Brett Powell, a Catholic leader in North America and someone I greatly respect, wrote recently, “After 28 years of full-time ministry, I still get nervous when sharing the faith with others. My liver quivers and I’m tempted to remain silent or just let the moment pass by.” When I read that, I remembered how many fears I still have about evangelization, proclaiming Jesus to people.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
[View Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
In December 2019, when we invited people to Alpha (a series of sessions exploring the Christian Faith), I invited some friends, but not all that I wanted. One reason was because it wasn’t the right time, but another was because I was afraid. I’m still afraid of taking the next step, afraid of being misunderstood, of damaging a relationship. And it’s mostly in my head: If I think someone is closed, I’m fearful. But if I think they’re open, I’m relaxed.
What are your reasons for not taking the next step in sharing Jesus?
Today, let’s reflect on all three readings, to see what Jesus is offering us.
The First Reading gives us the model of how we’re supposed to evangelize: “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:5-8). There are two things happening here: words and witness.
First, Philip talked about Jesus. He ‘proclaimed the Christ to them.’ Christianity is not primarily about being a good person. It’s about a person: Jesus.
You know how many people say that religions are all the same, have the same moral principles? That’s not correct: All religions don’t have the same moral principles, and Christianity isn’t primarily about morality; it’s about a relationship with a person.
So, if we’re talking to people about Christianity and not mentioning Jesus, then we’re missing the most important reality. The fundamental four-part message of Christianity, called the Kerygma, which we’ve mentioned many times, is: God the Father created us out of love so that we could be in relationship with Him; we’ve separated ourselves from Him (that’s sin); the Father sent His only Son, Who died out of love for us, to bring us back home; and we are invited to rebuild our relationship with the Father. Do you hear the language of relationship and personhood here?
Here are two simple ways we often get this wrong:
1) When we talk to our children about faith, we emphasize the human elements of our faith, like becoming a good person, helping others, giving thanks—not enough. What we must add is the supernatural parts, such as the gift of the Eucharist, where we’re united with Him, and the goal of life being to imitate Him;
2) A friend observed once that someone he knew only talked about ‘God,’ but never about the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. The point is that this individual didn’t relate to either of these Persons. Why? Because he didn’t know Them. God was always abstract rather than personal. But for us who know and love Jesus, let’s talk about Him. I’ve told you before that I do home fitness programs, and one time, I was with now Fr. Felix, and said to him, “Do you want to work out with me and Tony?” And he started laughing, because I was referring to the guy in the video; Felix said, “You talk like he’s really there.” It’s a joke, but that’s how I talk about Jesus, because He’s really here. Don’t be hesitant to talk about Him!
Second, St. Philip also witnessed. ‘Unclean spirits… came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured.’ He was actually loving them. Now, exorcisms and healing do occur today; you might want to try casting demons out of people at your work! But it also means casting out people’s fears and anxieties, their depression and loneliness; it means curing people’s hearts and souls, as well as their bodies.
People need to experience Jesus in a concrete way; that usually happens when we love, listen, encourage, and challenge them; when we show them a fuller life of peace and joy.
So, Philip gives us the model of proclaiming Christ. Here are two ways God will overcome our fears of doing so.
1) In the Second Reading, St. Peter begins, “Beloved: In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Pt 3:15); another translation says, “Reverence Christ as Lord.” All of us have false gods (success, making money, enjoying life, friends, pleasure) that dominate our attention.
Bishop Barron asks, “‘Do you realize that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead? Therefore, He’s the Lord, and therefore, your whole life has to be situated around Him…’ That means your country isn’t Lord… no other figure is Lord” (To Light a Fire on the Earth, 99).
When I’m afraid of talking about Jesus, it’s because there’s something that’s dominating my mind and heart more than Jesus. He’s the Lord of my life, but not perfectly. Yet every time I’ve asked Jesus to be more the centre of my life, I grow in courage.
2) In the Gospel, Jesus says, “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 forever. This is the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:15-17).
If we love Jesus and follow His command to share Him with other people, He will send us the Holy Spirit, Whom He calls the ‘Advocate.’ In Greek, ‘advocate’ literally means ‘the one called alongside.’ So it’s not all on us. The Holy Spirit comes to aid when we talk about Jesus or invite people. He’s also working in everyone’s hearts right now.
So the second way to overcome our fears is just to start, get out of our comfort zones and He will help. When I first started wearing my cassock all the time, I did so because I was told it would be good for vocations to the priesthood or consecrated life. But when I was discerning if I would wear it all the time, I asked a friend, who happens to be a fashion designer and whose judgment I trust, and she thought it might distance me from people. So I was hesitant. But the Holy Spirit, Whom Jesus calls the ‘Spirit of truth,’ reminded me of the truth: the reason I was doing it was to inspire vocations. The Holy Spirit came to my side, it’s been fruitful.
When I was in London, England, at an Alpha conference, all the Protestant pastors there are so cool: They’re young, fashionable, have tattoos, etc.! But when we were walking through the streets, I was the one getting stopped because of the cassock. I was waving and smiling at everyone, and inviting people to Alpha. And the pastors were saying, “Man, I have to get a cassock too!”
When we just start evangelizing, the Holy Spirit will remind us why we’re doing this: For Jesus and out of love for everyone we meet. There are two other truths of which He will remind us:
1) When we start proclaiming Jesus, there will be rejection—that is for sure—but not as much as we think. Fr. Ray Roden told me a story 15 years ago about Ulysses Grant, a soldier who went on to become the president of the United States. In his memoirs, he writes, “On the evening of the first day out from Goliad we heard the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front. The prairie grass was tall and we could not see the beasts, but the sound indicated that they were near. To my ear it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal… Benjamin… understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them. He kept on towards the noise, unmoved. I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back… [He asked]: ‘Grant, how many wolves do you think there are in that pack?’ Knowing where he was from, and suspecting that he thought I would over-estimate the number, I determined to show my acquaintance with the animal by putting the estimate below what possibly could be correct, and answered: ‘Oh, about twenty…’ He smiled and rode on. In a minute we were close upon them, and before they saw us. There were just two of them… They had made all the noise we had been hearing for the past ten minutes. I have often thought of this incident since when I have heard the noise of a few disappointed politicians… There are always more of them before they are counted” (Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 24-25). The Holy Spirit reminds of the truth that our fears are not as great as we think. We think we have many reasons not to evangelize, but there aren’t as many as we think.
2) The Holy Spirit reminds that “God has never made a person He didn’t love. Everybody matters to Him. When Jesus stretched His arms out wide on the cross, He was saying, ‘I love you this much!’… Whenever you feel apathetic about your mission… spend some time thinking about what Jesus did for you on the cross… If you’ve been afraid to share the Good News with those around you, ask God to fill your heart with His love for them” (Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Life, 294). Meditate on what Jesus was thinking when He was dying on the Cross. He was dying for everyone, trying to reach everyone, and so I want to reach everyone, too.
Today, which of the two actions do you need to take to overcome your fears? Is it: 1) Reverencing Jesus more as Lord in your heart; or is it 2) Taking the next step to evangelize? That step could be by loving people more, by being a better friend, speaking to them about Jesus, praying in public, praying for them or offering to pray with them? That’s our question for today in the online chat after Mass.
Since we’re starting our online Alpha on June 4 and 6, 2020, I really hope we can invite the people God is calling. Think especially of anyone who’s far from God, searching for Him.