Mission is to Go and Tell by Henri Nouwen

Mission is to Go and Tell by Henri Nouwen

The Road to Emmaus 

Now behold, two of them were travelling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him. And He said to them, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” 
     Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.” 
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. 
      Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” And He went in to stay with them. 
      Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” 
      So they rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread. (Luke 24:13-35 NKJV)

     The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “With Burning Heart” published in 1994.

Go and Tell (79-92)

     The two travelers who started their journey with downcast faces now look at each other with eyes full of new light. The stranger, who had become friend, has given them His spirit, the divine spirit of joy, peace, courage, hope, and love. There is no doubt in their minds: He is alive! Not alive as before, not as the fascinating preacher and healer from Nazareth, but alive as a new breath within them. Cleopas and his friend have become new people. A new heart and a new spirit have been given to them. They have also become new friends for each other—no longer people who can offer each other consolation and support as they mourn their losses, but people with a new mission who, together, have something to say, something important, something urgent, something that cannot remain hidden, something that must be proclaimed. Happily they have each other. Nobody would believe just one of them. But when they speak together they will get a fair hearing.

     The others need to know because they too had placed all their hope in Him. There are the eleven who are with Him the evening before His death; there are the disciples, women and men, who had been with Him for years. They need to know what has happened to them. They need to know that it is not all over. They need to know that He is alive and that they recognized Him when He handed the bread to them. There is no time to waste. “Let’s hurry,” they say to each other. Quickly they put on their sandals, grab their coats and walking staffs, and are on their way back to their friends, back to those who still might not know that the women who had heard from the angels that He is alive are right. The story summaries it all in a very few words: “They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem.”

     What a difference between their “going home” and their return. It is the difference between doubt and faith, despair and hope, fear and love. It is the difference between two dispirited human beings dragging themselves along the road and two friends walking fast, running even at times, all excited about the news they have for their friends.

     Returning to the city is not without danger. After the execution of Jesus, His disciples are afraid. They wonder what their fate will be. But having recognized their Lord, their fear is gone, and they are free to become witnesses of the resurrection—the costs notwithstanding. They realize that the same people who hated Jesus may hate them, that the same people who killed Jesus may kill them. Their return may indeed cost them their lives. They may be asked to witness, not only with words, but with their own blood. But they no longer fear martyrdom. The risen Lord, present in their innermost being, has filled with a love stronger than death. Nothing can hold them back from returning home even when home no longer means a “safe” place.

     The Eucharist concludes with a mission. “Go, now and tell!” The Latin words “Ite Missa est,” with which the priest used to conclude the Mass, literally mean: “Go, this is your mission.”

     Communion is not the end. Mission is. Communion, that sacred intimacy with God, is not the final moment of the Eucharistic life. We recognized Him, but that recognition is not just for us to savor or to keep as a secret. As Mary of Magdala, so too the two friends had heard deep in themselves the words “Go and tell.” That’s the conclusion of the Eucharist celebration; that too is the final call of the Eucharistic life. “Go and tell. What you have heard and seen is not just for yourself. It is for the brothers and sisters and for all who are ready to receive it. Go, don’t linger, don’t wait, don’t hesitate, but move now and return to the places from which you came, and let those whom you left behind in their hiding places know that there is nothing to be afraid of, that He is risen, risen indeed.”

     It is important to realize that the mission is, first of all, a mission to those who are no strangers to us. They know us and, like us, have heard about Jesus but have become discouraged. The mission is always first of all to our own, our family, our friends, those who are an intimate part of our lives. That is not a very comfortable realization. I always find it harder to speak about Jesus to those who know me intimately than to those who have never had to deal with my “peculiar ways of being.” Still there lies a great challenge here. Somehow the authenticity of our experience is tested by our parents, our spouses, our children, our brothers and sisters, all those who know us all too well.

     Many times we will hear: “Well, that’s him again. Well, that’s her again. We know what this is all about. We have seen all this excitement before. It will pass. . .as before.” Often there is a lot of truth to this. Why should they trust us when we come running home all excited? Why should they take us seriously? We are not that trustworthy; we are not that difference from the rest of our family and friends. Moreover, the world is full of stories, full of rumors, full of preachers and evangelists. There is good reason for some skepticism. Those who don’t go with us to the Eucharist are no better or worse than we are. They have heard the story of Jesus. Some were baptized; some even went to church for a while or for a long time. But then, gradually, the story of Jesus became just a story. Church became obligation, the Eucharist a ritual. Somewhere it all became a sweet or bitter memory. Somewhere something died in them. And why should anyone who knows us well suddenly believe us when we return form the Eucharist?

