Gambling to Faith in Jesus

Exploring if and/or how faith in Jesus Christ can be certain matters for catechesis, disciple-making, and evangelization as a whole. Certainty is related to confidence. If the “Good News” isn’t confidently known as something good with certainty, then why share it at all?

A few weeks ago I dropped in on Part 3 of an annual series by Ron Bolster entitled “Philosophy for Catechists” as part of the St. John Bosco Conference for Catechists at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Prof. Bolster picked up these practical questions of confidence and certainty from a philosophical angle to consider how we (in real life) come to know people and things that are beyond our finite human experience.

And the reality is this: most of the things we know and accept we haven’t witnessed; we believe on the testimony of someone else (a textbook writer, Wikipedia editor, etc.).

What does this bit of philosophy (epistemology, to be precise) have to do with evangelization?

As Bolster noted, sometimes, before a person has the encounter with God themselves, they have to “gamble” on the testimony of others.

Practically, a person trusts the real experience of someone else–takes a gamble–in order to take their own personal step further in life. Big implication? Witness matters. Your witness, my witness, our witness together just may be the stuff worthy of someone else taking a “gamble” on.

And these gambles can be successive. Have ripple effects. Take for example, Jesus’ midday conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:7-39). Jesus and the woman engage in weighty conversation. It’s a probing conversation that’s even a little pointedly blunt at times as they go back-and-forth with tensions between Jews and Samaritans, misunderstanding of Jesus’ directions, etc.

And it ends as seemingly abruptly as it begins, as the woman declares: I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything” and Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (4:25-26).  And that’s it. Over. The disciples return in amazement that Jesus is even talking to a woman, and without further recorded conversation, she heads back to the village. 

How certain is she walking back to her village? How confident is she in the person she has encountered?

Our Evangelist John gives us a glimpse in verse 29 as we see the woman’s message to her fellow villagers: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

So that’s it. How certain is she? How confident?

She’s certain enough to tell others “come see.” She’s confident enough to report what Jesus has done, “told me everything I have done.” And yet, she’s not sure about Jesus’ ultimate identity, seemingly wondering aloud, “could he possibly be the Messiah?”

The Samaritan woman is taking a gamble on Jesus as testimony to God the Father. Jesus’ actions and words–his witness–have given her enough to go a step further, even though she’s not yet at the point of running around telling everyone for certain that she’s found the Messiah (outside the village at a well, and oh-by-the-way he’s the rare Jew who talks to Samaritans).

Her gamble is in Jesus. That Jesus is divine, though she does not fully understand in this moment.

Ripples
“Ripples” (Flickr) CC-BY-SA-2.0

And what happens? A ripple effect. The villagers leave the town in the afternoon heat and come out to see Jesus. The villagers have now taken their own gamble on the woman’s gamble.  This gamble-on-a-gamble leads them to Jesus, where they can experience their own encounters with Jesus and know him as a person.

As John concludes:

When the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (4:41-42)

Now that each knows with confidence, they do not need to rely on their gamble, or the woman’s gamble. Now each has encountered Jesus and with certainty (CCC para. 157) and can declare “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

As evangelists, catechists, and disciple-makers, let us remember this: those beautiful declarations of faith? They started with a gamble on the testimony of another. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to make us more and more gamble-worthy as witnesses each and every day.

A version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Need Help Locating Church Teaching on Evangelization? Check Out This New Guide

Have you ever been told that Catholics don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus or that this is not what the Church teaches? How about that Catholicism is a works-based salvation? If you’re looking for some inroads into Church teaching for evangelization check out this new, awesome resource from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City…a simple and no-frills collection of excerpts from Church teaching to help explain the New Evangelization called Gems for the New Evangelization: Shamelessly Pilfered from Various Treasuries of Church Teaching. You can download it from their resource page.

