Donald P. Richmond
Millions of people throughout this country and the world receive a benediction, a blessing, at the end of Divine Service. These benedictions take on a variety of forms depending upon each season of the church year, denominational distinctions, or biblically informed personal preferences. One of my favorite benedictions is “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Having received Holy Communion, the Eucharist, love, peace, and service, are commended.
In fact, given the nature of Holy Communion, love, peace and service, are not just commended, they are commanded. This is emphasized inSt. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian Christians who, while highly gifted, often failed to live a graced life. Instead of properly evaluating their responsibilities to other Christians (and the world at large), as participation in Eucharist clearly calls us to do, they exclusively focused upon their own needs.St. Paul suggests that some of their members were overfed while others went hungry. Their self-centered actions were an affront to God and resulted in both personal illness and social discord. The admonition to “love” and “serve” were ignored, Christ’s Lordship was not honored, and peace was compromised.
The late Dr. Robert E. Webber has written that any Service of Worship, whether Holy Communion is given weekly or not, should always at some time focus upon Christ’s sacrifice, suffering, and propitiatory death. As such, if Webber’s analysis is correct, this emphasis will always commend and command us to love, peace, and service. Christ’s sacrifice always challenges us about the sacrifices we are called to make in order to effectively be and share Christ’s good news.
But how are we to proclaim this peace? How does Christ call us to share? How is Christ’s death (and, of course, resurrection and ascension) to be lived through our lives? St. Francis ofAssisiis purported to have said, “Preach the gospel and, when necessary, use words.” St. Francis makes a good point. Gospel calls us to social action.
And this is precisely the problem. How should we act? In what ways should Christians be socially engaged? Frankly, I believe that most Christians have entirely misapplied the Bible’s emphasis about caring for the poor, marginalized, oppressed, and downtrodden. It is not that we have not sought to do so, but, rather, it is the very manner by which we seek to enact change that is (at best) highly suspicious. Reacting to the gross inaction of many evangelical Christians of the late 1950’s – 1970’s, we have now gone to the opposite extreme.
A number of years ago my very socially active and aware cousins asked me if I believed in Liberation Theology. I told them that the Bible does not in any way contain a system of thought called Liberation Theology, but that the Bible was very much concerned with a theology of liberation. This led to a very fruitful discussion about the distinctions between the two– and there are very significant distinctions.
Christians today often think that social action must be decidedly social. Engaging in a variety of efforts that help others, we believe that we have somehow proclaimed peace. Having taken some action, we naively assume that it is gospel-action. This is not the case. We must proclaim good news through means that are biblically reasonable and responsible. Words and actions are called for, but they must be actions that are properly ordered. Proper social action must be entirely gospel-action or the Bible’s emphasis upon social concern will inevitably be reduced to a form of social gospel. The outcome of doing God’s will in our way, at least in this context, inevitably results in do-gooder Christianity. Such actions are “stillborn” regarding gospel-intention.
Let me be blunt. The peace we proclaim through word and deed must always and without exception have evangelism as its intention. Christ must invariably be our emphasis. Consequently, gospel-action of a social nature must have Church at its center. Evangelism must be the actions of the Eucharistic Ecclesia, the Ecclesia which says “go” and “serve” because we have participated freely in Christ’s body and blood “given” for each of us. We go, serve, and proclaiming peace, as Christians who love others because Christ first loved us. His actions prompt ours. While attentiveness to the needs of others is always to be encouraged, it is doing God’s will in God’s way that imbues such actions (by God’s grace) with redemptive value. When we hear benedictions such as, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we must respond as the Church in Christ’s name.
I celebrate the return of social concern and action among youth today. I relish the challenges proposed by those who oppose the status quo of comfortable Christians. I acknowledge my own need to be challenged. Nevertheless, if we are going to take action let us do so in Christ’s name. Let us return to the gospel that is not just social, but, rather, truly good news of Jesus Christ. All social action is not salvific action. All social action is not sanctifying action. To receive a true benediction, we must “go” and “serve” and “love” from the heart of our Eucharist fellowship.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, is an examining chaplain with the Reformed Episcopal Church, Anglican Church in North America, and a widely published author.