Your new vocabulary word for the day is kerygma.
Kerygma means “proclamation.” It is a very simple proclamation, and it changes hearts. Kerygma happens when one follower of Jesus, moved by the Holy Spirit, becomes a herald of good news, and the hearts of the hearer(s) catch fire as they hear the message. When the kerygma happens, one follower of Jesus becomes the instrument whereby the hearer actually “hears” the gospel as good news, and is moved to heartfelt repentance, responding with a resounding “YES!” that starts showing itself in a new way of living.
Kerygma moments happen again and again in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter or one of the other disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, stand up and boldly proclaim the Good News that Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s such a simple message. Jesus died. He died because of your sins and my sins. Jesus has risen from the dead. He has the power to forgive you and forgive me. He has the power to save you and save me from death. All we need to do is repent of our sins, get baptized and place our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. Then we can begin following him together on an amazing new journey.
Peter and the apostles, the guys who snoozed and snored while Jesus was sweating blood in the Garden, the guys who left Jesus all alone to die, the guys who denied him and abandoned him – yes, those guys –become heralds proclaiming Good News. Each time they proclaim the simple message of salvation in Jesus, hearts are moved to repentance.
Whether it moves 3,000 hearts (as on the day of Pentecost) or whether it touches just one heart at a time, the power of the kerygma is real. It’s a life-changing experience. God wants all of us to “hear” the good news in a personal way that re-orders our entire life. We change and become “all in,” surrendering ourselves to Jesus.
Notice that it has nothing to do with Peter or the other apostles being smart, or educated, or talented, or strong (they were none of those things!). Indeed, it was precisely their ordinariness and their human weakness that made the Gospel message so compelling to the hearers. These were changed men. Whatever it was that they had, the hearers wanted to experience it.
There are a few core reasons why the kerygma works.
First, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. We are cooperators, but truly led by the Spirit in the process. The same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work both in the heart of the one proclaiming and the one(s) hearing. And he does his work! He is the principal agent of all evangelizing. We all have access to that Holy Spirit through faith and baptism.
Secondly, the kerygma works because the disciple who is proclaiming has actually been transformed by his personal relationship with Jesus. He’s not just talking about Faith. He’s proclaiming Jesus. Not as an abstract idea, but as a real person who has really changed his life. The change is obvious to the hearers. It attracts them. It’s an open invitation. They hear the Holy Spirit gently whispering in their own hearts, “Wouldn’t you love to have that experience for yourself?”
Thirdly, there is always freedom in the kerygma. Whether it’s Jesus himself proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, or those early disciples proclaiming the Resurrection, they respect the freedom of the hearers. There is no forcing or pressuring, no nagging or manipulating, no guilting or shaming. If the hearers aren’t interested, so be it. Those who proclaim the kerygma only want followers who want to follow.
How different this all is from the everyday experience of so many Catholics during the last several decades. The majority of Catholics these days are simply NOT interested in talking openly about their personal relationship with Jesus. As for those who are willing (myself included), it is with deep sadness that I admit that many of us have too often been led more by fear than by the joy of the Holy Spirit. I confess that out of a fear of failure or rejection I have engaged in pressuring, manipulating, shaming, or other methods that were totally NOT used by the early disciples. It’s so hard to trust the Holy Spirit, to wait for God’s timing, and to respect human freedom – especially when it’s our own children or spouses or friends, and especially if we tie the outcome to our own personal worth, somehow thinking were are a failure if they say “no.”
I have definitely learned, slowly but surely, to be both patient AND bold. If the person is not yet ready to hear the kerygma, so be it. But when I notice that the Holy Spirit moving, as at Pentecost, when I sense the person asking “What must I do?” THEN is the moment to proclaim the Good News of Jesus – and in a truly personal way that speaks to her experience. THEN, perhaps for the first time, that person can see Jesus as his Savior.
It is such a privilege to be a herald of the kerygma. You get to be the person who announces good news of great joy to persons who are longing so deeply for it – and it changes their lives forever. What a joy!
