The centerpiece of the Christian faith is what we often referred to as “the gospel.” It’s a word that literally means “good news.” There has always been bad news. Most of the news we hear or read about today tends to range from bad to terrible and sometimes terrifying. What’s particularly challenging and depressing is how few viable options are being suggested for healing our societal malaise. Political pundits on both the right and the left repeatedly sound genuinely stumped. There are any number of diagnoses and analyses about what’s wrong, but hardly any viable cures. Really smart people keep sounding befuddled and bewildered. And that itself can be scary.
I’d be a fool to tell you that the only solution is for everyone to become a Christian. While the number of people who claim to be Christians in our nation has been plummeting for decades, there is still more than enough critical mass for people who espouse allegiance to Jesus to help turn things around. The problem is that Christians are part of the problem. The Christianity we’re offering and living tends to be compromised and toxic, a twisted version of the real thing. If I’m honest, I keep encountering non-Christians who have a better understanding of real Christianity than many Christians do.
Which doesn’t entirely surprise me. Jesus told his followers they were to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, the assumption being that Christians and Christian communities would gradually influence how people think about things like poverty, wealth, sexuality, sexism, health care, governing, education, racism, human trafficking, and what it generally means to work for the common good. In other words, most of what Jesus said about life and relationships tends to make sense to most people over time.
But what a lot of Christians are talking about today doesn’t make sense. Our obsession with guns, for example, while claiming to be pro-life; our support for anti-immigration policies while claiming to love like Jesus; our bushwhacking discussions about how to best help the poor by raising the red herring of “socialism;” our resistance to our kids learning about America’s racial past even as we espouse a spiritual tradition that prioritizes truth and repentance; our abandoning truth-telling, character, compassion and respect for law as qualifications for political leadership; our willingness to jettison democracy for Christian nationalism; our choosing political expediency over the art of discourse and persuasion; our worship of Mammon disguised as the prosperity gospel; and our overblown reaction to the idea of two people who love each other and happen to be of the same gender making what is ultimately a Christian commitment to a lifelong, monogamous marital relationship.
I know I threw a lot into that paragraph. But here’s my point. The reason Jesus was crucified is because people who claimed to have a special relationship with God didn’t like his version of the gospel or good news. It was too soft on enemies and criminals, too lenient towards the poor, not punitive enough toward sinners, too welcoming of strangers and outsiders; it didn’t draw enough lines or have enough rules. The revolution Jesus talked about was both too slow and too hard. People wanted results now. Jesus’ gospel required the patient process of culture making rather than culture warring. He compared it to leaven working in a lump of dough. His followers would need to choose the power of love over the love of power.
Which brings me back to the gospel itself, the real gospel, the one Jesus taught and lived. I don’t claim to have this gospel completely figured out. Jesus himself talked around this gospel rather than defined it. He used parables rather than sound bites. What we can safely say is that Jesus’ gospel always had something to do with what he called the kingdom of God – which I understand to be God’s master plan to heal and restore all things, or what the apostle Paul calls New Creation. It’s a gospel that flows out of God’s love for this world rather than his hatred for it. It’s pro-world rather than anti-world.
I’m convinced that Jesus intended for our understanding of the gospel, given its comprehensiveness, to unfold gradually over time. This is a kingdom we’re talking about. That’s part of why this gospel is so intriguing and why the good news it announces so fresh and exciting. Its implications continually surprise us, as well as humble and catch us up short by challenging assumptions we hold dear.
How interesting that such a life-giving, world-loving gospel revolves around what Paul refers to as “Christ crucified.” Talk about counterintuitive. A crucified Messiah? A crucified God? The idea was as mysterious and preposterous in the first century as it is (or should be) for us today.