Missionary Discipleship: Sent by Christ to Proclaim the Gospel
by Rev. John Nuelle, MS
United States Catholic Mission Association
discipleship begins with an encounter that permeates the rest of life. Every
baptized person is called to missionary discipleship, to proclaim by word and
example "that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:11). In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis states: "Anyone who has
truly experienced God's saving love does not need much time or lengthy training
to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent
that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer
say that we are 'disciples' and 'missionaries', but rather that we are always
'missionary disciples'" (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [EG] [Washington, DC: Libreria
Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB),
2013], no. 120).
There are many facets to missionary discipleship, but only a few
central components can be explored here. The opening words of Evangelii Nuntiandi set the stage for a
greater understanding of discipleship and mission: "The effort to proclaim the
Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time
often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian
community and also to the whole of humanity." Pope
Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii
Nuntiandi [EN] [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 1975], no. 1).
An appropriate parallel to
these words can be found in Chapter 10
of the Acts of the Apostles. Simon Peter was in Joppa, where he had a
liberating vision. Soon afterward, he was summoned to Caesarea, where he
encountered Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, destined to be the first Gentile
disciple of Jesus Christ. In this narrative, one comes to recognize what
missionary discipleship entails: chosen to be a witness (Acts 10:41);
commissioned to preach (10:42); liberated from debilitating restraint
Source of Discipleship: Chosen to Bear Witness
In both the Old and New Testaments, discipleship is offered as an
invitation, presented as a call. At times the invitation is nonverbal, as when
Elijah encountered Elisha and "went over to him and threw his cloak on him"
(1 Kgs 19:19). The call is most often explicit:
"Follow me" (Matthew 9:9).
Sometimes both nonverbal and verbal invitations are
extraordinarily present, as with Moses's call on Mount Horeb: the voice of God
calling from the flaming bush (Ex 3:2-4). Implicit in all these calls are requirements: willingness to risk,
to be an ambassador, to carry a cross. Integral
to a call or invitation is a response to accept or reject it.
Discipleship demands faith-filled acceptance. In the
New Testament, this is usually confessed in the Sacrament of Baptism, wherein the
new disciple receives a "spirit of adoption, through which [he cries], 'Abba,
Father!'" (Rom 8:15), and is initiated into a new way of life. Being a disciple entails being an
apprentice, a trainee, a learner. The prophet Isaiah described a disciple as
one who "wakens [his] ear to hear" (Is 50:4). One cannot be a
disciple of Jesus unless one listens to him, learns from him, observes and imitates
him. After his grace-filled encounter with Jesus, Paul spent three years
listening and learning (Gal 1:16-18), being "taught by the Spirit" (1 Cor
2:13), and coming to "have the mind of Christ" (2:16).
Being a disciple is not, however, a
self-centered undertaking, but a call to witness (Acts 20:24). The ability to
witness to Jesus' Resurrection was a vital component when the Apostles chose a
disciple to replace Judas (Acts 1:21-22). It is no less a mandatory task for
every disciple. The Greek word for witness is "martyr." Throughout the
centuries, Christians who witnessed to their faith, especially to the point of
enduring suffering and death itself in the name of Jesus, were labeled martyrs.
Pope Paul VI notes in Evangelii Nuntiandi
that every evangelized Christian—that is to say, one who has listened to,
learned from, and been taught by the Spirit—must necessarily witness to his/her
faith. "It is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and
give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it
and proclaims it in his turn" (EN, no. 24).
Content of Missionary Discipleship: Commissioned to Proclaim the Gospel
While a disciple is one who
learns from a teacher, an apostle is one sent to deliver the teacher's message.
In the synoptic Gospels, that delivery is accomplished by proclaiming and
witnessing to the Gospel; these activities refer specifically to a "public" affirmation of a message by word or
example. At the Savior's birth, the angel, said: "I proclaim to you good
news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Lk 2:10). Public proclamation was part of Jesus' mission. "I
must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I
have been sent" (Lk 4:43). When later
Jesus sent the Twelve on mission to the lost sheep of the house of
Israel, he instructed them, "As
you go, make this proclamation: 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' . . . What
I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered,
proclaim on the housetops" (Mt 10:7, 27). After his Resurrection, Jesus
commissioned his disciples:"Go
into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" (Mk 16:15). In
biblical terms, "to proclaim the Gospel" is akin to the words "to evangelize."
Both mean "to announce the good news."
Fruit of Missionary Discipleship: Being Set Free
the synoptic Gospels, the focus is on delivering the Good News by preaching,
proclaiming, and witnessing. Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to
proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the
oppressed go free" (Lk 4:18). Through his miracles Jesus set people free—from
physical infirmities, from bondage of demons, and from an oppressive interpretation
of laws (Lk 13:10-17).
in the Synoptic Gospels, in John's Gospel, the words preaching, proclaiming,
and witnessing are missing. Rather, the message is delivered by testifying, by
making a solemn statement or declaration. Jesus testified about his person and
his mission; but also testifying on his behalf were, among others, his Father,
the Spirit, John the Baptist, the Scriptures, his disciples, and his works
themselves. Integral to the notion of testimony is that it be directed to the
truth—a truth that sets free, that liberates, and that opens horizons: "For
this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth"
(Jn 18:37). "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you
will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32).
For a disciple, proclaiming and
testifying to the Gospel results both in being set free and, once freed, in accepting
a commission to be a liberator in return. Peter understood this at Joppa and
Caesarea (Acts 10). Paul characterized his
own missionary discipleship as being sent by Christ to
preach the Gospel (1 Cor 1:17) and as being free (9:1). Paul's letters and Luke's
narratives in Acts describe how Paul championed Jesus' understanding of freedom:
"But now we are released from
the law, dead to what held us captive, so that we may serve in the newness of
the spirit and not under the obsolete letter" (Rom 7:6). The introduction to Redemptoris Missio states: "It is the
Spirit who impels us to proclaim the great works of God: 'For if I preach the
Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me.
Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!' (1 Cor 9: 16)" (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio [RM] [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 1990], no. 1).
Being set free is not just what happens to "others" when missionary
disciples proclaim the Gospel; it is also what happens to them, as individuals,
as members of a local community and a universal Church. Emancipation
comes in many shapes and is always risky and challenging. "The Lord does not
disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we
come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms" (EG,
no. 3). Creation is released when God's gifts are no longer squandered, ravaged,
and abused; human lives are unshackled when bodily and mental illness and psychological
traumas are healed; when touched by grace, souls are liberated from bondage to
sin, and death's sting is destroyed (1 Cor 15:55).
In proclaiming the Gospel,
missionary disciples are invited to help people meet the God already present in
human experience, in culture, in the manifestations of all created goodness. People
today cherish freedom more than anything else. It is ingrained as a
nonnegotiable in most cultures. At the same time, the balance between
individual freedom and cultivating an attitude of caring for one's neighbor is delicate.
What is the secret to remaining free once truly liberated? Jesus proclaimed
that, to be truly free and live as his disciple, one must remain in his truth
(Jn 8:32). Accepting the invitation to authentically witness and joyfully
proclaim the Gospel is a powerful means for every missionary disciple to
experience "a dignified and fulfilled life … in the Spirit which has
its source in the heart of the risen Christ" (EG, no. 2).
© 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All
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used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.©
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from Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi,
copyright © 1975, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, copyright © 1990,
LEV; Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium,
copyright ©2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.