Preach the Gospel and When Necessary Use Words

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I starred at the blank pages of paper in my Moleskin notebook for the better part of a day this week. I sat down to write praying, “Come on G-d, give me something good.” When nothing came, I got up and found something else that needed to be done. Later, I would sit back down at my desk, open my notebook, grab my favorite pen, and ask G-d again to give me something to say to you this morning. 

One of the reasons I think I starred at blank pages of paper for so long this week is because I loved the saying, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” As someone who until a year ago next week preached once a year, it was a way for me to deal with the lack of space in the pulpit for me. The saying, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” also lent itself to my passion for missions. Why use words when I could just use my hands and feet. After all, rebuilding a home or digging an irrigation trench in the Highlands of Guatemala seems easier than reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics or sitting through Systematic Theology with Kendall Soulen.

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During Advent of 2012 Allison and I, along with a mission team from the church where I served as youth director, headed to the Highlands of Guatemala. There we literally did not use words to preach the Gospel because it would have needed to be translated twice in order for the Mayans we were serving to understand what we were saying. If you think a sermon is bad the first time through, imagine having the listen to it over and over again. While in the Highlands we worked as day-laborers while the money our church raised was used to employ local masons and plumbers. After the workday had ended we would head back to our host homes and share a meal together. Later in the evening, we would do a Bible study together and the share communion with one another. Anyone who has been on a mission trip can tell you that when you preach the Gospel and do not use words there is an unbelievable spiritual high you experience. In the Highlands of Guatemala in December 2012 that mission trip high was even stronger because every night we shared communion with one another, I heard the Lord’s Prayer in at least three different languages at the same time. It was as though we had our own Pentecost experience on a cold hillside in one of those places teachers tell our kids no longer exists.

But over the past few years (really since November 2016), especially in the last 51 weeks, I am convinced that we, all of us, need to rethink this Christian cliché. Not because mission work is bad or that we should not do it. But because on the surface it sounds great, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” but once we dig deeper into the popular saying, it becomes problematic.

At it’s most basic level, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” means we as Christians talk too much about the Gospel instead of living it out. But from my lack of conversations with some of you about the Gospel and the kryptonite-like powers my Bible seems to have with I place it on the table at Starbucks, I do not think this is the problem.  

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most influential book of the Christian Bible for the ways that Paul's’ words have influenced Christian doctrine and theology over the past 2000 years. Throughout his letter to the Romans Paul is engaging the Hebrew scriptures making the case that the resurrected and ascended Jesus is in fact the Messiah, the One sent by G-d, and that now Jews and Gentiles are both invited into the new life made possible by the grace of G-d. This was an easier sell to the Gentiles, who had been previously outside the Abrahamic covenant, which is why Paul opens this chapter of Romans by making his case to the Jews in Rome with a reference to Leviticus 18, explaining that keeping G-d’s “statutes and ordinances” was once the starting point for righteousness but now righteousness is found in faith in Jesus Christ. 

Faith in Jesus Christ, open to all peoples, opens salvation to all people.

So then, if faith is the starting point of righteousness and thus salvation, how do people come to faith? What is the mechanism that moves us toward a faithful life? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Prior to his conversion encounter with Jesus, Paul had a very strong sense of vocation. He was convinced that he was to root out the new Jesus movement from the synagogues, as Christianity was not yet separate from Judaism. Paul was one of the earliest persecutors of the first-century Jesus movement. He was good at what he did, and was entirely convinced that G-d had called him to that task. So after his conversion encounter with Jesus, the new vocation given to Paul was taken on with the same intensity. 

This vocation is best seen in this section of his letter to the Romans: the proclamation of salvation for all through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a vocation that people like me, pastors, are called to but also everyone that claims the Christian faith. From the novice convert to the those who have never missed a daily devotional or weekly worship, all are called to proclaim that through his death and resurrection Jesus opened salvation up to all peoples and that this is evident in his ministry to people who had been marginalized by the religious leaders of His time.

The saying, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was a Catholic Friar who formed an order to live simply, and follow the teachings of Jesus and walk in Jesus’ footsteps. The order still exists today within the Catholic Church and they are known as the Franciscans. (they also wear really cool gray robes that make our albs look pretty lame). It is easy to see how the saying, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” could be attributed to Francis but none of his earliest biographers ever quoted Francis as saying it. 

Beyond Francis never saying, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” the statement itself is contradicting. To preach something, according to Merriam Webster, means to deliver something publicly, “advocate earnestly,” and “to set forth in a sermon.” So by definition, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” is a hard sell.

“Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” highlights a theological debate that has been occurring amongst Christians for centuries: faith versus works. While on one hand, we have Paul telling us we are justified by our faith in Jesus Christ, we find in The Letter of James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” This debate has led to Christians comparing and counting the works they do, judging their faithfulness and the faithfulness of others to a checklist of things they think should be done by others. The problem is that “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” along with “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” are concerned with social holiness and social holiness while being a byproduct of faith in Jesus Christ is on its own not the Gospel. 

The Gospel is not a habit or practice. It is not a list of mission trips must-dos or daily prayer journal habits, but instead, the Gospel is a history. Proclamation of the Gospel is the declaration that something happened on a tree on a hill over 2000 years ago and that three days after that something happened something even greater happened.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is just that the Gospel of Jesus. It is not something we can do because Jesus has already done it.

As we heard in our reading from The Book of Isaiah G-d’s word provides life, accomplishing that which G-d wants it to. That is exactly what happened on the cross and in the empty tomb but it is also what happens every time you proclaim that the love poured out on the cross and the power on display in the empty tomb is for all people, without exception.

Any starting point other than the Gospel in Christian proclamation leads us to proof-texting, making the holy scriptures fit into the agenda we are trying to push, which in turn makes the proclamation more about us and less about Jesus. Everyday people get in front of cameras and declare that the Bible says this and because of this now that is justified. 

To be clear, Romans 13 is not the starting point for Christian proclamation and because some feel the need to misuse that text the rest of us are left with little choice to but to preach that the saving grace of G-d is made available to all people because if we do not, those who have not yet heard the Good News of the Gospel will think that Christianity is something it is not. Proof-texting has been and is being used to marginalize, enslave, and imprison people in ways that are entirely contradictory to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When this happens, we have little choice but to respond by proclaiming that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ transformed the way we look at the world and thus as Christians the way we engage the world.

The saving work that we proclaim has been done by Jesus. Words and actions do matter, both are necessary but the former leads to the latter. While faith without works might be dead, works without the Gospel proclamation only point others to the self-righteousness we want to put on display. Proclamation is not about us. It does not start with us and it does not end with us. So when we are stuck staring at a blank page in a notebook or feel as though we do not know what to say, the Good News is that the “work” has been done by Jesus, now we get to share it with the world.

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