Only one topic of conversation is more likely to send Catholics into peroxysms of fear than the topic of money; that topic is evangelization. The word “evangelization” conjures in the minds of Catholics images of big hair, dental veneers and gold Rolexes. Alternately, it conjures up feelings of inadequacy based on the knowledge that all of us should be evangelizing on a daily basis, but don’t do so.
Since the publication of Evangelii nuntiandi there has been a great deal of discussion in the Church about the work of evangelizing, but there has not been a great deal of progress in accomplishing that work. In that Encyclical Pope Paul VI described evangelization as a service that believers are obliged to render to the world. (EN 1) If we know we have this obligation, why do we not give sufficient energy to accomplishing this necessary work? There are several reasons that Catholics do not have the reputation of being effective evangelizers. This Sunday’s Gospel might point to one of those reasons.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading. John the Baptist remarked to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” (John 1:36) Those two disciples followed Jesus and joined his company. Andrew, one of the two who became disciples of Jesus, went to his brother Simon, and said, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:42) Simon went to Jesus, and was given a new name. Did you notice that there is a recurring pattern in the events by which these people came to faith in Jesus?
In each case, someone identified Jesus by using a biblical title for the promised Savior, and then directed another person along the path to discipleship. The one being shown the way had a personal encounter with Jesus, and then joined his company. Later in the Gospel we see this pattern repeated in the lives of others who put their faith in Jesus as Savior. (John 1:45-50, John 4:29-42)
John’s Gospel presents these stylized interactions with Jesus as a method for evangelizing. Faith is a human act that is shared by intentional action. In John’s Gospel, those who bring others to faith in Jesus do so by identifying Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation. The various messianic titles used about Jesus (Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah, fulfillment of the Law and prophets, Son of man, the one whom God sent, bread of life, et al.), indicate that he was not just another prophet but God’s saving intervention on behalf of the world.
The titles given to Jesus, and used to point people toward faith, are taken from the Scriptures: the revelation of the Covenant, the preaching of the prophets and the hope for a restoration of the Davidic monarchy. These messianic titles speak about the religious lives of God’s People, but first and foremost, they speak about God’s actions. God gave the Law to those whom God chose as covenant partners. God spoke through the prophets to call people to repentance. God guided God’s People by means of the leadership of the judges and kings. In fulfillment of the promise of salvation God spoke the Word into human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s look, for a moment, how these titles, and the divine actions that are their foundations, compare to contemporary representations of Jesus. Today, in our culture, Jesus is represented on bumper stickers and t-shirts. Jesus is often described as “awesome.” Jesus is co-pilot for some, and heavenly buddy for others. For some facing tragedy, Jesus is the court of final appeals or the addressee of panic in one’s final moments. While these popularizations have compelling reasons behind them, they lack one important trait: they are not connected to the Scriptures.
In John’s Gospel, the messianic titles that directed people toward faith in Jesus were references to God’s actions in the history of salvation. Contemporary popularizations of Jesus are much more connected to our personal wants and needs than they are to God’s Word. Our evangelizing efforts thus far have born the fruit that can be expected from directing people along the path to problem solving, coping with stress or tragedy and feeling good about themselves. Is it the least bit surprising that we are making so few disciples for Jesus when we have been directing people to be followers of their own felt needs?
Evangelization will never happen, and will never accomplish its intended goal, as long as it remains an effort to direct people to focus on themselves. The Church’s efforts to evangelize will only bear the fruit of new disciples when that effort is directed solely and overtly toward God’s saving actions. The generation of believers to whom John’s Gospel was addressed were able to bring many new believers into the family of faith because they identified Jesus as the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the one sent to take away the sins of the world. The Church today can experience the same success at evangelizing, but only if we are willing to preach Jesus as Messiah from God.
All of the messianic titles are appropriate and effective ways to direct people to faith in Jesus, but I’d like to suggest one that speaks directly to the possibility of biblical faith today: the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Please note that the Gospel does not describe Jesus as the lion of God or the Terminator of God or the Retribution of God. Rather, the Gospel describes Jesus as “lamb,” a sacrificial animal used for the expiation of sins.
We live in a very unforgiving world; there is ample evidence of this in the daily news. If there is a particular divine intervention that the world needs to experience in the Twenty-First century, it is forgiveness. The forgiveness that all of us need, and that all of us need to give one another, is possible only as a result of faith in Jesus as Savior.
The death of Jesus made real forgiveness possible for everyone, and the lack of real forgiveness in the world is testimony to the lack of a biblical faith in Jesus. This sad situation can be remedied; it can be remedied by our testimony about forgiveness. To proclaim Jesus as personal problem solver or coping mechanism is unlikely to draw crowds; it doesn’t appear to have done so thus far. However, to proclaim Jesus as Savior who makes it possible to forgive those who sin against us will certainly attract the interest of those around us – if that proclamation is accompanied by our real forgiveness of others.
Pope Paul VI described evangelization as a service to the world. The world around us stands to benefit tremendously from an example of real and lasting forgiveness. Can you and I be the ones to point others toward faith in Jesus? It is possible, and easily attainable – if we proclaim by our words and actions that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
“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.” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 22)