Editor’s Note: Over 20 issues, The Michigan Catholic is bringing you, in bite-sized chunks, Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel. Below is the eighth of 20 excerpts, taken from the letter’s first guidepost, “The New Pentecost.” To read the whole letter — or to catch up on sections you’ve missed — visit www.unleashthegospel.org.
Just as when Jesus himself began the work of evangelization, so today the good news involves both a call to repent and a call to believe: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15).
To repent means to “change one’s mind” — to make a life-altering decision to turn away from sin and toward God. There is no true offer of the good news that does not also call for repentance. And calling people to repentance requires that we speak of sin and its consequences, including the ultimate consequence of eternal separation from God. The apostles’ preaching always included this summons: “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). To speak of repentance is not fashionable today in a world that prefers to ignore sin, yet we who belong to Christ can testify that repentance is the way to forgiveness and freedom. It is the key that unlocks the mercy of God! The call to repentance is always addressed to ourselves first, since all of us are continually in need of deeper conversion.
To be effective in today’s context, our proclamation and teaching must contextualize the moral demands of the Gospel, showing why they are not arbitrary limitations on our freedom but the perfect plan of our loving God for human flourishing. We must provide our pastors, catechists and others with practical help and a systematized approach to presenting Christian morality. In particular, priests and deacons need training and resources for successfully preaching on the “hard topics.” Our presentation of the Gospel’s demands must be pastorally wise, meeting people where they are at and avoiding “truth bombs” that will only turn them away. It must honestly engage the culture, looking for “seeds of the Word” — partial truths and inklings of the Gospel even where mixed with error and confusion.
To believe means to accept the free gift of salvation that God gives us in his Son, which far surpasses anything we could deserve or accomplish (cf. Eph 2:3-10). Our life in Christ is always a response to God’s initiative. Grace comes first; our part is to receive. “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that ‘he has loved us first’ (1 Jn 4:19) and that he alone ‘gives the growth’ (1 Cor 3:7).”
The invitation to believe in the Gospel is always personal: it is not a moral program but the offer of communion with a person, Jesus. “Heart speaks to heart,” as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it. The invitation is effective if it is made by a joyful disciple, one who has found joy in responding to the Lord’s demands. The evangelist presents the challenges of the Gospel not as the word of a superior to an inferior, but of a friend to a friend. Relationships are key to this whole process. We prepare the ground by first establishing trust, and then we offer accompaniment to the sinner along the challenging road to life in Christ.
Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:5-42) is a paradigm of evangelization. When the woman came to the well for her daily task of drawing water, Jesus engaged her in conversation, showing that he cared for her as a person. He spoke to her of “living water” that would quench her deepest thirst. As the conversation went on, he exposed areas of sin and woundedness in her life, implicitly calling her to repentance: “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Yet looking into his eyes, she saw no condemnation, only a love and mercy she had never experienced before. By the end of their encounter she forgot all about her bucket, because she had now drunk of the living water—that water that is the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:37-39). Because of that encounter the woman herself became an evangelist. She ran back to her village, exclaiming to everyone who would listen, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” Her message was neither eloquent nor complete, yet it was spectacularly effective. The joy of her new life was evident to all who saw her. This formerly isolated, outcast person was now forgiven, healed and reconciled to God. So powerful was her testimony that, as a result, the entire town came to faith in Jesus (Jn 4:39).
Signs and Wonders
Jesus proclaimed the Gospel not only in words but in healings, miracles, signs and wonders that visibly demonstrated the message: in him the kingdom of God had truly become present (Lk 9:11; Acts 2:22). When he commissioned his disciples to continue his mission, he commanded them too to preach the Gospel both in words and in deeds of power (Lk 9:1-2; 10:8-9; Jn 14:12). “They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mk 16:20). Often it was these signs that moved the hearers to believe the Gospel (Acts 8:6; Heb 2:4). So today we look for the proclamation of the good news to be accompanied by signs and wonders that visibly demonstrate God’s love and convince people that Jesus Christ is truly alive. We have been given a prison-shaking Savior, a deliverer who sets captives free! Signs, small and great, are a normal part of the Christian life. Our focus is not on the signs themselves, but on the risen Lord Jesus to whom they point. “By the power at work within us [he] is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).
To read more of the archbishop’s letter, or to catch up on sections you’ve missed, visit www.unleashthegospel.org.