Thursday, November 4, 2010

What is the Gospel? (according to Jesus?)

Once again Brian D. McLaren has challenged us to rethink our theological certainties with the provocative suggestion that many believers haven't the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.

Say what? Yes, see for yourself in his controversial book A New Kind Of Christianity - Ten Questions That Are Transforming The Faith. (Chapter 14 What Is the Gospel?)

Don't take it personally, after all Brian was in the same boat for many years. He would have answered the question by quoting the apostle Paul in Romans. We all know the theory of atonement called "penal substitution", which forms the basis for a formula of forgiveness for sin called "justification by grace through faith."

But what was the gospel according to Jesus? This is not a trick question. For Jesus, the gospel was the good news that, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." And Jesus's one-word preface to his gospel was - "Repent!"

"Repent" literally means to become pensive again or have a change of mind. And McLaren would add that Jesus was talking about God's new benevolent society being already among us. He doesn't believe Jesus was talking about going to heaven when you die when he proclaimed that, "The Kingdom of God is at hand."

Instead he explains that Jesus came to..."announce a new Kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion. A new Kingdom is much bigger than a new religion."

It wasn't a message about how individual souls might avoid hell and ascend to heaven after they die. No, it was primarily about God's will being done on earth as in heaven for all humanity. It was about Jesus's faithful solidarity with all people in our suffering, oppression and death. It was about God's compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another - here and now.

"It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom. The good new proclaimed by Jesus Christ wasn't primarily a way of integrating Plato and Aristotle, spirit and matter, perfect being and fallen becoming, or even law and grace - even though, in a sense, it does all these things. More essentially, it was a fulfillment of the three prime narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures."

First, to accept the free gift of being "born again" into "life abundant" means participation in the new creation, a new Genesis of regeneration.

Second, to join Jesus on a journey of a new Exodus, passing through the waters of baptism, eating a new Passover meal (the Eucharist), and experiencing freedom from the powers that oppress and enslave.

Third, to become a citizen of a new Kingdom, imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, as disciples while demonstrating in word and practical deeds its presence and availability to all (as apostles).

Jesus says, "The time has come!" It is not some distant reality, but is at hand, within reach right now. "The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives, but with unarmed kindness. No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the Kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!"

"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 Gentile." Paul

Maybe this will help us read Romans (and Paul) with a new lens. After all who wrote Romans? This is a trick question. Not Paul.

He actually dictated it to a scribe named Tertius (16:22) and we can imagine him talking about a subject he loves, expressing unedited the natural flow of his thoughts and feelings. He is not writing a modern Western linear minded argument, but more as a Middle Eastern poet in circles and parables.

"If we read Romans keeping these realities in mind, I think we will become more sensitive than ever to the wonderful dance of the Spirit of God and the mind of a man in the context of a community in crisis. Together, the Holy Spirit and Paul make move after move toward the single goal of justifying the gospel as good new for Gentiles and Jews alike." Amen.

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