St. Paul describes a kind of modus vivendi (a way of living) for himself and for us; the passage was read at Mass on Monday. It has a dynamic urgency about it that we ought not to overlook.
It is Christ whom we proclaim,
admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
For this I labor and struggle,
in accord with the exercise of his power working within me (Col 1:28-29).
As with many biblical texts, it is often helpful to start at the end and work backward. Unlike modern discourse, which usually goes from cause to effect, ancient discourse often works from effect to cause. And that is the case here with St. Paul’s text. So, let’s ponder St. Paul’s description of the life (modus vivendi) of an evangelizer. We’ll begin with the last line and work toward the first.
I. The Source of an Evangelizer – St. Paul says, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.
Because for me the word of the LORD has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. But if I say, “I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name,” Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it (Jer 20:8-9).
And St. Paul himself also wrote,
For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Cor 9:16)
Yes, in the heart of a true evangelist the Word of God is like a dynamic, explosive power. It burns to get out and has an explosive power that must go forth. This power gives St. Paul a burning love for people and stirs within him an urgency to speak and to act.
And that leads us to the preceding line.
II. The Struggle of an Evangelizer – St. Paul writes, For this I labor and struggle.
On account of the dynamic power of love and truth within him, St. Paul describes himself as laboring and struggling. The Greek word translated here as “struggle” is particularly powerful. It is ἀγωνιζόμενος (agonizomenos), from the word agōnízomai. We get the English word “agony” from this. Agōnízomai means to be like one who is engaged in an intense athletic contest, conflict, or warfare. It speaks of a great struggle and an intense striving for a goal or finish line.
And thus while “struggle” is a perfectly adequate translation of the word, we ought not to lose sight of the fact that agōnízomai speaks to a struggle that is intense and urgent, one that is focused and foremost.
In using this term St. Paul indicated that, inspired by God, he really cared about the salvation of souls and knew that he needed to contend for souls against the world, the flesh, and the devil. He undertook immense work and endured many sufferings. He was hungry; he survived a shipwreck; he was despised, pursued, beaten, scourged, stoned, imprisoned, and finally killed.
I wonder how many of us are this urgent for souls or are “agonizing” for them.For too many of us, even Church leaders (who are most responsible for the care and conversion of souls), evangelizing and spiritually directing souls is something we “get around to” if we have time after the committee meeting or after the building contractor comes by to give the estimate on the roof repairs.
Very few Christians today see their own lives and the lives of others as caught up in a great drama between life and death, Heaven and Hell. There is more often a sleepy universalism that presumes that almost everyone will be saved in the end. Never mind that the Bible says just the opposite. We would rather stay in our dream world, in which “everyone will live happily ever after.”
Meanwhile, St. Paul and countless other evangelizers like St. Francis Xavier were “in agony” to save souls. They traveled to far-flung places, enduring terrible trials because they saw that many were headed for destruction unless they heard the call to “repent and believe the good news.” They had an urgency for souls and a sense of the dramatic conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, the world and the Kingdom. It is an urgency that too many of us lack.
Of his urgent concern St. Paul wrote, There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weakened? Who is scandalized and I am not indignant? (2 Cor 11:29)
Compare this to how settled down many are today with the assault of evil on children, parishioners, spouses, and so many people we know and love. Oh, for just a little more of the “agony” that St. Paul and the saints felt for souls and for the Gospel!
There is nothing deader than a dead priest, nothing deader than a dead parent.Why? Because so much of the eternal salvation of souls depends on them being alive and alert.
III. The Satisfaction of an Evangelizer – Continuing with the preceding line, St. Paul describes that his goal, his satisfaction, is not mere “safety” for souls but their perfection and completeness in Christ. He writes, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
The Greek word translated here as “perfect” is τέλειον (teleion), from téleios, meaning to arrive at a goal or end. By extension it means to be mature by having gone through the necessary stages to reach the end goal. It means to be complete, whole, mature, or finished.
And thus the work of an evangelizer is not just to summon people away from sin and destruction, but also to lead them to wholeness and maturity in Christ. To be complete is not merely to lack sin, it is to have all the virtues up and running; it is to be at peace, stable, serene, confident, joyful, and holy. This is what all pastors, parents, and evangelizers should want for the people about whom they care. This alone will satisfy a true evangelizer.
The expensive home that is the American dream might only provide a place in which our children are miserable. God’s house and His dream for us draws us to deepening and lasting joy.
For what are we laboring as we care for others? Is it merely for comfort in a passing world or is it for completion (the perfection of teleios)?
Don’t be satisfied with anything less than being whole and complete.
IV. The Strength of an Evangelizer – Toward this purpose, then, St. Paul describes his work: admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.
With the exception of the youngest of children, people cannot be forced to convert or to have faith. And so we must be content to teach, as St. Paul says. But he does not simply say that we should “teach”; he also says that we should “admonish.”
To admonish is to warn, to put some pressure on the logic and reasoning of another. The Greek word for admonish is nouthetéō and means most literally “to put something in the mind” of another (noús, (mind) + títhēmi, (to place)).
Whereas teaching seeks to present something to the mind for consideration, admonishment seeks to put something in the mind by appealing to an urgent motive.
And this is a significant problem today. Sermons and catechetical instruction often lack admonishment, lack urgency. Too many sermons are merely informational and suggestive rather than bold and urgent.
St. Paul often referred to himself as a kerux, a Greek word meaning “messenger,” but with the notion of being a herald or town crier: one who stands in the square and proclaims a message of news and importance.
As clergy, parents, catechists, and leaders we need to deliver our messages with a sense of urgency. We are not just teaching; we are admonishing! We not just seeking to inform, but to transform others by God’s grace.
Joyful, urgent proclamation and admonishment are essential for the Gospel to have its effects.
V. The Substance of an Evangelizer – Finally, in the first line, St. Paul says, It is Christ whom we proclaim.
Is it? Or are we just proclaiming ideas and slogans? How can we proclaim Christ if we have barely met Him?
When Andrew went to Peter he said, “We have found the Messiah!” (Jn 1:41) There must have been an urgent look on Andrew’s face, a look of burning love, for Peter followed him straightaway to the Lord.
Later, as recounted in the Acts the Apostles, Peter and John were summoned before the rulers of the Temple to explain why they were causing a stir. The text says,When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished, and they noted that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
How about you and me? Would anyone know that we have been with Jesus? It is Christ whom we proclaim, not mere ideas but Truth Himself. Where, then, is our courage? What will lead others to see that we have been with Jesus?
What will lead them to note that we have been with Jesus is for us to be with Jesus. Prayer is at the heart of our authority. It is Christ whom we proclaim. And if it is really Christ we proclaim then people may be mad, sad, or glad at what we say, but they certainly won’t be bored or unclear about our message! It is Christ whom we proclaim.