So words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are dumb. It is stupid to set them against each other. It is, for example, stupid to say: “The one thing that matters is to go everywhere and preach the gospel; all other activities such as schools and hospitals and programs for social action are at best merely auxiliary and at worst irrelevant.” Why should people believe our preaching that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus if they see no evidence that disease and ignorance and cruelty and injustice are being challenged and overcome? Why should they believe our words if there is nothing happening to authenticate them?

On the other hand, it is equally stupid to say: ” Preaching is a waste of time. Forget it and get on with tackling the real human problems of poverty, injustice and oppression.” That is to repeat the folly of the people who are fed in the desert. It is to confuse the sign with the thing it points to. Our best programs are not the kingdom of God; they are full of our pride and ambition – as the world easily sees. But apart from these obvious inconsistencies, we surely now that human beings have a greater and more glorious destiny than even the best of our programs can offer. To a hungry man a good meal looks like heaven; when he has eaten it he knows that it is not. We know that our true life is beyond our grasp, and we are deceived when we invest all our hopes, and encourage others to invest all their hopes, in programs that do not reach beyond the horizon of this present age.

I know that some will denounce this language as escapist, but in fact it is simply realist. The best of our programs are still full of the seeds of their own corruption. We do not establish God’s kingdom. That kingdom, that kingly rule, has been given to us in the form of the suffering servant, the wounded healer, the crucified liberator. God’s kingdom is a given fact, and our actions for justice and compassion are at the very best only signs, pointers to help men and women to turn round so that it becomes possible for them also to believe in the reality of that kingdom, to have a foretaste of its liberating power, to follow in the way of the cross and to find in it life – a life that death cannot threaten.

Our preaching is mere empty words if it does not have behind it a costly engagement with the powers of evil, with the powers that rob men and women of their humanity, and if it does not call men and women to share in the same costly engagement…

Mission in Christ’s Way by Lesslie Newbigin

(Photographic art by Simon K, piece entitled “Stay with us“)