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the weakness of God

[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which [God] can be with us and help us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)

As we enter the postmodern world, the age-old omnipotent God is slowly dying in the human imagination. For many, this supernatural being is already dead. The image of a God who acts with power and might in the natural world and in human society is becoming increasingly incredible.

Yet, there is another image of God, an alternative way of envisioning God, in the Bible. We have no idea who wrote the treatise that we now refer to as the first epistle or first letter of John in the New Testament. Some authorities claim that this writer is the same author who wrote the gospel of John, but without much evidence other than tradition to back that up. Although the writing style is different, the author of “First John” seems to have some familiarity with ideas expressed in the gospel of John and may have come from the same community as the gospel writer. Whoever he was, the author of this letter developed an extraordinary theology sometime around the end of the first century.

Here is what he wrote:

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)

To think of God as love is radically different than the ancient image of an all-powerful being dwelling on a throne in the heavens. In regards to power, the chief characteristic of God as love is weakness. Love can only act in the world through the relative weakness of human beings.

If God is love, then the converse is also true: love is God. When we say that love is God, the divine is no longer a transcendent reality somewhere outside of the known universe (supernatural theism), nor is God an immanent creative reality woven through the fabric of the cosmos (pantheism and panentheism), but instead God becomes an incarnate reality within our hearts, within our minds, within our relationships, and in our actions. Love is a reality that animates us, empowers us, and transforms us from self-centered and selfish individuals to selfless and self-giving people. Without an omnipotent cosmic God dwelling somewhere out there, we have only human love, intelligence, and compassion to save us. Singly, each of us can do little. United, we can accomplish much if selfless love, compassion, and justice is our collective guide.

Yet, for many, thinking of God as the embodiment of weak human love is a poor substitute for the old supernatural image. Without a powerful cosmic God to fulfill our psychological needs for safety and security, we have to rely on one another to give us comfort and shelter. Without an omnipotent God who can answer our prayers, we must each pray for the strength, intelligence, and courage to change the world ourselves. Because, in reality, we are the answer we pray for. That answer, as Jesus said, is to love one another, to care for one another, and to forgive one another. These actions are the manifestation of the God of love in our world.

Love is often defined as an emotion—a strong affection, a feeling of devotion, an attraction based on sexual desire, a deep feeling of passion, or an ecstatic enjoyment. But love is far more than our emotions, which are fleeting and exist only at the surface of our being. Someone has said that “love is not a feeling; love is a verb.”

Love at its deepest level is an action, an activity, a commitment. True love is a self-giving and self-denying concern for another. One working definition is that love is “a choice to do what is best for another person.” Love in a family involves caring for those we love—feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating them. It means providing them with the means of life and growth. If God is human love in action, then the purpose of this divine love is to nurture human life and growth, healing and wholeness, change and transformation. The presence of divine love within us calls us to become fully-human agents of love in the life of the world.

The English phrase “God is love” is written in the Greek New Testament as theos ein agapē (theh’-ohs ayn ag-ah’-pay). Agapē (ag-ah’-pay) is one of four different Greek words which we translate into English as love. Philia (fil-ee’-ah) refers to loyal friendship or a brotherly love, eros (err’-ohs) is used to describe passionate erotic or romantic love, and storgē (stor’-gay) is used in relation to the natural affection of family love, like the love of a parent for a child. Most usages of the word agapē in ancient Greek literature come from the writings of the New Testament where it implies a self-giving love, often an unconditional love. This is the kind of love people saw in Jesus. But the love that Jesus modeled was not a sweet love, a tender love, or a gentle love—much as the Sunday School portraits would have us believe. The love expressed in his life was a dangerous love. It was a radical love of one’s enemies; a call to nonviolent resistance toward evil; an unending forgiveness toward those who have harmed us; an expansive generosity with those in need; an inviting inclusiveness with marginal and despised people; and a fundamental rejection of reciprocation of any kind—both good and evil. The excessive love of Jesus is an uncompromising love that moves us toward lives of reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, and justice in a hostile world.

What we need is a much more powerful understanding and experience of a love that reorients our lives and transforms us into fully-human beings, fully-human agents of the selfless love we call God. If we allow it to be unleashed, the divine love within us will not let us remain the same. The radical love we see in Jesus pulls at us; it pushes and prods us out of our insular shells. It forces us to become more than we are, more than we are comfortable with, and ultimately all we are meant to be.

