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Speakers of the Word

Recently someone quoted to me: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”  This maxim is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  I doubt that Francis actually said this, for it is one of the most inane adages ever spoken.  Yes, our actions can bear witness to the Gospel, but without words our actions can be inexplicable.  Peter declared that we must be prepared to give an account “of the hope” by which we live, that is, our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, (1 Pt. 3:15).  For Christians, preaching the word of God with words is of the utmost importance.

This necessity finds its theological foundation within the Trinity itself.  The Father eternally speaks his Word.  The Father is never silent but is eternally the Truth-Speaker.  The Word is the perfect Word-Spoken, for he possesses the consummate truth of the Father.  The Word, then, is the Father’s Son, for, as Son, he is the perfect truth-filled image of his Father.  They mirror completely the likeness of one another.

Through his Word, the Father brings everything into existence, and so everything reflects the truth that resides in the Father.  Having been made in the image of the Word, and so the Father’s children, we are able to know the truth – above all the truth of who God is.  Now, having believed the lie of Satan, he in whom no truth resides, humankind no longer lived in communion with the source of all truth, the Father and the Son.  Nonetheless, the Father sent his Son into the world, and his Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

As the Word incarnate, Jesus is the Father’s definitive truth-speaker.  Jesus, therefore, declared: “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose,” (Lk. 4:43).  Those who hear Jesus should not reject his word, for as he himself says: “I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment of what to say and what to speak. . . .What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me.” (Jn 12:49-50)

To hear the voice of Jesus is, then, to hear the very voice of the Father – the Father’s Word.  Moreover, as we were created in the image of the Son, so the Word incarnate re-creates us into his likeness.  Having died for our sin and vanquished death, our risen Lord and Savior re-creates us by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all who believe in him.  The Word’s Spirit of Truth transforms us into the truth-filled image of the Father’s Son.  Being so transformed, Christians are commissioned to be Spirit-filled proclaimers of the Word.

After Jesus had prayed, “he appointed twelve, whom he named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach.” (Mk. 3:14)  The word “apostle” means “sent.”  As the Father sent his Son into the world to be the Word incarnate, so Jesus sends his “Sent” into the world to be Word-Speakers.

Jesus’ final words to his apostles are those of the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20)  Until Jesus comes at the end of time, his apostles are to proclaim the gospel and teach all that he has revealed.  By doing so, all who believe their words will be baptized into the very life of the Trinity.

No one probably recognized this commission better than St. Paul.  In humility, Paul confesses that he has “no ground for boasting.”  “For necessity is laid upon me.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.” (1 Cor. 9:16-17

Paul is unwavering concerning the necessity of preaching.  Both Jews and Greeks are called to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without a preacher?  And how can men preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!’” (Rom. 10:1415).  If both Jews and Gentiles are to be saved, good example will not be adequate.

Paul minces no words: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.”  There will come false teaching and men will accept it “with itching ears,” but as “for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist. Fulfill your ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Beginning with St. John Paul II, the Church has called for a “new evangelization.”  Such evangelization is urgently needed, for false doctrines are asserted in our midst.  Many of us who claim to be Christians have failed to proclaim the Word, for we have yet to be transformed into Word-Speakers.  If we truly knew and experienced Jesus, the Spirit of Truth would impel us to proclaim, joyfully, lovingly, and with conviction the good news of Jesus Christ.

We need, then, to beseech the Holy Spirit to enliven our faith in Jesus.  We can’t pretend that “good example” is enough.  Only if we become Spirit-filled Word-Speakers will we join those whose commission is to be sent – apostles.


*Image: Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue [1] (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum, New York]

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, a prolific writer and one of the most prominent living theologians, is a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. His newest book is the third volume of Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Gospel of John: The Book of Glory and the Passion and Resurrection Narratives.