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Becoming Witnesses and Building Christian Communities

But how can we achieve rapid, massive and global evangelization? How can we live out the Great Commission to evangelize?

It will happen when we respond to Jesus' call to be his witnesses. Here is how Luke recorded the Great Commission in his gospel.

Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46-49)

According to the mystery of God's plan, such work will depend on the response of those whom God calls to bring in the harvest. And it can only happen if those who respond become true disciples of and Witnesses to Christ, for “many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).

The original model

The first Christian community established at Pentecost enjoyed “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47a). And the result of the witness of their lives was that “every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). They had become successful evangelizers! People were attracted to the way they lived their lives and wanted to participate in what they had.

It was classic evangelization. It was not so much through word but rather through action. It was not so much their speaking about love but rather by showing how concretely they loved one another. It was giving evidence to the world of how God had changed their lives for the better.

Becoming a witness is crucial to the evangelization of the world. Jesus told his disciples that “you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Only true witnesses can change the world.

Becoming a witness

A witness is one who testifies to Christ. But since witnessing is more of doing than speaking, then a witness can only become such if he/she becomes more and more like Christ.

As such, being a witness is first of all a call to holiness. God says, “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, 'Be holy because I am holy.”' (1 Peter 1: 15-16). To be holy is to be set apart. To be set apart is to be different from the world. As the cliche goes, we are to be in the world but not of the world. We do not buy in to the world's allure of materialism and secularism. We do not live our lives selfishly looking out only for our own interests as the world does. We do not engage in the sins of the world that are no longer recognized as evil and have even gained legal standing, such as abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, pornography.

The call to holiness is a call to perfection unto the Father. “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). This means that it is not enough to simply avoid serious wrongdoing, but we must strive to remove from our lives anything that is not of God. It is not enough simply to be a good person, but we are to reflect the very life of God in our own. We are called to be like Christ himself! And while we of course can never be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, each day of our life must be a move forward in this unattainable direction . As we live our lives on this earth, we are to continually grow in the very image and likeness of God.

Secondly, the call to become a witness is a call to martyrdom. The word martyr comes from the Greek word that literally means witness. To be a martyr is to sacrifice something of great value, especially life itself, for the sake of a higher value or principle. In the spiritual realm, that higher value is the kingdom of God and everything that has to do with the plan and will of God for the life of the world. All that we are and all that we have are to be subordinated to the priorities of God. We must be willing to give of ourselves without counting the cost and thus giving our all for the sake of the kingdom.

For some, this will mean literally giving their lives for the faith. When this happens, it will be tragic from the human point of view, but in the spiritual realm it will be glorious. This is the greatest offer of self that a disciple of Jesus can give. It is following in the very footsteps of Jesus, all the way to the cross. It is giving all, till there is nothing more to give.

And of course, as has been seen through the ages, it is the blood of the martyrs that propels the mission. The greater the cost and the sacrifice, the greater the empowerment and positive effect on the life of the world. As Jesus himself has already said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24).

The call to do the very mission of Jesus, the call to renew the very face of the earth, these are all very challenging tasks. They can only be accomplished by the offering of the lives of true witnesses and martyrs.

Not all however will be called on to give their very lives for the cause. However, all will be called to die to self. All are called to utmost selflessness, to giving their all, to going the extra two or three miles, to do all these without counting the cost. All are called to sacrifice, to self-denial, to embracing the very cross of Christ.

Working with the poor

To be a witness is to let our light shine forth. Jesus tells us, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5: 14). This is amazing because Jesus also says “I am the light of the world.” (John 8: 12). What Jesus is to the world, we also are to become.

One very important way for our light to shine forth is by work with the poor. This is what Isaiah says:

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed;….. If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday (Isaiah 58:6-8,10) .

How do we fulfill Jesus' directive to be light to the world? It is by working to liberate the poor. It is by working for justice for the oppressed in the world. Many times Christians think of witnessing as showing piety, as not doing wrong to others as actively serving in their parishes. These of course are part of witnessing. But they could simply result in small pockets of sanctimonious piousness, just like the Pharisees, if such so-called Witnesses are unmindful that they are in the midst of a great sea of misery pervading the poor. Thus Jesus rebuked the Pharisees.

Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:39-41)

Did you get that? Give alms! True witnessing cannot divorce itself from helping the poor. For our light to truly shine forth, we must work to lift the burden of the poor and love them as we love ourselves.

Importance of formation

Underlying growth as witnesses is solid formation as disciples of the Lord. In the description of the first Christian community, the first important element IS formation as the disciples “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42).

When we first accept Jesus as Savior and Lord, we become his followers, but we are only babies in Christ. We are fed spiritual milk. As Paul says, “like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2) . But then we need to grow and mature, and for that we need solid food. “Everyone who lives on milk lacks experience of the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil.” (Hebrew 5:13-14).

