Proclaiming the Gospel

Thus, I aspire to proclaim the Gospel not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on another’s foundation, but as it is written: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”
Romans 15:20-21

Although it is somewhat painful to admit, I must say that the meaning of the call to “evangelize” others has always been somewhat undefined for me. We have in American religion a very strong streak of “evangelism.” When I was a child and young adult, Billy Graham would preach to overflow crowds of people in huge athletic stadiums calling on them to declare themselves for Jesus. Hour after hour on Sunday morning, television was filled not with political discussion but with evangelical preachers calling on their audiences to repent and to declare that Jesus was their personal Lord and Savior. In both substance and in style, I was unable to identify at any level with their preaching and with its goal. It seemed by viewing the emotional reaction of people who received and responded to the call to come forward that something significant was happening to them as they declared Jesus as their Lord, but I could not at all grasp what that was.

Over some thirty or forty years ago, my religious congregation began to speak of re-appropriating its “original” identity as a missionary congregation. My initial reaction to this was a bit troubled. I was well aware that our founder has said that in giving his congregation the name of Xaverian Brothers and making Francis Xavier his patron, it would show “in one word what was intended for the congregation.” And yet, I had come to see that persons who followed paths other than Christianity were often more inspired and fully human than I could seem ever to hope to be. I was raised by a father who was a non-practicing “protestant,” and whom I recognized as having a far deeper inner life that many of those who were my religious teachers and leaders. We know well that historically much of the “missionary project” was far more a cultural and colonial project than a spiritual one. I knew that there was a deep truth in the call to proclaim the Gospel, and yet I was not at all interested in giving my life to induce or seduce people into joining one religious “club” over another.

Yet, having said all that, as I read this morning the words of Paul to the Romans, I did experience a call and a longing. “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.” This ostensibly religious culture in which we live is, at this moment, largely populated by those who are painfully blind and deaf to their own and so their brothers’ and sisters’ worth, dignity, and transcendent potencies. As the Xaverian Fundamental Principles say:

It is through your life of gospel witness
lived in communion with your brothers
that God desires to manifest
His care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged,
not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness;
to those who suffer
from want, neglect, and injustice:
the poor, the weak, and the oppressed
of this world.

In what has become much more of a political bludgeon than an affirmation of religious belief, the declaration of the United States as in its essence and foundation “a Christian country” is endlessly asserted by some. Yet, quite to the contrary of what this assertion would suggest, mental health professionals are overwhelmingly concerned by what seems to be an epidemic of despair, depression, and anxiety among a considerable segment of the population. No matter how ubiquitous the words “Christ” or “Christian,” it seems undeniable that in any true and significant sense most people in this country “have never been told of him” or “heard of him” in any way that really matters in their lives.

According to Thomas Merton, the “problem” with our common sense of evangelization or mission is our misunderstanding of what Jesus came into the world for. Merton says Jesus came “to overcome death by love, and this work of love was a work of obedience to the Father unto death—a total gift of himself in order to overcome death.” What this means is that our call to proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard it, to evangelize, is to show in our lives together that love has overcome death. The great struggle of human life is the struggle between love and death. So embedded is this in us, that Sigmund Freud recognized that in our very characters we were driven both by a love instinct and a death instinct.

The Fundamental Principles declare that it is by the life we live in communion with our brothers and sisters that we testify to “God’s care and compassionate love” to all those who experience the primacy of death in their lives. To proclaim the Lord to those who have not heard of his coming or understood its significance is to witness that love by our love for each other, by testifying in our shared communal life to the possibility of love and the “victory” over death.

To see our way of living together as our proclaiming of the Gospel is something I can begin to understand. As Merton says, “the struggle between love and death . . . takes place in each of us.” Yet, it is not an individual matter. To know and to hear “the good news” in truth is to experience a transformation of our relational lives. Our drive toward death is one toward separation, isolation and nihilism. The drive toward love impels us to care, compassion, and community — for all. In Jesus we learn that to be obedient to the One who calls us is to discover that love prevails over death. That love is a potency for relationship and for service to the world, a service that is lived out through a love that is “common to all.”

That love is also universal. One need not belong to one cultural or religious group or club or another to know it. The proclamation of the gospel is not to recruit others to my or our way. It is to testify to “The Way.” As Jesus tells the disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”(John 14:4) It seems that Jesus is saying that to proclaim the gospel, to evangelize others is merely to serve their discovering that they already know the way. The proclamation is that love has won the struggle over death, in each of us. In a depleted and failing culture such as ours, it appears on all sides as if, in fact, death has won. In “a life of Gospel witness lived in communion” with others, we testify and proclaim to the truth that love has overcome death. Yet, we must engage the struggle and make the choice for life.

Perhaps I have such trouble with what is called evangelization because I could not see the victory of love among the evangelizers. Often, I saw it more in those who were seen as unbelievers. As Jesus says in today’s gospel from Luke, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” (Luke 16:8) In a recent conversation I was asked, “Why does it so often seem that those representing “religion” seem so angry, bitter, and. unhappy?” As St. Paul writes: “If I have all the eloquence of humans or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” (1 Cor. 13:1). The challenge for us to to trust the victory of love by daring to live community, to try to love and to learn by doing so that love has overcome death. If we cannot do this, then all our efforts to proclaim the gospel and save the world are but the sounds of a booming gong or a clashing cymbal.

. . . But before we start considering our vocation and our life, we have to stop and think what our Lord was doing. What did he come into the world for? What did he die on the cross for? What was his aim? Because that necessarily affects our aim and it affects what we are doing.

The standard answer always used to be, “He came to die for sinners.” That is to say, we are converted from sin; we don’t have to go to hell; we can go to heaven if we behave ourselves. And that is really a crude answer, because there is so much more in it than that. Our Lord came to overcome death by love, and this work of love was a work of obedience to the Father unto death—a total gift of himself in order to overcome death. That is our job. We are fighting death; we are involved in a struggle between love and death, and this struggle takes place in each of us. Our Lord’s victory over death, the victory of love over death on the cross, seeks to be manifested in a very concrete form on earth in the creation of community. The work of creating community in and by the grace of Christ is the place where this struggle goes on and where he manifests his victory over death.

Thomas Merton, Two Interpretive Talks on Eberhard Arnold’s Why We Live in Community, pp. 33-4

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