Words of Wisdom and a Reflection on the Gospel

If we want politics, we can find it elsewhere. If we want social services, we can find those elsewhere, too; likewise for social company. The Church, though, has a monopoly on God and prayer, which it is squandering at present.
–bls, from the comments

Lately, there has been a lot of institutional mystification within Anglicanism all around that wants to make the gospel something other than the unconditional promise of and in Christ.

Some identify the gospel as institutional imperatives of unity or the tensions between justice and unity

Others identify this gospel and the sharing of this gospel with our causes of justice.

Some identify the gospel with purity. Many of these sites are too much for my delicate constitution.

These may be fruits of the gospel, they may be outcomes of our hearing very God, but these are NOT, let me repeat, these are NOT, the gospel of Jesus Christ.The gospel is the promise of right relationship with God by no doing of our own, is peace and joy and fullness in Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead, who is present to us and for us here and now in the Word proclaimed in the reading/preaching and received in, with, and under the bread and wine. Jesus Christ himself is the Good News!

This gospel, Jesus Christ, makes the Church, not the other way around, and it is in this proclamatory sense that the Church is the books’ as proclaimed and not only that the book is the Church’s as is sometimes popularly trotted out. It may be our book, but proclaimed it is God’s Word to us and for us, and not only collectively, but to each member thereof. Because in the proclaiming of the Word, Christ is here present—the Scripture is not ours, it’s God’s. I intuited that years ago when my priest would ask me to be the lector at daily Mass on a regular basis to my fear and trembling. I used to think that was a bad thing, now I take a little nervousness in proclaiming God’s Word as a good thing. It’s not my word, it’s God’s, and in the proclaiming, Christ is present to us and for us here and now. A little nervousness is appropriate.
–Christopher, from here

I’m for the basic principles of the Millennium Development Goals. I like the idea of the portions of the world who have disproportionately been consuming the earth’s resources taking pause and assisting the basic living conditions of those who live in situations of poverty and oppression that most of us can not begin to understand.

What I really don’t like, however, is the way that the Episcopal Church as a whole has been working with and talking about the MGD’s. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ensuring justice for the orphan, the widow, the stranger in the land, these are the outward and visible signs of the Gospel taking root in your heart and body. These things are not, however, the logical or theological beginning of the Gospel.

The Gospel begins with the Good News of what God has done for his creation through the person of Jesus Christ. That God became incarnate “both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of godly life.” That what God has revealed through the Holy Scriptures and through Jesus Christ is a whole different truth about reality than what collusive and destructive powers whisper to us so convincingly. That ultimate power resides in love. That ultimate life is found in God who constantly invites us to participate in his own life, that our life is hid with Christ in God.

Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ensuring justice for the orphan, the widow, the stranger in the land, these are the logical and necessary consequences of the Gospel, these are the limbs’ obedience to the heart’s faith. These ways are the paths we are bound to walk if we take God’s revelation of truth seriously.

But our preaching and our teaching becomes disoriented if somehow the logical corollary becomes the focus and the central thesis from which it proceeds is obscured. The Church’s primary responsibility is the proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel, then the works of mercy that flow from this revelation. To preach the works alone, or to assume that the connection between the faith and the works is obvious and need not be said is to risk corruption of the Gospel with which we have been entrusted.

The Episcopal Church should teach about the MGD’s. But it should first preach Christ. It should first teach the simple—but difficult—truth of God’s reality. Then teach the implications, then teach the works. But first, preach the Gospel.

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18 Responses to Words of Wisdom and a Reflection on the Gospel

  1. Preach it, brother!

  2. Chris says:

    I tend to agree – too much emphasis on social service obscures the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. The Church is uniquely equipped and called for this ministry of proclamation and administration.

    But . . . this Gospel proclaimed through Word and Sacrament propels us into the world to serve our neighbor. Faith without works is dead, a good tree bears good fruit. But on the other side we have the example and tension of Mary and Martha.

    There is a tension that we must hold onto, remembering that the God calls us to encounter the Christ both in Word and Sacrament, and also in our daily encounter with and service to our neighbors.

  3. Sam Keyes says:

    Amen.

  4. Christopher says:

    Chris,

    But clearly delineating God’s News from our responses to live out the Word in the world becomes important when they have become muddled in moralizing from all quarters, left, right, and center. We are in danger of collapsing God’s News into a program…just pick your channel.

  5. John-Julian, OJN says:

    I went into my last parish with the commitment that I would place sacramental ministry (including its quality, nature, and frequency) in absolute primary place; secondly, I would preach/teach solid history, theology, and prayer – in the pulpit and in adult forums. I would refuse to promote any other projects or programs of social service or justice or “mission” (including those of the diocese or the national Church – and I filled the circular file with a whole lot of brochures).

