Seven steps for a spirituality of the mission

Seven steps for a spirituality of the mission

It is not enough to evangelize, it is necessary to evangelize evangelically.

26 Then the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, “Get up and head south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route.” 27  So he got up and set out. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” 30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. 32 This was the scripture passage he was reading: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 33 In (his) humiliation justice was denied him. Who will tell of his posterity? For his life is taken from the earth.”
34 Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, “I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.
36 As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” [37] 38 Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him.
39 When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip came to Azotus, and went about proclaiming the good news to all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Acts 8:26-40

We give a more spiritual slant to our reflection for today. We allow ourselves to be guided by the Word of God on the topic of evangelization and of mission. The book of the Acts of the Apostles is a compulsory reference. We chose the episode of the encounter of Philip and the eunuch, an exemplary episode which summarizes the style of the primitive community in its task of evangelization and of mission. It is a text written by Luke mirroring the one of the disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24). In both cases there is a stretch of road walked together which transforms itself in an experience of evangelization for the protagonists. The difference consists in this: the one who was proclaiming (Jesus) becomes now the one proclaimed.

With this narration, the community affirms that it is continuing the proclamation of the kerigma in the same style used by Jesus in proclaiming it to them after the resurrection. Luke is offering us some characteristics which must always be present in the person proclaiming the gospel.

The dominating note of all the narration is clear: the inspiring principle of all the evangelizing action is the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit is truly competent in leading to faith in the Lord Jesus, but also in placing in the heart and mouth of the evangelizer the words and the adequate attitudes for a discreet and efficacious mediation.

Evangelization is “spiritual” in the measure by which it presents itself as a diaconate of the Holy Spirit, service to his action in the heart of persons. The traits of this spiritual diaconate can be summarized in seven passages.


1. To stay on the “desert” road with hope

The angel of the Lord (the Spirit) sends Philip on a desert road, in the direction of Gaza, at midday. The Spirit is asking for a “church going forth”. Philip leaves Jerusalem, the holy city of the temple, on a road leading to a profane city. It is the step which our Christian communities are called to do. After a long time of sociological Christianity, we find ourselves thrown on a desert road, where personal and social religious references seem to have disappeared.

The desert road stands for history and culture when these are no longer recognized in the usual religious codes. The Spirit invites the Christian community to willingly remain within this culture apparently “desert”, without allowing itself to be taken by nostalgia for times passed, living human and social spaces of life with hope, in the certainty that men and women of today remain capax Dei.

Here is, then, the first spiritual dimension of the evangelizer: the joyous acceptance of the invitation from the Risen Lord to live the profanity of the present time with trust and hope.


2. Ability to grasp the question of meaning

On that desert road, Philip, against any human calculation and against any sensible forecast, is surprised by a presence. Luke communicates to us this sense of surprise and marvel with a sudden “now there was”, to which follows the description of a strange person: “Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians…, who had come to Jerusalem to worship”, who was reading the prophet Isaiah. Due to the availability of the evangelizer Philip, there happens an encounter which causes astonishment: there is a man coming from far away, marked by his marginalized and despised condition as eunuch.

The surprise for Philip is that this unusual man is in religious search! In this person there is already the presence of God.

The delicacy of the evangelizer is revealed in catching the anxieties and the desires which  persons express in the most varied modalities, in the ability to read into the narration of their lives where the questions for meaning are hidden.

Apparently superficial persons have a great need for life and when they find persons who listen to them without moralizing and without prejudices, they manifest a longing for the infinite not less higher than the one of youth and adults of time past.

The second characteristic of the spirituality of an evangelizer is, then, to be able to see God’s presence in all persons.

3. Moving on the road at the rhythm of pace of the one accompanied

If we follow Philip’s course with the Ethiopian eunuch, we see that it is marked by a pedagogy of accompaniment clearly modeled on the one of the Risen Lord with the pilgrims of Emmaus.  This pedagogy follows a series of significant verbs: to meet, to get closer, to hear, to get on the chariot, to sit near. What is designed here is a delicate and deep progression of entry into a relationship with a person.

During this first part Philip is passive: he is entering into a true relationship. The only word from him is a question of stimulus which provokes the person to awareness and a question of help: “how can I understand unless someone instructs me?”.

Accompaniment requires the capacity to respectfully come up to the side of the person who is searching and questioning himself. The modalities and times of this search cannot be fixed in advance nor imposed by the one who, like the evangelizer, accompanies the journey of rediscovery of the faith. Rather, they are dictated by the interior journey and by the progressive opening up of the person in search. The attitude of no-control and no-power on the faith of the other requires vigilant patience, capacity to catch the moment of grace manifesting in the other, attention to respond to it with availability and intelligence, difficult but fruitful openness to plan personalized journeys.

A third dimension of the spirituality of the evangelizer is to serve the interior journey of the persons, allowing their times and rhythms to do the programming of their journey rather than us doing it. It is a phase of attentive listening, capable of offering provocations so that the person could make the step which he would not do on his own, but his own step, not ours, according to his own time, not ours.

