Jesus sends (apostellô) his messengers (apostoloi) out into the world to share his message and his ministry, but the sending of the apostles is not so much about traveling vast distances as it is about being present for the people around them. Wherever you live, that is the place evangelization occurs.
Jesus stresses this aspect of presence when he says, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.” A word missing from this translation (NRSV) is the Greek adverb ekeithen, “from that place.” As a whole the sentence would read, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from that place,” indicating presence in the place where you are. We are to be grounded to a place, which today we might call inculturation.
In Canada, First Nations people today are dealing with the aftermath of residential schools, in which a number of Christian churches contracted to run schools on behalf of the government of Canada. Such schools, instead of being sources of Gospel presence, were often places of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and even death. They were also called by Judge Murray Sinclair, the head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a source of “cultural genocide.” The prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, apologized for the residential schools in 2008, as did the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church of Canada and various groups within the Roman Catholic Church of Canada at earlier dates. Much still remains not just to be said, but to be done.
But how could evangelization turn so foul and lead in so many cases to abject cruelty? A large part of the sinfulness had to do with not respecting the inherent dignity of native peoples and not living with them in their place, but attempting to turn the Gospel into a particular instantiation of European Christianity. Pope Francis reminds us in “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 190), that “the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.”
Jesus sent his apostles to live with people as they were and where they were, and to invite them to live with him. Indeed, when two disciples of John the Baptist encountered Jesus, they did not ask him, “Who are you?” but “Where are you staying?” Jesus told them to “come and see,” and they remained with Jesus that whole day (Jn 1:38).
It is the encounter with and dwelling with Jesus that creates disciples. The apostles are able to represent Jesus because they know him and have lived with him. Just as he welcomed them, they are to welcome and stay with all they meet, relying not on material goods but on God and the kindness of strangers.
A part of their evangelistic proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God is the call “that all should repent.” Embedded in the call, though, is the cost of rejection. Those who hear the message and reject it bear a burden, but it is a burden that weighs especially heavily on those who have been commissioned to proclaim the message but refuse to live it. We all need to hear the message anew and to be prepared always to repent, for “the church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 174).
What is amazing is how many First Nations people heard the Gospel message in spite of its flawed and sinful bearers, in spite of the cruelty inflicted on their people and their culture. This is because the Gospel, when encountered in its joyous truth, reveals “a single home” for all people in the church to dwell (“On Christian Joy,” Pope Paul VI, 1975). This “single home” must always be ready to welcome strangers into the family.
Even more, we must be able to repent when the Gospel of joy and hospitality has been tarnished with the cruelty of racism and prejudice. When we bring the Gospel, it must be with a spirit of humility. If we are asking people to stay with us in our single home, we must be willing to remain with them, where they are, and recognize that God dwells with them too.