Let us evangelise with love. For it is only with sacrificial love that we win over hardened hearts.
How much do we love the people that we are evangelising to? Do we continue to love them even if they do not respond well to our evangelisation? Or worse, if they persecute us and treat us unjustly, will we still love them? This is the question this week’s Scripture passages pose to us.
As we reflected last week, the targets of our evangelisation are not just non-believers outside our faith communities, they are also nominal Christians within our faith communities. The former group are non-believers secularised by the values of the world. They find it hard to accept our Christian teachings, especially on difficult issues such as marriage, divorce, contraception, IVF, homosexuality, euthanasia and abortion. As our Christian teachings challenge the norms of the secular world, some non-believers will even take on a combative attitude and persecute us.
Evangelisation work is not a bed of roses. So we ask ourselves: What is my reaction when my evangelisation work is met with indifference, injustice and even persecution? How do I prepare myself? I must remember that before I am called to evangelisation, I am first called to love. It is only when I truly love that I can truly evangelise. It is only when I truly evangelise that I may eventually win the love of those I evangelise to – not just their love for me, but more importantly, their love for God. Today’s readings challenge us to love before all else, just as Jesus showed us. We need to remember that it was when Jesus suffered the greatest humiliation of being striped bare and crucified on the cross that He showed his greatest love. He prayed for his persecutors and even offer excuses for their behaviour. He pleaded to His Father: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)
The second group of people we evangelise to are the nominal Christians in our community, they perhaps pose an even greater challenge than the non-believers. These are Christians who practise their faith out of habit rather than out of conviction of the heart. They may come to the church every Sunday and may even serve in church ministries, but their hearts are not yet touched by Jesus. Or perhaps they were once touched and have since lost the fervour. In truth, this applies to all of us believers to a greater or lesser extent. Many of us believers are enslaved by sins of pride, greed, jealousy, anger and lust. We subscribe to secular values and are not living our lives in the fullness of joy Jesus promised us. Many of us believers hold the view that we are already believers and hence do not need to be evangelised. Many do not realise that conversion to faith is a lifelong process involving continual growth. Hence, compared to non-believers, many believers are more resistant to evangelisation efforts. Worse is when some believers bring their secular pursuits of fame, power and recognition into the faith community. Out of jealousy and insecurity, they would discredit or frustrate the efforts of other ministry workers whom they see as becoming more popular or more influential than them. Such actions scandalise the faith community and turn others away. Indeed, this is the experience of Paul and Barnabas in the First Readings of last week and this week.
Acts 13 and 14 give us an account of the evangelisation efforts of St Paul and St Barnabas, as they brought their evangelisation work through the towns of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Following the example of our Lord, St Paul and St Barnabas showed us great examples of loving those they evangelised to, even as they were met with great injustice. In the First Reading last week, Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch of Pisidia, in modern day Turkey. There, their evangelisation was highly successful. Their popularity drew the jealousy of the Jews, who then undermined and persecuted them. In response, Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium.” (Acts 13:51) In an uncanny repeat of events, “the same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” (Acts 14:1-2) Things became so hostile for Paul and Barnabas that “when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra” (Acts 14:5-6) In Lystra, the same pattern of events happened. After healing a man crippled from birth, Paul and Barnabas was initially mistaken as Roman deities, which they protested and corrected (Acts 14:8-18). But before long, “Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. As things deteriorated for Paul and Barnabas, “they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” (Acts 14:19-20)
The First Reading this week picks up the story from there. Paul and Barnabas had better success at Derbe. They “proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples”. After which, amazingly, “they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch.” (verse 21) Encouraged by their success at Derbe, Paul and Barnabas returned to Iconium and Antioch where they were once persecuted, where Paul was stoned and nearly killed. What prompted them to return? Indeed, Paul and Barnabas love the people, even as they were met with injustice and persecution.
Having persevered and completed their mission, before Paul and Barnabas leave these towns, they appointed representatives to carry on God’s pastoral work after their departure. They “appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe” (verse 23) Like the appointed elders in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, we too are called to continue the evangelisation work of those who came before us. Drawing from their own experience of setbacks, Paul and Barnabas encouraged their successors, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 22) My brother and sisters, as we undertake our evangelisation work, let us heed these wise words of St Paul and St Barnabas. As we are met with indifference, injustice and even persecution, let us not be discouraged or afraid. Remember, God places each of us in our unique circumstances for a reason. Indeed, there are people in my life that only I am able to reach out to and nobody else can. If I do nothing because of the anticipated difficulties, then I have failed in my love.
My dear friends, love is our ultimate calling. In Acts 13:3-17, in name of love, Jesus took up the role of a slave to wash His disciples’ feet, even though He knew they would all soon fail Him. Following that, in the Gospel this week, He said to them. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (verse 34)
In going to the cross for the sake our salvation, Jesus has showed us the way. He showed us that, in a secular and cynical world, the only way to melt a hardened heart is through sacrificial love. Only then, can these hardened hearts open themselves to the grace of God. Only then, can these hardened hearts realise that their sins and secular pursuits will not lead to happiness. To the contrary, sins and secular pursuits are pathways to tears. Hence, in St John’s vision of heaven in the Second Reading, we hear God Himself declared, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (verse 3-4) As we do God’s work on earth, we will do well to keep our end-goal in sight. We are assured that all the difficulties and heartaches we endure on earth will soon pass. When we enter our heavenly home, God will make all things new (verse 5). Injustice, persecution and sufferings will be no more.
May the Holy Spirit give us the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel and fortitude as we strive forth. Amen.