Witness to the Whole Christ and the Whole Gospel

Preaching is always contextual and no written sermon ever conveys, captures, or constitutes the actual preaching event that involves both the preacher and the congregation gathered in the presence of Christ. However, written sermons can be gifts that speak across contexts, sound fresh, and be just as relevant to the reader now as they were when first delivered.

I’m gathering materials for the homiletics course at the College of Transfiguration and came across a sermon written in 1972 by Leander Keck, now Winkley Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School.  Dr. Keck wrote it for the annual Assembly of the Tennessee Association of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) that year.  Some of the examples show its age (references to Vietnam, bussing, Jesus freaks).  However, his sermon shows the Word of God speaking into a situation that still exists in the Church: the divide between activists and evangelists.  The Rt. Rev. John Rabb, retired Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, described this as the Matthew 25 Christians versus the Matthew 28 Christians.

Matthew 25 is the passage where people are judged according to whether or not they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited those sick and in prison.

Matthew 28 is where Jesus gives what’s often called the Great Commission: “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

As if we can’t be people who engage in social action and social justice as well as evangelists, leading others to follow Christ.  As if we aren’t commanded to be both.

Even if we don’t see a problem with holding both as important, or holy, or what Jesus commands of us, we tend toward one or the other. Sometimes we even put these in terms of sides, as Bishop Rabb put so well, Matthew 25 versus Matthew 28.  One way seems like the better way, the more urgent way, the way we need to be Church right now so we can engage the world effectively and make a difference.  The other side should come to our side, roll up their sleeves, join us in trying to effect legislation; or, the other side should not be ashamed to be Christians rather than people trying to enact a political party’s platform and instead work for change that will last eternally. We may be drawn more to one way than the other; we also may think the other side is wasting the Church’s time, is getting us off course, is a stumbling block to the others who would flock to join the Church if only it had less of one group or the other in it.

The text for Keck’s sermon is Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  

Keck begins by saying that Christians want power, but we are polarized over what kind of power: activists want political power, in order to make crucial changes in society; evangelicals want “the power of personal religion.”  God wants to redeem both our evangelism and our activism.

I can’t reproduce the whole sermon here.  (The whole sermon may be found in Interpretation 27:2 [April 1973], 184-202. If you can access it, read it all.)  Here are some extracts I found particularly helpful, rewritten with inclusive language.

. . . our polarization between evangelism and action is not found in Jesus at all.  In Jesus, word and deed do not fall apart. . . This Jesus did not announce office hours when he would be available to discuss the grace of God; rather, by consorting with the godless and the godly, Jesus became the grace of God to them, and so put into action the point that the Kingdom of God calls both to repent.  Nor did he show any interest in making sinners more spiritual or in making Pharisees more secular. What he aimed for was turning the whole person and the whole people to God.  To do this, the cripples were healed, the demon-ridden liberated, the pious confronted with the total demand of the Kingdom.  Whatever each person was and whatever stood between that person and a Godward life was what Jesus addressed. . . 

 . . . Where Jesus shapes the witness, there can be no evangelism without repentance. . .  Repentance is the discipline of rebuilding life in alignment with the will of God.

But where did we get the notion that repentance was for only a piece of life? We cannot redeem life without redeeming everything that makes a life what it is. How can “I” be saved if what makes me who and what I really am remains untouched? And what makes me who I really am? Does it not include the whole network of relationships to my family, my neighbors, the government, the economy? Have not the injustices that prevail between blacks and whites, rich and poor, weak and strong helped make me who I really am? I see no way that the real self and the whole self can be redeemed without redeeming me at every point where I am in bondage to this world. . . 

To redeem the whole person requires us to deal with those forces in society that put persons in need of this manifold redemption in the first place. There can be no evangelism for persons that does not call also for changing our society. . .

If the conservative evangelical sells the gospel short by restricting its scope to the inner life, the liberal activist sells it short by concentrating the need for redemption on structures and institutions. This leads to a worship of power and of politics as the key to everything. . .

. . . Laws and politics alone cannot command the obedience of the heart and will, cannot generate the commitment to be a neighbor and a brother or sister. That comes from deep inside, from the heart. This is why there can be no truly effective political solutions without the redemption of the heart of persons.  Just as an evangelism without action is ineffective, so action without redemption for the heart has no future. . . 

It is perfectly true that Christians join hands with Jews, humanists, and atheists in order to gain reform of prisons or population control. But more is involved than making sure Christians do their share. They must also do their thing. What is at issue is whether Jesus and the gospel give shape and content to their participation . . . Unless some aspect of the gospel and its Jesus gives shape to what we do and say in social affairs, we shall end up bearing witness primarily to ourselves, by showing the world that we at least are where the action is. . .

And so it is that our text can redeem Christian participation in public affairs from sliding into a colorless humanism, just as it can redeem evangelism from being a gaudy recruitment exercise.  It can do this by redeeming us from bearing witness to half a Jesus and to half a gospel.  Let diversity flourish, but let polarization disappear as we find again the meaning of full witness to Jesus. . . 

. . . our text promises this renewal when we receive the power of God’s presence . . .

What I am suggesting is that we may find this power where we lost it–at the place where we began separating word from deed. What I am suggesting is that when we begin to combine them once again, when our witness to the power of the gospel to save persons begins to include a witness that remodels the world, and when our effort to reshape the world includes forthright witness to Jesus as the one in whose name we struggle, power will be there.  Has it not been true again and again that there was strength necessary for this task? . . . 

When we find ourselves shying away from witnessing to Jesus Christ in either word or deed, it’s sometimes because at that particular moment, one seems harder than the other. We are tempted to take refuge in a side that fits our mood, our inclinations, our feelings of what we’re up for.  Our talents may better serve one “side” or another, but the Church needs all of us, and God wants all of us to work together, to witness together, and not as a house divided.  And Jesus promises no less than the power of God to witness to the full Jesus and the full gospel, not just half.


Photo of mosaic from Ideas for Celebrating Pentecost at home at umc.org

  1. Amen!! Powerful,timeless words. What a beautiful reminder that God wants to redeem and restore everything – to draw us all to Him that our lives AND our world will look more like the Kingdom. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was as though “everything good” was put together. I did feel the need to read twice to capture the full message.
    Thank you for forwarding this.

    Miss you and Joe but know what good work you are doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your last paragraph says it all. Just like in Mary Hagbee’s book “Lessons From Afar” our talent and abilities are given to us to share and in return, we experience the deep satisfaction that comes from having a meaningful purpose and connection to others.

    Liked by 2 people

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