from around the country in the same carriage. Across the aisle from us were two young lay representatives from the Diocese of Sydney (noted for its robust Reformed Evangelicalism). In the seat behind us was a bishop of the extreme liberal-Catholic variety, travelling with a layman from his diocese.

Near the Sydney representatives was a group of ordinary young people, clearly puzzled at the deluge of clergy who had boarded the train all at once, and they were discussing this with some amusement. One of the Sydney men looked up and said, “I can tell you what this is all about, if you’re really interested,” and he went on to say that it was a national conference of Anglican Church leaders - not just clergy, but “lay people like us, too.”   

Soon there was a lull in the conversation, and the Sydney man said, “I know what you’re thinking: how can otherwise quite sensible people believe all that stuff about God?” The young people smiled at each other, and the Sydney man continued, gently and unassumingly, “That’s O.K., I used to think that, too, until I looked into it for myself. Eventually I came to the point where I couldn’t avoid saying that Jesus is God, that he died on the cross, rose from the dead, that he loves me, and that if I wanted real life here and now, as well as in eternity, then I should join the community of his followers.” The gospel in about twenty seconds! 

A few of the young people asked questions. Then the train reached the destination of the Sydney Synod reps. The one who had done all the talking quickly reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of business cards, handed them around the group, and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m being pushy, but this is my station. Here is a card with my phone number. If any of you decide you want to talk about these things, I’d be happy to meet in a cafe somewhere . . . or you could check out your nearest Anglican Church.” And off he and his friend went!    

I was moved by this spontaneous witness to the Lord, and thought how wonderful it would be if lots of laity and clergy from the Catholic tradition learned to use opportunities like that to share the Gospel. The terrible thing is that just as the train left the station, the bishop in the seat behind us complained to the layman sitting next to him, “How embarrassing! You can tell we’re in Sydney!”

Now I know that there are many ways of evangelizing. The Church as a community evangelizes just by “being” in the wider society - a kind of priestly ministry of presence, praying, worshipping, living and loving, daring to believe that in a wonderful way all this somehow unleashes waves of blessing on those who live and work around us. I really believe that! As individuals we have a ministry of presence all the time in our relationships with others. And of course, we evangelize by serving one another and those around us in times of heartbreak and tragedy, as we have seen in this country when terror or natural disasters strike. 

Unfortunately, while actions of love and service prepare the ground for Gospel proclamation and response, quite often suave liberals and certain kinds of snooty Anglo-Catholics criticise those who verbally share the Gospel, often falling back on the idea that St Francis of Assisi said “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” 

Several scholars have pointed out lately (much to my embarrassment, because I myself have occasionally attributed those words to St Francis!) that St Francis said no such thing. After all, he was the evangelist with a heart truly on fire for God who preached at length up to five times each day! (The closest the scholars say we get to those words is Francis’ Rule 1221 which is actually about preaching friars ensuring that their deeds match their words.)

The new evangelization is about the sacramental reality of the Church’s ministry of presence, and our need lovingly to persevere with hurt, wounded and suspicious people who are nowhere near an awakening of faith. It is about a new recognition of the specially gifted evangelist in the Church’s life. But it is mostly about run of the mill Christians learning to share the Gospel with others in actions as well as words.

Not far from where I grew up was a drive-in cinema. As teenagers, my friends and I could rarely afford the entry ticket. We would join the line of old cars outside the wire fence from where we could just see the screen, but, unfortunately, not hear the sound. We spent our time putting scurrilous dialogue into the mouths of the actors. We discovered that while it was possible some of the time to figure out the film based on the visual, mostly, without the dialogue we completely misunderstood it.

That’s why the new evangelisation entails clergy and laity alike being able to “make a defence to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15).

Or to put it another way, why shouldn’t Anglo-Catholics be able to lead others to Christ?

The most beautiful confirmation of what I’ve tried to share with you was written back in 1975 by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation to the whole Church, Evangelii Nuntiand [On Evangelization In The Modern World].  

“21. Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization . . . All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers . . . 

“22. Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified - what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” - and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. 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.”

May we as individuals and as parish communities do better at bringing others to Jesus so that they will know the newness of life to be found only in him.  


Post a Comment