The Resurrection and Evangelization
The Resurrection must be the central focus of our preaching, and of our lives
Soon after the Ascension of Christ, the eleven remaining apostles gathered to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. St. Peter lays out the qualifications needed for an apostle: he must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). But why was another apostle needed? What would this new apostle be doing? Peter tells us: he “must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22).
“A witness to his resurrection.” Even before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the first followers of Jesus understood their primary mission was to tell others about his miraculous Resurrection from the dead and what it means for us. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit confirms this mission and makes their witness more powerful. In the first Christian sermon (Acts 2:14-36), Peter makes the Resurrection the central theme of his preaching:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)
The centrality of the Resurrection in Christian preaching continued after Pentecost. When Peter heals the lame beggar (Acts 3:6), the crowds are amazed. In response, Peter again points to the Resurrection of Christ: “you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15).
When the Jewish authorities begin to challenge Peter, asking by what authority or power he is doing these works, he responds, “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well” (Acts 4: 10). Again and again Peter returns to the Resurrection and his witness of the Risen Christ, as the raison d’etre of his preaching and miracle-working.
Emphasizing the Resurrection in preaching wasn’t confined to Peter and the other eleven apostles. St. Paul, the greatest Christian evangelist who ever lived, also put the Resurrection front and center: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Without the Resurrection, there is no “good news” (gospel) to preach.
Every Christian today is called to share his faith with others, which means he is called to be “a witness to his Resurrection” as the apostles were. But we haven’t actually witnessed the Risen Christ as those apostles did, so how do we make the Resurrection the central point of our evangelization efforts?
One vital way in our skeptical age is to engage in apologetics regarding the historical truth of the Resurrection. Just do a quick search for “resurrection” here at catholic.com and you’ll find many arguments defending its historicity. The only way to reasonably explain the events that occurred after Christ’s death is that he actually—bodily—rose from the tomb. We have a sacred duty to share with others the literal truth of the Resurrection.
But apologetics is just one aspect of evangelization, and is often not the most important aspect. We are called to be witnesses, not just explainers. So how have we witnessed the Resurrection? We have experienced first-hand the power of the Resurrection in our own “resurrection” at baptism. After all, St. Paul says that in baptism, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Our first-hand witness of the power of the Resurrection doesn’t end with baptism, however. Every time we go to confession, we are raised from our sins into new life in Christ. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive the Risen Christ. Without the Resurrection, the sacraments have no power; they are just stale, man-made religious rites. When we tell people how Christ has changed our lives, we need to emphasize that it is the Risen Christ who has done this, for what can a man long dead do for us today?
If we are living as faithful disciples of Christ, others will notice. Inevitably, some will ask, “Why?” Why do you live differently than everyone else? Why are you filled with joy and peace? Why do you put the good of others first? (If they aren’t asking these questions, then we need to reevaluate how we live.) When these questions come, we can point them to the Resurrection: the same power that raised Jesus from the dead also makes it possible for us to live differently.
The Resurrection of Christ is the most important event in history, both world history, and our history. Without it, our lives are hopelessly confined to this world. But with it, this world can become the beginning of a life of eternal happiness with God in heaven. This is the good news; this is what we need to emphasize in our evangelization. Like St. Peter and St. Paul, we must make the Resurrection the central focus of our preaching, and of our lives.