A maxim attributed to St. Francis of Assisi -- "Preach the Gospel always; use words if necessary" -- remains relevant today. It is another way of saying that actions speak louder than words. Nowhere are the consequences of ignoring such wisdom more visible than when Christians, who preach the love of God for all, refrain from showing it themselves to the least of their brothers or sisters.
Not just in passing did Christ Himself make this the true measure of our love for Him: how much we love "the least" among us. It is the ultimate test upon which our eternal salvation depends.
The Gospel by its very nature is an attractive force because, for one thing, it brings us into a relationship with a God who suffers.
There is something completely surprising and disarming about anyone who demonstrates unconditional, gratuitous love. Outside of Christianity, it is unheard of that an all-sovereign God would stoop to such a level as God did in Christ -- and only to come closer to us in our suffering, especially that induced by sin, in order to save us from ourselves.
Most Christians seem to get at least this much of the Gospel: We are sinners and Christ came to save us from our sins by dying the death we deserved to that we can have the reward that He deserved.
The cultivation of a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ is much preached and has the power to transform lives -- but it is not enough unless lives and, indeed, communities are really transformed.
"Jesus saves" is a great message to preach, but unless it moves hearts and minds and sanctifies souls, it is just an empty wish.
It is one thing to believe in and to feel touched by God's grace; it is another thing to live it and to see it lived out. Why aren't more of our brothers and sisters attracted to us when we proclaim this faith in an all-loving, all-forgiving God? Why are our churches, on average, only one-third full on any given Sunday in Ordinary Time?
It may be that we are not living the other half of the Gospel!
That "half" is the transformation not only of the heart -- the first step -- but also of the communities in which we live. We are truly members of these communities, as of a body.
A community of believers who understand that each member is a sinner who has been offered forgiveness should, one might expect, convey an especially warm sense of welcome to those most in need of God's healing love: the poor, the sick, the alienated and marginalized, the most abject members of society.
It should (as I have seen at least one local church announce its mission) practice "courageous hospitality." Such a community, if it be a true Church of Christ, would not be composed of those who seek to hold onto, let alone boast of, rank or privilege or accomplishments or status, but to confess the extent of their sinfulness and unworthiness, now redeemed. That is the truth of what unites us in Christ.
In these challenging times, it is comforting to cling to practices, methods, examples and traditions to which we may expect others to ascribe: "Let them come to us! We have the truth!"
Sooner or later, we will find fewer and fewer people finding much in common with a "society of the perfectly correct," be it of a ritualistic, political or organizational order. We may have a perfectly balanced church budget, money in our reserves, air conditioning and a solid roof -- but have nothing that would invite a sinner to join us.
That is the point: Do sinners seeking refuge know they are welcome among us?
That was exactly what scandalized the religious establishment at the time of Christ: "This man welcomes sinners." It is also what gave sinners hope.
In these politically volatile days, when much anger and frustration is being voiced against the failure or inadequacy of our public institutions, we cannot expect as a Church to be exempt from similar scrutiny -- especially if we are failing to sell our "product."
And what is that "product," if not the Good News of a Savior whose greatest "sin," in the eyes of His most critical contemporaries, is that He welcomed sinners?
Whoever sticks around long enough will have little trouble in finding how many ways sin can insinuate itself into human behaviors and relationships. Whether in the more obvious forms like the scourge of abortion, domestic violence, human trafficking and child abuse, or in the subtler and no less dehumanizing varieties of racism, sexism, careerism or the myriads of addictions, sin infects us all.
Christ comes to rescue us from every one of these sinful cesspools. Knowing that and preaching this is one thing; but, unless we acknowledge and confess our sins so that the redeeming power of grace in us is visible, other sinners like us may doubt whether the Gospel can really work for them, too.
A Church full of self-made saints is an empty Church, reeking of a sanctimony that does not emit the scent of sanctity! A Church that professes a Gospel of forgiveness, on the other hand, must always be ready to ask forgiveness. A Christian who believes in the personal presence of Christ needs to stand ready to witness how Christ has rescued him or her from sin -- if by no other way than forgiving other sinners.
Perhaps sinners will come back to church when it is the place where all sinners can find a home -- where the other half of the Gospel can be heard in the pulpit and in the pew, more loudly and convincingly than words alone can ever preach.
(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)
(May 18, 2017)