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Living the Easter mission: Sanctification and Evangelization

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 18-20 (ESV-CE)

Why does the Catholic Church exist? The answer to this question is dependent upon another, more pressing one: why was Jesus Christ crucified and then resurrected after three days? This question is really at the heart of the Christian faith. In our modern culture, there are lots of different ways to “be a good person.” And while these efforts are certainly not in opposition to the Catholic Church and all that she teaches, to equate the Catholic faith with simply “being a good person” drastically reduces what Jesus Christ came to do.

In the above passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives what is commonly known as the Great Commission to his disciples before his ascension into Heaven. Those two sentences, in their essence, contain the mission of Jesus Christ, his Church and their reason for existence. As Catholics, we are called to “make disciples of all nations,” meaning it is our duty, and indeed, our calling, to first and foremost introduce all we meet to the person of Jesus Christ. The Easter season is an opportunity to live this call more deeply, as this time commemorates the beginning of this mission by the original apostles here on earth — a mission that has been passed down, century after century, and falls to us Christians today.

Admittedly, it’s quite a tall order. After all, our modern culture has largely rejected the teachings of the Christian faith and in many ways, the Church no longer enjoys the notoriety or popularity that it once did. But no matter — the mission of the Church has been, is and always will be the same: to make disciples.

There is far more to the mission of the Church than can be expounded upon here, but examining Jesus’ words in the Great Commission more closely, there are two dimensions that remain constant and non-negotiable in the work of the Church: Sanctification and Evangelization. These two concepts have animated the Church since her creation, and they are as essential today as they were then.

 

Sanctification

St. Francis of Assisi, the wise mystic friar and founder of the Franciscans, sums up the act of sanctification perfectly as, “Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.” In order to lead others into a relationship with Christ, we must first have a relationship with him ourselves. As such, it only makes senses that following after Christ necessitates sanctification, because Christ was sanctification perfected, and it is the first task of a Christian to imitate Christ. We do this by heeding his call to “observe all I have commanded you.

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Once more we return to the idea of “being a good person.” We can give food and money to the homeless, serve at soup kitchens, volunteer at the local hospital or do any number or service-oriented tasks and feel good about ourselves knowing that we gave of our time, talent or treasure to help another person in need. These are good things to do, and God delights in these efforts. Indeed, Jesus himself said that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45). However, the second part of that verse more accurately captures the mission of the Christian: Jesus says he also came to “give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now, we obviously cannot do what Jesus did on the Cross and bear the punishment for the sins of the world. But we can lay down our life for others and be sanctified in the process. You see, Jesus Christ didn’t come to make a bunch of “good people.” Jesus Christ came to make us holy. He came so that we might not be conformed to the world but set apart from it.  Just as society was confounded at the teachings and example of this Jesus of Nazareth, so, too, are we called to confound the world by the way we live as Christians.

One key dimension of the mission of the Church is to sanctify the world, and following the sage wisdom of St. Francis, we can only do this if we are first sanctified ourselves. We see examples of this in some of the great saints who did much more than simply help those in need, such as St. Teresa of Calcutta, who laid down her life to serve the sick and dying in the slums of Kolkata. However, sanctification is not just reserved for the saints; after all, how do you think they became saints in the first place?

 

Evangelization

This leads to the second dimension of the Church’s mission: evangelization. At the end of each Mass, the deacon exhorts the congregation: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” In simplest terms, this is what evangelization is: to announce the Good News of the Gospel to those who need to hear it. And make no mistake: this means everybody. When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he really meant it. This can be an intimidating and even terrifying endeavor; just read the Acts of the Apostles or the accounts of the various martyrs throughout history. The early Christians faced death for spreading the Gospel, but their witness converted an unbelieving world.

Despite the challenges of evangelization, the good news about the Good News is that Jesus promised he’d be right there with us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In this light, it’s important to always bear in mind that evangelization is not about us; there’s no quota for leading people to Christ. Evangelization is his work first; our job is to simply be docile to the Lord and love him with all our heart, mind and soul. If we do that, then it’s inevitable that we’ll become more comfortable talking about Jesus to others, because when we love something, it’s easy to talk about.

The Church is sometimes referred to as the Barque of Peter, a clear allusion to Peter as both a fisherman and the first pope. This image is also a fitting illustration for the mission of the Church; she sails through rough waters of this world, picking up lost, hungry and hurting pilgrims along the way, who all become an integral part of the ship’s crew. With Christ in command and a promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18), we can rest confidently knowing that this mission will not be a fruitless one.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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