4. Proclaiming Jesus

Then the narration of Luke tells us, in a very dense verse (v. 35), that  Philip takes the word and “he proclaimed Jesus to him”. It is difficult to render the strength of this expression. “To proclaim Jesus” means to proclaim Jesus as something significant for the life of a person, as a good news for his life.  We do not know what Philip has said to the eunuch. But we can guess two things:

  1. As from the text of the suffering servant of Isaiah, it has been a proclamation that went straight to the heart of the paschal mystery, the kerygma proclaimed in favor of the Ethiopian, a man who was experiencing a life “cut away from the earth” and without descent, given his situation.
  2. It has been a credible proclamation, because the eunuch saw it realized in the person of Philip himself. Without this second characteristic of the witness, Philip’s words could not have produced trust and surrender.

This is the fourth spiritual characteristic of the evangelizer. One does not evangelize without arriving at translating the proclamation of the gospel starting from the concrete situation of the persons and, at the same time, without presenting one’s own life as a living proof of God’s mercy.

Evangelization is not the communication of a doctrine, not even of a story, but it is telling others what we have become by grace.


5. Without creating impediments

After Philip’s proclamation, the eunuch asks a question: “What is to prevent my being baptized?”, my entering and being part of the community of those who have been saved? In the language of Luke and of the Acts of the Apostles, the impediment that the eunuch mentions is the one often posed by the Christian community. Just think about the apostles preventing children to go to Jesus (Lk 18:15-17);  about the Pharisees who, with their religious schemes, prevent somebody entering the kingdom of heaven (Lk 11:52); about the disciples who would prevent the chasing of demons by those who are not in their circle; about Peter in the episode of Cornelius, when the community reproaches him for having baptized a pagan person (cf. Acts 10:47 e 11:17). With this background, then, we understand the eunuch’s question. It sounds like a cry of protest against the prejudices still present in the Christian community.

This cry reaches our communities. The subtle prejudice, in fact, that the poor and socially marginalized, that those who do not respond to a certain religious model, that those who have been morally fragile, may constitute an odd presence in the Christian community, can still dwell in the mind of certain Christians. There can still be resistances and suspicions in traditional practicing persons towards those who have arrived, often through laborious journeys, to see in the gospel of Jesus Christ a hope of salvation for one’s life and for one’s crooked history. It would be sad that, after having invoked and programmed the search for the so-called “far away”, Christian communities would be little welcoming or even make feel uncomfortable those whom God has unexpectedly made “near”. The protest of the eunuch has risen against the danger of rigidity and closures, once he has understood that in Jesus Christ there is hope of salvation even for the marginalized and desperate.

We have here, then, a fifth characteristic of the evangelizer’s spirituality. It consists in abandoning any prejudice in order to believe that all, no matter what their life has been, are worthy of the gospel and that the poorest are the most adapt to accept it.


6. Retrace together the journey of faith

Then the text presents a very interesting passage. « He ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him » (v. 38). In this verse we find one joined and one disjoined action. The joined action is that of the immersion in water: evangelizer and evangelized enter the water together. This immersion recalls symbolically the experience of the paschal mystery. Luke insists on this point: “both went down”, “Philip and the eunuch”. The text seems to suggest that the one who accompanies another in the journey of faith cannot remain out: he is called to retrace differently, starting from the other, the journey of faith already done once before.

The disjoined action attributed only to Philip, is that of baptizing. We notice then an asymmetry: it is Philip who baptizes, as sign of the community. There is, then, a journey made together, a shared paschal experience and then a gesture which only the evangelizer can do.

We have a sixth dimension of the spirituality of the evangelizer. It is getting really involved with the journey of faith of the other person. The evangelizer has to risk a recommencement starting from the other. This recommencement brings the evangelizer himself to “believe differently”, receiving, from the one he is accompanying, a sort of re-initiation. At the same time there remains a difference, not of dignity, but of service. The community offers what it has received in its own turn.


7. Know how to disappear

Concluding, it is beautiful to underline that the text ends with the indication that the Holy Spirit snatches Philip and brings him far away, while the eunuch continues on his way rejoicing.

This last aspect is of fundamental importance for every evangelizer. It signifies the necessity to leave ample space to the action of the Holy Spirit and to the personal journey of individuals. The accompaniment is meant to entrust the persons to the action of the Spirit and to their freedom. It means that the task of proclamation is ended. It is good that, after accompanying a person, the witness disappears, so that personal freedom may flourish under the action of the Spirit, in directions which we cannot imagine. The accompaniment renounces to verify the results. We sow, somebody else waters, but only God produces the growth.

Here is placed one last of the spirituality of the evangelizer. It has to do with the temporary and limited service of the proclamation, which is accomplished just at the moment when the evangelizer steps aside.