Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Do You Spell “Gospel”?



             (lsaiah 52:7-10; Romans 1:16-17)

          “It’s the economy, stupid!”  Remember that?  James Carville’s slogan to keep Bill Clinton focused on the main issue of the 1992 Presidential campaign.  It’s now enshrined in American political lore. 

          I think we need a similar slogan for Christians:  “It’s the gospel, stupid!”  We have PSADD, you see, Promiscuous Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.  We’ll spread our attention and focus on almost anything like a dog marking a new territory.  But “the” thing we supposed be tethered to:  the gospel, slips from mind and heart with embarrassing ease. 

          In fact, I have that slogan taped on the inside cover of my Bible because I too have PSADD. I keep it there to continually remind me of what the central issue of ministry really is – the gospel!

          ln our New Testament reading from Romans we hear the Apostle Paul passionately exclaim , "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." As I listen to Paul I am tempted to think that here he is reminding himself, as well as his hearers, of what is really basic and fundamental - the gospel, the gospel. You see, Paul was no more immune than you or I to being distracted by PSADD.

          For the strange truth is that the gospel tends to slip out of our vision at just those points where we think we know it best! When I believe that I have the basics mastered and can turn my attention to other pressing matters, like committee work, stewardship programs, Wednesday Night suppers, counseling and so forth - I stand in danger of losing my focus and need the reminder, "lt's the gospel, stupid!"

What is this "gospel" that is so central to Christian faith and life? How would you describe it to a friend or neighbor? What truth or realities lie at the heart of what we believe? How, I want to ask this morning, do you spell "gospel"?

          I'm going to tell you how I spell it. And I'll do it by throwing out a word or phrase beginning with each letter of the word "gospel." Now you may or may not altogether agree with how I spell it. That's OK! What's important is for us to think together about the central reality of our lives - the gospel! How we dot every "i" or cross every "t" is probably less important than the process of thinking it through and in that process catching a new and fresh glimpse of the awesome reality of the God made known to us in Jesus Christ.

          Let’s get started.  I’ll stipulate that the “G” is not God.  God is at the heart of all we’ll talk about here and not just one letter.  Look at our Old Testament reading from lsaiah 52. Can you find anything there which might be our "G"? How about the "good news" in v.7?

          What makes the "gospel" good news? Three things come to mind. First, the "gospel" is news! lt is a report, a testimony, a declaration of what God has done for us. What we couldn't and wouldn't do for ourselves God has done for us. The "gospel" is not a set of rules and regulations we must follow to be acceptable to God. There's no moralism in the good news - whether it be the legalistic reinforcement of traditional morality from the right or the equally rigid insistence on the so-called "political correctness" from the left! There's simply an announcement of what God has done.  It’s front page newspaper stuff.  Not for the religion section or the op ed page – the front page, news!

          lf the "gospel" is news, it is also good news. That's the second thing I want to highlight. This declaration of what God has done for us is unimaginably good. lt's the news we most need to hear about our human condition. A friend of mine once said, in the midst of a severe struggle with his faith, "l need good news, not good advice!" And that good news is that god has defeated the foes of our humanity –sin, death, evil, and the devil.  God’s victory opens up to us a full and free forgiveness, unconditional acceptance and restoration to pursue again the purpose for which we were created. And that purpose is for us to serve God as his royal representatives reflecting his will and way in the world and protect the creation and nurture it to its full flourishing.  Such good news as this assaults our despair by beaming a laser of light to dispel any area of darkness in our lives.

          And that's the third thing I want to say about "good news." lt is good because it touches every area of our lives. The "gospel" is a cord made of many strands. And it's tragic when some Christians pick up only one strand and claim that it is the whole of the good news. And the tragedy is compounded when we grow suspicious of other Christians who discover other strands and end up fighting with each other over which side is right. I pray that we may all catch a glimpse of the many dimensions of God's "gospel" today.