     That is the reason why it is not just the Eucharist, but the Eucharistic life that makes the difference. Each day, yes, each moment of the day, there is the pain of our losses and the opportunity to listen to a word that asks us to choose to live these losses as a way to glory. Each day, too, there is the possibility to invite the stranger into our home and to let Him break the bread for us. The Eucharistic celebration has summarized for us what our life of faith is all about, and we have to go home to live it as long and as fully as we can. And this is very difficult, because everyone at home knows us so well: our impatience, our jealousies, our resentments, and our many little games. And then there are our broken relationships, our unfulfilled promises, and our unkept commitments. Can we really say that we have met Him on the road, have received His body and blood and become living Christ? Everyone at home is ready to test us.

     But there is something else. There is a great surprise awaiting the two excited companions who came running to the room where their friends were gathered. . .eager to tell the news. These friends knew it already! The good news they had to bring was not new after all. Before they even had a chance to tell their story, the eleven and their companions said, “The Lord has indeed risen and has appeared to Simon.” It is quite humorous. Here they come running in, out of breath, all excited, only to discover that those who stayed in the city already had heard the news, even though they had not met Him on the road or sat at the table with Him. Jesus had appeared to Simon, and Simon was a lot more credible than these two disciples who hadn’t stayed with them but had gone home thinking that it was all over. Sure, they were glad and eager to hear their story, but they brought just another affirmation that, He was alive.

     There are many ways in which Jesus appears and many ways in which He lets us know that He is alive. What we celebrate in the Eucharist happens to many ways other than we might think. Jesus, who gave us bread already, touched the hearts of others long before He met us on the road. He called someone by her name, and she knew that it was Him; He showed His wounds to some, and they knew that it was Him. We have our stories to tell, and it is important that we tell them, but they are not the only stories. We have a mission to fulfill and it is good that we are excited about it, but first we have to listen to what others have to say. Then our stories can be told and bring joy.

     All of this points to community. The two friends, who were able to speak to each other about their burning hearts, were beginning to enter into a new relationship with one another, a relationship built on the communion they had both experienced. Their communion with Jesus was, indeed, the beginning of community. But only the beginning. They needed to meet the others who also believed that He is risen, who also saw Him or heard that He is alive. They needed to listen to their stories, each one different from the others, and to discover the many ways in which Jesus and His spirit work among His people.

     It is so easy to narrow Jesus down to our Jesus, to our experience of His love, to our way of knowing Him. But Jesus left us so as to send His Spirit, and His Spirit blows where it wants. The community of faith is the place where many stories about the way of Jesus are being told. These stories can be very different from each other. They might even seem to conflict. But as we keep listening attentively to the Spirit manifesting itself through many people, in words as well as in silence, through confrontation as well as invitation, in gentleness as well as firmness, with tears as well as smiles—then we can gradually discern that we belong together, as one body knitted together by the Spirit of Jesus.

     In the Eucharist we are asked to leave the table and go to our friends to discover with them that Jesus is truly alive and calls us together to become a new people—a people of the resurrection.

     Here the story of Cleopas and his friend ends. It ends with the two friends telling their story to the eleven and their companions. But the mission does not end here; it has scarcely begun. The telling of the story of what happened on the road and around the tale is the beginning of a life of mission, lived all the days of our lives until we see Him again face to face.

     Forming a community with family and friends, building a body of love, shaping a new people of the resurrection: all of this is not just so that we can live a life protected from the dark forces that dominate our world; it is, rather, to enable us to proclaim together to all people, young and old, white and black, poor and rich, that death does not have the last word, that hope is real and God is alive.

     The Eucharist is always mission. The Eucharist that has freed us from our paralyzing sense of loss and revealed to us that the Spirit of Jesus lives within us empowers us to go out into the world and to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, liberty to the captives, and to proclaim that God has shown again His favor to all people. But we are not sent out alone; we are sent with our brothers and sisters who also know that Jesus lives within them.

     The movement flowing from the Eucharist is the movement from communion to community to ministry. Our experience of communion first sends us to our brothers and sisters to share with them our stories and build with them a body of love. Then, as community, we can move in all directions and reach out to all people.

     I am deeply aware of my own tendency to want to go from communion to ministry without forming community. My individualism and desire for personal success ever and again tempt me to do it alone and to claim the task of ministry for myself. But Jesus Himself didn’t preach and heal alone. Luke, the Evangelist, tells us how He spent the night in communion with God, the morning to form community with twelve apostles, and the afternoon to go out with them ministering to the crowdsJesus calls us to the same sequence: from communion to community to ministry. He does not want us to go out alone. He sends us out together, two by two, never by ourselves. And so we can witness as people who belong to a body of faith. We are sent out to teach, to heal, to inspire, and to offer hope to the world—not as the exercise of our unique skill, but as the expression of our faith that all we have to give comes from Him who brought us together.

