the two gospels

I recently heard a Christmas Eve sermon titled “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” recited entirely in rhymed couplets and delivered 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 is that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. It proclaims that this was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth, essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die in a sacrificial death, 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

the words of the eucharist

This post is a response to a recent article on Tony Robert’s blog by guest blogger Lenora Rand, titled “New Communion Words.”

New Communion Words

Rand reflects on her experience distributing communion at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering that focuses on justice, spirituality, music and the arts. The festival is “rooted in the Christian tradition” and is popular among progressive Christians and many involved with the emerging church movement. The name Wild Goose comes from a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

Rand said:

I was . . . suddenly so uncomfortable with the words I have always known to say during communion. As they were coming out of my mouth, my head was swirling with questions about whether these particular words adequately reflected my beliefs anymore.

The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I started thinking about it afterwards though. Wondering, what do I really believe about atonement? And about this sacrament?  What else could I say with conviction during communion?

Rand is raising the issue of how the ancient practice of the eucharist is being impacted by the postmodern world in which many traditional doctrines of the church are being questioned and reevaluated. Continue reading

follow Jesus: a hymn

I heard a contemporary hymn on Sunday morning during the Eucharist and fell in love with the melody. It was the “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)” by Chris Rice. It reminded me of Randy Newman’s music—a soft and gentle melody with simple lyrics that draws forth a deep emotional response. Unlike many contemporary praise songs that often seem quickly thrown together, Chris Rice’s lyrics are well crafted, with each verse building in a progression about a journey of faith with Jesus. Yet the theology is that of an intensely personal and private faith. It addresses a personal relationship with Jesus amid life’s struggles. The song begins with these words:

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live

Other verses invite the listener to “cry to Jesus” in times of need and to “fall on Jesus” when we stumble.  The last verse is focused on an eternal destiny with Jesus in heaven with the refrain “fly to Jesus.”

And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on glory’s side
And fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live

(You can hear the complete song and read the lyrics at this link. A choral arrangement can be found here.)

Rice’s theology represents the traditional beliefs of many, many devoted Christians. Yet for me, the faith to which we are called is much more than this. In the gospels, Jesus calls us to a life of compassion and service to others, rather than a self-centered seeking of our own personal comfort and security. In his final days of life, German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that “the church is the church only when it exists for others . . . helping and serving.” All too often churches spend the majority of their resources simply serving themselves. And those that focus on charity and service are often afraid of dealing with the fundamental causes of suffering in the world—systems of economic and social injustice.

I wanted to see a new set of lyrics to Chris Rice’s song that would convey an alternative kind of faith—not about a Jesus who comforts us in pain and sorrow, but about a Jesus who challenges us to make a difference in the world. I awoke early Tuesday morning with new lyrics in my head and decided to put them on paper. Continue reading

the church and LGBT justice

There is an old joke that asks, “What do you call a man who loves another man?” The answer: “a Christian.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that Christians are foremost among those who object to a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman?

By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, deciding whether gay marriage should be legal across the country—a decision that will alter the social fabric of the nation. Such a decision will be a huge win for gay marriage advocates, but the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community will continue to fight legal battles over equal rights for decades. And they will continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the church.

A majority of American voters say they support a Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry, but the issue remains far from settled among socially conservative religious communities that have repeatedly proclaimed biblical support for human injustice. Christine Smith writes:

Through its theologies, biblical interpretations, and sexual ethics, the Christian church is one of the primary institutions that provide a foundation for social and ecclesiastical oppression of lesbians and gay men.

(Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance)

Yet a growing number of other Christians are challenging traditional religious thinking, rejecting homophobia and heterosexism because of a different set of theological and biblical perspectives. The result has been enormous conflict in the church. Sexual issues are tearing churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago. Long after this matter is settled in secular society, churches will continue to argue over the struggle between ancient revealed truth and contemporary human justice. Continue reading

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