          A group of Presbyterian churches issued a statement some years ago entitled "A Theological Basis for Evangelism." Listen to how they outline some of the many dimensions of the "gospel":

-for those suffering from the guilt of sin, the good news is forgiveness, restoration, and new life through Jesus Christ

-for those facing death, the good news is that in Jesus Christ...death is swallowed up in victory; that God goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death; and that beyond the grave, our Lord welcomes us into the Church Triumphant

-for those whose lives are consumed by materialism and pleasure, the good news is that Jesus' pattern of servanthood brings wholeness to life, that simplicity brings freedom

-for those whose lives are threatened, exploited, shattered, or oppressed, the good news is that God and God's people stand with them in defending life in all its fullness and advocating justice with dignity for all persons and groups.

          Now, how do you spell "gospel"?

          How about "o," the second letter? Both lsaiah and Paul point to it when they refer to God's care for all kinds of people. Paul refers to "Jews" and "Greeks" to denote all of humanity, and lsaiah speaks of God reaching out to all humankind.       

Therefore I call the "o" "openness."
   
       At the heart of the good news is the assurance of God's wondrous and radical openness to all kinds of folk. The wideness of God's heart is graphically symbolized by Jesus Christ on the cross. There, in those scarred and wounded arms, open and extended as fully as possible, a rebellious world finds itself wrapped in a divine embrace of mercy.

And as we experience that divine embrace of mercy ourselves, perhaps we will find it possible to open up to others. Maybe not quite as fully or as widely as Christ, but maybe wide enough to welcome and embrace some of the others around us, especially those others who are different from us and difficult for us to accept.

          Now, again, how do you spell "gospel"?

You can find the "s" of "gospel" in Romans 1:16. You found it didn't you? Yes, it’s "salvation." Or that's at least part of it. I'm going to change our spelling of "gospel" to include a double "s" because theologically we can't understand "salvation" without a consideration of "sin" too.

          Notice I said "sin" in the singular, not "sins" in the plural. That's because at the root of all the sins we commit is the reality of sin as a power which holds us in its sway; a power from which we cannot escape. The Bible primarily understands sin as a power at work in our lives, just as salvation is also a power at work in and among us. These two powers vie for control of our lives.

          This conflict between the power of sin and the power of salvation is fundamentally a conflict of loyalties. Sin warps our lives by inducing us to place loyalty to ourselves and our own interests above everything else. This self-loyalty is evident in the very way we describe the decades of our national life:  the seventies is the "I gotta be me" years, the eighties the "l gotta get mine" decade, the nineties, “I gotta get more,” and the two thousands, the “I gotta get yours” decade.

          The "gospel," however, comes announcing freedom from this warped loyalty (which it names as idolatry) and freedom for a new loyalty to God and the interests of God's kingdom. And the ability to declare and live out of this new loyalty is what the Bible calls "salvation"!

          And how are you going to spell "gospel" today?

          The fourth letter of "gospel," "p" captures the spirit of both our texts. How would you describe the way lsaiah and Paul feel about what they are writing about? I'd call it "passion."

          Once upon a time Satan was addressing his new recruits on the nuts and bolts of deception. He asks them what they think might work best. 

A young recruit immediately answered that every effort should be made to convince people that God did not exist. Satan smiled and replied, 'Ah, the frontal attack. We've tried that for centuries but with very little success. We've only a handful of true atheists to show for our trouble."

          Another recruit suggested, "Perhaps we could convince people that there is no hell."

          "We had a fair amount of success with that strategy. But it has seemed to run its course. We did ourselves in by promoting so much hatred and war and perversion that now people sense that there will indeed be a reckoning for the evil that they do. Any other ideas?"

          "How about telling folks that God is so easy-going and accepting that there's no need to rush into making any decision about religious matters."

          Satan perked up at this response and said, "You've hit upon our second most effective temptation. Promoting a sentimentalized view of God has for centuries been one of our better methods. There's still a better way, though."

          Puzzle as they might, the recruits could come up with no more ideas. Finally, one of them asked Satan, "Please tell us, Master, what is the best method!"

          "Our best method," he replied, "works with those who go to church regularly as well as those who do not. We call it ‘moderation.' We convince people not to get too excited or overly committed to God. This way they convince themselves that they are believers though in truth there is no fire in the soul. 'Moderation' works just about every time."

