I suspect that it isn’t there any longer, but many years ago there used to be a church sign outside a church in South London that I walked past often that had all the normal service times, but under the heading “Ministers” it said “the whole congregation”, and under the heading “Assistants” it named the priests of the Parish. I thought that it was rather quirky at the time, but I really didn’t understand what it meant, until I remembered it years later after I had been ordained, and realised how true it was. Ministers – “the whole congregation”. Assistants – “the priests of the Parish”.
There is always the risk in a church that has the luxury of a paid staff team, to think of the staff as the ministers, and the congregation as their assistants, when of course we know that it is the reverse that is true. Every baptised Christian is mandated as a minister of the Gospel, and the clergy are in place to resource and support them.
Of all the baptismal promises, it is this third one, in the series of promises that we have been asking at our weekend Eucharists and in our discussions together on Thursday evenings, it is this question that underlines the reality of how God sees his Church, and how we should see it as well. Here is the question: Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
If we did not know that this was one of the baptismal promises, if we just saw this question somewhere and did not know where it came from in the liturgies of the Church, we might presume at first that it was one of the questions that was asked at the ordination of Deacons and Priests and Bishops. But is it not a question just for the clergy, it is a question for us all.
Whatever is expected of the whole church, of all of us, in these five baptismal promises that we are reflecting upon this Lent in our preparations for renewing them together at the great Feast of Easter, it is certainly true that the expectations are higher for those few of us who have been given the opportunity to do this in place of having another job. I think we all recognise that, and I never take it for granted.
But what we sometimes forget, is that that does not exempt the rest of us from the responsibilities that are part and parcel of the baptised life, of life as members of the Body of Christ. It is true that church staff have a special role to both lead and assist, but through our baptism we are all, each and every one of us called to be ministers, who live out the Gospel by word and example.
Here is the question again, Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
In practice we have tended to divide up this question in such a way that ‘proclaiming by word’ has become the role of the professionals, and ‘proclaiming by example’ has become the role of the rest of us. Clergy and staff preach and teach and run evangelistic programmes; the rest of us live out our lives in a Christ-like way, loving God and our neighbour.
But the baptismal question does not divide up our God-given calling in that way. All of us are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus by word. All of us are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus by example. This does not mean that we all have to take our turn in delivering sermons, although I know that some of you think (and may well be correct) that you could do a better job at them, certainly a briefer job at doing them, than I do. Neither does it mean that all of us need to be involved in our community ministry programmes such as Emergency Relief or our Grandparents as Parents Support Group, although if we can be, we should be. The point is that proclaiming by word and example are inseparably linked, for all of us, in our work of being ministers of the Gospel.
It is possible to tell someone about the good news of Jesus but live life in such a way that the Gospel will be unattractive to them because of their observations about how we put it into practice. It is possible to live out the Gospel through acts of kindness and mercy without people ever knowing that we do these things because of our faith in Jesus Christ. So I am called to do both, and so are you. And the challenge for me personally in this, is that I know that I can’t live out this third baptismal promise if I am not already living out the two baptismal promises that we have reflected upon over the last two weekends.
In those moments when I am not attentive to my need to turn away from sin, in those times when I forget to remember that, despite all that I have failed in, God has invited me to turn back to him and to try again, I cannot authentically proclaim this good news by word or example: that was the first baptismal promise that we looked at. In those times when I am unsure about the apostles’ teaching which is the basis of our faith, and when I am disconnected from the Eucharistic community and when I am not being deliberate about fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not have the strength that comes from life in communion with the Church to proclaim the good news by word and example: that was the second baptismal promise that we looked at.
In short, what I have not got myself, I cannot give to others. We cannot share good news that we do not experience for ourselves. We cannot share good news that we do not ourselves live by. It is in living out the first two baptismal promises that I am strengthened and encouraged to also live out this third promise as well.
In the first Century, when the New Testament was written, the term ‘Gospel’ referred to good news that was heralded and proclaimed. It wasn’t particularly a Christian term, so it might have meant the good news of success in battle. The battle has been waged, the war has been won, and the herald would hurriedly return to the king to proclaim the Gospel, the good news of the success. It is easy to see why the Church so readily adopted the term, because it fitted exactly with their own experience of life in Christ. But it reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus cannot just be acted out, the news has to be heralded, proclaimed, spoken as well.
Now what about Saint Francis whose famous dictum “Preach the Gospel at all times, and where necessary use words?” We all understand the sentiment that underlies that phrase. The reality is that most scholars agree that he probably didn’t say it, but whether he did or not someone said it, and it is worth our reflection. Proclaiming by example is quite easy for most of us to envision. Yesterday a number of you were in a training session in our hall with the Samaritans Foundation in preparation for the next time we need to offer support in disaster recovery. We know what it looks like to help our neighbours when they are in need. We realize the importance of it, and we understand that this is the word, the Gospel in action.
But we are in danger of often blurring the lines between being good citizens doing the good works that all human beings should be involved in and proclaiming the good news by example. It is not always appropriate to use words when we are sharing the Gospel, actions are powerful. But if we never use words, if we never help people to join up the dots and make the connections then there is a problem: doing good things in themselves is not enough, those actions need also to point to Jesus. After all, someone did it for us, or we would not be here. None of us were born knowing the good news of Jesus, someone told us and that is why we are here.
Some years ago one of my cousins in Perth was employed to promote the sale of cigarettes. Now put out of your mind for a moment our cultural revulsion at promoting such a terrible thing, that is not the point. The problem for my cousin was that she had to promote a particular brand of cigarettes without using the name of the brand, and without it being identified with words in any of the advertising. You use certain colours, certain images to evoke a connection with a brand that cannot be spoken about. It is not easy, but it is possible. But that is not proclamation. Sometimes that is what we do with the Gospel. We do great things, we really make a difference in helping people in their time of need, but we only give a vague impression, we only make some kind of a passing connection between who we are, and what we live for, and the Gospel of Jesus. The Church is not just a collection of good citizens, it is the Body of Christ – a body called to proclaim good news.
So we need to find a voice, we need to become comfortable with our way of articulating the good news of God in Jesus Christ to others. For some of us that means talking with our children or other family members at home. For others of us it may be speaking to a friend or co-worker. Others are called to proclaim the good news to strangers as they go about their day to day lives. In whatever circumstances it needs both words and deeds. Proclaiming the good news does not need to be a sermon – or the street corner ravings of a religious fanatic. It simply means being aware of God’s presence in a situation and being willing to offer God’s word in a way that points others towards God. We do not need to push religion or do all of those aggressive things that we see some other churches engaged in, we are Anglicans after all. But we do need to learn how to share our faith, speaking comfortably about God and Jesus, praying with others, and being open to or even initiating conversations about religious matters. That might mean a simple comment, a thoughtful response to a question, or a willingness to share our faith story.
Learning how to express our faith, practicing ways of doing it, and gaining the confidence to do it in times and places where it isn’t expected can strengthen our own faith as well as the faith of those who receive our words. If we are to proclaim the good news, we need to proclaim it, not just hope that the those around it will figure it out for themselves. Both word and example cannot be detached from each other.
We are all ministers of the Gospel. We are all called to proclaim God’s love to others. You can do all kinds of things to show someone that you love them, but in the end you need to say it as well. That is what God has done, in Jesus for us, and that is what he calls us to do as disciples baptised into his death and resurrection.
Our third baptismal promise: will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? With the help of God, we will.