How then are we formed? This happens through prayer, study of the Bible, formation courses and teachings, support in a Christian environment through fellowship among believers, and active service to others.

And so in carrying out the very mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor, we need to do rapid massive and global evangelization. We can only do that if we have successfully become witnesses. The fourth aspect then of authentic evangelization is that we must become true witnesses.

Building Community

How do we develop true witnesses who will carry out the authentic mission of Jesus to the poor?

The formation of disciples who will be true witnesses is a lifelong process of growing in the Spirit. There will have to be a stable and permanent environment where such growth is nurtured, encouraged and strengthened. Such an environment is Christian community.

Many are called, but few are chosen. Many hear the good news preached, but not many respond. And for those who respond, not many move on to become true disciples.

Jesus talked about the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15). There are four kinds of hearers of the word of God. The first, influenced by the devil, do not believe. The second, influenced by the flesh, hear and believe, but only for a time, then fall away. The third, influenced by the world, hear but are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and fail to grow. The fourth, the seed that fell on rich soil, hear, embrace the word, and bear fruit through perseverance.

Notice the need for perseverance. We can only bear real fruit if we persevere. And how can we persevere, in the face of the onslaughts of the world, the flesh and the devil? We need a protective environment, where God is present, where the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, and where God's people care for each other in love and loyalty.

That place is Christian community. We must be a part of it, and we must do our part in building it.

A proven model

In living and building community, we look to an already proven model. This is the first Christian community born on Pentecost. This is how the book of Acts describes that community.

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4: 32-35)

There are quite a few significant aspects of the life of the first Christian community that provide a framework for raising up true disciples and witnesses today.

  • They had a communal life, i.e., they lived as a community. They shared their one life together.
  • There was ongoing teaching and formation.
  • There was a significant spiritual dimension to their life.
  • They practiced stewardship and shared their possessions with those in need.
  • They met together regularly (every day in fact) for spiritual and social activities.

The above is so different from the present-day Christian community that is the parish. In most parishes today, the members of the community hardly know each other, much less interact with each other and even much less take responsibility for each other's welfare. They receive not much Christian formation, and many live normal Christian lives. Some might donate to the Church, but m meager amounts. They may come together for Sunday mass, if at all, and that is the extent of being physically together with others.

Now what was the result of the pattern of life of the Pentecost community?

  • They were united in heart and mind.
  • They were looked on by all with great favor.
  • They were able to evangelize through the witness of their lives.

The first Christian community lived out its very nature. They lived a common life in unity. The results were explosive. They became effective Witnesses to Jesus, and as such were able to attract many others. They had become authentic evangelizers.

These results comprise the essential elements of a blessed life in this world! The people of God united, giving good witness to the world, being effective in proclaiming Christ. In raising up witnesses who will carry out the mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor then it is crucial to be part of a vibrant supportive community. Thus the fifth aspect of authentic evangelization is that of building community among the people of God.

Unity at the very heart of God

In building community, unity is crucial. In truth, unity is at the very heart of God.

God has a “plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians 1: 10). God's plan is to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ's headship.

Jesus' final prayer, before he was arrested, was for unity. Jesus prayed “that they may be one just as we are.” (John 17:11). Jesus also said that the unity of his disciples would be the determining factor in making the world believe that he was indeed the messiah. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21).

The unity of the disciples of Jesus is to be so intimate that it would reflect the unity in the Godhead. Their unity would be crucial for evangelizing the world. Their unity would make Jesus the messiah known to the world.

Then after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit came down on earth and empowered the first Christians to be united and to live in community. Because of the working of the Holy Spirit, “the community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4: 32).

On the other hand, the work of the evil one is to cause disunity. Where God brings a man and a woman together in holy Matrimony, the devil causes divorce and separation. Where God intends a Christian home to be united and full of love, the devil causes family break-up and disintegration of the home. Where God desires human beings to live together in peace as His children, the devil causes strife and conflicts, often resulting in physical harm. Where God would want the family of nations to be united and live in peace with each other, the devil causes war and even genocide.

The devil knows where to attack. The devil knows what Jesus teaches, that “every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand.” (Matthew 12: 25). The devil can destroy the family, the basic unit of society, and thus society itself, by causing disunity between husband and wife. And he can destroy the world by causing disunity among nations or among religions.

Disunity is of the devil, while unity reflects the very heart and mind of God.

And so community is crucial. And a community is not just a crowd of people coming together, it is not just an association of persons who meet about common interests, it is not even parishioners attending Mass together but having nothing at all to do with each other's lives. Rather, community is being of one heart and mind, and living lives of sharing and caring, such that no member of the community is in need, and such that there is a tremendous witness to the world.