          Yes, fire in the soul, the passion for God and God's kingdom lies near to every faithful response to the gospel. This will exhibit itself differently from person to person, but it will be there! lt's part and parcel of the "good news."

Again, I need to ask, how do you spell "gospel"?

Good news, passionately embraced, can't be hoarded away in our hearts or in our churches. lt insists on being shared, spread abroad by word and deed. Thus, I would make "evangelism" the "e" of gospel.

Some media preachers and fundamentalists have given this great word a bad name. For some the mention of evangelism conjures up images of buttonholing people on the street corner and demanding to know if they are "saved." And in reaction many mainline Christians have reduced the content of evangelism to occasionally, very occasionally, inviting a friend or neighbor to church.

Evangelism, though, is neither a brow-beating moralism nor simple friendliness.  It is the announcement that Jesus is Lord of all, the only Lord with a rightful claim on our allegiance and love. This means that evangelism deals fundamentally with idolatry (who or what we serve) rather than morality (what we do). Evangelism does not mean pointing out people's faults and problems and telling them that Jesus will help them become a better person. lt does mean pointing out to them the false and destructive powers to which they given their allegiance and inviting them to turn from their idols and trust in the one true and living God.

Yet one more time, how do you spell "gospel"?

The "L" of "gospel" can hardly be anything other than "love" can it? Yet having said that, I realize t haven't said much until I say what I mean by "love." Moses Mendelssohn, one of the great minds of the 18th century, was much acclaimed as both a scholar and as a warm and compassionate person. When it came time for him to marry, his father arranged a marriage with Fromet Guggenheim, a rich, young and beautiful woman. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was of poor origins, and though brilliant, was small, ugly and had a hunchback.

The two had never met and first saw each other at a party in their honor. Fromet observed Mendelssohn at a distance as he talked with other guests. She was repulsed by his physical appearance. So repulsed, in fact, that she called the marriage off without even speaking to him.

Moses Mendelssohn, though, asked her for another opportunity to meet and talk.  Fromet Guggenheim agreed. After a few minutes of quiet conversation, Mendelssohn said, "l want to tell you a story."

"As you know," he began, "all marriages are arranged in heaven. Before I was born an angel was escorting me to earth. I asked if it was possible for me to see the woman God had selected for me. The angel answered that though it was highly unusual he thought it could be arranged.

"l was granted one look, and to my astonishment the woman had an ugly hump on her back. I pleaded with God, 'lt is not fair that a woman be a hunchback. She will be the object of scorn and contempt. I beg you, give me the hump, and let her be well formed and beautiful.'

Mendelssohn was silent a moment and then said, "God heard my prayer and granted my wish. I am that boy and you are that girl."

Fromet Guggenheim looked at Moses Mendelssohn with new eyes. The man she now saw sitting across from her, and whom she later married, was a man of deep compassion, uncommon grace and wonderfully attractive.

And that's the attractiveness of the God of the "gospel," a God willing to bear the hurt and pain of his creatures on their behalf and for their healing!

Now, I have to ask you again, how do you spell "gospel"?

Good news, openness to all people, the victory of salvation over sin, passion for God, evangelism and love - these are the heart of the gospel. And I suggest that the best way to spell it is not G-O-S-P-E-L but rather J-E-S-U-S C-H-R-I-S-T.

For he, he embodies each of those qualities and as such is a walking parable of the "gospel." He is the one through whom we experience the love and acceptance of God. Indeed, we know no other God save the one we meet in Jesus Christ.

And that gets us to the heart of the matter. Every barrier, every sin, every impediment to our relation to God has been dealt with and removed by Jesus Christ. The sole issue outstanding between God and humanity is Jesus Christ. He is either the good news of God or we have no good news at all!

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the last century, was asked late in his life what was the most profound theological thought he had ever had (which, by the way, is simply another way of asking our question, "How do you spell 'gospel'?") This wise and learned man, author of more than ten thousand pages of top shelf theology, pondered but a moment before answering. His reply astonished his listeners. For he said, "Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so."

One last time, I ask you, how do you spell "gospel"?

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