What is the Gospel?

Rev. Sarah Buteux
July 7, 2013
Luke 10:1-20

If you have been coming here for any length of time then you know I often like to begin my sermons with some questions. And I’m going to do that again this morning, but here’s the thing: I do not want you to answer. I mean it. I don’t even want you to raise your hands.

I want you to play it close to the vest this morning, as much for my sake as for yours, because your responses to these questions will reflect just as much on me –your pastor – as they will on you.  Ok? So clasp your hands and prepare not to participate. Can you handle it? Are you ready? Excellent.

Question #1: How many of you feel comfortable sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others?

Just think about it. I’m watching you.

How many of you feel comfortable sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others?  I’m sure we’ve all met people who are. I was cornered by a woman in Marshalls just a few weeks ago - right between lingerie and house wares - a woman who was quite determined to share the gospel with me. And let me tell you, the fact that I was a pastor did nothing to dissuade her from thinking I really needed to hear it. Actually the fact that I was a pastor and yet so obviously not a man - I was shopping in Marshalls after all - may well have convinced her that I needed to hear it more than most.

She was comfortable. But how many of you are? (Again, please don’t admit this out loud). How many of you honestly feel comfortable sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others?

That is question # 1. Here is question # 2: How many of you know, in so many words, what the gospel of Jesus Christ even is?

(I probably should have asked that first, given that it’s pretty hard to share something if you don’t really know what it is you are supposed to be saying when you do.)

So maybe that is the real question for this morning. What is the gospel?

I think some of you know that the word “gospel” literally means good news, but what’s the news that’s so good?

Is it that Jesus died for my sins?

Is it that Jesus loves me?

Is it: “do unto other as you would have them do unto you;” God is love; or “love your neighbor as yourself?”

Can you even find it in the gospels or did Paul say it best in Romans chapter 10:9 when he wrote: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved?

Oh yeah people, I have that one memorized.  There was a time when I used to corner people in Marshalls too… ok maybe not Marshalls, but when and where is beside the point.  The point is this: if you’re starting to feel a little dazed, confused, uncomfortable, or– I don’t know – maybe even vaguely guilty (like, “man I should totally know the answer to this, but I’m really not sure?”); don’t worry.  I didn’t want to make you answer out loud because the truth is that it’s not an easy question to answer… (cue sigh of relief) at least not if you’re looking for the right answer.

A few months ago the Christian Century sent out a request to some prominent Christian pastors and theologians asking them to define the gospel in 7 words or less, which I thought was quite clever given that Jesus himself articulates the gospel in a mere seven words – 7 words you actually heard in our reading this morning - but none of them – none of these Christian bigwigs - quoted Jesus, and each of them had something different to say.

“God gets the last word,” said Martin Copenhaver.

“We are who God says we are,” said Nadia Bolz-Weber.

M. Craig Barnes said, “We live by grace.”

Carol Zaleski, that “He led captivity captive.” (I love that one).

“God was born. We can be reborn,” said Carol Howard Merritt.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world,” said Lamin Sannah

And our very own Lillian Daniel wrote: “everybody gets to grow and change.”

Seven different theologians. Seven different gospels. Amazing isn’t it? We talk so much about the gospel and yet there is so little agreement about what - precisely - it actually is… and that’s ok. If you didn’t know the answer before, that’s ok. In fact, I think that’s how it should be, how Jesus hoped it would be, because the gospel… isn’t just words. The gospel isn’t the answer you need to get right if you want to go to heaven when you die. The gospel is not the creed you simply need to believe in if you want to be saved.

Friends, the gospel is so much bigger than that, so much more wonderful, so overwhelmingly powerful that even the seven words Jesus used to describe it are really just the beginning.

Now has anyone gone back to the scripture that was read this morning and figured out what those seven words are? Jesus sent out the 70 to proclaim the good news that… drum roll .... “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”

That’s it. For those of you who prefer the KJV: “The kingdom of heaven has drawn nigh.” “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That’s the gospel, the heart of the good news Jesus himself came to proclaim to all the world, and likewise that is the good news we are commissioned to proclaim as well.

