Many people who have heard the name Francis of Assisi associates the man with the phrase, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” I heard this phrase many times in my undergrad education and decided to adopt it for a period of time. I thought it was brilliant and that it captured the essence of Jesus’ message.
But you know what? I soon found out a secret. That line was more than likely never uttered by Francis.
And then I came to the conclusion that that line is actually very dangerous. Let me unpack that.
If that above phrase is only used to mean “preach the gospel and back up your words with your actions,” then that is a very helpful phrase. But if we mean that the good news of the Kingdom of God coming through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will be preached through our actions alone and never communicated through words, then I think we venture into dangerous territory.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about this good news, saying:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Yes, giving a cup of water to a thirsty migrant is very important and powerful, but this summary Paul gave cannot be communicated through that act. Helping people is very huge, but the good news of Jesus comes through a verbal (or written, in this instance) witness.
Let me be clear, our words need to have actions that back it up. If we say we ought to be loving because Christ loved us, then we ought to demonstrate love as well. But if I say we need to live peacefully with my neighbor, but drive in a constant state of road rage, then there is an obvious disconnect (I can neither confirm nor deny that I drive in a state of perpetual road rage. All I’m going to admit is that I listen to the classical radio station for a reason).
If you don’t read anything else though, read this: You are not the gospel. Your actions, as pure as they might be, are not the gospel. The gospel comes to those through the Holy Spirit’s application of the words into the life of the individual. The Spirit applies the message we proclaim, as the good works we do help verify the hope that lives within us. As Pope Francis once said, “if we don’t proclaim Jesus, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO & not a Church which is the bride of Christ.”
Let’s do good, and talk about the Good One.