St. Francis of Assisi taught that we should proclaim the Gospel as often as possible, and to use words as rarely as possible. I guess one could say even in the twelfth century, actions spoke louder than words. And that was his point. The proclaiming of the Gospel is not about telling others how to live, but by showing others what it means to live the Gospel.
This past week, I was moved when Paul Keene announced in his blog that he was offering his burial plot in Mt. Carmel, Connecticut, to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “Why”, he wrote, “to honor my mother who taught Sunday School at Mt. Carmel Congregational Church and taught me to love my enemy.” I cannot imagine the negative responses his blog may have received with this announcement. I suspect the comments were in accord with the ones directed at the Worcester, Massachusetts funeral director who choose to take mercy on the Tsaraev family and prepared Tamerlan’s body for burial.
In my mind, these two modern day Josephs of Arimethea have done more to proclaim the Gospel than most congregations do in a year. The message they have made is clear, God is about love, mercy, and most of all, about forgiveness. They have also demonstrated to the world that the risen Christ is still alive and active among us and they were willing to take the risks associated with living the Gospel.
In this morning’s Gospel and in our passage from Acts, we heard St. Luke’s account of the Ascension, the day when the resurrected Christ is assumed into heaven. Our passage is not just the telling of Jesus’ ascension. In this passage, Luke also includes his version of Jesus’ final discourse with the disciples. Here, Luke emphasizes the message of repentance and forgiveness over John’s emphasis to love as Christ loved us. In this passage, Jesus commands his listeners to transition from followers to those who are sent. In this case, they are commissioned, or sent out, to be witnesses of God’s forgiveness through Christ.
Each of the Apostles had a story to tell, personal stories of their experiences of the risen Christ. In the same way Paul often told of his encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus, each of the Apostle’s shared their stories of eating with Christ in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus or even on the shores of Galilee. Each of them could share stories of how they experienced divine forgiveness, whether it was through Peter being forgiven for denying Jesus on the night of his trial, or how Jesus forgave them for abandoning him during his time of crucifixion. Each had a story of how Jesus had formed and transformed them.
Each of us has a similar story as well. Stories of how we were touched by the love of God. Mr. Keene in offering his burial plot does so in memory of his mother who taught him to love his enemy, and to, as we vow at Baptism, to respect the dignity of every human being. I also suspect his mother provided his first experience of divine love, mercy and forgiveness.
This past Tuesday evening, in the course of our discussion of the Eucharist, true Christian fellowship took place as members of the class shared their experience of the Holy Eucharist. Our conversation included sharing of individual experiences, of how the simple act of receiving the bread and wine of communion touched them in such ways that they have been comforted in times of despair, calmed in times of anxiousness, fed in times when they have needed spiritual nurture. With each story and statement, we became witnesses to our own experience of the risen Christ in our lives.
These are the types of experiences, when recognized, both form and transform us. These experiences develop the confidence we often need to live the Gospel in the world. Look around, and you will see the Gospel is being proclaimed loudly and clearly not just in Worcester, Massachusetts and Mt. Carmel, Connecticut, but also throughout the country.
On Thursday evening, ABC News reported how two High School seniors in rural Georgia bucked sixty years of tradition by organizing and holding an integrated prom. For those of us living in Central New York, an integrated prom is not news worthy. Integrated proms happen throughout Onondaga County in most school districts every Spring. However, as one young woman stated, in her small, rural, Georgian town, no one got the memo in regards to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and others. As the young people reported, the simple act of organizing an integrated prom came with consequences, the loss of friends, vandalism of their posters, and threats of harm. But these two youths were undeterred. Together, one black and one white, friends since kindergarten, they were determined to dance together at their prom. And, in so doing, demonstrated for all the world to see, what the heavenly banquet will look like from their perspective.
Christ is alive, the account of his ascension tells us that, and our actions demonstrate his presence among us more loudly than our words.
But let’s not stop with actions only. How we choose to speak out can also be used to proclaim the Gospel. And I am not talking about the spouting of Bible verses. When we use our voices to point out injustice, we again bear witness to the love and forgiveness of God.
This past week, many on Facebook spoke out against the clothing store Abercrombie and Fitch. Article after article was shared decrying the company’s CEO for deliberately catering exclusively to women size 10 and below, because as he has been quoted as saying,”Abercrombie and Fitch clothing is designed for only cool people.” No one can fault a company for focusing its merchandise towards a niche market, but to be openly insulting and degrading towards people, especially young women of size, has been rightly identified by many on Facebook as unjust. If this negative publicity will lead to fewer sales for Abercrombie and Fitch is yet to be seen, and perhaps is less important than the fact that a single voice has been joined by many others to witness to the love of God for people of all sizes.
So often we mistake quoting the Bible and proclaiming the wrath of God as proclaiming the Gospel. And while on rare occasion this form of evangelism can be effective, truth be told, it is when we follow the instruction of St. Francis of Assisi, to proclaim the Gospel often and to use words rarely that we become the witnesses Christ calls us to be. Because when we act against prejudice, speak out against injustice, and offer mercy to our enemies, our actions speak loudly and tells the world that Christ is risen and very much alive today!