Word of the Day: Kerygma

3rd Sunday of Easter

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Here’s a word you can use to impress your friends at parties. Are you ready? It’s kerygma. If you’ve never heard it before, don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t. But it’s a word every Catholic ought to know, because kerygma is essential to the Christian faith. It comes from the Greek word keryssein, meaning “to proclaim,” and it refers to the initial proclamation of the gospel. It’s what we see St. Peter doing in this Sunday’s reading from Acts.

The Acts of the Apostles is the earliest history of Christianity. If you’ve ever wondered how we got from Jesus’ death and resurrection to “the Church” then read the book of Acts. It’s our origin story. The third chapter begins with Peter and John going to the Temple to pray. They encounter a crippled beggar by the gate. Peter prays in the name of Jesus and heals the beggar. Many people witness this and are astonished. Peter has their attention. This is where our reading picks up.

Having the crowd’s attention, Peter directs it to where the glory actually belongs — to Jesus. He tells them, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15).

He doesn’t say this to condemn them, but to testify to the truth of what happened. He tells them, “Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did; but God has brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer” (Acts 3:17-18).

Peter makes the connection between what happened to Jesus and what the scripture foretold about the Messiah, all pointing to the reality that Jesus is the Christ. Then he tells them what to do about it: “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19).

This is kerygma — a very simple and basic proclamation of the gospel to those who need to hear it. Peter and the other disciples do this frequently in the book of Acts as the Church grows and the faith spreads. It’s not fancy catechesis. It’s not high-brow apologetics. It’s not learned theology. It’s personal testimony, relating the basic truths of the Christian faith. Jesus was crucified and died. He rose from the dead. Repent and believe.

Every Catholic knows this. It should be as familiar to us as the air we breathe. We proclaim it at Mass whenever the priest announces, “The mystery of faith,” and we answer with, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” We profess it whenever we recite the Creed. We believe it. But do we proclaim it?

If you find the prospect of telling others about your faith in Jesus unsettling, you are not alone. Most of us find it awkward, if not downright intimidating. We aren’t St. Peter, after all. He was the first pope, and a saint!

But Peter was also a pretty regular man in many respects. He wasn’t a scribe or a pharisee. He wasn’t a rabbi. He was a fisherman. And according to the gospels, he wasn’t always the most astute when it came to understanding Jesus’ message. He fumbled a lot. He even denied Jesus three times during the crucifixion. But he repented, and eventually his love for Jesus overcame his human fears and anxieties. He became a great saint because of his love for Christ. You can do the same.

Take a look at exactly what Peter does when he proclaims his kerygma. It’s nothing magical. First of all, he and John are just doing what faithful Christians do — going to pray. When they meet someone in need, they help. And when they get people’s attention, they use it to glorify God. They don’t want praise for themselves. They know it rightfully belongs to Christ.

Peter’s preaching may seem a little forceful and direct, but consider who he’s talking to. The men and women there gathered would have been talking about the events that recently transpired; Jesus’ trial and execution, and the reports of his rising from the dead. It’s what all of Jerusalem was talking about! When Peter tells them that they put the author of life to death, but God raised him, he’s tapping into a buzz already going on. But he adds his personal testimony to it. When Peter says, “of this we are witnesses,” he is saying, “All that you’ve heard about Jesus’ resurrection — it’s true. I’ve seen it.”

Then he connects the dots between Jesus and the Messiah that the Jewish people were all waiting for. Remember, Peter is a Jew talking to Jewish people that were familiar with Jewish scriptures. Later, when Paul begins preaching to the Greeks in Athens, he uses a different approach. People need to be met where they are. It’s important to relate to them in a context they can understand. Peter’s audience understood the idea of a suffering Messiah from the Jewish prophets.

Finally, Peter gives them something to do. He tells them to repent and be converted. He lets them know what the proper response is to the message he has just preached to them. He gives them the next step.

In short, Peter’s kerygma is authentic to who he is, and who he is talking to. Considered in this light, there is no reason any professing Christian couldn’t offer a kerygma of their own. Just consider these questions: Whose attention do you have? What can you tell them about your personal experience with Jesus that they could relate to? And what can you invite them to do next?

Maybe it’s a suite-mate who is going through a hard time and could use some of the peace that you have found in God through your prayer life. Have you told her about how much Jesus is a source of strength and comfort in your life? Invite her to a Bible study, or just to pray with you. Maybe you have a study partner who is frustrated because he thinks life is meaningless and doesn’t think there is a purpose to it all. Have you told him about how your faith in a Creator gives you direction, and your life meaning? Invite him to come to Mass with you and offer to talk more with him about the faith.

What we are talking about is basic evangelization. It’s something every Christian is called to do — not just priests and nuns. To do it doesn’t require a degree in theology or a clerical collar. You just have to love Jesus, and want to share his love with others.

If you’d like to learn more about how to best do that as a student on a college campus, the Diocese of Charlotte is hosting an Evangelization Training Camp for college students at the Catholic Conference Center in Hickory, NC, May 14-17. Grant funding is available to sponsor students wishing to attend. Contact us at ccm@wcucatholic.org for more details.