Our Greatest Strength
The Acts of the Apostles tell us the story of the birth of the Church after the disciples had received from the Spirit fearlessness and boldness to proclaim the good news that Jesus was risen, alive and that through him God was changing history. The most striking aspect of this story is the great poverty of means of the Church at this stage of its life. The people called to proclaim the good news to all nations were not great orators or media specialists but humble, mostly uneducated fishermen. They did not build churches and wait for people to join them but were constantly travelling. They could not stay in any place for longer than a few days or weeks because as soon as they started to talk about Jesus they were driven away by persecutions. Whenever they reached a new place they only had time to proclaim the core of the Christian message, that is “Jesus is the Lord and is risen from the dead”. We might think that such a short instruction could not possibly have a lasting impact on the lives of those who listened to it. Instead, exactly the opposite happened: Christian communities remained faithful, they soon started to proclaim the gospel to other cities and they multiplied exponentially.
The two secrets of this extraordinary fruitfulness are the ‘kerygma’ and perseverance.
‘Kerygma’ means ‘proclamation’ and designates the core of the Christian message. If we had to capture our faith in a nutshell what would we say? The apostles had no hesitation: they answered that Jesus is God, that he entered into our history by becoming one of us, loved us to the point of dying for us, that his love was stronger than death and hence that he rose from the dead, is still alive, stays with us until the end of time and we can recognize his presence by believing in him.
This proclamation changes our lives when we believe in it and remain faithful to it through our perseverance. Those who accept this message and believe in it are given a new heart, new eyes and new ears to recognize God present and acting in their midst, but they also remain exposed to the non-evidence of God like the rest of mankind. Discipleship therefore becomes a steadfast resolve to keep trusting and hoping in God. This is what Jesus constantly asks in the Gospels: "Do not be afraid, just keep on believing" (Mk 5.36). We must keep believing in Jesus, relying on him even when he seems asleep or we see him dead on the cross or we are disappointed like the disciples of Emmaus. These are the times in which we must stand firm and persevere. Thus perseverance in faith becomes the foundational virtue of the new humanity, our way of corresponding to the faithfulness of God’s love for us.
Human epics like the Odyssey celebrate the deeds of heroes who fought wars and their virtues of valiance and bravery in battle. With Christianity a new epic is born that instead praises those who fight the battle of faith. A striking example of this new epic can be found in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, which states that "faith is the foundation of what is hoped, the proof of what is not seen” (Heb 11: 1) and honors the steadfastness of a number of Old Testament characters: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph and many others. These heroes are our new family, our ancestors in the faith, those who "because they believed, were approved by God" (Heb 11.2). We are invited to imitate their perseverance in faith by fixing “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” so that we “do not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12.2f). Whatever the means at our disposal for the spreading of the gospel today or the new challenges we face in our very different world, Acts teaches us that our greatest asset remains our trust in God and the boldness with which we keep telling the Easter story.