Lesson 3: The New Evangelization

An EvangelistJohn’s comment after last week’s lesson offered an important qualification. He observed that becoming a voice in the political conversation is essential in our time but serving the needy as caring individuals is still more important. That distinction accurately indicates how Pope Francis’ Theology of the Spirit moves beyond Liberation Theology by carefully modifying its best features.

Another example of this modification of the past occurs when Pope Francis continually refers to Christianity as evangelization and Christians as missionary disciples. Many of us associate the terms with a specialized ministry and especially one practiced in foreign countries. Francis brings the thought of Latin American bishops to his papacy when he asserts that every Christian has a vocation that is best described as proclaiming the Gospel wherever you find yourself. The emphasis has moved from asking about your own salvation to examining your participation in Christ’s mission to save the world.  It moves followers from “Are you saved?” to “Are you working to save others?”

This emphasis on mission is balanced by an insistence that an intimate personal relationship to Jesus is central to the Christian life. That sounds strange coming from Roman Catholics who have traditionally talked about individuals being related to Christ through the institutional church. Nonetheless, even Pope Benedict writes, “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).

Still, it is important to understand that this emphasis on personal relationship primarily means allowing Jesus’ spirit to shape your life. It focuses on imitating Jesus who is described as “the first and greatest evangelizer sent by God” (#103 of the Aparecida Document). This is not so much about the ability of an individual to obtain salvation simply by asking for it as touted by Evangelicals, as it is about living in such a close relationship with Christ that you too carry the good news of the Gospel to the poor.

Again the nature of the good news in this theology comes as a surprise. It emphasizes the dignity of every person being created in God’s image rather than the forgiveness of sin achieved in the crucifixion. Jesus is described as “the human face of God and the divine face of the human” (Aparecida #107) sent to make us “sharers in the divine nature” (Aparecida #348). Obviously, we are talking about sanctification that sounds more like Eastern Orthodoxy than what we are used to hearing from Western Christianity.

The Latin American bishops think this theology reflects new directions in which the Holy Spirit is leading the church, new directions that demand pastoral and institutional reform for Roman Catholics (Aparecida #367). I am sharing their thoughts because I think they also present a challenge for Protestants. The times call for all Christians to take responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel to those around them rather than agonizing on whether they themselves are saved.

I think I first realized how relevant this challenge is after making a somewhat whimsical ad-lib at the end of a sermon decades ago. I must have been frustrated after preaching about evangelism to a Lutheran congregation trained to think of Christian life wholly contained in a 16th century understanding of justification by faith. At any rate, I remember blurting out that I sometimes wish that Jesus had said, “None of you are saved unless all of you are saved.” I suggested this would perhaps motivate us to take more seriously our responsibility to spread the Gospel message. Totally unexpectedly, the congregation wanted to talk about the implications of the ad-lib rather than the rest of the rather conventional sermon.

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