What is the Gospel?

Part 1 of 4 of a Summer Sermon Series (2012) by Rev. John Goldingay

There’s going to be more things to think about than I usually try to put in a sermon, but if you can’t grasp it all, don’t worry.  After church each week there’ll be a handout you can have with the content of the sermon on it, so you can take it home.  And if there are things we talk about that you would like to talk about, then there’ll also be four discussions about the four topics.  That will be at 9:00 A.M. each Sunday.  I imagine we will talk for about three-quarters of an hour – but we’ll see how it goes.  The discussions will come a week after the sermon, so the first discussion will be next week.  There’ll be coffee and pastries to pick up in the parish hall, then we’ll meet in the quiet room.

So the first topic is:  what is the gospel?

If you ask someone what is the essential thing about Christian faith, I suspect they would quite likely say that it’s that God is love, or that it’s about loving God, or that it’s about loving our neighbor.  And all those things are central to Christian faith.  But the trouble with those answers is that there’s nothing particularly Christian about them.  Moslems believe God is love.  Jews believe we should love God.  Atheists believe we should love our neighbor.  Remember the Beatles – “All You Need Is Love”?

So what’s more distinctive about Christian faith?  That’s where the word “gospel” comes in.  The word “gospel” means “good news” or a “good story.”  That’s why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are called Gospels – they are the good story as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell it.  The gospel is the story about Jesus.  The story about Jesus is the essential thing about Christian faith.  Moslems don’t believe in the story about Jesus.  Jews don’t.  Atheists don’t.  They may believe lots of things that Jesus said, but they don’t accept the Jesus story in the way that Christians do.  As far as we are concerned, the story about Jesus is the most important thing in the world.  We know that the Jesus story gives us the clue about what life is about and about what God is about.  The fact that God is love is essential to Christian faith.  The fact that we are called to love God and love our neighbor is essential to Christian faith.  But the center of Christian faith is a statement about something God did, a statement like this one from John’s Gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him has eternal life.

That’s the center of Christian faith.  But the Christian story doesn’t start with Jesus.  It starts way back before Jesus’ coming.  When John tells the story of Jesus, he doesn’t start with that statement about God giving his Son.  John’s Gospel starts with creation.  In effect, what he says is this.  If you’re going to understand Christian faith, you need to understand the story of Jesus.  But if you’re going to understand the story of Jesus, you’ve got to understand what God was doing before Jesus.  Jesus is the climax of the story of what God had been doing in the world.  You know how if you miss the beginning of a movie, you probably have a hard time understanding what the rest of the movie is about?  It’s like that with the Jesus story.  So let’s go back to the beginning.  Actually maybe the story of what God had been doing is more like a sequence of episodes in a television series.  I’m going to think of them as ten episodes.

Episode one, the beginning, is the ultimate beginning, the creation of the world.  That’s where John starts in his Gospel story.  Back at the ultimate beginning, John says, Jesus was there.  God’s creating the world was the beginning of the story that comes to a climax with Jesus.  Why begin there?  One implication is that God is concerned about the whole world.  Yes, God is concerned about our individual lives and he is concerned about the church, but we need to see God’s involvement with us on the broadest canvas.  God is concerned for the whole world; he created it.  He put humanity in the world to serve the world – that’s how Genesis puts it.  Nowadays we’re very aware of the way we spoil the world rather than serving it.  We are here to serve it.

When Genesis describes God creating the world in six days, it’s using picture language.  It’s saying that creation was as if God was doing a week’s work and then having a day off, like anyone else.  We don’t have to take the picture language literally.  We don’t have to oppose the idea that the world came into existence over billions of years and that one species evolved from another.  If it came into being that way, fine – this process was the one God used in creating the world.  The important thing is that God was the creator – the world did not come into being by accident – and that at the end of the process, God could look at the world and enjoy the fact that it was a really good world.

So episode one is “God created.”  Episode two is “God started over.”  God gave the first human beings vast freedom in the world, but put one limitation on them – “Don’t touch that one tree.”  So they made a beeline for that one tree and got themselves into a load of trouble.  They affected the relationship between them and God in a way that had implications for everyone who would follow, even for us.  Things got worse with their children and grandchildren and God all but abandoned the whole project and destroyed the world, but instead God started over with Noah.  The trouble is that the pattern repeated itself.

