Here is a question all Christians should ask themselves at one time or another. What can you do to convert anyone to the faith? The answer may surprise you.
There is nothing at all you can do that would convert anyone's heart to Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Simply put, it is not your job. But wait! Didn't Christ command His church to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all He commanded, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit? Yes, He certainly did. But that is not the same as actually converting someone. We can (and should) preach the Gospel. We can tell others of our faith, we can explain what we believe and why we believe it. We can teach others right and wrong. We can live our lives to be good Christian examples of God's love. We can do all of these things. And someone may very well be drawn to the Christian faith through our example. But we cannot and will never directly convert a sinner's heart to grace. That is a work that must be accomplished between that soul and God. But we can help facilitate that process.
What an awesome responsibility God has given to allow us to help in the salvation of souls! It reminds us that He is the Creator and we are His creatures. We are instruments that sound best when we allow ourselves to be played by the Master. We need to allow God to work His will in our lives. God has always worked His will in the world through people chosen to be His messengers and instruments. Today's scripture readings tell us of just a few. The first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel, one of many prophets sent by God in the Old Testament to His chosen people. The second reading is from St. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, spreading God's word among many new peoples (in this case, the Corinthians). And of course the Gospel today from Mark speaks of Christ Himself, the ultimate instrument of God's will, bringing His gospel message to His own home town. And we must remember that the Incarnation of Jesus was itself accomplished through the cooperation of another of God's humble creatures, Mary.
But there is something interesting going on in today's readings. We see these people willingly doing the work of God, and so you would think things would turn out successful for them. But read what happens when Jesus preaches to his own friends and neighbors in the synagogue. "Where did this man get all this?" the people ask. "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?" In other words, the people gathered who heard Jesus preach were saying, "Who does this guy thing he is? Why should we listen to him? This is just Mary's son. You know, that skinny kid who used to follow James around all the time? Yeah, that's right, the carpenter. He builds chairs for a living. He's nothing special, so why is he up there acting like he can teach us?" They didn't listen to what Christ was saying. The gospel passage concludes with, "So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there... He was amazed at their lack of faith."
This past weekend I attended a Theology of the Body conference in Simpsonville, SC, and one of the speakers was Dr. Ray Guarendi (the popular Catholic radio psychologist). In one of his talks, Dr. Ray asked the audience a series of questions.
1. Is there a God? (Yes.)
2. Is He all powerful and eternal? (Yes.)
3. Is Jesus Christ God? (Yes.)
4. Was Jesus, on earth, in full communion with God the Father? (Yes.)
5. Was He sinless? (Yes.)
6. Did He fulfill perfectly God's will? (Yes.)
7. Did He convince everyone who heard Him to follow Him? (No.)
So if Jesus couldn't even do it, who do you think you are?
I'm sure I am paraphrasing Dr. Ray a bit, but his point is a valid one. None of us are perfect, and even the one who was perfect didn't have a 100% success rate in converting sinners. Neither will we. It is important for us to realize this, with humility, but not to let it be an excuse not to spread the Word of God among those in our spheres of influence.
Look at today's first reading carefully. God is sending Ezekiel to preach to the Israelites, whom he describes as "rebels who have rebelled against me." He warns Ezekiel up front that it will not be an easy task. God says they are "hard of face and obstinate of heart." But that should not stop Ezekiel from doing his job. The passage ends, "And whether they heed or resist... they shall know that a prophet has been among them."
That single phrase is so important, for it gives us our job description as evangelists. God gives each of us free will. We each can decide to accept or reject Him. There is nothing you or I can do to force anyone to come to Christ. God Himself cannot -- and will not -- force anyone to love Him. God is not like that, He respects the freedom He gave us. But we can extend the invitation. We can open the door, and hope they will walk through it. We can remove obstacles that may be standing in their way. We can offer them eternity. But only they can accept the gift.
We should not judge how well we are performing our task based on how many come to Christ because of us. The truth is no one will come to Christ "because of us." Anyone who comes to Christ does so because they have responded to the work of the Holy Spirit on their hearts. It is never "because of us." But have we done our part to extend that invitation? Have we done our part to open that door? Whether they accepted or rejected the message, did they know there was a prophet among them?
In my work as your campus minister at WCU, there is a lot I cannot do. I cannot make anyone go to Mass on Sunday. I cannot make you go to Confession. I cannot make you live chaste lives. I cannot make you pray. I cannot make you do anything at all. All I can do is invite. All I can do is provide opportunities. All I can do is love and pray. And then I get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. This is my particular role and this time and place.
What is yours? Who is in your sphere of influence? Who is God putting in your life and asking you to be witness to? Do those people know there is a prophet among them?
BONUS: Did you read that bit about Jesus being the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and get a bit confused? Did you scratch your head and say, "Wait a minute, I thought Mary was a virgin all her life, so where did these brothers and sisters come from? There is a really helpful article on the Catholic Answers web site about Mary's perpetual virginity and the "brothers" of Jesus that does a wonderful job of explaining this seeming contradiction (which is not really a contradiction at all). I recommend it to you.
Pax Christi, and Happy Sunday!