In these days of marketing, we have learned to mistrust those who promise us good things. In this context, the New Testament verb “to evangelize” can frighten us. We are embarrassed to propose our faith to someone else, as if we were trying to sell something. And we are so deeply concerned to respect others that we do not want to give the impression of imposing our own ideas or to try and convince others. Especially when it is a question of a subject as intimate as trust in God.
But do we really know what the New Testament means by “evangelizing”?
In Greek, the verb is used for the expression “to announce good news”: someone who is “evangelized” is basically someone who has been “made aware, brought up to date.” The verb can be used to announce a birth, an armistice or the inauguration of a new leader. It has no religious meaning in itself. And yet it was that word, almost too commonplace, that Christians used to describe the most precious aspect of their faith: the announcement of Christ’s resurrection. What is interesting is that, gradually, the word lost its complement. People didn’t say “make someone aware of Christ’s resurrection” but simply “evangelize someone.” This was obviously to save time, but that lack of a complement also has a deeper significance.
To proclaim the Good News of the resurrection is not, for Christians, to speak of a doctrine to be learned by heart or a piece of wisdom to meditate on. To evangelize means above all to bear witness to a transformation within a human being: because of the resurrection of Christ, our own resurrection has already begun. By his infinite respect towards those he encountered (visible through the acts of healing we find in the Gospels), by taking the lowest place so that no one would be lower than him (that is the meaning of his baptism), Christ Jesus restored worth and dignity to every person. Still more, Jesus was with us in death, so that we could be close to him in his communion with the Father. By this “admirable exchange” (Easter liturgy), we discover that we are fully accepted by God, fully welcomed by him just as we are. The Christians of the first centuries summed this up by saying, “God became man so that man could become God!”
To evangelize thus does not mean in the first place talking about Jesus to someone but, on a much deeper level, making that person aware of the value he or she has in God’s eyes. Evangelizing means communicating these words of God that rang out five centuries before Christ: “You are precious in my sight, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4). Since Easter morning, we know that God did not hesitate to give everything so that we would never forget what we are worth.
Can we “evangelize” someone while respecting his or her freedom?
Causing people to realize their worth in God’s eyes is not something optional. Paul even goes as far as saying, “Woe to me if I do not evangelize!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). For him, evangelization is the direct consequence of his attachment to Christ. Through his resurrection, Christ unites us inseparably to God. No one can ever again feel they are excluded from that union. And at the same time, humanity is no longer fragmented: since the resurrection, we belong to one another.
Still, the question remains: how can we communicate that news to people who know nothing of God and seem to expect nothing from God?
First of all, by our personal attachment to Christ. Paul said, “You have clothed yourselves in Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Evangelization calls us to start with ourselves. It is first of all by our life, and not by words, that we witness to the reality of the resurrection: “To know Christ and the power of his resurrection and a sharing in his sufferings, coming to be like him in his death, so that [we] might finally attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). It is by our assurance, by our serene joy in knowing that we have been loved from all eternity, that Christ becomes credible in the eyes of those who do not know him.
There are situations, however, when words are necessary. Peter puts it well: “Always be ready to reply to whoever asks you the reason for the hope which is in you” (1 Peter 3:16). Of course, speaking of an intimate love requires much sensitivity. And sometimes it is hard to find words, especially in situations where faith is brutally called into question. Jesus knew this well, and he said to his disciples, “When you are brought before (…) the authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you need to say” (Luke 12:11-12).
Because Christ clothed himself in our humanity and we have clothed ourselves in Christ, we should never be afraid of not knowing how to speak. In the Christian vocation of not choosing those they love, but of receiving everyone without discrimination, there is a generosity that is touching, and even more, that encloses someone in the life of Christ. In our capacity as servants, we share our garment with those we serve, a bit like Jesus who, when he washed his disciples’ feet, “took off his garments” (John 13:4). It is above all the disinterestedness of our acts that will speak for us; it will authentify the words we speak.