     Life lived Eucharistically is always a life of mission. We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women, and children in fear. Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people; earthquakes, floods, and traffic disasters. . .it’s the story of everyday life filling the newspapers and television screens. It is a world of endless losses, and many, if not most, of our fellow human beings walk with faces downcast on the surface of this planet. They say in some way or other: “Our hope had been. . .but we lost hope.”

     This is the world we are sent to live in Eucharistically, that is, to live with burning hearts and with open ears and open eyes. It seems and impossible task. What can this small group of people who met Him on the road, in the garden, or at the lakeside do in such a dark and violent world? The mystery of God’s love is that our burning hearts and our receptive ears and eyes will be able to discover that the One we met in the intimacy of our homes continues to reveal Himself to us among the poor, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners, the refugees, and all people who live in fear.

     Here we come to realize that mission is not only to go and tell others about the risen Lord, but also to receive that witness from those to whom we are sent. Often mission is thought of exclusively in terms of giving, but true mission is also receiving. If it is true that the Spirit of Jesus blows where it wants, there is no person who cannot give that Spirit. In the long run, mission is possible only when it is as much receiving as giving, as much being cared for as caring. We are sent to the sick, the dying, the handicapped, the prisoners, and the refugees to bring them the good news of the Lord’s resurrection. But we will soon be burned out if we cannot receive the Spirit of the Lord from those to whom we are sent.

     That Spirit, the Spirit of love, is hidden in their poverty, brokenness, and grief. That is why Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor, the persecuted, and those that mourn.” Each time we reach out to them they in turn—whether they are aware of it or not—will bless us with the Spirit of Jesus and so become our ministers. Without this mutuality of giving and receiving, mission and ministry easily become manipulative or violent. When only one gives and the other receives, the giver will soon become an oppressor and the receivers, victims. But when the giver receives and the receiver gives, the circle of love, begun in the community of the disciples, can grow as wide as the world.

     It belongs to the essence of the Eucharistic life to make this circle of love grow. Having entered into communion with Jesus and created community with those who know that He is alive, we now can go and join the many lonely travelers and help them discover that they too have the gifts of love to share. We are no longer afraid of their sadness and pain, but can ask them simply: “What are you talking about as you walk along the road?” And we will hear stories of immense loneliness, fear, rejection, abandonment, and sadness. We must listen, often for a long time, but there are also opportunities to say with words or simple gestures: “Didn’t you know that what you are complaining about can also be lived as a way to something new? Maybe it is impossible to change what has happened to you, but you are still free to choose how to live it.”

     Not everyone will listen to us and only a few will invite us into their lives to join them at their table. Only seldom will it be possible to offer life-giving bread and truly heal a heart that has been broken. Jesus Himself didn’t heal everyone, nor change everyone’s life. Most people simply don’t believe that radical changes are possible and can’t give their trust when they meet the strangers. But every time there is a real encounter leading from despair to hope and from bitterness to gratitude, we will see some of the darkness being dispelled and life once again, breaking through the boundaries of death.

     This has been, and continues to be, the experience of those who live a Eucharistic life. They see it as their mission to persistently challenge their fellow travelers to choose for gratitude instead of resentment and for hope instead of despair. And the few times that this challenge is accepted are enough to make their lives worth living. To see a smile breaking through tears is to witness a miracle—the miracle of joy.

     Statistically, none of this is very interesting. Those who ask: “How many people did you reach? How many changes did you bring about? How many illnesses did you cure? How much joy did you create?“ will always receive disappointing answers. Jesus and His followers did not have great success. The world is still a dark world, full of violence, corruption, oppression, and exploitation. It will likely always be! The question is not: “How soon and how many?” but “Where and when?” Where is the Eucharist being celebrated, where are the people who come together around the table and break bread together, and when does it happen? The world lies in the power of the evil one. The world does not recognize the light that shines in the darkness. It never did; it never will. But there are people who, in the midst of this world, live with the knowledge that He is alive and dwells within us, that He has overcome the power of death and opens the way to glory. Are there people who come together, who come around the table and do what He did, in memory of Him? Are there people who keep telling each other the stories of hope and, together, go out to care for their fellow human beings, not pretending to solve all problems, but to bring a smile to a dying man and a little hope to a lonely child?

     It is so little, so unspectacular, yes, so hidden, this Eucharistic life, but it is like yeast, like a mustard seed, like a smile on a baby’s face. It is what keep faith, hope and love alive in a world that is constantly on the brink of self-destruction.

     The Eucharist, sometimes, is celebrated with great ceremony, in splendid cathedrals and basilicas. But more often it is a “small” event that few people know about. It happens in a living room, a prison cell, an attic—out of sight of the big movements of the world. It happens in secret, without vestments, candles, or incense. It happens with gestures so simple that outsiders don’t even know that it takes place. But big or small, festive or hidden, it is the same event, revealing that life is stronger than death and love stronger than fear.

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