Fishers of Men: The Great Commission

Talk Given at Mount Calvary Church

Matthew G.  Collins

November 6, 2016

Like last week, I’d like to start with a prayer composed by St. Josemaría that many people I know use to begin their prayer.

My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here.  That you see me, and that you hear me.  I adore you with profound reverence.  I beg your pardon for my sins and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My Immaculate Mother, St. Joseph, my father and lord, my Guardian Angel, intercede for me.

Last week we talked about the Universal Call to Holiness, and how the Christian vocation is a call to invite Christ, who is always passing by in the most ordinary situations, into our daily lives. Today, I’d like to talk about how we can invite him into the lives of others.

If you’ll recall, I started last week’s talk with a list of some of the truths we, as Christians, hold to be self-evident.  There is a God.  He loves us.  We are not God.  There is a heaven.  There is a hell.  The reason God made us is to know him, love him, and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him in the next.  What we do in this life will determine whether we spend eternity in blissful, intimate, loving union with him, or in the torment of everlasting separation from him.

Well, if all of this is true for us, then it’s true for everyone else, too.  So with that as a foundation, I’d like to read Matthew 4:18-20, where Jesus calls his first disciples:

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Then, at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, in Chapter 28:16-20, just before he ascends into heaven, he gives the Great Commission to those same disciples:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

That’s the reason I named this talk “Fishers of Men: The Great Commission,” because these two events form the bookends, so to speak, of Jesus’ public ministry.  In both his first and last earthly encounters with his disciples, he makes it clear that the call to be a Christian is a call to spread the Good News of the Gospel, to make disciples of all nations.  To be fishers of men.

We can’t pretend that we don’t have to work for the salvation of souls.  Christianity is at its core a missionary religion.  Every one of us, without exception, have a part to play in Salvation History.  You could call it the Universal Call to Apostolate.  But that doesn’t mean we all have to be street preachers.  We all have different personalities, different talents, different circumstances.  What is common is that those gifts must be put to use in the service of the salvation of souls.

St. Paul writes:

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Because we all have different personalities, gifts, and circumstances, we need to start with prayer.  As St. Josemaría puts it in The Way:  “First, prayer; then, atonement; in the third place—very much “in the third place”—action.

So let’s start with prayer.  This doesn’t mean just praying for people’s salvation.  It means having deep, ongoing conversations with God to clearly see what he’s asking us to do.  And we can be confident that our personalities, gifts, and circumstances will be his primary way of communicating this to us.

If the very thought of getting up in front of a crowd reduces you to a quivering mass of Jello, then perhaps that’s not what he wants.  You may, however, be a gifted writer, able to instruct the ignorant through the written word.

Perhaps you’re particularly good at cooking and decorating, and have a knack for creating a welcoming environment.  If so, then maybe God wants you to use those gifts in a more behind-the-scenes kind of way to feed the hungry and create a welcoming atmosphere at Church.

Maybe you’re outgoing, someone who makes friends easily, with a way of making others feel at ease around you.  Those gifts could be put to use visiting the sick in a nursing home, offering the residents an opportunity to unburden their souls, perhaps even arranging for them to see a priest to reconcile with God before they die.

Maybe you’re an accountant and can offer your services to some apostolic endeavor to help ensure it stays on a solid financial footing.

Perhaps you’ve been through some tragedy that has given you compassion and wisdom that can be put to use guiding women with unwanted pregnancies to choose life.

If you’re a young, unmarried professional with lots of money and time, and no family responsibilities, you can be particularly generous with your money, and perhaps even volunteer at one of the houses run by Mother Teresa’s nuns.

If you’re a young couple, maybe you could start a dinner club for other young couples to share an evening once a month away from the kids, where you can build friendships and get to know other couples.

Perhaps you’re a retired school teacher and have the time to volunteer in a faith-based tutoring program, where you will have the opportunity to quietly share your faith.

The point is this… you need to bring all of this, your personality, your likes and dislikes, your circumstances, your talents, and your resources to the Lord in prayer.  Consider how you can use all of these to work for the salvation of souls.  He probably won’t give you a definite answer.  Rather, he’ll help you see all the ways you can do this, and leave it up to your choice, and your creativity, to do something.  He’ll work with whatever you choose to do, as long as you do it with faith, generosity, and above all, love.

But keep in mind that if you’re married, your first and most important apostolate is with your spouse.  As Blessed Álvaro del Portillo, the successor to St. Josemaría, was fond of saying, “Your path to heaven has a name.  It is the name of your spouse.”  So you have a special obligation to pray for your spouse, to offer sacrifices for their salvation, to share your faith with them.  Perhaps the most apostolic thing you can do on any given day is to give a genuine, wide smile to your spouse.  That can do more to convey God’s love to them than an hour’s worth of conversation.

