As we move into the second section treating the topic “The Spirit Directs the Church’s Mission” Pope John Paul unpacks the second half of the book of Acts. After the Council of Jerusalem (Cf. Acts 15:1-29) Paul and others reached out to the people of Samaria, Judea, and deeper into the ancient Greek world.
The missionaries continued along this path, taking into account people’s hopes and expectations, their anguish and sufferings, as well as their culture, in order to proclaim to them salvation in Christ. The speeches in Lystra and Athens (cf. Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31) are acknowledged as models for the evangelization of the Gentiles.
We can attend to these models, but also be cautious in thinking they will totally apply today. Many have heard of Christ, and been unimpressed with him or perhaps more often, the poor witness of those who claim the mantle of his name or designation as “anointed.”
What is significant is to discern the values people hold, to assess if they are compatible with the Gospel, and seek out a commonality:
In these speeches Paul enters into “dialogue” with the cultural and religious values of different peoples. To the Lycaonians, who practiced a cosmic religion, he speaks of religious experiences related to the cosmos. With the Greeks he discusses philosophy and quotes their own poets (cf. Acts 17:18, 26-28). The God whom Paul wishes to reveal is already present in their lives; indeed, this God has created them and mysteriously guides nations and history. But if they are to recognize the true God, they must abandon the false gods which they themselves have made and open themselves to the One whom God has sent to remedy their ignorance and satisfy the longings of their hearts. These are speeches which offer an example of the inculturation of the Gospel.
Part of the poor witness, as I see it, is the refusal to see advantages in the moral codes of today, especially when they come into conflict with secular values the institution of the Church has adopted. Feminism comes to mind, for example. The impulse of fairness in equal rights, freedom from harassment, comparable salaries, and other matters of justice. Instead, we often see churchmen attached to male-only privileges and the trappings of domination and abuse of women.
I think a good evangelist can cite Greek poetry or draw in the beauty of the created world. But preaching to women while indulging a tin ear to the direct citation of Jesus in Luke 4:16ff? That’s not effective preaching.
Under the impulse of the Spirit, the Christian faith is decisively opened to the “nations.” Witness to Christ spreads to the most important centers of the eastern Mediterranean and then to Rome and the far regions of the West. It is the Spirit who is the source of the drive to press on, not only geographically but also beyond the frontiers of race and religion, for a truly universal mission.
In many ways, we have never done it as well or as fruitfully as we did it in the first hundred years.
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