It almost feels sacrilegious to call the dean and prince of preachers by his first name. But this alliteration—Gardner’s Gospel— calls me to remember the greatest gift Dr. Gardner C. Taylor shared with the Church and the world. Above all else, Taylor dramatized with his life and ministry that Jesus was not only the center of our joy; Jesus is the center of the message and ministry of the Church and her servant leaders. In his book How Shall They Preach, he offers the following:
How we approach our preaching responsibility depends upon whether we consider proclamation of the gospel to be a matter of life and death. […] If we look upon ourselves as heralds of the great King […] to the hearts of human beings of that upon which turns the eternal health or the fatal sickness of people their private and corporate lives, then we shall see our work as preachers as something else again.
Preaching, Taylor urges, is a matter of life and death. All else in Taylor’s preaching and pastoral vocation flowed from his deep devotion to the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of the Lord of the universe. He took his work seriously because he did it under the light of eternity in reverent love of the One to whom he was graciously bound. His feet always swiftly carried the Gospel of Christ and His kingdom, glorifying Christ and not himself or his denomination or his race or his nation. As one preacher noted, to take Christ out of Taylor’s preaching would kill it. Christ alone had the preeminence. Hallelujah!
How befitting that Taylor would slip from his mortal coil on Resurrection Sunday 2015, that high and holy day when the saints celebrate Christ’s victory over death, hell, and the grave.
I have come to the sobering truth that though the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is rightly the most celebrated “authentic spiritual genius” produced on American soil (Taylor’s words of his friend), it is Dr. Taylor who may be our greatest Gospel herald. With poetic and prophetic imagination he always pointed us back to the Jesus of the Gospels. The historical Jesus of Nazareth whose incarnation, miracles, parables, and neighbor-love as recalled on the pages of the New Testament is the Christ of faith who came alive in Taylor’s faithful exposition of Scripture. This Jesus, Mary’s baby and God’s only begotten Son, saves sinners and calls out the falsehood of religious and political structures vying for God’s throne. Taylor surely said with Paul, “Him we proclaim.” (Col. 1:28) Nothing else mattered without its revolution around the eternal Word, the Light of the world. Dr. Taylor’s passion for prophetic justice, academic training, and the meeting of human needs found definition and purpose in his deep love of the Christ who first loved him.
Dean Taylor was almost a centenarian when he died at the age of 96. Though I never met him, I imagine that he was wealthy in wise interpretations of the times and seasons in which he was blessed to live, struggle, and triumph. But I get the sense that he interpreted his history, and the history of the world in which he sojourned, through the prism of the Gospel. With eyes illumined by the Holy Spirit he saw the Triune God at work and was driven to commit his all to a kingdom that is not of this world. He died the way he lived: enraptured in the just love of Jesus. There is something attractive about this humble, Christ-shaped vision for life and ministry, one that is needed, I believe, so much more in our times when extremes on the Left and the Right dismiss the full portrait of the biblical Jesus. Much of our preaching today majors on minors and no longer anchors its hopes in the Lord Christ.
But the One who knew Gardner by name, called him to Himself, radiates still in the Church among her fallible proclaimers. The Gospel that came alive on Gardner’s golden tongue is that same timeless Word of hope for times like these. And it is this Gospel, the whole counsel of God mediated through biblical revelation, that still offers the world the best way out of isolation, depression, injustice, and purposelessness.
The Gospel is still the power of God unto salvation to those who believe.