Community and the poor

When we talk of sharing and caring, we look to the poor. When we talk of no one in community being in need, we are mindful of the needs of the poor. When we talk of witnessing to the world, we recognize that much of the population of the world is mired in poverty, an indictment of the failure of Christians to live out their vocation.

And so the Church has always recognized the need to minister to the needs of the poor. In fact, the social doctrines of the Catholic Church are very well developed. And in its mission, the Church has proclaimed its preferential option for the poor. Putting principle into practice through the years, the Church has built orphanages, half-way houses for the abused, and old folks homes. The Church has soup kitchens, relief goods for disaster victims, and extensive medical care. There is an extensive array of services for the needs of the poor.

But extensive as such services are, they have not stemmed the tide of poverty. Even with the Church's preferential option for the poor, the poor are still with us…. and their numbers continue to grow each day. Why?

We have not solved the problem of poverty because traditional approaches to poverty have been inadequate, and in some cases even self-defeating.

The wrong approach: Charity

Perhaps the most significant aspect of traditional work with the poor is that it is a work of charity. We give alms to the poor. We help those less fortunate than we. We give dole-outs. While these certainly extend help to the poor, while these can help alleviate poverty, these cannot stem the tide of poverty in the world . In fact, these might even aggravate poverty. Why so?

The mindset of charity propagates the thinking, both for those who help and those who are helped, that the poor are beggars, takers, objects of help. Thus it does not help restore their dignity but constantly reminds them that they are useless consumers in society, always being a burden to others.

The mindset of charity promotes the we-you relationship. We help, you are helped. There is a gap between us, we are of different classes. We bridge that gap by helping you, but the gap remains. How many Christian groups and parishes put together Christmas packages, go to a depressed area, interact with the poor, distribute the goodies, then leave to continue living their own lives, until the next time around?

The mindset of charity provides help that is inadequate. Such help is focused on meeting immediate needs but fail to effectively address the totality of a poor person's needs.

The mindset of charity provides help that is not sustainable. We recall that age-old adage: Give a poor man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. Charity, dependent as it is on the giver, does not assure continuity. It is dependent on the goodwill of people, on their availability of time, on the extra resources that they consider disposable. It fails to equip the poor to become agents of their own liberation.

The right approach: Community

What then is the alternative? Aside from being ourselves in community, we also need to build community among the poor. And we, the so-called benefactors, need to consider ourselves part of the one community being built.

This means that we love the poor as we love ourselves. This means that we begin to look on them as our brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the one family of God. As such, we begin to share our lives intimately with them. Their concerns are our concerns. Their hopes and dreams are ours too. We rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep;” we “have the same regard for one another” and are not “haughty” as we ” associate with the lowly” (Romans 12: 15-16).

This means that we share our resources with the poor. Not by way of alms or dole-outs, but in recognition of the reality that we are merely stewards of what “belong” to us. We have been entrusted by God to handle His resources, which He intends to be shared equitably by all. Thus we give to the poor what we are holding in trust for them.

This means that we help empower the poor. We look to their physical health, to their education, to their learning livelihood skills, to their taking on proper and moral values. The end in view is for them to be restored in their dignity as children of God, to realize that God loves them and has a future full of hope for them, and to take hold of their own lives and become agents of their own liberation.

Will this approach work? Well, it already did. In the life of the first Christian community born on Pentecost, because the community had everything in common and shared their possessions, “there was no needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).

Right here we see the solution to the global scourge of massive poverty. With sharing and caring, given that there are bountiful resources in the world, the needs of all people can be met.

The thrust of the Church

Recognizing the importance of community, especially among the poor, the Church has promoted the Basic Ecclesial Community (BEC). BECs are neighborhood groupings of Christians who meet regularly for worship, formation and sharing the totality of their lives.

With the BEC, the Church is on the right track. However, there are some shortcomings. For one thing, it brings together all persons within a neighborhood, whether young or old, rich or poor, educated or not. Laudable, but such lack of homogeneity does not lend itself to intimacy of growing and ongoing relationships. Such diversity is not conducive to inter-relational growth and thus ultimately to unity. While it is good for the whole community to be together, the emotional and socio-cultural needs of individuals and groups of individuals within the community must also be considered and provided for.

For another, the BEC does not have an integrated and holistic approach to meeting the needs of people, both spiritual and social and material. While it may do much good, its track record has shown that it has not sufficiently lifted up the poor from their sorry condition.

Community life is crucial

Community then is crucial for raising true witnesses. Christians witness through lives that are Christlike, and also through loving and caring for the poor. The world needs to see individual Christians to be holy men and women. And the world needs to see that Christians care for the least among them.

Therefore, since “we must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works,” then “we should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25).

All Christians thus have the responsibility, not only for their own spiritual growth, but also for the growth of others. Community is a privilege. Participating fully in community is a responsibility. It is part of the very provision of God for forming us as His witnesses, In order that we might carry out the very mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor.

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