    Attendance almost doubled in 18 months! Pledges more than doubled. A ten-year loan was paid off in two years.

    It took a little less than two years of this kind of focussed ministry before the questions started to be asked: “Shouldn’t we be doing some kind of outreach ministry? Is there some way we can apply the Gospel to the community outside our parish? Could we undertake support for a missionary? (etc.)”.

    It was on-the-ground proof of my conviction that deepening spirituality and theological learning will automatically produce a concern for social justice and action. (And my second conviction is that primary emphasis on good works does not tend to produce deepening spirituality and/or learning.)

    I know this position is considered hereetical by many, but for me there really is a cause-effect paradigm here, and I agree totally with Derek’s principles! True spiritual development will eventually not ALLOW one to ignore the social justice needs.

  6. JTFS says:

    Often I have felt like our Church is trying to sell us Jesus as a means to something else…something that was on our agenda coming in…and that worries me.

    I think that all of this tension could be avoided if we were just a little more upfront about how these pieces fit together, but we don’t seem able, or even willing. I don’t really think that our leadership does assume that the connection is implicit Derek…I simply think that they are, in this time and place, afraid to name it, sad as that may be.

    I mean the point of the Gospel for me is that God, in Jesus, came to show us that this brokenness that we see…in our hearts and mirrored in the world around us…isn’t what our loving creator intended. So for us, with us, and in us, God has worked, is working, and will continue to work to put it all back together. Nothing controversial about that…except maybe the Jesus part.

    Call me a cynic, but I tend to think that is why our PB went to the “Shalom” image rather than the Kingdom…much more PC in the current climate.

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

  7. Mrs. M says:

    Amen!

  8. Joe,

    I hope you’re wrong about the church ditching Jesus to be more PC but part of me fears you are right. I’ve seen the PB talk passionate about a number of topics. I have not yet seen her talk passionately about Jesus. That’s not at all to say that she hasn’t or doesn’t—but that in all the turmoil this is something that ought to be emphasized.

    Fr. John-Julian,
    Here’s the money quote for me: It was on-the-ground proof of my conviction that deepening spirituality and theological learning will automatically produce a concern for social justice and action. (And my second conviction is that primary emphasis on good works does not tend to produce deepening spirituality and/or learning.) I’ve long advocated your conviction one but hadn’t connected the dots to conviction two. Having it laid out there, though, it makes all of the sense in the world!

    Chris,
    It is a both/and and the tension has to be held but these days the God side of the tension seems more in danger of falling than the other.

  9. bls says:

    I’ve heard her talk passionately about Jesus, and about evangelism. She said something like, if it were anything else – some other wonderful thing you’d found – would you keep it a secret? Wouldn’t you want your friends to know about it?

    Something like that, anyway; I’ll find the quote.

    We should add here, I think, that “liberals” are not the only ones paying no attention to the spiritual life and to God. For many “conservatives,” this is all about the culture wars, and about fighting the hated “liberals.” It’s really hard to find anybody simply teaching the faith.

    The fact that the Daily Office is hardly said anywhere is a very good symbol of the problem.

  10. Christopher says:

    bls,

    Precisely. That’s why I pointed to programs all around, and not just liberals or conservatives either, but those who claim the center. Programs abound. The question for me is the proclaiming of Jesus Christ the center, not inclusion, not unity, not purity, but Christ crucified and raised from the dead.

  11. bls says:

    Yep, Christopher. You’re right; everybody’s forgotten what the main focus should be.

    I guess in turbulent times it’s easy to do – but it’s the only way out of this mess.

  12. Pingback: The church’s one foundation « A Thinking Reed

  13. The Anglican Scotist says:

    Dude,

    I think I’m gonna take issue with this post.

  14. Alright—let’s see what you’ve got…

  15. The only thing I question here is the statist/world-government notion behind the MDGs. Other than that, spot-on.

    ‘Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand will be converted’ as St Seraphim of Sarov is often translated as saying.

    The fact that the Daily Office is hardly said anywhere is a very good symbol of the problem.

    Oh, yes.

    Simply put and here we all seem to agree, acknowledge God in his rightful place at the centre of everything you do and the rest will naturally follow.

  16. Excellent post Derek. I agree. I once knew a former UMC pastor who joined a Continuing Anglican body. He said his old Methodist conference used to be really into the social gospel, and then somewhere along the line, the gospel left the picture, and all that was left was social work. I believe that without the gospel backing up our works, you really are left with a works-based system.

  17. Steve says:

    As someone once said, “What is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us.”

  18. JTFS says:

    For what it’s worth, I agree with bls that the PB’s approach is mostly about evangelism. I disagree with the approach, but I see what she is trying to do.

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

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