How Jesus Evangelized
I do not think that the New Evangelization is just about what we say as Christians, nor about what new technologies we use to proclaim the Good News but also about how and the manner by which we proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!”
When it comes to the work of apologetics or promoting/debating the faith or current issues or even just day-to-day encounters for that matter, I must admit that I have never been one for witty, “in the moment” comebacks. I think that this is due, partly, to the fact that my parents taught me from an early age not to regard a snarky attitude, in and of itself, as a sure sign of intelligence and also because I do not think that an exchange of one-upmanship in comments leads anywhere truly productive. Such an exchange tends to produce more heat in friction than light to illuminate, I believe.
I share this because there can be a tendency to view apologetics and the new evangelization solely in terms of formulating the wittiest comeback line that will effectively put the other in his or her place while affording a sense of superiority to the crafter of said comment. But in the entire gospel story I never find Jesus doing this. Our Lord certainly had truth to speak, he knew how to challenge and his wit is demonstrated time and again throughout the gospels but his words never belittled the other nor did they divide and hurt.
If the new evangelization is to be true then we must not just look at what Jesus said but also how he said it. This “how” just as surely as the “what” must inform all means of communicating the gospel message— whether that be the classic one-to-one encounter or a tweet to the multitudes.
Jesus valued friendship, relationship and encounter. I do not think that Jesus would disregard the social communication of today, but he would view it as a means and not an end. Social communication is, at its best and it is fullest, in service to the Gospel when it brings people to a deeper encounter and relationship with Christ and with one’s brothers and sisters. Social communication used as a means to isolate oneself or others or social communication used as a protective wall over which to hurl incendiary verbal bombs is a disservice both to social communication and to the Gospel.
Yes, our Lord taught and he performed miraculous signs, but our Lord also proclaimed the Kingdom of God through his daily encounters with people and his willingness to enter into relationships and friendships. Yet, it is easy to overlook this mode of evangelizing and take it for granted. Christians can sometimes be a sour lot, and people take notice of this. It does not help the Gospel cause. Our Lord demonstrates both the importance of evangelizing through encounter, friendship and relationships and also that this form of evangelizing demands a “not so little” amount of discipline and a patiently acquired skillset. Friendship takes work, and it can be helpful to read the gospels with the focused intent of watching how our Lord interacted with people in order to learn a few things. (The prayer discipline of Lectio Divina is a great way to enter into these moments in Scripture.) Below are some truths I have found from reflecting on the interactions of our Lord with others in the gospel story.
Jesus, we are told, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped but rather emptied himself of glory and took the form of a slave. Much to the perplexity of the powers of the world that he encountered, Christ continuously took the road of humility. Humility is essential in the role of authentic friendship. Humility demonstrates a respect for the other person and an acknowledgement that he or she has something truly worthwhile to offer. Psycho-social studies demonstrate how relationships are essential in forming the human person in his or her own identity. (Sometimes I wonder how critical Jesus’ own relationships were in helping him to grow into an awareness of his own identity and mission.) Humility is a path by which we enter into authentic relationships and a means by which we help one another grow into the full person God intends us to be. Authentic friendships are not coincidence, they are gifts from God.
Willingness to listen and be present to people
In his encounter with the woman at the well our Lord demonstrates this discipline in spades. Our Lord put aside his needs (we are told he was tired and thirsty) in order to encounter this woman and answer her thirst. The ability to listen is not a weakness nor does it mean that I fully agree with what I am hearing, but it goes such a long way in creating relationship with another. Evangelization is not just proclaiming; it is also listening to the deep desires, hopes and hurts of our world. True evangelization also means sacrifice— putting away one’s own need and agenda— in order to be truly present as God wants us to be present.
Willingness to not manipulate or control
Christ never manipulated others. In fact, he let people walk away at different times in his ministry. He often instructed people to “tell no one” following a miraculous event, and he specifically pointed out the person’s own role in a healing or miracle: “Your faith has saved you.” Manipulation can never aid in bringing about the Kingdom of God. Sadly, the Church has sometimes forgotten this truth. However, I would also say that manipulation is not the sole provenance of the Church. Manipulation is rampant throughout all history whether it be social, political or economic. To say “no” to the mechanics of manipulation is to be truly counter-cultural and to witness to the truth of the Kingdom that overcomes the sad politics of this world; this, I believe, is one of the truest components of the new evangelization. The choice not to manipulate demonstrates a respect and care for the other even to the possibility of one’s own detriment. It is a form of embracing the cross that our world just cannot comprehend, but it speaks volumes and touches hearts.
Trust in God and others
Truly, Jesus trusted in the will of the Father but he also trusted his disciples even as he was not naïve to their weaknesses. He sent out the seventy-two and he commissioned the apostles. Jesus does not need to micro-manage. Developing trust frees us in order to enter into authentic relationship both with God and with our brothers and sisters. This is not an easy thing to do because trust has truly been wounded by sin but it is essential to any form of friendship and any form of true evangelization. In the life of faith trust can be built through daily encounter with the Scriptures (primarily the gospels), reception of the Sacraments and faithful friendship in community and with the poor. It takes work, but it can happen.
An attitude of joy
The word “rejoice” is found throughout Scripture and for very good reason! In Christ, God has overcome sin and death! Through his encounters with people, Christ demonstrates a deep and abiding joy in the Father and in the coming of the Kingdom. This joy speaks to the deepest yearning of the human heart and it is a joy that cannot be counterfeited because its origin is in God himself. This has been and remains the greatest form of evangelization we Christians have – the joy that we have in the Lord! Joy grows within us as we continually encounter the Lord. We should never hide this light under a bushel basket.
I believe that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is fully aware of the importance of the “how” in proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord!” Continually he witnesses this to us and, by so doing, is calling us to an awareness of this truly important but often overlooked aspect of the New Evangelization. How we say something is just as important as what we say.