Jesus wants a personal encounter with us
Editor’s note: In this week’s interview, Archbishop George J. Lucas speaks with David Hazen, communication manager for the Archdiocese of Omaha, about encountering Jesus and how to invite others to have that encounter.
Q: ‘Encounter’ has become kind of a buzzword in some church circles in recent years. Pope Francis often speaks about creating a culture of encounter, Pope Benedict XVI likewise said that an encounter with a person is what makes us Christian, and our own archdiocesan vision statement emphasizes "encountering Jesus." Could you flesh out what this concretely means for us?
When we talk about encountering Jesus, we acknowledge that Jesus is a person and that he desires to have a personal relationship with us. The recent popes have emphasized it, and Pope Francis talks about this very often – which isn’t surprising because he is clearly someone who likes to encounter people. He notices people; he fixes his gaze on them. One has the impression that throughout his ministry he’s had a very personal involvement with the people to whom he has been sent to minister.
That’s our understanding of the mission of Jesus. Our heavenly Father has sent us a Savior. He sent us his Son. He didn’t send us a book of rules, and he didn’t send us a rock, or a tree, or something like that, but a person who is human and divine. Jesus wants to have a personal encounter with us for our salvation. At the heart of this mystery is what we call the Incarnation: the Son of God became man and wants to meet us, and he wants to give us the opportunity to meet him.
We believe that Jesus is alive, so through the power of the Holy Spirit we have the opportunity to meet him in person in our time and place. We’re not only remembering him, we’re not only reading about him, we’re not only trying to imitate him. We want to do all those things, of course, but the real gift is to be able to encounter him – that is, to meet him in his integrity.
Q: How do those of us who are aware of having met Jesus begin to invite others to have the same encounter?
I think it’s hard to imagine that we can invite someone else to encounter Jesus if we’re not willing to first encounter them. There should be an understanding and some level of trust, whether it’s with somebody I know well or a more casual acquaintance. If I’m willing to spend time with someone, and I’m interested in their life and their struggles, then when prompted by the Holy Spirit, I can say, "If you’re open to it, I could tell you what a difference Jesus has made in my life." I may not say it in so many words, but I will share how my life has been transformed by the opportunity to know Jesus and to have life in him.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that on the first day the apostles started talking about Jesus in public, 3,000 people stepped forward and wanted to have life in Jesus and be baptized. So we shouldn’t doubt the power of the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t doubt the power of a personal witness. If I’m willing to encounter someone else respectfully as Jesus respects me, without imposing anything, but just to talk about what the encounter with Jesus has meant for me, then people can take it or leave it. But some will take it.
From the beginning his plan has been that his disciples who have already encountered him – whose lives have been transformed by that encounter – will be willing to offer that same thing to others.
Q:Sometimes we are tempted to think that we lack the special training or education to effectively invite others into a relationship with Christ. But in a sense you’re saying that the only "resource" we really have to draw on is our own experience of Jesus, correct?
That is how it starts, I think. That’s the spark.
I think it’s tempting, but wrong, for parents, or teachers, or archbishops, or anybody to first think, "I’m going to teach people what’s right for them." I’ve spent a great deal of my life teaching, so I’m happy to teach when there’s the opportunity to do so, but the encounter with Jesus begins not with my setting somebody else straight, or telling them what they should do. It begins with talking about what Jesus has done for me and inviting others in a gentle way as only I can with my personality, or as you can with yours, to see that this may be something that is possible for them as well.
The public ministry of Jesus is very instructive. He met people first. The message of the Gospel is very challenging, and to put faith in the Son of God crucified and risen is very challenging, so there are plenty of challenges to come as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. But we’re finding in today’s culture that most people are not looking for somebody to come along and set them straight, or to just tell them what they ought to be doing.
And I don’t think that’s what Jesus is asking of us in this moment of encounter. Rather, it’s to be a bit vulnerable and to witness to what we have seen and heard in our own experience. Then, certainly, if someone has questions or wants to know more, there’s a lot we can say. We have great traditions and great expressions of our faith in art, and music, and the teachings of the church. These are all very beautiful, but they flow from the living presence of Jesus in the world. All of them are gifts of the Lord, which we can finally begin to accept once we believe that he is the Son of God and that he wants life for us.
I would encourage us all to take time in our prayer to ask the Lord to reveal himself to us, and then to listen as he offers us a special grace that we need at this particular moment. He is our Savior, and he wants us to be whole, to be healed and to flourish. In our prayer we can reflect on what he may be asking of us. He wants to engage us in his saving mission in a way that will be fulfilling for us and bring us joy and peace. It will also be challenging, but it will help us realize who we are and why we have been created so lovingly in the image of God.