instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, February 20, 2004

Preaching to myself

Of those pithy Christian sayings, which seem the distillation of pure life-changing wisdom on the first hearing and the tritest set of syllables ever collected on the hundredth, my least favorite is probably, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words."

Mostly it's a matter of personal taste. My preferred version, as I've mentioned before, is, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use pie charts."

But sometimes I think the saying is used reflexively, as though the fact that words aren't being used somehow proves the Gospel is being preached.

As I wrote earlier this week, the pluralistic American society has adopted an interfaith set of public virtues. A Christian's social concern may be rooted in the Gospel, but it can be expressed in a "mere humanistic" way. Jews who are concerned for the poor are not necessarily demonstrating Christian charity. There are even rumors of people with no religious faith who believe in helping the less fortunate.

It's not just a matter of distinguishing Christian charity from good citizenship, though. If we want to preach the Gospel, before we get to the matter of how, we have to look at the matter of what: What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is not, "Love your neighbor as yourself." That's a commandment. The Gospel is news, and news is telling someone something he doesn't already know, not telling him to do something he doesn't already do.

The first three words of the good news Christians have for the world are, "God loves you." As mind-blowing as those words are (God loves you, God loves you, God loves you!), it gets better: "And God's Son was born, died, rose, and returned to Him so that we can love Him back."

Now, however briefly you want to express this good news, there remain significant facets that cannot be conveyed by smiling at the cashier in the grocery store. Do not the Gentiles do as much?

Let me suggest that the Franciscan ideal behind the "if necessary, use words" saying assumes a society in which Christianity has been found difficult and left untried. A bad Christian is far more likely to understand the good example of a good Christian to be an example of Christianity than is a bad non-Christian; for that matter, a good Muslim, say, might understand it to be an example of Islam!

So what am I saying? Only that showing love for another, even if it can be an expression of the Gospel, is not necessarily preaching the Gospel. As a lay member of the Order of Preachers, that's something I need to remind myself of from time to time.