The same goes with your children, who come next in priority.  Teaching them the faith with good example, dedication, clarity, love, and good humor is a very real and important apostolate.  Don’t neglect it.  That smile when you’re tired will do far more for their salvation than any lecture about sin.

After your spouse and children come the rest of your family and your friends.  Sometimes you and they are on the same page about politics and/or the faith.  If so, then your apostolate with them will be one of mutual encouragement.  But many times brothers and sisters, or parents and their adult children, are at odds about these things.  In these situations, arguments about politics, however much they pertain to matters of faith and morals, will do very little to bring them to heaven.  Mutual respect, affection, good example, and a welcoming spirit will, over time, soften their heart and make them open to considering what it is that makes you so special to them.  Unless they are confiding in you, or asking for your advice, it is usually better to confine your apostolate to prayer and mortification, asking the Lord to send someone else into their lives who can take a more active role.

Don’t discount the power of prayer and atonement.  St. Thèrése of Lisieux once wrote “I feel in me the vocation of the Priest. I have the vocation of the Apostle.”  She took it as her special mission to pray intensely for missionaries, to offer sacrifices for them, and to support them with letters.  This sense of responsibility for the salvation of souls is why she is the patron of the missions, and serves as a reminder to all of us who feel we can do nothing, that it is the little things that keep God’s kingdom growing.

We should make it our practice to pray each day for the gift that someone will grow closer to God today because of us.  Whether it’s due to our prayers, our conversation, an invitation you make to attend some event, or because of some act of charity on our part.

So after you’ve prayed and made atonement, it’s time to take action.  In your prayer you will have listened to God, thought of how you might be effective in your efforts to win souls for him.  Now go ahead and do it, whatever it is.  Do it with generosity and faith, not worrying about how effective it’s being.  God will make use of it however he sees fit.  You may never have any idea how he used your efforts.  You had these great plans for a dinner club, perhaps, but after 3 months it just fizzled out.  Be certain that you’re only seeing it with your human eyes.  If you did it with love and generosity, for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls, it had its effect.  It may not be the effect you anticipated.  Maybe you thought that these couples you brought together would hit it off and share a lifetime of happy memories together.  Now you’re crushed that that didn’t happen.  It doesn’t matter.  God is using it in some way that you don’t know about.  You’ll find out about it when you get to heaven.  Perhaps all he wanted was for one of you to suggest, in casual conversation, that someone else read a book that they never forgot about, and will finally get around to reading 25 years from now, that will save their soul, or lead someone to become a priest.  The point is, you are the instrument.  God is doing the work.  What he needs from you is your prayers, your sacrifice, your generosity, your good will.  He will do the rest.  That’s why it doesn’t matter what your gifts are.  What matters is that you use them to the best of your ability, in the way that seems most fitting to you, after prayerful consideration, to bring souls to Christ.

Naturally, though, you will sometimes have very clear opportunities to bring specific people closer to God.  These will sometimes come upon you unexpectedly, and you need to be ready to respond with faith and courage.

Penn Jillette, the magician in “Penn and Teller,” has made no secret that he’s an atheist.  Several years ago he posted an informal video on the Internet, describing an encounter he had after one of his shows with a man who had seen his show the previous night.  His comments are a bit of a stream-of-consciousness, but I think you’ll be able to follow him.  After setting the scene, he said:

… he walked over to me and he said, “I was here last night at the show.  I saw the show and I liked it and I … brought this for you.”  And he handed me a Gideon pocket edition…, I thought it said from the New Testament, … Psalms is from the New Testament, right?  Psalms, … just part of the New Testament.  A little book about this big… about this thick, you know.  He said “I wrote on the front of it, and I wanted you to have this.  I’m kind of proselytizing.”  I mean, he said “I’m a business man.  I’m saying I’m not crazy.”  And he looked at me right in the eye and did all of this.  And, it was really wonderful.  I believe he knew that I was an atheist.  But he was not defensive.  And he looked me right in the eyes, and he was truly complimentary.  It … didn’t seem like empty flattery.  He was really kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes and talked to me.  And then gave me this bible.  And I’ve always said … that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize.  I don’t respect that at all.  If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, and atheists who think that people shouldn’t proselytize … how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?  How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?!  I mean, if I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, but a truck was bearing down on you… there’s a certain point where I tackle you.  And this is more important than that….  This guy was a really good guy.  He was polite, and honest, and sane, and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a bible, which had written in it a little note to me, not very personal, but just you know, “I liked your show,” and so on, and then like five phone numbers for him and an email address, if I wanted to get in touch.  Now I know there’s no God, and one polite person living his life right, doesn’t change that.  But I’ll tell ya… he was a very, very, very good man, and that’s real important.  And with that kind of goodness, it’s OK to have that deep of a disagreement.  I still think that religion does a lot of bad stuff, but man, that was a good man who gave me that book.