In the Hebrew Bible, God is proclaimed as a protector of the poor, especially widows and orphans who had no other male protector in society, and immigrants (resident aliens) who had no social kinship network during pressing situations. In a domination system, the rich and powerful don’t need God’s protection. They are in charge. The system serves them and benefits them. The Bible says that God chooses sides—the weak over the powerful—and ultimately moves into the margins of society in solidarity with the poor. You will find the presence of God among those who suffer, grieve, and hunger. Jesus said that the kingdom of God promises to reverse the social conditions of those in the margins.

God is more likely to be found in the lives of people at the bottom of the ladder where life is messy, than at the top where life is comfortable and secure. These hurting places are the arenas where Jesus lived, worked, and taught, and this is the arena to which his followers are called. After all, Jesus was a marginal person. He was born a peasant in a landless family who were members of the working poor. He spent his life working to create a just and caring community among his fellow peasants—a weak and powerless people.

Consequently, Jesus lived and ministered in the margins of his peasant society among despised and rejected people: prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers. It was among those considered immoral and impure that the message of the kingdom of God would be gratefully welcomed. It was here that the kingdom was desperately needed.

a theology of weakness

In recent years, the term “weak theology” has been put forth to contrast the “strong theology” of the ancient creeds and orthodox Christian doctrine. A strong theology represents the character of a strong God, envisioned as an all-powerful creator and supernatural interventionist in history. In contrast, a weak theology describes a God with limited or weak power. Strong theology argues that the reason that God does not intervene to save the weak and oppressed is because God chooses to withhold power, often in the name of free will. In the same way, strong theology contends that the crucified Jesus chose to withhold his divine power in order to fulfill God’s plan for human salvation. But some theologians now see the suffering of Jesus on the cross and God’s inaction to save him as evidence that both Jesus and God were powerless to act in a supernatural manner. A weak theology contends that God and Jesus exhibit a weak kind of power in the world—weak forces like love and forgiveness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor who was imprisoned and executed for resisting Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, came to regard God not as omnipotent, but as weak and powerless. In Jesus—as an image and icon of the invisible God—he saw weakness and suffering as the way God operates in the world. He reasoned that if Jesus is the decisive revelation of God’s nature, then the weakness and suffering of Jesus on the cross can be viewed as an image of God’s weakness in the world. In one of his letters from prison, Bonhoeffer said:

[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us . . . Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machina. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 360–361)

The Latin phrase deus ex machina (day′-us eks mack′-in-ah), meaning “god out of the machine,” refers to situations in ancient Greek theater in which a crane was used to lower an actor playing the part of a god onto the stage. Bonhoeffer uses the term to refer to the religious hope that God will miraculously step in to resolve a hopeless situation like a comic book action hero. Bonhoeffer believed that God does not step in and does not intervene in history to save us; God has not, does not, and will not. Bonhoeffer’s view of history from the first half of the twentieth century—two world wars, the holocaust, and a global economic depression—was evidence enough that God does not act in this way.

In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out to God in agony from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus receives no answer other than the silence of God, the apparent absence of God, a seemingly complete abandonment by God. God did not step in to miraculously rescue Jesus, nor should we expect God to rescue any of us from suffering and oppression.

Just like millions of innocent victims of disease, hunger, and violence, God does not alter the tragic situations of their lives. God did not save the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. God did not save the 160 million people who perished in the many wars of the twentieth century. Even today, God does not miraculously feed the 800 million people in our world who do not have enough nutrition to lead healthy, productive lives. Nor does God save the seven million hungry people—including three million children under the age of five—who die every year due to malnutrition.

Theologian Peter Rollins (b. 1973) believes that the crucifixion experience of Jesus is the trauma we all personally experience when we feel the absence of God in our lives. Ultimately, it calls us to give up the most treasured images of a God who will rescue us in times of need.

What is lost here is a way of relating to God as deus ex machina, as some being “out there” who ensures life makes sense. On the cross, Christ becomes the absolute outsider. Everything that has supported him thus far is stripped away. The religious system of the day sought his execution, the political system happily provided it, and his social circle quickly abandoned him. All that would ground him had been fundamentally shaken apart. There is no support here for Christ. On the cross, he is left naked, alone, dying. (Rollins, Insurrection, 27)

For Rollins, to participate in Christ’s death is to personally experience the radical doubt, suffering, and the sense of divine forsakenness that Jesus experienced on the cross. But let us be clear, the God we are speaking of, who abandons us to suffering, is the ancient supernatural theistic God of the human imagination, the all-powerful transcendent God that dwells “out there.” On the other hand, the incarnate God of love is neither dead nor absent, but is found among us in the form of a friend, a neighbor, or even an enemy. The crucifixion is the profound experience that brings an end to a traditional way of thinking about God and opens up new possibilities of theological reasoning.

