Sharing the Gospel

Pentecost 7 2013

Luke 10:1-12,17-24

Marian Free 

In the name of God who equips us and sends us into the world to proclaim the gospel. Amen.

Some time ago now, I read a book written by a Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan. He tells of being sent to a mission in Kenya filled with enthusiasm to share the gospel. When he arrived he discovered that even though the Jesuits had been in the country for 100 years, they had not converted one single person to Christianity. That is not to say that they had had no impact at all. The local people, proud and independent Masai, were very happy to make use of the mission school and to bring the sick and injured to the hospital. It was some time however since any of the missionaries had left the mission station except to drive the ambulance to pick up or deliver a patient. The youthful and enthusiastic Vincent was dismayed. This was not why he had travelled so far. He had come to take Jesus to the people, not wait until they came to him. He asked for and gained permission to go out into the villages to share the gospel.

This was not easy. First, Vincent had to gain the trust of the chief of the village, then he had to arrange a suitable time for the teaching to occur. He discovered that the best time in the day was four in the morning. As the Masai are pastoralists any later would have found them scattered with their herds. Having gained a welcome and made a time to meet, Vincent’s approach was to share with the people the Gospel of Mark. This too was not without its difficulties. Many of the parables in the gospels relate to an agrarian culture – the mustard seed, the sower and the fig tree all relate to agricultural practices. To repeat these parables might well have led to confusion if not outright antagonism among his hearers. The Masai, being pastoralists, might not have understood the references to sowing. Worse, as those who needed pasture for their flocks, they were in conflict with neighbouring cultures who used the land to produce crops not pasture and may not have taken kindly to stories about growing crops.

Vincent navigated all these difficulties – teaching the gospel with sensitivity and respect for the culture of the people. At the end of the time he asked them if they would like to be baptised. If they said: “yes”, he proceeded with baptism. If they said: “no”, he respected their decision and did not press them to change their minds.

Having grown up in a barely post-colonial era, I found this a refreshing account of mission. Unlike many missionaries before him, Vincent demonstrated respect for the local culture and made no attempt to compel his hearers to abandon their culture or to convert. This is a vastly different approach from the missionaries of the 19th century who, sent out from their respective nations, undermined and denigrated local culture sometimes with devastating results. The problem seems to have been an inability to separate faith in Jesus Christ from the culture and mores of the nations from which they had come. Acceptance of the gospel in their minds equalled acceptance of Western culture. There were of course some wonderful missionaries who tried to learn local cultures and languages, who brought medicine and education that improved the lives of those whom they served. Others simply imposed their faith, their will and their culture on those whom they felt were inferior and lacking in morality. They had no regard for the people and no understanding of the cultures they were destroying.

For many then, the idea mission has left a bad taste. The arrogance and presumption of some that western society had reached some sort of pinnacle of moral goodness and knowledge that meant that it was the standard by which others had to be judge leaves those of us who know its weaknesses embarrassed and ashamed.

This creates a dilemma. In the multi-faith, multi-media world of the 21st century, how do we make sense of Jesus’ sending out first of twelve and then of seventy to proclaim the kingdom? What is our responsibility with regard to sharing the gospel today? Do we, you and I believe that it is our duty to ensure that as many people as possible are “saved”? Do we live in a state of terror that those who have not heard the gospel will be eternally damned? I suspect that the answer to both those questions is “no”. If anything, our behaviour tends to reflect a live and let live attitude a belief that while our faith is good enough for us, we do not need to inflict it on others.

Our response to the mistakes of the past should not be to do nothing. We believe, or at least claim to believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are transformative, that Jesus’ death and resurrection have reconciled us to God, that the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers us. This surely is something worth sharing.

In an increasingly secular world, many people are hungry for meaning, searching for something to nurture their soul. Our task is to get alongside people, to listen to the stories, to try to understand their dreams, to recognise their hurts, to help them deal with their modern day demons of loneliness, busyness, stress, to try to bring about healing of minds as well as bodies, to respond with integrity to their questions, to be open to their doubts and equipped to share with them our journey of faith.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14)

It is not our task to impose the gospel on those who do not want to hear or accept it, but unless we take the time to share something that is important to us, how will others know the difference it might make in their lives?

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