There’s so much in that story that pertains to today’s topic that I almost don’t know where to begin.

First, the guy knew that Penn is an atheist, but this didn’t stop him from bold action because it is “awkward” or the possibility that he would be seen as crazy.  He saw the good that was in Penn, and treated him with respect.  He saw that Penn was worth trying to save from hell, but that he could only invite him.  He couldn’t force Penn to accept Christ.  He made himself available in case Penn should ever decide to look into Christianity.

Note that Penn thinks the Book of Psalms is from the New Testament.  Despite his obvious openness and good will, he seems to have rejected the truth of Christianity without taking the time to understand even the basics.  Nevertheless, he recognizes good when he sees it, because he could sense that the guy was treating him as an individual, that his interest in Penn was personal.  He says “He looked me in the eye.  And it was wonderful.”  Penn acknowledged that “he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a bible.”

Penn recognizes that the Truth is important and that everyone deserves it.  He clearly sees that not sharing the truth with someone is hateful.  He’s even able to make a very insightful analogy about doing whatever it takes to get someone out of danger.  If only we understood that by failing to share the Truth with people, we are more on the side of the Devil than the side of God.

Penn recognizes that true friends can disagree about even deep things like the existence of God, as long as there is a mutual respect for the Truth.  I can definitely imagine that he would have been one of the sinners that Jesus would dine with.

Sometimes, opportunities to bring others closer to God arise unexpectedly.  For example, while getting a cup of coffee in the office, or waiting in the parking lot for the kids to get out of school, someone may start confiding in you their troubles, their doubts, their hopes.  When this happens you should say a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit for the gift of tongues, that whatever you say, they will hear what God wants them to hear.  I can’t tell you how many times, when I’ve done that, things have come out of my mouth that I’d never even thought before.  You’ll find the same thing.  Just as God has used others to make his will and his love known to you, he uses you to communicate his will and his love to others.  The more you pray for that to be true, the truer it will be.  That’s one prayer God always answers with a “Yes.”

We need to show people that our concern for them is genuine.  About 5 years ago, Johns Hopkins began an ambitious project to implement an electronic medical record system.  They hired about 200 people for the project, some of them from inside Hopkins, like me, and some from outside.  We all started on the same day, and were greeted in the new office building by the security staff.  Each day as I entered the building, I would greet the security guard, an older woman clearly working just to make ends meet.  We would sometimes exchange a few words about the nice weather, or the nasty weather, or the long hours on the project.  She was always very pleasant and courteous.  I learned her name was Mary, but that was about the extent of our interaction.

One day as I was driving home from work, I got a phone call from my sister.  I could tell from her voice that it was serious.  It was, in fact, “the call,” the one everyone with elderly parents knows will come someday.  My mother had been rushed to the emergency room at St. Agnes Hospital with chest pains.  I immediately went to the hospital, and after a little while she was transferred to Hopkins.  I spent the night with her, and called into work in the morning to tell them I wouldn’t be coming in for a few days.  One thing led to another and several days later my mother had surgery, which didn’t go well at all, and I missed a few more days of work.  When I did finally get back to work, she still had not regained consciousness, and things were looking pretty bleak.  I greeted Mary at the front desk, and she could tell something was wrong, especially since I had unexpectedly missed over a week from work.  I told her about my mother, and she said “I’ll fast for her.”

I’ll fast for her.  Next to the words “this is my body,” “this is my blood,” and “your sins are forgiven,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard four more powerful words in my life.  I’ll fast for her.  It blew me away.  Her compassion, her willingness to reach out to someone she barely knew and take up his burden as her own, her faith in the power of prayer, her confidence that her gesture would be well received, overwhelmed me with gratitude.  Over the next two months Mary repeatedly fasted for my mother, and her prayers were answered, I’m sure, but not in the way I would have preferred.  She continued to offer her consolation as I grieved my mother’s death.  I’ve had the privilege since of repaying that debt several times, as she mourned the death of her son, her sister, and two of her great-grandchildren.  And I’ve seen how other people on the project seem to gravitate to her and to share their problems with her.  She is a powerful witness to the love and mercy of God.  Who knows how many people God has saved through her simple witness!

