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1 Corinthians 7:29-31 & Mark 1:14-20
In the first chapter of Mark alone, the Greek word euangelion is translated with the phrase “good news” three different times, and each time there is a different nuance of meaning. We have Mark’s good news about Jesus, Jesus’ good news about God, and Jesus’ invitation to believe in the Good News. And the question I wonder about is – what is the Good News? By that I mean, what is the Good News to us? Please keep in mind that the Greek word euangelion was used to describe the utterances of an imperial messenger. In the ancient Roman world euangelion, or “gospels” would be spoken aloud in public squares, heralding the “good news” of a Roman military victory, for instance, or the ascension to power of a new Caesar. This was Rome’s system of social media, a way to spread Roman military and political propaganda in order to keep the peace in Rome’s manner, the so-called Pax Romana, that was built on absolute authority, dominant power, a hierarchy of human value and control of the “good news.” So the early writers of the Bible took many of the political terms and models from their time and reframed them. Gospel became a different kind of good news. Ecclesia, a political gathering, became the churches. “Savior of the World” was used to describe someone other than Caesar. And gospel, just like when the messengers used it for Rome, became an announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ for a particular community. It’s why we have four of them in our Bible, and more that didn’t make the cut. The “gospel” was a contextual thing – what the good news of Jesus meant was dependent on where you were.
So, that raises the question – how do we see the Gospel today? What is the Good News of God in our time and place? More and more I think that this is a critical question because the dominant answer today is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins and if you accept him as your personal Lord and Savior then you will get to go to heaven when you die. If not? Well, enjoy the cold weather now. This is certainly an option and remains so for many Christians today. It is scripturally supportable and part of a long tradition in the church, though not as long as many think. Yet I will confess something to you. It doesn’t cut it for me. If I ever bought this as “THE good news”, I certainly don’t now, mostly because I have seen what happens with that model. There are so many who make this profession, claim the title Christian and then fail to produce any fruit, as Paul would say, that is recognizable as Christian. It’s more than just not being very good at being Christian – heck, I’m not good at it – but more like creating space where you can claim the title but resist the tenets of faithful living taught to us by the savior we have supposedly accepted. Far from being uncomfortable, or soul and society transforming, the Gospel today gets wrapped in a flag, reinforcing the status quo.
Yet the Gospel stories tell us that Jesus comes to us as a teacher, but not to teach us anything we expect. He comes to us as a king, but not like any king we’ve ever known. He comes to us in power, but this power he wields doesn’t look like any power we recognize. He comes to us as messiah, as savior, but we don’t even know what he means by it.
We live in a time and place where more books are written about Jesus than we would ever have the time to read, and churches, at least in our city, line every street, all proclaiming Jesus. So it is difficult for us to imagine that when Mark writes down his gospel, it is a groundbreaking account of an obscure Jewish peasant from the backwoods who died shamefully and horrifically at the hands of the imperial authorities 30 years ago. Why bring this guy up? And why make him the hero of your story? If there is anything still compelling from that moment that Mark put pen to paper it is that there is something about this guy Jesus. You can reject the whole virgin birth concept, or the assertion of substitutionary atonement. You can dismiss the fully divine – fully human argument, or the doctrine of the Trinity. You can set aside the all of the cosmic sense of God enfleshed and you are still left with this itinerant rabbi who taught his followers to love their enemies, that whoever wanted to be greatest among them should be the best servant and, perhaps most importantly, that God loves everybody. No exceptions.
Now, I don’t know about you, but all of that seems like awfully good news at a time in which we cannot even talk civilly to those with whom we disagree, and where things like the color of our skin, who we love, or the place we were born are used as dividers to assert the literal worth of one person over another. The idea that God loves us, that we ought to therefore love each other and that God’s way of greatness differs wildly from our own might just be the most subversive news one could deliver right now.
This is, in part, what Paul was trying to convey to the various churches that he planted all over the Greek-speaking world, at the base of statues to Caesar and in the backyards of temples to gods who favored you or not depending on what you laid on the altars. It was subversion, its own kind of resistance. For Paul was claiming not just that someone was the direct reflection of God, that was claimed often in the ancient world, but that this person was Jesus, a nobody from nowhere who was killed like a common criminal in shame and scorn. God had chosen to become flesh, our Gospel claims, and did not come as a Roman Senator or Caesar, as a business leader or CEO, but as a brown-skinned, poor peasant from the sticks. Even Paul called it foolishness. And that Gospel resides with us still, only all of the foolishness has ben scrubbed from it, so that it doesn’t appear foolish, Jesus painted for centuries as a mainstream European, his words used not to topple empires but to solidify them, the foolish Gospel claim of the power of love twisted and sold as the love of power.
Simon and Andrew did not set down their nets, nor did any of the disciples abandon family and livelihood, nor did these house churches spring up throughout the Roman empire because they thought they needed more of the same, or because they were worried about their afterlives. It was because they wanted change in their lives right now! Not just a change of management, but a re-ordered world, with justice and peace and love at it’s heart. And a Gospel as tepid as “accept Jesus and get to heaven” won’t even transform our own hearts, much less the world. The good news part of the Good News that Jesus brought is that we can transform this life: and through the transformation of ourselves we can transform the world, so that our salvation is both personal and political, as individuals and as a society, a realization of the rabbinic teachings of tikkun olam, the healing, repair, and alteration of the world that is our human responsibility as people of faith. It is about accepting that grace that God hands out, the love that passes all understanding that is there for all people, everywhere, and letting that love shape our hearts to be like God’s heart so that the healing of the world might continue.
The Good News that Jesus announces on the lakeshore to these new disciples is that this transformation is upon us, it has already begun. “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This transformation of self and society is near, for which he calls us to turn around, that’s what repent means, and to trust in that euangelion, that announcement, not of Roman victory, but of God’s victory. The wrinkle of this announcement, of course, is that it still isn’t present. I mean, it is not fully realized, and sometimes seems like it’s not even partially realized. Here is where Paul’s language kicks in, for Paul, in the years immediately following the resurrection, preaches of a world, the word cosmos in Greek means something more like a system, that is changing. He is so certain of this, of Jesus’ triumphal return and final achievement that he tells his followers to be celibate, to sell everything they have, to make ready for the new age. And he fills them, and us, with a sense of the fierce urgency of now that is needed for such systemic change. But he was wrong. It did not happen, this Good News, like he expected, nor did it happen for others after him. They had to wrestle with that, in Paul’s time and beyond, and write the Gospel for their own time and place, trying to work out with fear and trembling, as Paul would say, their salvation in their context.
We now have to wrestle with that same question, for central to this Gospel attitude that the world is being supplanted is the awareness, even the harsh reality, that it is here and not yet here, that it contains qualities that are more like a dream, making it always in front of us, forever on a hopeful horizon. And this dream isn’t coming tomorrow, of that we can be sure. Our task is to develop ways to work for the kin-dom that adapt the energy of the fierce urgency of now and which also organize and strategize for the far horizon. For I believe that the inertia brought on by perpetual outrage is just as strong as the inertia brought on by apathy. We cannot afford not to care, and we cannot afford to only be angry. For our anger, a later writer in our New Testament would write, does not produce God’s righteousness.
In the stress of the current times, when things seem like they are unraveling, it is important to realize that this is precisely the atmosphere into which the Gospel first gets revealed. Ours is the time for the Good News. Ours is a Gospel moment. What better place to announce it than here? What better time than now?