Are You an Evangelist?

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

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Are you an evangelist? If you asked most Catholics that question, they’d probably hesitate before answering. Many would say “no.” It’s not a word most of us are comfortable with (perhaps because it has become associated in our minds with a certain sub-set of Protestantism). But that’s a shame. Because if you are a baptized Christian, you are supposed to be an evangelist. 
The word evangel comes from the Greek for “good news.” It’s the same word that we translate as “gospel.” So an evangelist is one who shares good news — specifically the good news of Jesus Christ. Who doesn’t like to share good news?
The task of spreading the good news of Christ is not reserved for the bishops and clergy, or for monks and nuns. It’s primarily the job of lay people. The Catechism reminds us that lay people have “the right and duty… to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth” (CCC 900). The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that for lay people, “evangelization… acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world” (Lumen Gentium 35). 
“Ordinary circumstances of the world” would included places where clergy and consecrated religious often cannot go: places like the workplace, the marketplace, neighborhoods, and in the case of college campuses, classrooms and dorms. In other words, in most places in the world, the task of sharing Jesus’ good news falls to lay Catholics. 
For you, maybe that doesn’t feel like good news. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable talking with others about your faith. Maybe you don’t feel smart enough. Maybe you don’t feel holy enough. That’s OK. You don’t have to be a theologian or a saint to share with someone why Jesus is important in your life. 
Our readings for this Sunday give us a “game plan” for how to evangelize. The first reading from Acts tells us about the deacon Philip traveling to Samaria and proclaiming Christ to the people who lived there. They are converted, but that’s not the end of the story. Peter and John come to them from Jerusalem to lay hands on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. We still do that today. We call it the sacrament of Confirmation.
What this episode tells us is important. Evangelization is about introducing someone to Jesus. So it’s not enough to just tell them about Jesus. You want them to actually meet Him. And you find Jesus in His Church. So the new Christians in Samaria were introduced to the person of Jesus through His Apostles, Peter and John. They had already been initiated into the Church by baptism, but the Apostles confirmed that initiation through the laying on of hands. When someone puts on Christ in baptism, they become members of His Body, the Church. Evangelization starts outside the Church, but it should always end inside the Church.
The second reading from 1 Peter reads like a check-list for evangelization! We can take it line by line.
1. Sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart. This has to come first. You can’t introduce someone to Jesus if you don’t know Him yourself. You can’t give someone a gift that you don’t have. 
2. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. There is something different about Christians. People can tell. We have peace. We have joy. We have hope. We can expect people to ask about it. Whether they are asking a question about the doctrines and practices of the faith, or just want to know why are you so happy? we should be ready to tell them about it. This doesn’t mean we have to have the Catechism memorized. But we should know the basics. We should know why we do what we do and believe what we believe. Most importantly, we should be comfortable just sharing honestly about how our relationship with Christ makes our lives better. 
3. But do it with gentleness and reverence. You can call this the “don’t be a jerk” principle. Evangelization is about winning souls, not winning arguments. This is all about having a loving and charitable attitude. We can be right in what we say, but wrong in how we say it. A combative attitude can close someone’e heart to the truths of the faith. We don’t want that. So when you “give a reason for your hope,” always be respectful of the other person. After all, you want them to be your brother or sister in Christ. So treat them lovingly.
4. Keeping your conscience clear. This means living an upright moral life, and striving for virtue. Why is this important? It ties into #1 above. If you haven’t made Christ Lord of your heart, you can’t ask others to do so. If you aren’t living virtuously, you offer at best a hypocritical witness. Your credibility is diminished. But most importantly, you won’t be ready for what comes next.
5. Expect to be persecuted. St. Peter says that we need to keep our conscience clear so that we’ll be ready when people malign us for the sake of the gospel — which they will do. They did it to Christ, and there has never been a better evangelizer than our Lord. We can expect no better for ourselves.
And finally, the best news of all about evangelization comes in our gospel passage. Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth.” By keeping the commandments of God, we keep a clear conscience, as St. Peter instructs us. But we also remain united with Christ, who promises to send us the Holy Spirit as our advocate and guide. This is essential, because it is not we who are the true agents of evangelization, but the Holy Spirit working through us. Neither you nor I can convert a single person’s heart to Christ, but the Holy Spirit can convert thousands through our witness, if we cooperate with Him by keeping Christ’s commands.
The Church received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we will soon celebrate once more at the end of the Easter Season. We as individuals receive the Holy Spirit at our Confirmation, like the Samaritans in our first reading from Acts. The sacrament of Confirmation is our personal Pentecost, where we receive the power to live lives of holiness, and the power to witness to world about the good news of Christ.

If you have the Holy Spirit, then you have this power. What you don’t have are excuses.
So I ask again: are you an evangelist?
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Gospel For Today: Pentecost


Today we celebrate the great solemnity of Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles with “a mighty wind” and “tongues of fire.”  This day is often celebrated as a new beginning, the “birthday of the Church,” marking the start of a new age, the age of the Spirit.  While all of this is true, in many ways the day of Pentecost is also a completion or fulfillment of so much that came before.

