This saying still “fits” St. Francis and his spirituality quite nicely. Called the most “Christ-like” man to have ever lived, it was what St. Francis did and not what St. Francis said that makes him so memorable. And that’s the whole point of the invented quote, isn’t it?
Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of the ministry of presence in my blog – “First, you have to show up…” As David Wells put it, “It is Christian service – in all its many varieties – that provides the context that lends a human authenticity to the word of the Gospel.” Joseph Aldrich called this “the music of the Gospel.” Just as songs have both lyrics and a melody, so the Gospel has both content and a context. And just as the melody makes the lyrics “sing,” so the visualization of the Gospel in the ministry of presence makes the verbalization of the Gospel in the ministry of proclamation “authentic.”
The ministry of presence (the “melody” of the Gospel) sets the context for the content of the ministry of proclamation (the “lyrics” of the Gospel). The familiar talk about the “cool cup of water that is given in Jesus’ name” (Matthew 10:42; 25:31-46) is about the visualization of the Gospel (“the cool cup of water”) that is supposed to correspond to the verbalization of the Gospel (“in Jesus’ name”). The problem is that we have been led to believe that once we are done with the visualization of the Gospel that our assignment has been completed. No verbalization is necessary.
The way the faux St. Francis quote gets popularly used, the ministry of presence is offered as a substitute for the ministry of proclamation. Just give people cool cups of water and you never even have to mention Jesus’ name at all. But this is something that St. Francis himself would never have agreed to. He was a preacher and the founder of an Order of preachers after all! He was not silent. Never. Not once. Why, tradition tells us that St. Francis even preached a sermon to the birds for heaven’s sake, so don’t try to reduce him to some kind of Gospel mime. He talked out loud about Jesus Christ to everyone he could every chance he got. And it was the way he lived his life in Gospel simplicity that gave powerful credibility to his Gospel proclamation. It was not a matter of good deeds as a replacement for a good word; it was a matter of good words and good deeds together.
Alan Kreider, the Mennonite professor of Church History and Mission, explained how all of this works quite well –
If we are living hopefully and interestingly, then we can talk. Verbal articulacy will then point to God and will be our testimony to God’s saving grace and life-transforming vision that God has shared with us in Jesus Christ. Why is this verbal explanation necessary? Because it’s simply a fact that an unexplained action allows people to draw all kinds of explanation. And if they are impressed with our unexplained action, they will basically glorify us! A friend of mine recently spent time serving at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. As he reflected later on his experience there, he noted, “It struck me that without a knowledge of Bengali, I could only point to myself.” Words without action are hollow, but actions without words are also limited. They are either incomprehensible or they only glorify ourselves.
But this is just part of the problem with a ministry of presence when there is no corresponding ministry of proclamation. To be sure, our attempts at Gospel incarnation require the benefit of Gospel explanation in order to be correctly understood. But they also need the benefit of Gospel explanation because no attempt at Gospel incarnation is ever going to be as complete or as consistent as it needs to be to be truly credible. If it is my embodiment of the Gospel that is going to be the deciding factor in your relationship with Christ, then we are both in trouble. You see, I just don’t know any perfect Christians, and I don’t know any perfect churches. We all fail, all the time. And when we do, we need to admit it without hesitation or obscuration. As Os Guinness writes –
Christians are realistic about human fallibility. We all often go wrong – Christians and Christian leaders included. So human evil is always a possibility and never a surprise. We expect it, we watch out for it, and whenever we can, we guard against it… [And when it happens] the Christian faith calls for an open and voluntary confession of our wrongs, whenever we are wrong. This is challenging, and it may be embarrassing for anyone who has to do it, but it is in fact an act of moral courage. For in confession we are called to do what no human does naturally or easily: to go on record against ourselves.
These are the dynamics of I John 1:5- 2:2. John’s argument runs like this –
1. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (5:5).
2. If we say that we are in fellowship with this God of light but walk in darkness, then we are deceived (5:6).
3. The way that we get into His light is through the saving work of Jesus Christ (5:7).
4. The way that we personally access the benefit of Christ’s saving work is through the confession of our sins (5:9).
5. So, don’t sin – don’t walk in darkness (2:1).
6. But when you do sin, turn to Christ and receive the forgiveness that He makes available to all (2:2).
The punch line to the story of the woman taken in adultery needs to be engraved over each one of our hearts as Christians, and over all of our Facebook postings online — “Whoever is without sin among you, let that person be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). This applies whether we are talking about Bill Clinton 18 years ago or Josh Duggar just last week. There’s just way too much selective stoning that goes on in the Christian community. When a public Christian with progressive leanings fails morally and spiritually, traditional Christians are just way too eager to start casting stones. And when a public Christian with traditional leanings fails morally and spiritually, progressive Christians are just way too eager to start casting stones. But where is the Gospel – visualized or verbalized – in any of this?
What our ministry of presence must bear witness to is not some kind of imagined moral or spiritual superiority, or a sense of our own socio-political correctness on the issues of the day. Whenever I hear people trying to “sell” their church on the basis of the fact that it is composed of such “good” people, or such “nice” people, or such “enlightened” people, or such socially “progressive” people, or such spiritually “mature” people, or such doctrinally “correct” people, I always tell them that such a sales pitch only works until their people aren’t “good,” or “nice,” or “enlightened,” or socially “progressive,” or spiritually “mature,” or doctrinally “correct.” And that moment comes; it always comes. And when it does, when a church fails to keep faith with its own values and message, in the disappointment of that moment, it has a chance to make the great discovery. All they’ve ever had to offer anybody anyway is God’s grace made known in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is all that any church finally has to offer.
In a blog I read recently about “Ten Ways to Grow Your Church” (http://www.mbird.com) the author said –
“Only ever preach one sermon, which is the forgiveness of sins, the absolution of every human “as is,’ through the suffering and passion of the Christ.”
“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:27-28)
There’s not a Sunday that we don’t say this in church, and there’s not a Sunday that I don’t need this in my life. The only Gospel I believe that I am Biblically authorized and personally competent to verbalize is the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins offered in Jesus’ name, and the only way I know how to make this Gospel visible is to live in forgiveness, and by forgiveness. When God’s grace is made visible in the ministry of presence, then the verbalization of God’s grace in the ministry of proclamation has an authenticity that will garner a hearing. DBS+