Who Would Win: St. Paul vs. St. Frank

Proper 18 texts at www.textweek.com

Jeremiah 18:1-11           Deut. 30:15-20              Philemon 1:1-21            Luke 14:25-33

Please note: Today’s devotional is an example of Why We Need Editors. Apparently when I first wrote this in 2016, I mistook the “Phil.” of Philemon for Philippians! Oops! The original reflection, based on PhilIPPIANS 1:1-21 is below. But to quote St. Paul from the OTHER “Phil.,”: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” (PhilEMON 1:6) And I would add: “…in spite of all our goofs.” 🙂


What does it matter? Just this: that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.              Philippians 1:18

When my older son was an early-elementary student, his school hosted the author Jerry Palotta, creator of a fascinating (to 8-year-old boys, at least) series of “Who Would Win” books. After that visit my son read every “Who Would Win” book he could find. Each book imagines a battle between two real-life creatures, applying scientific facts about each animal to determine which would be more likely to defeat the other. “Who Would Win: Komodo Dragon vs. King Cobra”… “Who Would Win: Lion vs. Tiger”… “Who Would Win: Killer Whale vs. Great White Shark”… and so on and so on.

When I first read Philippians 1:1-21, my honest instinct was to run away. In a who-would-win battle with Paul, given the choice of “fight or flight,” I’d take the flight! Many of us, I have a hunch, come from a strong tradition of “Paul said it, I believe it, that settles it.” If the apostle Paul says so, then he must be right. (And I for one would not want to engage him in a battle of words–or, for that matter, of wits!) And yet, it is hard for me to get on board with the idea that those who proclaim Christ “from envy and rivalry” or “out of selfish ambition” are furthering the cause of Christ. Words matter, yes; but talk can also be cheap. How much damage has been done in the life of the church, in the lives of people, in the history of faith, by those who proclaim one thing but live another? If the proclaimer cannot be trusted, how can anyone trust the One who is proclaimed?

Francis of Assisi may never have actually uttered the oft-quoted line “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words,” but in his writings the theme does bubble up: in Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, where Francis taught that his followers should not preach without the proper permission, he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” My gut reaction to St. Paul is to turn to St. Frank! Would Paul have been less tolerant of shady motives if he had lived, as we do, surrounded by incessant and unfiltered talk? Would Francis have focused even more on the importance of the walk?

Probably a “who would win” contest between these two saints would be a bit of a let-down. My guess is they’d have a heart-to-heart, a cup of tea, and perhaps just a bit of spirited debate. Francis, after all, was himself a prolific preacher, and even Paul wrote that to speak without love is to be merely a “clanging cymbal.” (I Cor. 13:1) Instead of an epic battle, my hunch is they’d find common ground: we preach by walk and by talk–with both the heart and the mouth. Christ’s word and Christ’s way are proclaimed in our words and in our ways. And Christ is proclaimed most fully in the grace he offers to everyone who preaches Good News, and everyone who hears and sees it–grace even, and especially, for each of our wrong steps and for every one of our rotten motives. Christ is proclaimed through us, in spite of us, because of us–through our steps and our sermons; in spite of our falterings and failings; and because of our willingness to receive grace and to give thanks for it. 

First published 8/29/16 on www.bwim.info/blog

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