What is The Gospel?
Well, today is Saint Mark’s day which is why we listened to the opening chapter (or at least the opening 15 verses) of his gospel and the question that occurred to me when I first read them was ‘What is the Good News of which both Mark and Jesus spoke?
Because Mark opens his book with the words ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ’ and the reading ended with Jesus himself telling us to repent and believe the good news or, an alternative translation, repent and believe the gospel and of course that phrase, The Gospel, has become a shorthand in the church for the Christian message. But what exactly is the Christian message?
Well, during Lent we explored the question ‘What is church?’ and, related to that, ‘What or who is a Christian?’ and this question, what is the gospel, is similar: both in that it’s a fundamental one and because it’s surprisingly difficult to answer. Because just as people have very different views on what you have to do or believe to be a good Christian or on how the church should operate, so you may find that no two people would answer this question, what is the gospel, in the same way. And in fact, I did find precisely that…
Now it may be because we’re in the run up to a general election and all around us people are trying to sum up what they stand for and what they will do for us in short, media-friendly soundbites or it could be my background in sales where again, you have to be able to explain why someone should deal with you and not the competition in, ideally, less than 30 seconds, the so-called elevator pitch, but what I decided to do when I first started planning this sermon was to ask people to say what they thought the Christian message is in a single sentence. And I did this via the magic of the internet. Specifically facebook and ship of fools.com, the Christian discussion board which I think I’ve mentioned before. And in just a few days I got about 50 responses.
Now a few of those people weren’t actually offering their gospel in a nutshell answer but, rather, questioning the wisdom of even trying to do so; indeed, in line with what I said about pre-election soundbites a moment ago, one sarcastic poster quipped ‘Why would anyone want to sum up the Christian message in a sentence? Is Jesus up for re-election too?
Other people felt that the exercise was pointless because it had already been done definitively either by Saint Paul in, say, Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 11; or by Jesus himself when he said that the whole law could be summed up in the twin commandments love the lord your god with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself.
Well, clearly I’m not going to argue with Jesus! But let’s remember that that was Jesus’ summary of the law i.e. the 10 commandments and the other laws of Moses and surely the gospel is something different? Indeed some people would say that the good news of Jesus is precisely that we are saved by God’s grace and not by obeying the law. As one of my online respondees put it in less technical theological terms, ‘God is not mad with me, instead, He's put 'Welcome home bad boy' over his front door. Clearly inspired by the story of the prodigal son…
Now that to me is genuinely good news and I am convinced that the gospel has to be good news – well, of course it does because, as we’ve seen, the word gospel means good news – and yet as one of my shipmates put it (because members of the ship of fools refer to each other as shipmates). As he put it, a lot of Christians seem to think that our message should be ‘the majority of humankind is going to hell; especially gays. Which, I’m sure you’d agree is not exactly good news. For anyone.
Now to be fair, that’s probably a bit of a caricature but at least one shipmate did sum up their gospel, their ‘good news’, as: ‘God is nice and he likes you’ (so far so good) ‘but… if you aren't nice to God and your neighbour you will be cast aside like rubbish… So again, not really good news.
Now of course some people would defend that by saying that the gospel is only good news if you’ve already heard and understood the bad news. So, for example, CS Lewis argued that when Christianity first appeared on the scene, people were painfully aware of the fact that they were sinners and that they were separated from God by their sin; so when Christians told them that (to quote Saint Paul) ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself not counting mens sins against them’ that was immediately and obviously fantastic news. Today, however, people might not even believe in God let alone in the idea of sin so, unfortunately, we can’t make the good news meaningful to them without telling them the bad news first. Which, from a certain perspective, makes us the bearers of bad news and clearly Christians are often perceived as judgemental, puritanical, killjoys by people outside the church.
However, I think that the problem goes deeper than that. It seems to me that this ‘I need to tell you the bad news before I can tell you the good news’ approach turns the gospel into a more serious version of one of those I’ve got some good news and some bad news jokes of which my favourite has to be the one about the preacher who got into the pulpit one Sunday and said to his congregation: "I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, we have more than enough money to pay for our new building program. The bad news is, it's still in your pockets." Hmm. I guess I can’t use that in a stewardship campaign now. Probably not a good idea anyway…
But the point is, the ‘gospel’ that says, if you do this, you’ll be okay but if you don’t you won’t is not, in my opinion, good news; indeed it’s debateable whether it’s actually news at all. It’s a bit like those things you get from Reader’s Digest or whoever saying you ‘may have won this, that or the other’. Well, pardon me if I don’t start jumping up and down with excitement. In fact, don’t bother me until I have actually won something. And the gospel as I understand it is good news of that order; not that something might happen if we do something first but that something has already happened; something that has changed the whole of creation including our lives whether we know or care about it or not.
Of course the whole reason we preach this gospel is so that people will know and subsequently repent i.e. abandon their old ways of thinking and living and get with this new and exciting programme. But what about those who don’t repent? Well, the 40-odd people who participated in my online survey divided into two basic groups: there were those, like me, whose gospel, is, simply, ‘God loves you’ and those who are, effectively, saying ‘God loves you but…’
Now, I consider it a general principle that when you hear the word ‘but’ in a sentence you can pretty much disregard everything that came before it: as in, I’d really like to help you … but I’m not going to. I guess you could reasonably say to someone ‘I love you but I won’t allow you to treat me like this’. Being assertive that’s called but (and notice the but there!) it seems to me that a key part of the message of Easter which we’re still celebrating, is that God loves us so much that he allowed us to abuse him – to the point of nailing him to a cross.
As I said earlier, Saint Paul summed up the gospel in Romans 5: when we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God’s love for us is prior to any good act on our part and can’t be negated by anything that we do or fail to do. As Paul said elsewhere: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is my gospel, the message that I want to proclaim to the world and I would like to encourage you all to think about yours…