Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.
Posted on: Oct 7, 2019
Many church-going folks have heard these words, which are commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. (Sources with very different points of view agree that St. Francis did not utter the words, but no one seems to have identified their actual origin!) The gist is that Christians must always express their faith in how they live, as well as talk about it when needed.
The maxim has led to two distortions, however. The first is that if we’re living the “right” way, then words aren’t necessary. After all, isn’t that what the saying implies?
Unfortunately, the “right” way is commonly an unexamined way of living. We absorb community values and prejudices as we grow up. Remaining in that community, these often become the world view we live by. If we move to other places or acquire certain perspectives because of a career we pursue, we will absorb how life happens in those other places. Going along to get along becomes the primary way of looking at life. Seldom does this way of living involve “preaching the gospel.”
Another distortion is that preaching the gospel is mostly a matter of verbalizing our faith. Romans 10:14 accompanies this view: So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? Advocates of this view are very good at citing the Bible verses to support how they view the world. There is great value in being able to quote scriptures. There is also the danger that quoting the Bible becomes an exercise in supporting all kinds of statements that one is supposed to believe–such statements being the total content of one’s faith.
At the risk of oversimplifying, each perspective can easily exclude the other, making both approaches inadequate to communicating the good news of a God of love and care and compassion.
St. Francis was deeply committed to both the proclamation and embodiment of the Gospel. Canadian writer and pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci writes, “St. Francis never sought to elevate action over speaking in the task of bringing the Gospel, but neither did he believe that the Gospel was only a message to be communicated…. He embraced the truth that the authority of the Gospel [Jesus] proclaimed with his mouth was given authority by the nature and character of the life he led. And in the same way, he knew that, in spite of his own failings (and that of other Christians), the proclaimed message of hope and love would find fertile soil in the hearts of others….”
Many “Nones” who decline any interest or involvement in organized religion cite the hypocrisy of Christians as reason for their cynicism toward religion. They are not wrong. Christians continue to seek power and privilege–just like the rest of the world–from our local communities to the highest echelons of society. We live with a self-centeredness that gives little consideration to the common good. Our language of faith is not credible when our walk and our talk aren’t in sync.
Arpin-Ricci challenges us to “… rediscover the radical life of peace, grace and love that was characterized by Christ and seek to live it. Perhaps then, in the light of a community of believers known for humility and love (rather than self-righteousness and bigotry), the words we proclaim will carry the credibility and authority worthy of the Christ we follow.”