So that development leads to episode three, “God promised.”  God took hold of one family, the family of Abraham, to make them a working model of what it meant to be a people who belonged to God.  The idea was that other families would then be drawn to seek this God.  It wasn’t entirely the family’s fault that this plan became imperiled because the family had to take refuge in Egypt as the result of a famine.  They did become a sizeable people there, the people Israel, but they ended up forced to be servants of the Egyptians.

Episode four therefore is “God rescued.”  God freed the Israelites so that they could become his people in their own land, and gave them lots of description of the lifestyle he expected of them in this land.  The instructions he gave them covered the kind of way they should worship and the kind of way they should live their community life.  The trouble is that the story that follows largely has the same dynamics as the earlier episodes of the story.  People just aren’t very good at doing what God says.

So you could then call episode five “God wrestled.”  Sometimes God did get people to do what he said.  Sometimes he got to the end of his patience and let some terrible disaster happen to them.  The worst was when he let Jerusalem be destroyed and allowed many of the people to be taken off into exile.  But then he let them come back and they were able to rebuild the city and the temple, and in some ways the subsequent part of the story was the happiest part.  They gave up worshiping other gods and making idols and they were much better at doing what God said.  Yet they still found themselves under the authority of a sequence of superpowers, who sometimes tried to stop them worshiping God in the way God said.

And that’s the background to Jesus’ coming, episode six, “God sent.”  Many Jews recognized that they needed a Messiah, someone who would free them from the authority of the superpower, who would restore them to what they were supposed to be, and Jesus came to be that person.  The Jews were a powerless, insignificant people; it was a contradiction of what they were supposed to be.  Jesus came to be the agent of restoring them.  He thus came to preach good news to the poor.  He healed people and threw demons out of them.  He reminded them of the kind of lifestyle that one would expect of people who lived in God’s kingdom.  Episode six.

The weird thing was that many of them didn’t like what he did and what he said.  It was especially the powerful people, people like priests and professors, who didn’t like it, because he was a threat to them.  So they were against him, and eventually they turned the ordinary people against him too.  It wasn’t difficult to persuade the political authorities to agree with them that Jesus was a danger to the Roman administration.  He was a threat to the Roman administration.  So they all worked together in order to get rid of him.  And God let this happen.  “God abandoned him,” you could say.  When he was being executed, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  It’s episode seven.

Why would God abandon Jesus?  Why didn’t God rescue him?  What God chose to do, and what Jesus agreed to, was to let human beings do their worst, and then win the victory over it.  Jesus was the embodiment of God.  He was God incarnate.  So we killed him.  You can’t do anything worse to anyone than kill them.  So the inclination to do wrong that had come out back in episode two comes to its climax in episode seven.  God lets humanity do its worst by killing Jesus, and then brings him back to life.  God lets humanity do its worst in rejecting God, and then says, “You still haven’t put me off, I still love you.”  It’s episode eight.  God raised.

Episode nine is Pentecost.  We shall celebrate it in two weeks’ time.  God poured out his spirit, poured out himself, on Jesus’ disciples.  Pentecost was a festival when there were people from all over the world in Jerusalem.  So God poured himself out in a way that the whole world could see.  People could go back home from Jerusalem and tell the world about what God had done.  The followers of Jesus themselves started going around the world telling people about it.  There was one of those Jewish leaders who had been absolutely opposed to Jesus, a man called Saul, and God smacked him on the jaw until he recognized the truth about Jesus and then applied himself to spreading the gospel story around the world.  So that eventually the story reached people like your ancestors and mine.

Episode ten is the episode that is still to come.  Maybe we should see episode nine as the cliffhanger at the end of the season and episode ten is the one we wait for in the fall.  Jesus is going to come back. Because it’s still not the case that God’s creation purpose has been completed.  But it’s going to be completed.

There’s the gospel story.  God created.  God started over.  God promised.  God rescued.  God wrestled.  God sent.  God abandoned.  God raised.  God poured out.  God will complete.

Next: What is the Bible?

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