There’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Jesus gets surrounded by a sea of needy people, all of them stretching out their hands trying to grab hold of a piece of the wholeness that He had offered to other people in His ministry of healing. They wanted their share, and in this scene in the movie Jesus gets engulfed by this crowd with their needs and He disappears into them as if sinking into quicksand.
I think of Mark 3:7-10 whenever I see of this scene –
Hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Jesus told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.
The physical needs of people were so great and so many in the days of His public ministry that Jesus could very easily spent every waking moment He had healing them, feeding them, and delivering them. And so Luke tells us that early in His ministry Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to think and pray, and when the crowd found Him and wanted more, He told them – “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43).
Word and action were inextricably intertwined in the ministry of Jesus. The verbalization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose – His “Kingdom” – and the visualization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose were equal parts of His ministry.
Jesus preached and Jesus healed the sick.
Jesus preached and Jesus cast out demons.
Jesus preached and Jesus raised the dead.
Jesus preached and Jesus fed the hungry.
Jesus preached and Jesus calmed the storm.
This is why Luke began his second book, the book of Acts, with a description of the content of his first book, the Gospel of Luke. “In the first book,” Luke explained, “I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). “Do” and “teach.” Jesus did things and Jesus talked about things. Word and action — that was the pattern of Christ’s ministry.
If I’m reading Luke 4:40-44 correctly, then it was figuring out how to balance the things that Jesus was sent to say with the things that Jesus needed to do to give those words credibility that proved to be so tricky for Him because there were always more people who needed Jesus to do things for them — to heal them, and to feed them, to deliver them —than there were people who were eager to sit and listen to Him preach. It would have been easy for Jesus to have neglected His mandate to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom because He was so busy meeting people’s physical needs. This is a theme that recurs throughout the Gospels.
The Adversary tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread in the Wilderness. Some interpreters hear in this taunt the suggestion that Jesus should substitute His spiritual mission for a purely material one alone “You don’t have to go to the cross as the Messiah to do the saving work of God, just meet people’s physical needs, that will get you a following” seems to be the subtext of the Devil’s suggestion. And then later, in the Gospel of John, after feeding the 5000, we’re told that the crowd was actually ready to take Jesus by force and make Him King (6:15), and why not? He could keep their bellies perpetually full. But Jesus turned and walked away from this offer, and when the crowd finally caught up with Him again, He told them directly –
“You came looking for Me because you ate the bread and got all you wanted, not because you were looking for the Christ. Don’t seek the food that spoils; instead, seek the food that lasts for eternal life. This is the food that the Son of Man can give you…” (6:26-27 – paraphrased)
Then Jesus preached one of His most important sermons in the Gospel of John — the Bread of Life discourse.
What I see going on in the story that Luke tells in 4:40-44 is this same struggle to hold the Gospel’s words and the Gospel’s works together in proper balance. This isn’t easy to do. In fact, it’s a horse that we can fall off from either side. And so there are word churches. There are works churches. But there are very few word and work churches. Word churches are good at telling people about Jesus. Works churches are good at showing Jesus by the compassionate things that they do. But what God wants, what God needs, what God always intended, was for every church to hold their Gospel words and their Gospel works together in proper balance.
The church I serve is a Gospel works church, in fact, we do the works of the Gospel just about as well as any church I’ve ever known. If there’s someone who needs to be fed, or clothed, or sheltered, or taken care of in a time of distress, deprivation, or desperation, we’ll be there because we understand that this is what Jesus Christ expects of us as His people. But ask us to tell somebody about Jesus, and we’re like deer caught in the headlights.
We just love that saying that gets popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.” We love this saying because we’re Gospel works Christians, and we think that it excuses us from ever having to talk about our faith. There are several problems with this. First of all, St. Francis never said it. The Franciscans have thoroughly checked. They’ve searched their sources, and not found it anywhere. And the truth of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that St. Francis would have ever said this. He was a preacher, and the order that he founded – the Franciscans – are an order of preachers. They’re all about the preaching of the Gospel. They’re word Christians. And finally, we probably shouldn’t say it because it’s ultimately illogical. Saying – “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words” – is sort of like saying – “Call me on the phone, if necessary use numbers,” or – “Fix me dinner, if necessary use ingredients.” The fact of the matter is that the Gospel has some specific and essential content. It’s about Jesus — it’s about who He was and what He did – and that means that it can’t be preached without using words. The Gospel is inherently verbal. The cool cup of water that we give has got to be explained at some point if it is in fact being offered in Jesus’ name.
Alan Kreider, the late Mennonite theologian, had a good friend who spent some time serving at one of Saint Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. As he reflected later on his experience there, he said – “Since I don’t speak Bengali, I couldn’t talk to them in their own language, and that meant that they were left to draw their own conclusions about why I was there.” And that troubled Alan’s friend because he knew that he was there serving. He wasn’t there because he was such a good and generous person in and of himself, but rather because he had such a good and generous Savior, a Lord who wanted him to be there. His actions were all because of Jesus, but the people he served never knew that because he never mentioned Jesus.
Churches and Christians that do the works of the Gospel need to speak the words of the Gospel with equal intentionality. And churches and Christians that speak the words of the Gospel need to do the works of the Gospel with that same focus.
Steve Sjogren, was pastoring a church in Cincinnati back in the early 1990’s when he realized that his verbalization of the Gospel was in desperate need of some Gospel visualization if it was ever going to get an honest hearing. Steve says that he had become a pretty obnoxious “word” Christian. People actually turned and walked the other way when they saw him coming because they didn’t want to be badgered by him about Jesus again. He was that guy who went into public bathrooms and unrolled the toilet paper in each stall just so that he could roll it back up again with a witness tract strategically stuck in-between the sheets every five squares or so. Not many people were coming to Christ through his efforts. So Steve dramatically changed directions.
Steve resolved to start doing the works of God’s love for people with the heart of a servant before trying to share a single word about God’s love with them. He concluded that if people could first see a demonstration of God’s love in Jesus Christ that they would then be more receptive to hearing the message of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. And it was a woman that Steve humbly served one day at the point of a need she had that actually confirmed that this was the right approach for him to take. She began to weep as Steve served her at the point of her felt need, and when she asked why he was doing it, he simply said – “Because of the love of Jesus Christ.” “I’m 50 years old,” she told them, “and all my all I’ve ever heard Christians do is talk, talk, talk about God’s love. But here today, for the very first time in my life, I’ve actually experienced something of God’s love for me personally!” (The Conspiracy of Kindness – 102).
The Gospel is something we say. The Gospel is something we do. When we hold the Gospel words and the Gospels works together — when people can see the Gospel then they will be so much more willing to hear the Gospel. So, how shall we live so that people will want to know more about Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior? What can we do that will make somebody stop and wonder – “Why is she like that?” “Why is he doing this?” And should they dare ask these questions of us out loud — are we prepared to tell them — “Because of Jesus and His love”? DBS +