If God does not act to save us, or if God is incapable of acting to save us, what then does God do? Where is God in our hour of need? Bonhoeffer, who saw God’s presence in Jesus, believed that God is found most definitively in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Bonhoeffer believed that although God will not rescue us from distress, God is present and suffers with us. “Our God is a suffering God,” he said.

Love is a suffering God, because only the power of love can sustain us in suffering. The omnipotent God of traditional theology does not and will not save us, but an incarnate God of love within humanity powerfully draws us into compassion for and solidarity with the people who experience pain, hunger, violence, and oppression. Love rouses us to action on behalf of those innocents who suffer unjustly. Love calls us to create a more just society that will put an end to the grief, misery, and distress that we encounter daily.

Commenting on the writings by John Caputo (b. 1940) in The Weakness of God (2006),  professor and blogger Richard Beck (b. 1967) concludes:

You add all that up and what you have is a radically different view of God’s power. God does not exercise top-down power and control from on high. God doesn’t “lord over” the world. The power of God works in the opposite direction, from the bottom-up. God’s power is the power of the cross, the power of weakness and powerlessness, the power of loving servanthood and self-giving. This is why we must become like little children—become weak, lowly and despised as those described in 1 Corinthians—if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not characterized by top-down power but by being the one in the “last place.” And when we step into this loving and powerless way of living we become born of God, we come to know God, and God comes to live in us. (Richard Beck, “The Weakness of God,” Experimental Theology blog)

Our concluding thought comes from writer and theologian Henri Nouwen (1932–1996):

Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God . . . As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God’s love and empower them with the power of God’s Spirit. (Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ, 62–64)

the rich fool and the bigger barn economy

And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:15–21, NRSV)

In the Cotton Patch translation of verse 15, Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) brings out its original earthiness: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”

Jordan develops this parable in an interesting way in The Substance of Faith, a collection of his sermons. He elevates the parable to a broad social and political level.

“Jesus said, ‘There was a certain rich farmer.’ Now, he didn’t say what the man’s name was. Jesus left him rather impersonal. To make it a little bit more personal, let’s give the man a name. We’ll call him Sam. ‘Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’ Now, we might even want to call him uncle. That would be all right, too. ‘Uncle Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’” (Cotton Patch Sermons, pp 81–82)

And what did Uncle Sam do with his rich yield? He kept it all to himself and ignored the hungry of the world. So, although the parable may have been intended to be understood on a purely individual basis, we could legitimately expand the reading to include the entire nation and thereby entertain a new lesson. In either reading, the problem is greediness and self-interest, an unwillingness to share with those in need.

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the Easter uprising

Holy Week recounts the story of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem, his teachings and disruptive actions in the Temple, his arrest, trial, and execution. And on Easter Sunday, we hear of his resurrection from the dead as a vindication by God of his life and message. On Easter, we celebrate the uprising of Jesus, an uprising that has the power to transform lives and the course of history.

According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He entered the city in a noisy act of political street theater and then interrupted the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a demonstration for economic justice.

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the Roman penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by impoverished and dispossessed people. It was a time requiring courageous decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

When Jesus was arrested late on Thursday night and brought before the chief priest on Friday morning, the Sadducees sought evidence for a capital crime. The chief priest asked Jesus if he was the messiah—a long-foretold peasant warrior who would challenge imperial rule, foment a violent revolution, overthrow the established order, and proclaim a new kingdom. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he claimed to be king of the Jews. In both cases, Jesus turned the accusations back on the accusers and never answered directly. He was charged by the Sadducees with blasphemy, but Rome executed him for sedition. On the cross was a sign that listed his anti-government crime—king of the Jews. The cruelty of his crucifixion revealed what imperial authorities do to one who attempts to subvert the domination system. For those who witnessed this event, the cross was not a symbol of divine sacrifice or the taking on of unmerited suffering—it was the price of resistance to the social and economic devastation of empire.

