Saturday, 17 May 2014

Forgetting the Gospel

I remember quite vividly when I was a teenager I was sitting on my friend’s bed when I looked across at his desk and saw: a stark black tract with the words in white point 16 Arial Bold font “If you died tonight would you go to Heaven?”

Many of us who have been in the evangelical church have probably grown up with this phrase. For many it was the defining question of the Gospel; where am I going to go when I die?

I really don’t like this approach to the Gospel. Not because it can lead to “turn or burn” pitches where the goal is to scare people into Christianity, but because I feel it only emphasises one half of the Gospel. 

Within the Church we have two major religious holidays – Christmas and Easter. The former is important because it represents the incarnation - God becoming human; the latter is important because it represents the atonement – God suffering to free us from our sins. The second is arguably more emphasised in the Church, and rightly so because so much New Testament theology is built around the atonement. But sometimes I wonder if we emphasise the beginning and the end of the Gospel at the expense of what’s in between. Sometimes I wonder if in the process of focusing on the 
 atonement we’ve forgotten the Kingdom of God.[1]

The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”  

These are literally the first words that come out of the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four gospels. In Luke 4 Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads the following prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he ends by telling them that on that day the scripture is fulfilled in their hearing it. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God he is not talking about some pie-in-the-sky idea. Nor are the miracles and healings he performs just a chance to show off or to be a nice guy. No, these are signs that something radical is happening in first century Palestine. The kingdom of God has come near. This is the most explosive event in recorded history: the first seeds of the Kingdom of God are here. A kingdom where justice, love, and mercy reign. A kingdom where the poor are rich. A kingdom that is so radically counter-cultural and unlike anything anyone has seen before. A kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

When we talk about the Christian hope we are not talking about some ethereal pie-in-the-sky harp playing for all eternity; we are talking about the moment when the Kingdom of God is fully here and permeates all Creation.

The beauty of the word gospel is that it comes from the Greek word euangelion (lit. “good news”). But this word was a special word. It wasn’t used to refer to winning the lottery, or getting a promotion. It was a special term that was used to refer to the good news of the birth of a royal heir, the expected arrival of a king, or a great victory. In the Gospel we see all three of these things. First we see the good news of birth of the saviour Christ, heir to the Kingdom of God. Second we see the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Thirdly we see this in the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus as he wins obtains victory over the power of sin and death.

This is the three-layered Gospel we need to preach, not one that simply speaks of life after death, but one that also speaks of life before death and what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.     

[1] In all fairness there are others who have gone to the other extreme and have made the Gospel all about the Kingdom of God and have removed the atonement all together and I would argue that this is much worse.

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