The gospel is good news. It is not therapy, opium or merely a good idea among many good ideas. The gospel is a journey into a foreign land. It is power. It is surprise.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected, “I have noticed that the most effective sermons were those in which I spoke enticingly of the gospel, like someone telling children a story of a strange country.” I have noticed this same wonderful dynamic. Those sermons where I have pontificated brilliantly and exposited exceptionally are generally received with the same interest as a fascinating documentary: intriguing, stimulating and generally forgettable. On the other hand, where I have wised up and simply let the foolishness of the cross and the wonder of grace permeate, the result is transformation.
The gospel is to be proclaimed and lived. It is show and tell. The Lausanne Movement for world evangelization says, “[T]here is no biblical dichotomy between the word spoken and the word made visible in the lives of God’s people. People will look as they listen and what they see must be at one with what they hear.” This resonates with the infamous words of Menno Simons, that true evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. The gospel is the story of heaven performed on the stage of earth, and the actors must act but they must also know their lines.
And herein lies the lesson: Where we become a people who preach, but without a life of obedience to Christ, the gospel is set up for ridicule; and where our exemplary lives are not partnered with proclamation of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, our goodness is nothing but moralistic idolatry.
The eye-rolling butchery of St. Francis of Assisi’s infamous, “Preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words,” has got to end. The notion is thoroughly unbiblical and, since it didn’t appear until two centuries after Francis lived, is most likely not even something he preached. It is unfortunate, really, that the words pinned to St. Francis have been adhered to more feverishly than the words of Scripture, and are even used as an excuse to wiggle out from the discomfort of proclaiming the uniqueness of Jesus, his cross and resurrection.
But that’s like saying I don’t need to tell my wife I love her because a commercial tells me all she needs is flowers. Eventually, she needs to hear why it is I have been smitten by floral generosity.
All that brings me to a moment one Sunday morning in the middle of a sermon. I had just finished showing a video clip of Steve Saint’s remarkable act of not only forgiving, but adopting into his own family as “grandfather,” the man who had speared his father to death in 1956. Saint returned to live with the murderous Auca tribe that stole his dad away to show and tell the gospel. In the clip—available on YouTube—Saint and the aged Auca warrior sit together and reflect on what the gospel brought them both. It is stunning to hear, other-worldly to behold. It is audacious.
And then it happened. As the clip came to a close, one of the men from a local recovery centre shockingly blurted out, “They live in a completely different world.” He’s right. The gospel preached and lived out is a surprise, a foreign land. And those rescued by it have the honour of shocking the world with it.