Six agonizing hours after his crucifixion began, on a spring afternoon in the year 30 CE, Jesus died. His heart stopped beating and his brainwave activity ceased. The spirit of life that had animated him at birth, left his body. The biblical tradition says that the body was then removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, sealed with a large stone. But, the Roman practice of crucifixion did not usually allow for burial. The corpses of lower class criminals or revolutionaries were not buried. Instead, the naked bodies of crucified victims were left hanging on the cross, to rot as they were exposed to the elements, and be eaten by carrion, a meal for crows and hungry dogs. In any event—whether he was left on the cross or buried in a tomb—we simply do not know what eventually became of Jesus’ corpse. In the gospel accounts, the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning were unable to find it. It was never seen again. The earthly Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, was gone from history. But he was not to be forgotten.

The resurrection accounts of Jesus in the New Testament are not stories about a resuscitated corpse, a reanimation of dead tissue. What the first disciples of Jesus experienced was far more than a revived earthly body. What they experienced was something completely new and different. The resurrection was a mystical experience of the living presence of Jesus among those who knew him, loved him, and followed him.

The wealthy and powerful thought that the execution of Jesus would eliminate the threat he posed. But the movement he created did not end with his death. In a very real sense, Jesus was resurrected in the people who believed in his message of hope and justice and who followed his example. They felt his presence among them, and this presence gave them the courage to transform their lives with passion, zeal, and courage for the sake of the world. They began a small but passionate uprising in the confident hope that they could create a better and more just society.

Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a New Testament scholar and translator of the “Cotton Patch Gospels” once wrote: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

The political nature of the Jesus movement and its threat to the status quo of empire is unmistakable. Blasphemy and sedition were frequent charges aimed at the followers of Jesus in the first three centuries after his death and capital punishment was the fate of many of the key leaders of the movement. According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome and Paul was beheaded there by the emperor Nero (37–68). The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100) reports that Jesus’ brother James (the Just) was stoned to death by Temple authorities in Jerusalem. Legends reported by Christian historians Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) and Eusebius (263–339) say that four other disciples met similar fates: Andrew and Bartholomew were crucified, Stephen was stoned, and James, the son of Zebedee was beheaded. Something was going on in the early Jesus movement that clearly threatened authorities of the domination system.

Jesus died as he lived, leading an uprising for justice. It is wrong to simply view Jesus as a spiritual savior with a heavenly goal. He was concerned about our lives in the here and now, not in the hereafter. He had a political vision for how society should be structured and what values it should embody. He taught about the coming new reality and he modeled it in his own life. He created a movement to carry it on after his death, and the early church continued to live out his vision of communities of sharing and equality for many decades, perhaps even centuries, after his crucifixion.

Last fall, I traveled to Ireland and learned a bit more of their Easter Uprising. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic and, along with some 1,600 followers, staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland. The rebels seized prominent buildings in Dublin and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the insurrection had been suppressed and more than 2,000 people were dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. This is the kind of uprising that the Sadducees and Romans feared that Jesus intended and that his followers would foment. But the uprising of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus is different.

The way of Jesus is a conspiracy of love, compassion, justice, and peace. Jesus led his small movement in a concerted action to subvert the normality of civilization and the prevailing domination systems of his society. He called for economic justice, he shared meals with those who were considered outcasts and rabble, he taught creative nonviolent responses to domination, and he publicly demonstrated at the seat of political and religious power. He was executed for daring to challenge the status quo that benefited the top 1 percent of his society.

As he began his ministry, Jesus announced his sole purpose and mission: “The decisive time has arrived, for the conspiracy of love is rising up to challenge the unjust systems of the world. Change your whole way of thinking and living, and risk everything for this radical message of hope.” (My paraphrase of Mark 1:14–15)

The way of Jesus is a path toward a vision of the way the world ought to be, the way it is meant to be. It is a freely chosen path, but not without risk. There is never any assurance of success; only a promise of continuing challenge. It is a matter of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding, but always continuing. Guided by the vision, the journey itself is the most important thing.

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador to commemorate the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917–1980) who was shot down while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. Romero spoke out against the suffering of the people of El Salvador and pointed out those who were responsible for his country’s violence and injustice. He exhorted the rich to share what they had with the poor. He roundly condemned the violence of the military in the countryside and encouraged people to turn to social justice to avoid further bloodbaths. In the name of God, he demanded that the orders and commands of the military and police to kill innocent people be disobeyed. For Romero, this was not about meddling in politics. It was simply preaching the Gospel and defending human life.

Romero said, A church that does not join the poor in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” He also said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?”