So what was so powerful about those words?  Basically, she was telling me that she was going to put “skin in the game” for this woman she had never met, simply because she cared about me.  About me!  Someone who had never done more than exchange pleasantries with her.  She was preaching the Good News of God’s mercy and compassion to a soul in distress.  She had gone beyond simple platitudes and let me know that I mattered, and the pain I was feeling mattered.

So the next time someone asks for your prayers, or confides to you that they’re worried about their husband or child, or parent, let them know that you’ll fast for them.  It’s something everyone intuitively understands, and for most people, will be more meaningful than just saying you’ll pray for them.  Fasting is prayer.  It is prayer of the body.  And remember to ask them from time to time how things are going.

But it’s not enough to tell someone we’re going to fast or pray for them.  We need to get them to pray for the situation, too.  About a year ago, I was getting a cup of coffee.  A colleague seemed upset.  I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that her ex-husband, whom she still loved, was dying of cancer and was considering assisted suicide.  This was one of those unexpected serious conversations that come up from time to time, so as I listened, I said a quick prayer under my breath, asking the Holy Spirit for the Gift of Tongues.  I knew she had some sort of religious sensibility, however confused it was, so I asked her if she knew what a novena was.  She didn’t, so I explained it, and suggested she make a novena to my buddy, St. Thèrése.  She did, and at the end, she came to me and told me he had decided to wait a while.  A few weeks went by and we had another opportunity to talk.  I knew he was a fallen away Catholic, so I suggested that when the time was right, she should suggest to him that he see a priest.  To make a long story short, he died a few days after Christmas, after reconciling with the Church and with his children.  Not because of my prayers, but because of hers.

A good thing to do is to get to know your saints, and those whose cause for canonization is in progress.  Know their stories, so that when the opportunity presents itself, you can suggest people pray to them for help.

The same colleague recently confided to me that her current husband was struggling with alcoholism.  Actually, he wasn’t struggling.  He was dying of alcoholism.  He was committing suicide by alcohol.  He refused all attempts to help him.  He’s felt worthless since he lost his job 4 years ago, and has failed at everything he’s tried since, even the most basic life skills. I suggested she pray to Matt Talbot, an Irishman in the late 19th and early 20th century who struggled with alcoholism, and sent her a link to some information on the Internet.  His cause for canonization is well advanced.  I explained that her husband needed to understand that God loves him, and that no matter what he’s done or failed to do, that in God’s eyes, he’s worth dying for.  I also put his name on a sticky note and posted it on my computer monitor.  She knows that I am praying for him.  She took my words to heart and just this week he agreed to get help.  Just a step, but one in the right direction.  She herself has begun to discover God’s love for her, and has begun to attend church again.  So she’s now on the right path, too.

When someone is having a problem pregnancy, tell them to pray to St. Gerard.  When someone needs a job, make a novena with them to St. Josemaría.  When someone is considering abortion, have them talk it over with St. Gianna.  If someone needs to find a place to live, teach them go to St. Joseph.  If someone needs a favorable decision from the courts, St. Thomas More is your guy.

Simple friendship is one of the best apostolic tools we have.  St. Josemaría would say that our apostolate has to be “an apostolate of friendship and confidence.”  That is to say, it has to be based on the confidence that true friends share with one another.  They have to know that “you have their back.”  It can’t just be based on commonly held interests, although that will certainly be part of any true friendship.  But as Penn Jillette realized, you can disagree on very deep things and still be friends.  You have to be willing to “dine with sinners,” as the Pharisees accused Jesus of doing.

And you may have to wait many years, even decades, for the opportunity to bring a friend closer to God.  But I guarantee you that the time will come.  And when it does, you have to already know the way to your friend’s heart.  You will only be able to do that if you pray for him, pray about him, sacrifice for him, and when the opportunity arises, talk with him about God.  And when you do, all those prayers and sacrifices, all that friendship will bear good fruit.  You will have fulfilled the purpose that God had in putting him in your life.  And when you die and face Jesus at your particular judgment, you will be able to say “I hope you don’t mind, but I brought some friends with me.”

Let’s conclude with the companion closing prayer to the one I used to open this talk, and then I’ll open the floor for questions and discussion.

I thank you my God, for the firm resolutions, affections, and inspirations which you have communicated to me in this time of prayer.  I ask your help to put them into effect.  My Immaculate Mother, St. Joseph, my father and lord, my Guardian Angel, intercede for me.