To Fully Embrace Catholicism is to Have a Personal Relationship with Jesus

Over at Aggie Catholics, Marcel LeJeune dispels any myths or rumors that Catholics don’t/shouldn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

He writes:

This concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus sometimes sounds too Protestant to some Catholics. That simply isn’t true, it is as Catholic as all concepts. We have been using the language long before our Protestant brothers and sisters were ever around and the universal Church has never lost touch with this language, even if some individuals or communities have.

So true! Church teaching, especially as articulated by Popes makes the essentiality of this relationship clear. Marcel names just a few of the quotes that make this oh-so-clear:

“Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.” -Pope Francis

“Being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.” -Pope Francis

“It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Savior.” Pope Saint John Paul II

“Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” -Pope Benedict XVI

“Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians.” -Pope Benedict XVI

“This mystery (of faith), then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.” -CCC 2558

To his list I’d add one of my personal favorites, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, §1. Here Benedict calls believing in God’s love [in Jesus Christ] the “fundamental decision” of a person’s life. It’s a decision that “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” So, I guess, asking “Have you made a decision for Christ?” [not uncommon in Evangelical circles] is pretty Catholic, indeed 😉

So, why doesn’t this get clearly communicated? Here’s what I mean. When I walked into the Baptist church I started attending in high school, there were tracts all over the place presenting this simple teaching and explaining (in less than 4 pages) how I could enter into this personal relationship. Yet, I’d grown up in a Catholic parish (as an active parishioner) and had not considered the possibility nor implications of a relationship with God.

Obviously to truly share this great truth with a parish it has to come from the pulpit, opportunities for faith formation, and more. But, on the level of passive communication, maybe there are easy ways to start, like 1) small cards in the pews, 2) short explanation/exhortation in the bulletin, 3) tracts in the doorway areas of the church, etc. There’s no reason why having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ needs to be one of the best kept secrets of the Catholic Church.

Unpacking the Problem of Substituting the Church for Jesus

Keith Strohm observes, “Often as catholics, we substitute the Church for Jesus–as if they were completely interchangeable. But Jesus is not the Church. Rather, He is the Bridegroom who gives His life for His bride. It is through Jesus that the Church receives Her holiness…it is through Jesus that the Church is a channel of God’s life and love to the world. We are his Body, but the Body without a Head is simply a corpse” (The Gospel Is Scandalous, 6/3/14). 

A reader of both of our blogs raised the question–is thinking that Jesus is different than the Church the road to Protestantism?

The answer according to Church teaching is clearly no. 

The Church and Jesus Christ are not interchangeable, they are not synonyms for the exact same thing. As we read in the Catechism:

In Christian usage, the word “church” designates the liturgical assembly, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. These three meanings are inseparable. “The Church” is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body (§752).

The Church and Jesus Christ are strongly related, connected and in complete unity, as the Church only exists through the Holy Spirit–but though they are one [as a bride/bridegroom, or a head/body], they are not the exact same thing.

Here’s the really important part though…there does seem to be a problem of some Catholics substituting the Church for Jesus Christ. And when this happens, it’s not the Church of the Catechism and Church teaching that gets substituted. This authentic Church is so much more than mere human organization. It’s hierarchical in that it includes sacred orders, not hierarchical in the earthly, business sense. It’s a mystical body of the communion of all believers throughout all time, not “those pesky bishops.” It’s the Body of Christ, with Jesus as Head, not the local pastor’s club.

If this real, true understanding of Church was being substituted, then we wouldn’t have much of a problem, since this authentic belief in Church is necessarily connected to Christ as Head, and is certainly a valid path to entering into personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior.

However, when Catholics substitute the Church for Jesus, they tend to substitute a completely erroneous notion of “the church.” The “church” that gets substituted for Jesus is often understood as some sort of social club, affinity group, identity group, organization of people with like morals, civic organization, secular nonprofit charity, group to exclude those who “aren’t like us,” cultural catholicism, or those who “pay, pray, and obey,” etc.

And when these erroneous notions of “church” get substituted, recent history has shown that many people end up not embracing the authentic Catholic belief that our God desires a relationship with each of us, through His Son, Jesus Christ. As the Pew Forum on Religious Life reported, only 60% of Catholics believe God is a personal one, with whom they can have a relationship (see pg. 5).

