“Let this be our way of overpowering our adversaries, and of conducting our warfare against them: and let us before all words, astound them by our way of life. For this is the main battle, this is the unanswerable argument, the argument from actions. For though we give ten thousand precepts of philosophy in words, if we do not exhibit a life better than theirs, the gain is nothing. For it is not what is said that draws their attention, but their enquiry is, what we do; and they say, “Do thou first obey thine own words, and then admonish others.”
S. John Chrysostom, On Example
This snippet from Chrysostom’s homily makes me think about “Christianity vs. Atheism” debates I used to watch on Youtube. While the Christian philosopher may have intellectually mopped the floor with his opponent, the response of the audience would often suggest the atheist won the debate. As reasonable and logical as were the Christian’s arguments, they rarely held more sway than the poignant emotion behind an atheist questioning evil and suffering and raging against the concept of a God who could allow his creatures to struggle in such an atrocious world. “Nature is red in tooth and claw, and no good God would have made it that way.” I would venture to say that the number of Christian converts made at such events is largely trumped by the agnostics and atheists who have grown stronger in their worldview.
All that to say: Craftier arguments and cleverly-devised statements are not what our evangelism methods need; a life that tangibly represents the compassion, love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ is the way to the human heart. “Actions speak louder than words,” says the old adage, but I would alter that slightly and say, “Actions give life to the words we speak.” St. James says that true religion not only lives an “unspotted” life but also takes care of the orphan and widow. That is how true godliness manifests itself. We mustn’t preach without practice. Nor can we separate loving action from that truest of messages, the bulwark and pillar the Church alone possesses and from which she derives her life.
Consider that our Lord has bestowed on his Church both Word and Sacrament. These gifts were instituted holistically to the Church, and the Church is entrusted with their ministration. Word is the announcement of God’s love and forgiveness, and the Eucharist is God’s action toward us which heals, sustains, and nourishes us. One is conveyed by spoken word, the other by symbolic action involving the stuff of our material world – bread, wine, chalice, paten, pall, and a celebrant who acts as Christ to the people. Through these outward, physical symbols we see God’s love in action. In this way, God is our perfect model for mission. We come to Church not only to hear a word from the Lord, but to see, to experience God do something. And he does. As the Church, we are to keep Word and Sacrament inextricably bound together, and so should it be in our lives. The two must never be separated. We will be in trouble if we amputate one of our own limbs and attempt to hobble into the world of mission on one leg.
Every Christian is entrusted with a microcosm of that Word-Sacrament ministry, and is expected to carry it out into the world. Our mouths must speak words, but they need be paired to symbolic actions that express God’s love. The Gospel message that comes from our lips will be devoid of power if it is not paired with a life of holy action and love (as St. Paul so firmly reminds the Corinthians). If my tongue utters the impeccable logic and reason of the angels, but my life does not demonstrate the transforming love of Jesus Christ, I am but a clanging cymbal. And there is nothing more the unchurched hate than “clanging cymbal Christianity.” I believe that is the point Chrysostom to be making. Our “adversaries,” as he calls them (perhaps we could choose a more post-Christendom friendly term?), will not be persuaded by our message if it is not married to our way of life. The skepticism and Churchophobia of our culture will never be healed until we start rebuilding trust by being Jesus to the lapsed and the lost. Regardless of the silliness of 90s Evangelical apparel, “What would Jesus do?” is neither a silly nor shallow question. Our beloved golden-tongued saint was well aware of the unbelieving world’s demand to Christians to “first obey thine own words.” As we preach — perhaps before — we need to ask ourselves the “bracelet question.” What would Christ do in this situation? How would he bring the message of the Gospel across in a way that meets people where they are, yet calls them to where God desires them to be?
I do not mean to reduce the Gospel to social justice nor to evangelizing words. It is the saving power of God unto all who believe, and they will believe when they see it lived out. The Gospel message is one of the utmost divine love, and it will be carried out best not only in winsome words, but in lives unspotted by the world, yet willing to dwell within it, taking after the Christ who not only preached repentance and salvation, but healed, consoled, taught, encouraged, and laid down his life for the sake of all.