Monday, January 11, 2010

So You Know What the Gospel Is, Do You?

Romans 1:7-16
7 To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9 For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10 asking that by God's will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you-- 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15 -- hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.


I've gotten a lot of emails about inspirational stories and prayers and various Christian topics. Sometimes I've gotten the exact same one from different people on the very same day. And, often, there's a warning that comes along with them: that only a very small percentage of people will forward them on to others and those that do forward them are not ashamed of their faith in Jesus. Really? That means that everyone who doesn't forward them on is ashamed? Did anyone who wrote that—and believes it—ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, some people don't forward them because it's just annoying to do so and that they aren't ashamed of their faith in Jesus, but in passing along emails with silly superstitious messages attached to them?
When we hear the word "gospel", what do we think it means? Do we even give it any thought at all, or is it just a churchy keyword? For many people today, even if they know it literally means "good news", to them, "gospel" might mean the promise of going to Heaven after we die, because Jesus died for our sins. But is that what Paul meant by the word gospel? When he says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, does he mean he is not ashamed that he'll get to go to heaven someday? Why would that be something to be ashamed about? Many cultures and people have had ideas about what an afterlife consisted of, so it doesn't seem like even if that is what Paul meant, it would be out of the ordinary.
N.T. Wright, a prominent theologian and bishop in the Church of England, tells us in his book What Saint Paul Really Said that most people think of the word gospel as an order of salvation; that it is "a description of how people get saved" or how "Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness" or Jesus becoming a personal savior (p 41). He goes on to say that if many people heard "a sermon in which the claims of Jesus Christ are related to the political or ecological questions of the day, some people will say that…the subject was interesting, but the gospel wasn't preached." (41).
Another author I love, Brian McLaren, writes in his book A New Kind of Christian, which is written as a fictional story, during a conversation between two characters that though many people equate "the gospel" with accepting Jesus as one's personal savior, it isn't how Jesus meant it either.
I'm not sure how we've come so far from Jesus and Paul, and even if I was, it would probably take a lot longer to explain than the time we have today, but what we can ask ourselves now is what is it about this gospel that Paul has to clarify that he is not ashamed of it?
The term gospel, or in Greek, euangelion, isn't something that was made up out of thin air. Paul didn't say, "hey, I think I'll coin a brand new term when I write to people about Jesus." He used an idea that was already well-known in both Jewish and Greek cultures. A form of this word is found in Isaiah 40:9 and Isaiah 52:7. They read:
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings; lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, 'Here is your God!'
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.' (42).
That is the Jewish background.
The Greek background has to do with euangelion being a term that referred to an announcement of a victory or a birth or accession of an emperor (43).
To look at these two ideas together, that God has arrived and reigns and that God is victorious is, perhaps, the very gospel that Paul says he is not ashamed of. And it makes a little more sense that he could be ashamed to be announcing this. Can you imagine? People thinking Paul's out of his mind, telling him "umm…Paul…you know that guy Jesus died, right? He can't be the Messiah, much less be God reigning and victorious."
Let's take a look at that verse again:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
So if we look at the gospel as the announcement of God's arrival in Jesus, we see that God's arrival brings God's power, and it's not limited to the Jewish nation who was waiting for their Messiah, but is for the salvation of everyone. God's not leaving anyone out.
I don't know about you, but to me, the announcement of the arrival of God in our world, interacting with us, working through us, and with us, and identifying with us is a lot more exciting, sounds like a lot better news than an announcement of "oh, by the way, now you can for sure go to Heaven when you die." Honestly, if our life here is only so we can somehow figure out how to make the right choice for a future afterlife, then doesn't it kind of feel as if something's missing? But if our life here is the start of something, if our life here and now is under God's reign, if in Jesus God is among us, then how can our lives be different? How can we understand that to not only know what difference it makes to us, but to how we can also share the good news of God's arrival to make a difference in other people's lives?
The new year is a time of making resolutions, and maybe a good one to make this year is to try to really understand what it means to live a life in light of the gospel that Paul has proclaimed to us.

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