Romero was bitterly attacked and labeled both as a communist and as a terrorist by the wealthy, by the military, and by many conservatives sectors of the church. He once told a newspaper reporter, “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in a death without resurrection. If am killed, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Today, Romero’s martyrdom is celebrated in popular culture. “They can kill the prophet, but not the voice of justice,” are the words of one of the many songs popularized by the Christian base communities following Romero’s assassination. The chorus concludes, “They will impose silence, but history will not be silent.” In a similar spirit, author Anne LaMott (b. 1954) declares, “Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there.”

Easter happens whenever the followers of Jesus have the passion, zeal, and courage to rise up to confront the powerful in the name of the powerless. French theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) wrote: “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

Other martyrs have given their lives in the same pursuit of peace and justice. Most are unknown, but a few like Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) and Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) are remembered for their social uprisings against the domination systems of their time.

Social issues are biblical issues, because any serious review of the Hebrew Bible reveals a deep-seated concern about social justice. Injustice is not just a concern of modern social movements; it provokes God to rise up in protest: “’Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,’ says Yahweh.” (Psalm 12:5)

Jesus rises up whenever the conspiracy of love rises up, whenever compassionate and courageous acts of the kingdom of God are present, whenever the reign of love is made manifest in this life. Following Jesus is a response to his call to establish justice and peace in the world. It makes one a troublemaker, a revolutionary, a seeker of change. It calls on one to be an agent of transformation, or as Jesus said, to be like a mustard seed in a tidy garden, a pinch of yeast in a large bowl of bread dough, a dash of salt in a pot of soup, or a small lamp in a darkened room. It is to add your light to the sum of lights so that little by little a violent, hungry, and suffering world can be renewed for the sake of its children.

Easter means that in the face of defeat, we will arise and stand once more. In the face of overwhelming odds, we will rise yet again. In the face of deepest despair, we will continue to rise. For in the darkest days, hope rises and will not be extinguished. Love rises and will not die. In and through our struggles against threatening powers and principalities, whenever we rise, Jesus too rises again, and again, and again. He rises through our protests against war, injustice, and suffering. He rises in our uprisings for justice and peace. Jesus rises through us and in us. Only when we stand up, speak out, and act with passion, zeal, and courage can we boldly proclaim to the world: “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

the two gospels

I recently heard a Christmas Eve sermon titled “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” recited entirely in rhymed couplets and delivered by the preacher without a manuscript. Running for nearly eleven minutes, it was quite a remarkable feat.

The gospel text was John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The theme is introduced in this way:

Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

Herein these words from childhood dear
Contain the gospel message clear:
Mary, the mother pure and mild,
The lamb is Christ her sinless child.

Here are words to young and old,
A message that had been long foretold,
That God would send the holy lamb
Who would die for sinful man.

(You can see and hear the entire sermon here)

The point of the pastor’s message was that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. This is standard Christian theology that proclaims that a sacrificial death was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth—essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die on a cross—enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For many Christians, this is the essence of the gospel. In fact, the historic Apostles’ Creed takes us immediately from Jesus’ miraculous birth to his agonizing death with nothing in between:

He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

This is sometimes referred to as the creed with the empty center. Nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus is considered consequential to Christian faith.

But there is another gospel message found in the writings of the New Testament.  As one reads the four gospels and the letters of Paul, it becomes evident that there are two distinctly different messages of good news proclaimed in those ancient writings—two contrasting narratives at the heart of Christianity. The first message of good news that we encounter in the New Testament is presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: the good news announced by Jesus. The second and contrasting gospel is the good news announced by Paul in his letters or epistles, and in the gospel of John. To clarify the difference, we might say that the first is the gospel of Jesus, while the second is a gospel about Jesus.

The gospel of Jesus is primarily a social gospel, announcing good news to the poor. It is the proclamation of the present and future kingdom of God—a just and peaceful human society. The most authentic message proclaimed by Jesus was never about himself or his role in the salvation of the world. Those ideas were later developed by his Hellenistic followers. Instead, the gospel of Jesus was about what he believed God desired in the world, about the radical transformation that God was seeking in human lives and social relationships. It was and is a gospel about redeeming our life together in the here and now. It seeks the common good by elevating the status of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. The gospel of Jesus is good news to the poor.

