“Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” Those words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi are oft-quoted, much-loved, and I would suggest… potentially confusing.
First of all, the best Franciscan scholars cannot find a single sermon, or writing of Mr. Francis that includes that quote. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but it seems important to me. One of the reasons I was first attracted to the quote was because I knew a bit about the life of St. Francis. Good deeds, care for the poor, he was a servant who lived out the gospel life. In the last 4-5 years we have worked hard at Calvary to build a church without walls, one that is externally focused and called to serve the world. It seemed like Francis’ words were very appropriate for us.
So I love the quote. It speaks to the importance of an authentic witness, letting our deeds match up with our words. It speaks to the power of good deeds, sacrificial compassion, and relentless generosity. It speaks to the ability of our deeds to be a light in the world which reflects upon the glory of God. You can hear behind the quote the call to let our lives shine.
But here is where I think it gets confusing; I believe that the gospel by definition goes hand in hand with words. When God calls us to be witnesses, it implies that at some point words will be spoken. A witness without words leaves everyone guessing. Here is what the Bible says about the necessity of words when it comes to the gospel.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14
Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 1 Corinthians 9:16
…for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. Romans 10:13-17
Two different Greek words are translated in the Bible as the word “preach.” One is the word kerusso. The other is the word euangelizo. Both carry within them the idea of proclamation, speaking words, communicating ideas and truth. I understand that without a gospel life, gospel words have little impact. Good deeds lay the foundation for Good News. But ultimately it isn’t good news if there are no good words.
“Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.” Perhaps that saying is not unlike, “Feed the hungry, if necessary use food!” I guess all I can say in reference to both is, “Don’t be confused, some things are necessary.”