Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Preaching the Gospel

Mark 1:14-16 "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news."

This past Sunday I got "Joe Wilsoned" as I preached a sermon to a congregation on Cape Cod. It was relatively early in the sermon and as I mentioned that the Bible was difficult to understand and contained inconsistencies, a man shouted out "No!" I wasn't quite sure what he was going to do, as he fidgeted in his pew, noticeably agitated. But there were no more outbursts, he didn't walk out, and after a few minutes he physically settled back down. He did, however, speak to me after the service.

After quite a bit of conversation, I'm still unsure why his outburst came at the point that it did. He told me he was not a hard-core literalist--for instance he recognizes that the earth is more than 6,000 years old--but he fussed and fussed at me that I didn't move my sermon to an altar call and "preach the gospel." "It's all about the blood," he said. "People are going to hell and we have to tell them that Jesus died for their sins. That's the gospel, and that's all there is."

Well, I knew where he was coming from, since I believed that many years ago. Like this man, I had been trained to believe that "Jesus died for our sins" was it. That's the gospel. But then I saw that in many places across Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus preached the "gospel" and several times sent out his disciples to do the same thing. "Wait," I thought. "There was apparently some content to the gospel years before Jesus' death and resurrection. How can that be?"

So I looked for clues about the content of this "gospel" that Jesus and his disciples preached during Jesus' lifetime. The Mark passage above shows us what that content was for Jesus, and in Matthew 10:7 Jesus also tells his disciples to preach, "The kingdom of heaven has come near." The Greek word for "near" is eggizo which is not a word about near in time, but rather refers to being physically near.

The "gospel" or "good news" that Jesus and his disciples preached during Jesus' lifetime was not the gospel of Easter (which hadn't happened yet) but of Christmas. God has shown up on earth in human flesh. The kingdom has come near and is standing beside you bringing you healing and hope in a very physical, tangible way. That is not to negate the importance of Good Friday and Easter, merely to say that to see "the gospel" as only a doctrine of the atonement is, at best, incomplete.

In fact, on closer reading "the gospel" appears not to be a doctrine at all. "The gospel" is the news that God is willing to take those made in the image of God and fill them also with the Spirit of God. The "gospel" is the life of Jesus, from birth through death to resurrection to breathing the Holy Spirit into his followers so that that they may carry on his work (John 20:21-22).

That's why we call the records of the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John "gospels." They are not just passion narratives, although those are critical. It's the whole life of Jesus--and even beyond. The only reason we don't consider the book of Acts (also written by Luke) as a "gospel" is because Luke ran out of scroll and had to start a second one, which we came to treat as a separate book. The gospel is not just the good news of what God did in Jesus, but also the good news that what God did in Jesus God is also willing to do in us, the Body of Christ.

Jesus could not be contained in the tomb. Neither can the gospel.

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