A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
…proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel…
July 29, 2012
“Always preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.” This saying, widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (though it doesn’t show up in any of his known writings), suggests that preaching the Gospel is more about what we do than what we say. It would be a great mistake if we thought either could be held authentically without the other. It is much easier to focus on just one side of this pairing of word and deed – but doing so strips away the authenticity of our message.
The Gospels portray Jesus as one who announces the Kingdom of God in both word and deed. His actions and his words receive nearly equal time on their pages. The relationship of the two is captured especially evocatively in the story of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, the text from which the recent General Assembly’s sermons were drawn. What comes first is Jesus’ word of wholeness to a man broken by sin – a word that he authenticates with an act of bodily healing. The Gospel is always a seamless whole of word and deed. It is a word of forgiveness sealed by an act of healing.
The earliest Christian church apparently developed a set of core teachings of the new Christian movement before the New Testament writings were circulated. These earlier Christian traditions can be detected in the New Testament, for instance in the “sure sayings” recorded in the epistles of Timothy and Titus. One of those may well be taken as the core of the Christian Gospel: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of which I am foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The core word of the Gospel is save. It’s what God does to us in Jesus Christ. It carries a rich array of meanings; one way to lift them up is to consider their opposites. Save, not discard. Save, not squander. Save, not lose. Save, not break. And so on.
One word lies especially close to the heart of save – “heal.” Indeed, the word “save” is a contraction of the world “salve.” We all know what a salve is – a healing ointment. When applied to broken skin, it makes the broken whole. This is the core meaning of “salvation” – making whole that which is broken.
I have come to wonder where the “sure saying” recounted in 1 Timothy 1:15 really ends. I had long assumed that the core saying being quoted is this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And that would surely be enough. The final phrase is just the author’s personal gloss, according to this reading. But what if it were an essential part of the saying itself? What if the “sure saying” includes not only an affirmation of who Jesus is, but also of who I am as “the foremost sinner”?
Our effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel may rest as much in getting ourselves right – that is, in our acting and speaking with humility and confession rather than triumphalism and judgment – as about getting the message right. And perhaps it is precisely in the joining of word and deed that we temper our tendency to get intoxicated with our superiority as people who really “get” the Gospel. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental problem Jesus fingers among many of the religious leaders of his day – ebullient in their talk but anemic in their walk.
The Gospel of forgiveness and wholeness is first of all something to embrace, before it is something to deploy. Our proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed gets traction only to the extent that we display our awareness that we are the ones most in need of forgiveness and healing. This is the proclamation, this is the manner of life that constitutes our mission.
Foremost of sinners,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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