Parish Resource - Fr. John Nuelle

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedMissionary Discipleship: Sent by Christ to Proclaim the Gospel

by Rev. John Nuelle, MS
Executive Director
United States Catholic Mission Association

Missionary 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 (10:1-19).

The 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).

The 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."

The Fruit of Missionary Discipleship: Being Set Free

In 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).

Unlike 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).

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpt 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.