The gospel about Jesus changes all that. Paul is very clear about the gospel he is proclaiming. In a letter to the house church at Corinth, he says:

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)

The good news proclaimed by Paul puts the emphasis on Jesus himself and the salvation from sin that Paul believed resulted from the death and resurrection of the Christ. Someone once said that as Jesus taught his disciples, he pointed their attention toward the centrality of the kingdom of God, but all the disciples could see was his pointed finger. It was the messenger and not the message that ultimately dominated and shaped the history of the church. The gospel about Jesus is a message of good news that the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything for humanity in relation to a wrathful God. It is a gospel aimed at individual lives and their eternal fate.

What is missing from the gospel about Jesus is the kingdom of God. Paul and John rarely refer to it. Paul, in fact, says little about the wisdom tradition of Jesus. The life and teachings of Jesus are not central to Paul’s message. John’s gospel includes none of Jesus’ parables but instead offers us lengthy discourses like those of ancient Greek philosophers. Together, Paul and John present us with a very different figure than the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

The distinction between these competing New Testament gospels and their images of Jesus is extremely important, because which message one hears and responds to will shape one’s Christian faith and life. The gospel of Jesus focuses on personal and social transformation while the gospel about Jesus focuses almost exclusively on individual salvation from God’s wrath. The gospel of Jesus is primarily a social and public gospel; the gospel about Jesus is an individual and private gospel.

One could term this division as the gospel of Jesus versus the gospel of Paul. Writer and activist Jim Wallis (b. 1948) uses a different terminology: the gospel of the kingdom as opposed to the atonement-only gospel. Wallis remarks:

There is the original New Testament message called the gospel of the kingdom, which was intended to transform both people’s lives and their societies; and there is a more modern message that concentrates mostly on individuals, a narrowly focused message we’ll call the atonement-only gospel. By focusing so much on what happens after we die, we have neglected the agenda of Jesus for how we live now. (On God’s Side, page 14)

One’s orientation to the gospel of or about Jesus will determine one’s central mission as a believer or a follower. The atonement gospel of Paul calls his adherents to a mission of evangelization and conversion so that others may experience a heavenly afterlife with God. The social gospel of Jesus calls his followers to transform both individual lives and social structures to deal with the pervasive issues of human suffering: poverty, hunger, shelter, education, and employment. One gospel is afterlife oriented; the other is centered in the present. It is all a question of whether one puts an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus or the teachings of Paul.

These two streams of Christianity have existed side by side since the beginning, often integrated by Jesus’ followers in the early church. But today, these two competing gospels are dividing Christians around the world into irreconcilable camps. Because we respond to different gospel messages, we often don’t understand one another, and wonder how those who represent a different gospel message can even call themselves “Christian.”

To fully understand the social gospel of Jesus and to follow the distinctly counter-cultural Way of Jesus, it is important to recover the message and mission of the kingdom of God that has been lost, hidden, or misrepresented in far too many Christian churches. The kingdom of God is not about personal redemption; it is about social transformation. It is about engaging in a conspiracy of love to change the world.

(More about this topic can be found in my book A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World.)

impractical visionaries

A number of commentators have mentioned the impracticality of Bernie Sanders’ ideas and objectives for change in American society—an American revolution fueled by an animated and passionate young electorate. Given the intransigence of Republicans in Congress—these commentators often state—there is no hope that any of his radical ideas (breaking up the big banks, reversing the decline of the middle class, a living minimum wage, health care for all, free college education, addressing climate change, and making the wealthy pay their fair share) will become a reality. The commentators state that Hillary Clinton, being more practical and realistic, has a better chance to accomplish her more modest objectives. Frankly, I think that this viewpoint is as out of touch with reality as Sanders’ objectives may seem. The only difference is that if expectations are lowered, our disappointment will also be lower when Republicans inevitably continue to obstruct the plans of any Democratic president. If the Republicans hate anyone more than Barack Obama, it’s Hillary Clinton. But if all we want to accomplish is to not rock the boat of establishment politics and maintain the status quo of income inequality, then Hillary Clinton is the ideal candidate.

Change, however, requires a vision, often an extraordinary vision. Visionary leaders like Gandhi and King were able to mobilize dedicated movements for change because they each held out a vision of a better and more just society based on the impracticalities of love and nonviolence. They were widely criticized for being too ambitious, too radical, and much too impractical. Jesus was also an impractical visionary. Who would give any credibility to his vision of the kingdom of God that proposed a new community based on loving your neighbor and enemies, forgiving offenses repeatedly, lending to those in need without expectation of return, welcoming the immigrant, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, being compassionate toward prisoners, and turning the other cheek? Continue reading

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