But there’s a deeper question. Have I ever really “heard” the kerygma myself? How can I give what I have not myself received? There, I think, is a big part of why we Catholics (yes, even we priests and bishops) have struggled so much to be bearers of good news to a world that longs for good news. We may possess a great store of knowledge, we may faithfully follow many rules. Perhaps we even had an amazing experience of Jesus long ago. But if we are not perpetually being renewed in the Joy of the Gospel, if we have not truly internalized the kerygma, if others do not see in us that Jesus is truly “Good News,” then who will care?
I encourage each of us to ask today, what has been my own experience of receiving the kerygma? When has my heart burned with joy at receiving the good news?
For me personally, there have been many “kerygma moments.” I remember the first time I went to Confession at the age of nine, how honest I was despite my deep fear, and what an incredible joy I felt afterward. I remember many moments on retreats in which God comforted my heart, deepening my desire to trust and surrender to him. I remember the witness of my friend Peter, a seminarian in his late 30’s. During a few years of intense personal struggle for me in the late 1990s (moments in which I felt very unlovable) he kept gently gazing and speaking good news into the places of my heart that feared and doubted. The Holy Spirit was very much at work, consoling my heart at a time when I deeply needed it. When Peter explained that “a good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway” I not only grasped the words intellectually; I truly “felt” their truth. It changed me.
I remember Peter tragically and unexpectedly dying that fall of 1999, after only five months ordained as a priest. I remember surviving a fire a month later, losing nearly all of my possessions. Truth be told, I would have gladly thrown them all away to have Peter’s friendship back. Then I remember astounding graces and spiritual encounters during the Jubilee Year 2000. I received deep healing as others prayed over me and stood with awe and gratitude as others receive astounding graces and healings when I prayed over them. God knew what my heart needed and gave it to me; he assured me yet again that I could trust him and surrender.
Even then, there were parts of my heart that I was keeping locked away and out of sight. I simply wasn’t ready yet to receive totally or to surrender totally. I continued through life as a perfectionist, secretly fueled by shame, secretly insecure about not being good enough or loveable. Too often, I tried to “get life right,” to try harder or work more. I slowly got more disconnected and burnt out, losing sight of the good news of Jesus and of my identity as a beloved child of God.
Theologically, I knew the teachings of Scripture – God loves us while we are yet sinners. Salvation is a gift. We cannot earn our way to receiving love. But that was not what I was believing internally. There were layers of my heart that had still never heard the Gospel proclaimed. I was not yet ready.
Eventually, the trials of life wore me down. A few years back, I reached a point of recognizing that my life was totally unmanageable. I wanted to be well. I was ready to die to self. I allowed myself to surrender and to become vulnerable in ways I would previously have thought impossible. I began letting myself be “seen” by a few trusted people – letting all of myself be seen, mind you. It has allowed me, more and more, to believe with all my heart that I am truly a beloved child of God – no matter what. Now that I no longer felt like I had to perform (or at least much less frequently felt that way) I discovered, to my amazement, that old habits of sin melted away.
I still have a long way to go, but the more I have internalized the kerygma, the more I have discovered that the Holy Spirit is opening up new opportunities for others around me to receive the good news. I find myself more frequently able to show kindness and mercy because I have been learning what it is to receive it.
It’s an old axiom of the first universities in the Middle Ages: nemo dat quod non habet (“a thing can’t give what it ain’t got”). We will not be able to proclaim Good News to others if we are not allowing Jesus to be good news for us.
What about you? Have you experienced the kerygma? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you remember any “kerygma moments” in which someone proclaimed good news to you and the Holy Spirit totally changed your heart.
If you can think of those moments, I encourage you to revisit them with gratitude and allow you heart to be touched once again.
If you cannot think of any, would you like to be moved by the Holy Spirit in that way? Would you also like to experience the joy of the Gospel? If so, you can ask God for that. And you can seek out someone who has experienced it, and ask that person for help. The Risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit just might surprise you with what comes next.