The feast of Pentecost itself dates back long before the birth of the Church.  After all, as it says in our reading this morning from Acts, the very reason the Apostles and so many other Jewish people from all over the Mediterranean world were gathered in Jerusalem at this time was to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.   It was a spring harvest festival celebrated by the Jews fifty days (hence the name pentecost) after the Passover.  During the festival, bread made from the first spring harvest of grain was offered as first fruits to the Lord.  But more than this, the Jewish feast of Pentecost marked the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19-20).  So on this great feast when Jewish people from all over the world were gathered together to celebrate God’s gift of the Law to His people, God once again gives His Law, the Law of the Spirit, to His new people, the Church.  It is a completion and fulfillment of what came before.
And what were the effects of this gift of the Holy Spirit?  Many things, but one of which was the gift of speaking in tongues.  Our reading from Acts this morning says that when the Apostles began preaching to the gathered crowds, who came from many different countries and spoke many different languages, each person heard them preaching in their own native tongue.  This gift of the Holy Spirit is also a completion, this time in the sense of being a remedy.  It recalls the episode of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9).  This account describes how mankind, united in one language, built a great tower which reached to the heavens.  To keep them from accomplishing too much too fast, God destroyed the tower and confused their language, scattering them to the different corners of the earth. 
This is how the Jewish people understood the reason for there being so many different languages spoken by man.  But in Pentecost we see the undoing of this.  Instead of confusion, what we see with the coming of the Holy Spirit is the gift of understanding.  In the Genesis account of the tower of Babel, God says there is nothing the people could not accomplish with the understanding that comes from a common tongue (Gen 11:6).  Truly, under the common language of the Spirit, there is now nothing we cannot achieve with God’s help — including our own salvation.
And finally we have in our gospel reading today another example of how Pentecost marks a completion.  Pentecost is regarded as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, but our gospel reading reminds us that the Spirit was active in the world long before that day.  This reading from John takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday, just after the Apostles have first seen the risen Christ.  Jesus breathes on them (spirit means “breath) and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained.”  This power to forgive sins, realized in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is made possible through the Holy Spirit.  This reading appears here in our liturgical celebration to show us how Pentecost is a completion of Easter Sunday, which is why today marks the end of the Easter Season.
In considering the various ways that Pentecost represents a fulfillment or completion, I cannot help but consider what many call the Sacrament of the Spirit, confirmation.  The Holy Spirit is often called the mysterious Person of of the Holy Trinity, and not without reason.  The Spirit is hard for us to imagine.  For God the Father, we have the image of earthly fathers, with which we all are familiar, to assist our imagination.  For God the Son we have the human face of Jesus Christ to envision.  But for God the Spirit we have metaphors.  We have fire, a dove, or a mighty wind.  These are all symbols of the Spirit, but hard for us to imagine as a Person.  And so the Spirit is mysterious, which seems fitting.
At the same time, though, it is somewhat of a shame that the Spirit is considered so shrouded in mystery by most Christians, because of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit ought to be most active in our lives.  It is the Spirit that is the animating soul of the Body of Christ, the Church — a Body of which all the baptized are members.  It is the Spirit that makes our lives as Christians possible, uniting us to the Father, through the Son.  So the Spirit, while being mysterious, ought not be unfamiliar.  If He is, perhaps we are not paying attention.
Likewise, because the sacrament of confirmation is called the “Sacrament of the Spirit,” we consider is the “mysterious sacrament.”  I have heard many catechists struggle to explain to those preparing for the confirmation just what the sacrament is for, and what it achieves in us.  “You receive the Holy Spirit,” they are taught.  But didn’t I receive the Holy Spirit when I was baptized?  “Confirmation completes baptism,” they are taught.  Do you mean to say my baptism was incomplete?  Was it lacking in some way?  Any confusion in people’s minds is understandable.
Those who are confirmed do receive the Spirit, and this does complete and seal the graces received at baptism.  But this does not mean the previous baptism was ineffective any more than Jesus’ gift of the Spirit to the Apostles on Easter Sunday, from today’s gospel reading, was ineffective.  The Apostles had the authority to forgive sins.  But the descent of the Spirit upon them at Pentecost gave them the tools needed to put that gift into action.  And this is what we see immediately after the Spirit comes to them — a Church in action, with the Apostles preaching the gospel fearlessly and receiving people into the Church.
Likewise, confirmation gives us the tools we need to put the graces of baptism into action.  The Catechism teaches us that confirmation completes baptismal grace and obligates us to spread and defend the faith by both word and deed (CCC 1285).  What’s more, the sacrament gives us the strength to fulfill that obligation.  Confirmation “gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC 1303, quoting the Council of Florence, 1439 AD).  
The Apostles received this power in a very radical and particular way on the day of Pentecost, at the very beginning of the Church.  But you who are confirmed share in this same power.  However, we must be mindful that gift does not take away free will.  The Apostles had to choose to put that power into action, and you and I have the same choice today.  The gifts we are given do not bear fruit automatically.  We have to cultivate them and put them into action.
As we complete the season of Easter today, we recall how Easter Sunday and Pentecost are bound together, one flowing into another.  Just as our baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Paschal mysteries of Easter, we can think of our confirmation as uniting us to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the divine gift that completed the Easter miracle.  Those of you who have been confirmed possess this gift already.  Those preparing for confirmation live in the hope of receiving it.  It belongs to you to put this gift into action.  Spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  Defend the faith, giving a reason for the sure hope that is within you (1 Pt 3:15).  Do this by word and by deed.  You have this power.  God has given it to you in the Spirit.  Go put this power into action and set the world on fire.
Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God’s presence.  Guard what you have received.  God the Father has marked you with His sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed His pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts.   — St. Ambrose (340-397 AD)

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

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