The reader with the question offered this quote from Pope Francis:

It is an absurd dichotomy to love Christ without the Church; to listen to Christ, but not the Church; to be with Christ at the margins of the Church…One cannot do this. It is an absurd dichotomy.

And that’s exactly right. Pope Francis is talking about the Church as Catholicism truly teaches. We need not fear being “too Protestant” by talking about Jesus, for following Christ in all its fullness and truth is being the Body of Christ, the Church. Embracing Christ does not lead away from the Church. However, substituting a false idea of “church” as membership, club, or earthly institution can quickly become a distraction that gets in the way of Jesus Christ–and this is what we must guard against.

“If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater” — a motto for faith formation and catechesis?

The first reading for the Friday after Epiphany (1 John 5:5-13) contains this short, but insightful statement:

“If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.”

This seems so very simple and obvious. Yet, thinking back on a calendar year where so many parishes and dioceses actively engaged in growing disciples within the Church and evangelizing the Church, the wisdom inherent in this snippet of Scripture runs very deep. For many, Christianity, Catholicism, the Church, or religion can seem like accepting human testimony. And it includes human testimony, don’t get me wrong. But, I think we’ve witnessed the profound problems that surface when formation in the Catholic Christian faith is only about accepting human testimony. Of learning things. Memorizing stuff. Believing what mom, dad, or my religious ed catechist “says” to believe.

This is all important. But far deeper and surely greater is the testimony of God. Now the testimony of God comes in many forms. But one of the most fundamental forms is personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Relationship with Jesus the person. Not Jesus the idea, doctrine, or political concept–but Jesus the person, Jesus our Savior.

So maybe this, in a nutshell, is the goal of evangelizing the Church and faith formation within the Church–to provide human testimony, but also cultivate the conditions for encounter with God, genuine relationship with Jesus–so that this surely greater form of testimony abides and informs a person’s faith and ongoing conversion.

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 8) – Purpose of Preaching for Evangelization in Catholicism

This is the eight post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

We’re in the final part of defining Catholic evangelistic preaching by audience, content, and purpose. Having identified the audience as nonbelievers (a term with multiple meanings in our Catholic context), and the core content as the message of salvation, we now turn to the purpose of evangelistic preaching.

Slide13

The purpose of evangelistic preaching is to bring about “repentance of sin, conversion of hearts, and a decision of faith.”[1] This is the “conversion from radical unbelief to belief” mentioned in Fulfilled in Your Hearing that is not the primary purpose of the Eucharistic homily.[2]

Practically, this means that an evangelistic sermon’s message or topic is designed for action. It is not merely information about the core content, information about salvation, but communication intended to foster and cultivate conditions for a response of conversion.


[1] “Bulletin…Synod [on] the New Evangelization,” prop. 9.

[2] Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 17.

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 7) — What’s the Content of the Message?

This is the seventh post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

We’re in the midst of defining Catholic evangelistic preaching by audience, content, and purpose. Having identified the audience as nonbelievers (a term with multiple meanings in our Catholic context), we now turn to the content of evangelistic preaching. 

Slide12

The content of evangelistic preaching is the message of salvation—that through a living, personal encounter with Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead, salvation that beings in this life and fulfilled in eternity, is offered to all people, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy.[1]

This does not mean that in pastoral practice, all evangelistic messages are identical. Audience-driven topics such as universal spiritual needs (i.e. stability, hope, wisdom), intellectual questions (i.e. Does God exist?), and existential issues (i.e. broken relationships, direction in life) are all valuable starting points in evangelistic preaching to bring people to the core content that defines the sermon, and hopefully cultivates the conditions for encounter with Jesus Christ.[2]


[1] Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 26-27; “Bulletin…Synod [on] the New Evangelization,” 9; Deus Caritas Est, no. 1.

[2] Ramesh Richard, Preparing Evangelistic Sermons: A Seven-Step Method for Preaching Salvation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 136-142.