To be a Christian witness in the ancient church was to make known the euangelion, literally “good news” or “gospel,” from which we derive our word evangelization. The Acts of the Apostles reports a great number of overt “signs and wonders,” including exorcisms and healings, as a part of the witness of the earliest evangelists, more than we might find today, though both then and now the Holy Spirit guides evangelization. Still, the content of Christian evangelism remains the same—the life, teachings, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ—while the processes of evangelization change to meet shifting conditions.
The earliest church had to evangelize a world with no history of Christianity. Initially they did this with no written Gospels to explain the life of Jesus the Messiah. The first disciples evangelized a world populated with numerous gods, explaining why it was necessary to turn away from all of them to the one, true God, made manifest recently in the incarnation of the Word. This world posed its own challenges to Christian witness, but the ancient world took seriously the reality of a divine world.
Today we preach the Gospel in a world, at least in the West, that was shaped to a large and deep extent by the traditions of Christianity. But the citizens of this world, with 2,000 years of Christian history and theology to contemplate, have only cursorily considered Christianity and either rejected it outright, found it wanting or unconvincing, or have just been bored into indifference by it. Commentators sometimes define this world as “post-Christian” or “neo-Pagan,” but I see a world of people struggling with nihilism, adrift in hopelessness.
Christians throughout the centuries have offered compelling reasons to believe in the Gospel, but powerful reasons have also been offered, often by the behavior of Christians themselves, against belief. While evil has its own designs on the destruction of the good and the truth of the church, the responsibility for passing on and for safeguarding the tradition rests with the faithful. The Greek word for tradition is paradosis, which means to “hand on” or “give over.” We in the church are accountable for how successfully we have passed on the tradition.
In 1 Peter, Christians are encouraged to hand on their tradition by always being “ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Other versions render “explanation” as “defense,” a translation of the Greek apologia, which suggests a verbal defense of oneself or of ideas. This sort of defense, though, can get caught up in minutiae if we are not careful, divorcing us from those who desire the truth, and defensiveness, separating us from the hope of the Gospel message. This is why 1 Peter stresses that hope demands “gentleness” and “reverence,” not just for the Gospel, but toward our interlocutors, those who challenge and contest our message.
It is hope that should shape the Gospel message, for this is the core of evangelization in both the first and the 21st century. Hope is inherent in Jesus’ message of triumph over sin and death and also in the out-working of the Holy Spirit in our midst as Christians. The Gospel must be preached, but evangelization must be shaped anew in every age and in every place by the Holy Spirit. Because the questions and concerns, the history and the education differ from age to age, the Gospel must be inculturated and must respond to the situations and realities in which people live. In the history of the church, there was no golden age when everyone responded to the Gospel with openness and warmth, when all Catholics were able to give an explanation of their hope, when sin was absent from our midst, and everyone was always obedient and deferential.
Passing on the Gospel takes hard work by flawed human beings. The church does, however, have an advantage in its mission: Jesus promised us the paraclêtos, the Advocate or Holy Spirit, to comfort us and guide us into all truth. Jesus warned that not everyone will believe the truth when we make our apologia, but he did promise that he will always guide us into the truth. It is this truth we must offer with gentleness, reverence and love.