SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (A)
This should be obvious to us. After all, how sincere would we think someone was if they said they loved their mother dearly and were greatly devoted to her, but then never did anything she asked of them? How sincere would we think a student who said she greatly respected a professor but never completed any assignment he gave her? How sincere would we think a husband who claimed to honor his wife, but who never did any of the things she asked him to do around the house?
We know it is not enough to give lip service to one's love. Love has to be put into action, or it is not love at all. Keeping the commandments of God is how we put our love of Him into action. And this refers to the entirety of Christ's teachings as preserved by the Church, in both written (Sacred Scripture) and unwritten form (Sacred Tradition). This includes the Ten Commandments and the whole moral tradition of the Church. This includes the teachings that sound easy, but are sometimes hard (love your neighbor as yourself), as well as those that sound hard, but should be easy (making disciples of all nations).
We will soon celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord. Immediately before His Ascension, Jesus gave the Church a final command: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19). Our readings in recent weeks from the book of Acts have recounted how the early Church did just that. Last week, for example, our reading from Acts told how seven deacons were ordained to minister to the Greek speaking members of the community. This week we read how one of those men, Philip, brought the faith to Samaria, and how the Samaritans were later confirmed in the faith by the Apostles Peter and John. The whole book of Acts is the story of how the Apostles spread the faith "in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The Church continues to live out this commandment to this very day. It is an ongoing story, and it is an ongoing responsibility of each and every baptized Christian to help the Church fulfill this mission.
In our second reading today, St. Peter gives us an important lesson in how to go about obeying this command of Christ to spread the gospel. "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pt. 3:15). This instruction from our first Pope reminds us that truth must always be accompanied by love. After all, as St. Paul puts it, even if we speak with the tongues of angels, if there is no love in our hearts we are like clanging cymbals or a noisy gong (1 Cor 13:1).
Several years ago there was a group of neo-pagans wanting to establish a pagan temple in our area. As they did not have a permanent meeting site, they were holding their meetings at a public park, and they advertised those meetings in the local paper. Members from one of the area Protestant churches decided to "spread the gospel" to these neo-pagans by crashing their meetings and shouting Bible verses at them through a bull-horn. I sincerely doubt a single one of them converted to Christ through this tactic.
Even though I wanted to be sympathetic toward my Christian brethren, I just could not in this case, because there was neither gentleness nor reverence in their approach. There was no love. Was there excitement and enthusiasm about the gospel? Certainly. Was there great energy and devotion for what they were doing? I am sure of it. But ultimately their zealousness did more harm than good, because they did not heed the words of Peter. There was no gentleness there. I sincerely doubt that when Philip brought the faith to the Samaritans, a people with centuries of hatred and distrust toward the Jewish people, he won them over by yelling at them. I rather think he introduced Christ to them with a spirit of gentleness and reverence, loving them because Jesus loves them, and inviting them to love Jesus in return.
Each of us is called to evangelize, but that does not mean megaphones or browbeating someone with the Bible. I think all too often we shy away from this command of Christ to spread the good news because we think it means being "in your face" or "confrontational." It need not be that way, and I would say it ought not to be that way. Evangelization is one of those commands of Christ that sound hard, but shouldn't be. It should come naturally to us. After all, if you really do believe that your relationship with Christ is good news (which is what "gospel" means), then you'll want to tell others about it. When you fall in love with someone, you desire to introduce that person to others in your life. This is where evangelization starts. It becomes more than something you do. It becomes part of who you are.
There is a saying attributed to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel at all times: when necessary use words." I like this saying, but too often I fear people use it as an excuse to not talk about their faith. It is not that. It certainly was not to St. Francis who founded an order of mendicant friars help spread the gospel. But it is a reminder that our words are ineffective if they are not reflected in our lives. Why should someone listen to you talk about your faith if they don't see you putting your faith into action? What message does it send when you talk about your love for Jesus, while at the same time ignoring His teachings?
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments," says the Lord. Live a life of Christian integrity. Put your faith into action. You say you love Christ? Then follow through. It's worth the effort. "Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him" (Jn 14:21).