Sometimes it’s as many as nine words. Back in Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”  “Repent,” which doesn’t just mean ask forgiveness for your sins and get right with God because the end is nigh. Actually, “repent,” to quote Brian Mclaren, “means literally to become pensive again,” to re-think what you thought you knew, to change your mind, maybe even change you heart. [1]

All of which makes sense because you see if the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, then that means you have the opportunity to re-think everything, rethink everything from the ground up; reconsider not just how you are living your life, but why …why you are living your life the way that you are.

If the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, it means that you have the opportunity to disengage – not just from your own sinful patterns - but from the sinful patterns that define the kingdoms of this world: those systematic patterns of oppression and injustice that increase the divisions between the rich and the poor, between people of different races, between people of different cultures, religions, and lands; systemic evils that hurt us all whether we realize it or not. 

But the good news of Jesus has the potential to set us free from all that. The good news of Jesus has the potential to help us change all that, because you see if his kingdom has drawn near than that means we have an opportunity to pledge allegiance to a whole new kind of kingdom, God’s kingdom, embrace a whole new set of values, God’s values, and live into a whole new way of being right here and right now.

Brian McLaren sums it up this way:

…the most striking single element of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom may have been “The time has come!” The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now (Mark 1:15). Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday, oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday, the planet should be healed someday, we should study war no more someday.

But for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets – of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted – was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future: the dream was being fulfilled today (Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts, (somebody tell Congress! The time has come today) to forgive. (The time has come today) to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts (in), to confront oppressors not with sharp knives but with unarmed kindness. (The time has come today!)

No wonder Jesus called people to repent: (he writes) if the kingdom is at hand, (this changes everything!) (If the kingdom is at hand) we need to adjust our way of life …. right (here, right) now!

Dear ones, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the gospel isn’t about how to get into God’s kingdom when you die. The gospel is about how to bring God’s kingdom to earth while you still live: which is why Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done – where? - on earth! – on earth as it is in heaven.”

It’s also why he sent his disciples out to live with people, not just preach to them. Jesus didn’t send out the 70 with pamphlets explaining his new religion, a religion full of ideas people could either accept or reject if they wanted to go to heaven when they died. No, Jesus sent his followers out like sheep amongst wolves, that is he sent them out as vulnerable as could be: to live, to eat, and to make peace with people very different from themselves.

He didn’t send them out to convert or coerce those other people, but to live in true relationship with them. Jesus sent his disciples forth to cure their sick, break bread with them at their very own tables, and invite them, just as they were -be they Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female - to join with Jesus and his friends in forging a new kind of kingdom here on earth - a commonwealth if you will - where all are welcome, all are cared for, where every last person no matter how lowly has a place at the same table: a table where all is shared and there is always enough; a table we recreate and a fellowship we re-enact ever time we break this bread and share this wine with any who desire to share it with us.

Jesus sent his disciples out in such a way that they became living witnesses to the reality of their message, the reality that the kingdom of God had drawn near, because here is the thing: it is only when we live into it, that it does. The only true way to share this gospel is to live this gospel, not just in all you say, but in all you do.

St. Francis famously said, “preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words,” and that is precisely what those first Christians did.  They proclaimed the gospel with their very lives, and you, my friends, whether you realize it or not, you do too. I’m not saying you can’t do more. We can and we should and we will do more. That’s the beauty and purpose of church. We are here to spur one another on and I have no doubt we will. 

But please know that every act of kindness, justice, and forgiveness that you commit – and I use that word intentionally –is a testament to the good news that the kingdom has drawn near. Every time you sign a petition or join a walk to bring hope and healing to those who need it most, every time you take a stand against violence or oppression, every time you help with Take and Eat or pay extra for fair trade coffee, pass on a prayer shawl or plant a tree, visit with someone who feels forgotten or sit down to eat with one of our brothers or sisters at Not Bread Alone, the kingdom breaks into this world a little further through you, around you, and because of you. You’re not just sharing the good news, friends you are the good news.

Glen and Zach and all our friends from Young Life who went down to Haiti, they were living the gospel. All our people who will leave for Red Bird this week and every last one of you who worked to make that mission possible, you have and you are living the gospel. Friends, every time we gather here, around this table to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of our savior, precisely because all are welcome here, we are living the gospel as well: the one true gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news that…what?

Friends, who here can tell me what that gospel is?

And, by a show of hands, how many of you feel ready to share that gospel with others? 

Thanks be to God! Amen and amen.

[1] A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, p 138