Between the mid-eighteenth (1769) and the early-nineteenth centuries (1823), twenty-one missions were planted between San Diego and Sonoma in California. As missionaries traveled up the coast, they also planted two other crops. The first “crop” they sought to establish in the New World was Christianity. These missionaries, exemplified in Blessed Junipero Serra, sought to share Christ and his Church. If there is any doubt about their Christian commitment, it should swiftly be silenced by the fact that the second “crop” they sowed was mustard seed; a direct reference to a parable from the Gospels. By planting mustard seed, these missionaries were making a dynamic theological statement about their purpose.
Having traveled the “Camino Real,” the “Kings Way,” on many occasions, I have seen this mustard seed. Originally intended to guide followers of these missionaries from mission to mission, the golden-flowered mustard seed has now spread all over coastal California. Today, three hundred years after these first missionaries, there is no “Royal Road” to follow because the seed has spread far and wide throughout other parts of the State.
In St. Matthew 13:31–33, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about the mustard seed. It is an unusual story in that it recounts the planting of a very small seed. Miraculously, however, this smallest of seeds became “greater than any garden herb” and eventually became a “tree” in which “all the birds come and settle in its branches” (Knox Translation from the Latin Vulgate, 1956). That which was the smallest eventually became the largest within which many could find a home; much like the faith of Jesus Christ has spread well-beyond its original planting in an obscure Middle Eastern country 2,000 years ago.
And this is God’s intention for us and the world today. He wants the good news of His love to spread throughout the earth, very much like how the mustard seed in St. Matthew 13 had grown well-beyond what the seed’s capacity seemed to be. The so called “New Evangelization” therefore, given these facts, is not entirely new. Christians have always been called upon to share their faith with other people. The Christian faith is a shared faith that must be spoken and lived. Sharing our faith by word and deed is the Great Commission (St. Matthew 28) to which our Lord has called every disciple.
For many of us, however, being a “missionary” seems like a calling that is exclusively reserved for the those who share an evangelistic calling. And, to some degree, this cannot be entirely denied. Some people have unique gifts and graces for missionary purposes. Nevertheless, while not denying this, every Christian has at least four missionary activities to which he must attend.
First, as strange as this may sound, every Christian must be a missionary to him-or-her-self. That is, every Christian is commanded to examine their own consciences, uproot vices, plant virtues, and thoroughly nourish their lives with the water of God’s word (Ephesians 5:26), proper confession, full and functional participation in the liturgy, and a commitment to enter into the world with the purpose of loving God and neighbor. These must have both private and public applications. In other words, in order to avoid hypocrisy, we must preach God’s word to ourselves before we dare to share Christ’s good news with others. This is our first responsibility, and also forcefully discussed by Jesus in St. Mathew 13.
Second, we must strive to be missionaries to our own family. I am sure that many of us have heard the phrase “the family that prays together, stays together.” Fathers, as well as mothers, must lead other family members in daily Bible reading, devotional activities, meditation, and prayer. Beyond this, parents must demonstrate to their spouses and to their children, as well as other extended family members, what it means to be a faithful Christian. Many years ago, when I was a boy, this seemed to be a regular practice. Each night before bed the family would gather in the Living Room to pray and share. It was a time for the fellowship of faith. In this way the family could grow in God, their faith, and in relationship with each other. Today, of course, in our pronounced visual culture, other forms of gathered and consistent family prayer can be used. Raising Christians, which means missionaries, begins at home.
Third, as uncomfortable as we might feel, we are called to be missionaries to our “neighbor.” This calling will include anyone who is in our immediate sphere of influence such as the people who live next door, the postal worker, people at the grocery store, colleagues, friends– and, yes, at times, enemies. Having sought to evangelize our self and our family, we now begin to move beyond our “comfort zone.” We now move into unfamiliar territory. This can be hard, and will be scary. A simply rule of thumb, however, can serve as sound guidance to anyone: Learn how to make friends. “Friendship Evangelism” can be quite impacting, and can be as simple as baking something for your neighbor, offering to help them shovel their sidewalks after a storm, or being a bit friendlier. Although all personalities are not the same, some being more outgoing and others being more reclusive, everyone can take the initiative to make and take opportunities to share Christ’s good gospel with others.
Finally, apart from these three actions, Christians are called to move beyond local considerations into global contexts. Sharing Christ is not just about “me and mine,” it includes “they,” “them,” “we,” and “us.” God loved, we are told in St. John 3:16, “the world.” This love prompted sacrificial action. God loved, and, as a result, he gave. He entered into the mission field of our humanity. In a similar way we too must find ways to enter into the larger field of evangelism. We must find ways to “connect” and share. While we may not go to another country, we can consistently pray for those who do. We can give money to the people and the projects needing help. We can write to missionaries and seek to make their ministries more fully known in our parishes. As well, some might even be led to be part of a parish team that spends a few weeks in another culture or country, helping others with their unique and often debilitating needs.
Like the first missionaries to California, we too are called and challenged to plant a mustard seed faith wherever we travel through life. If we do so, by word and by deed, we may find that the small seed of our faithful effort may exceed our wildest expectations. Evangelism is a “Royal Road” upon which every Christian is called to travel. Godspeed!