What are we supposed to be telling everybody?
Many words with specific religious meanings have been “secularized” for use in business: we can buy “The Windows Bible,” new ideas are “baptized” or “receive the blessing of management,” and some companies employ an “evangelist” to promote their products. Just as counterfeit money devalues currency, we can lose sight of the original meanings of co-opted words. Evangelism has come to mean an enthusiastic promotion of any product or ideology, including the Christian religion, rather than the proclamation of the Good News. Perhaps this is because we’ve also lost the meaning of the Good News.
Through Jesus, grace comes to us, but what is it? A working definition could be: “The love of God, raising us up to a higher level.” In the Greek of the New Testament, grace is written as , from which we also get “charity,” and “charismatic.” It implies both love and gift, and even a kind of relationship. Thomas Merton describes the ancient meaning as implying the relationship between a parent and a beloved child: it is a word for the beauty of the child (from which we get “graceful”), the love of the parent, the gift of the parent to the child and the child’s response (which is “eucharist”). All of this is implied in the word we translate as “grace.” Our difference is the “lifting up” which occurs. St. Paul speaks of us being “raised up,” and not just in the sense of resurrection, but now (cf. Ephesians 2:6). Grace is not a mere “thing,” but our description of an overall dynamic beyond our full understanding. Christians believe this grace comes through Jesus; that his life, death and resurrection opened the floodgates of grace.
Some people have mastered the art of giving gifts. They give gifts that sum up the relationship with the recipient, express their love and provide a lasting reminder of the giver. In the same way, the gift of God’s grace does this and more: the reception of the gift elevates the recipient to a new way of life. This must happen, for the gift is so great and as it is beyond earthly gifts it must be appreciated in a special way and this gift of grace bears the ability to help a person receive it more fully.
People pray for grace in specific circumstances: the grace to surmount obstacles, to succeed, to win, to endure. If we believe God is all-powerful, and we do not always succeed in our endeavors, we must conclude it is sometimes within His will that we do not succeed, win or endure, at least in the short term. Sometimes we will fail, and yet we know that this, too, is part of God’s will for us, and He will use it in a powerful way to form us more completely into the image of His Son, Jesus. This grace is not magic that always works, but a personal gift from God that makes us more like Him. When we look at a life lived in perfect grace, we do not see a life lacking in failure or frustration but a life spent in obedience to the Father, even to the point of abandonment and death. Failures, fatigue and betrayal pave the path to glory as much as success, joy and fellowship.
While we may not always get the things we pray for, God certainly offers the grace to do whatever He commands. As Peter said: “To whom shall we go?” God knows we have nowhere else to turn. Some look to their own strength, or to community, but these have no power to save (apart from God), and they cannot raise anyone higher than themselves. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” in the words of Jesus. The grace has already been given: “It is accomplished.” So, why are we still living in sin? The Church Militant, those bearing the name of Christian, have failed to live like Christ. We kill, we hate, we steal, we cheat. If God has granted the grace necessary to live as His children, why don’t we live that way?
We are made in the image and likeness of God, which means (among other things) that we have the ability to choose to love or not. God alone is perfectly loving, but we have been invited to love as He loves. For us to love, we must be free because love is a decision in favor of another. If we choose to love, God’s love flows out from us (we do not have our own supply) and onto others. When we love God, we participate in the life of the Godhead. When we love others, we participate in God’s love for His creation. In this loving, we must be raised up to a higher level, as water is raised to the clouds in order to power a hydroelectric dam. It is God’s will that we love, and He provides the grace. The grace to love is never denied us by God.
We deny it. We have everything we need, including the promise of grace, and we refuse it or assent to it. It is such a powerful gift that it will not go away, but we can refuse to act on it, and pretend it does not exist. We may even do things to demonstrate our refusal, or we may succeed in forgetting it to the point of losing our conscience. Our power to choose means we are fully capable of assenting to grace, and only our own decision can keep the effects of grace from permeating our lives. Someone said: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be taught,” but who will remind us that God’s grace is freely available and we have already been given the ability to assent to it?
This, then, is evangelism: to remind people of the good news: we can love, live in grace, and someone has already done it. The life of Christ is a life of perfect obedience, and for us to live this life we must accept the grace given by God. Jesus is the proof that this assent is possible for us, and we have only to attach ourselves to him to do as he has done. It is easy to miss the astounding facts: the grace is guaranteed by God and we are fully capable of the assent to it and cooperation with it. In fewer words: it is possible!
G.K. Chesterton said: “It isn’t that Christianity doesn’t work, it just hasn’t been tried yet.” The evangelist or prophet only informs people of the opportunity God has created for them. God invites, and the evangelist delivers the invitation. Once the invitation has been accepted, external change does not immediately follow, nor does this mean the person evangelized has made a total commitment to the unconditional acceptance of all the Good News brings with it. Over time, the “neophyte” learns the meaning of grace, and gradually comes to welcome the “intrusion” of grace into every part of human experience.
While there is a certain amount of teaching involved in evangelism, it is primarily to help people understand the invitation, almost as if it were written in another language and the recipient needed to learn the language before making a decision. But once the invitation is accepted, those gifted in imparting the Gospel by words and symbols must do their work, and the entire Church must show the Gospel by their very lives.
The evangelist does not proclaim a new system of ideas, but the Good News: God offers His own life to us and we can accept it if we choose. If we say “yes” to this invitation, we are guaranteed a place with God and His own life within us. This “yes” is an agreement to a beginning, and is a very long “yes.” We must live out this assent, and not regret it: “He who puts his hand to the plow but keeps looking back is not fit for the reign of God.” Lived long enough, this assent becomes permanent at death (when all decisions become permanent). The evangelist, by presenting this invitation as clearly as possible, prepares the neophyte for the long process of formation in the Gospel, which is carried out through formal teaching and the example of the Church.