Sunday, January 15, 2017

Discipleship, Evangelization and the Lamb of God

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan van Eyck

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on January 15, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.; see John 1:29-34)

There is a crisis in American culture today, and one that also affects the American Catholic Church.  It is not a political crisis (although we have no shortage of those in our time).  Nor is it precisely a crisis of vocations, although there is ample reason to be concerned with the declining number of priestly vocations in many dioceses.  The crisis before us is as obvious as it is discouraging: our churches are no longer full, and fewer people today are choosing to practice their faith.

Certainly, in many suburban parishes, there is a vibrant and active spirit that gives us all a great deal of hope.  But for many of the parishes in our cities—places where, perhaps 50 years ago, parishioners would have arrived 15 minutes early just to get a seat—the pews are more empty than full.

Bishop Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, recently referred to a survey that was taken about the faith life of Americans.  An astounding 25%, when asked what their religious affiliation was, indicated “none.”  This phenomenon of the “nones,” as many call it (not to be confused with nuns!), is one that has steadily increased over the years.  A decade ago, according to that survey, some 15% of Americans identified as “nones”.  Perhaps many others at that time would have responded, “I am Catholic, although I do not currently practice my faith,” or “I’m evangelical Christian but I do not attend services regularly.”  Today, one quarter of Americans simply have no religious affiliation at all.  In the words of Bishop Barron: “Houston, we have a problem!”

In her bestselling book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author and co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, Sherry Weddell, indicates that her experience working with leaders in dozens of dioceses across the country has revealed that only 5% of practicing Catholics are “intentional disciples.”  Church leaders she encountered described many well-intentioned persons who, nonetheless, did not possess a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Many, Weddell explains, understood the call to be a saint as an extraordinary ambition versus the lives of “ordinary” Catholics; there seemed to be no middle ground of being intentionally “on the way” to sanctity.   Apparently absent was the category for “intentional disciples,” people who have experienced Jesus Christ in a personal way and, inspired from within by the Holy Spirit, actively strive to worship God with their entire lives, serving and loving Him and their neighbors.  

These are all percentages and figures, and who could know the exact numbers and precise distinctions of where people are, religiously and spiritually today?  Nonetheless, the numbers add up, and the crisis of our time is emphatically a crisis of faith.

In November 2013, Pope Francis chose to look at this challenge, which effects not only Americans but a multitude of nations and peoples, not only as a crisis but also as an opportunity.  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, he encouraged the Church to see the great value of proclaiming the awesome message of joy that the Gospel promises to those who long for it.  We are not hocking some new product or seeking to bring in more parishioners so we can raise money and construct new buildings.  No, we are proclaiming the saving message of Jesus Christ, and His forgiveness, and the new, eternal life He offers. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis offered an invitation for all Christians everywhere, “to a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ” (Evangelii Gaudium, #3).  His words were reminiscent of Pope Benedict XVI’s passionate description in the encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, when he wrote, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, #1).  An encounter with the person of Jesus Christ changes and transforms our lives.  We are set on fire with that love that seeks to make Him known in this world, to proclaim the great message of our faith. 

What is that message?  What is this “joy of the Gospel” that we are all called to announce? Pope Francis, in words nearly identical to those of St. John Paul II in Novo Millennio Inuente, explains:

The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed His immense love in the crucified and risen Christ.
—Evangelii Gaudium, #11

That is the core message that we are called to proclaim to those around us.  Those who encounter Christ in a deeply personal way, those set on fire with the love and mercy of God, are inspired to communicate that “immense love” to those who long to hear it.  We help others to understand that God loves us enough to send His Son into this world, that Christ loves us enough to suffer and die for us on the cross.  We are forgiven, loved, redeemed.  Baptized into Jesus Christ, we can now “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).    How could we not proclaim that awesome message to the entire world?

In a word, we are called to be evangelists.  

But doesn’t that sound a little overwhelming?  Is Jesus asking us to stand on a soapbox in the middle of the supermarket or the Providence Place Mall and preach like St. Paul?  I would suggest that this Sunday’s Gospel shows us a beautiful pattern for evangelization, one that might pleasantly surprise us and not overwhelm us at all.  

St. John the Baptist announces in the Gospel this weekend: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Those listening to him that day would have had a very clear sense of what the Baptist was talking about.  The lamb was central to the religious life of the people of Israel.  When they were rescued from the land of Egypt, only those who had sprinkled their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and had eaten the lamb as their Passover meal, were saved.  God saved them in a single night, brought them out of slavery and death in Egypt and to a new life in the Promised Land.  To make certain that they would never forget or take for granted so great a gift, He commanded through Moses that the people sacrifice a lamb each year as a memorial of that “passing over” from death to life.  It was the memorial of their redemption.
Once they became established in the Promised Land and built the Temple in Jerusalem, every day—right up to the time of Christ—the priests would offer the sacrifice of a lamb in atonement for the sins of the people.  Suddenly St. John the Baptist announces, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  They would not have missed the significance of that moment.  John is saying nothing less than that this Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world.

We read, in the verses immediately following the ones in this Sunday’s Gospel, that St. John the Baptist makes that same announcement to two of his own disciples.  These were men that John the Baptist had a personal relationship with.  He knew them, and they trusted him.  These men immediately leave John and begin to follow Jesus Christ, becoming now disciples of the Lord.  

What happens next in the Gospel is salvation history.  These same men (St. Andrew and St. John the Evangelist) go on to share that joyful discovery with the entire world around them, but they begin with the people they have a relationship with.  St. Andrew would immediately go and find his brother, Simon Peter, and share with him the amazing news that they had found the Christ.  This is how God uses the relationships in our lives, the persons and communities that we are familiar with, to spread the Gospel message.

On a very practical level, I would suggest that Christ is calling us to do the same based upon this pattern of evangelization.  First and foremost, the people in our lives that are no longer practicing their faith, or the increasing category of “nones” that we all encounter on a regular basis, these persons are not strangers to the saving mysteries that we celebrate here this morning.  They are aware of the Mass, of the person of Jesus, of the reality of the cross and how Jesus endured suffering and death for us.  We are simply called to remind them of these realities and share with them how much these things mean in our own lives.  Like St. John the Baptist, in our own words and with our actions we proclaim, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Do we trust that God is already preparing them for that message?

Secondly, we remember that we received this great message of salvation through ordinary, loving people that took the time to share  the Christian faith with us.  Like the disciples of the Baptist, we trusted them because we had a personal relationship with them.  Priests, religious, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, so many people have had a part in helping us to discover Jesus Christ and to live out our faith.  We thank God for them, but we also ask for the grace to follow through, like St. Andrew and St. John the Evangelist, and share that same saving message with those around us.

Who are those with whom we share a personal relationship, people who trust us and encounter us on a regular basis?  How is Christ calling us to pray for them, even to make sacrifices for them, but ultimately to have the courage to share with them some small aspect or dimension of our faith so that they, too, can come to know Jesus Christ in a deeply personal way?  

In the words of Pope Francis, we seek anew, for ourselves and for those that we love, the great invitation “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (Evangelii Gadium, #3).