What is the Gospel?

Well, it’s confirmation season at church. That’s when young people are given about 13 weeks to learn as much as they can about the Christian faith so they can then decide if they really want to be one of us or not. 

In the baptism and confirmation liturgies you all the congregation takes a vow too that you will support these people by your teaching and example. So I figured we ought to test your teaching and example with a pop quiz. Are you ready? 

Pull out one of the doodle pages or write on your connect with us form if you like. Here’s your question: What is the Gospel? You have 10 seconds… 

It’s tough to know how the Corinthians would have answered that question because in Paul’s letters we only have one side of the conversation. But if we read between the lines it appears if you asked the church in Corinth what the gospel is they’d say it is is to pursue as many spiritual gifts as possible in order to gain Divine Wisdom. That’s what they seemed to value: Wisdom. It’s Sophia in Greek, the Wisdom of God. 

They were fans of philosophy. That’s what philosophy means: phileo, love, of Sophia, Wisdom. 

The problem they were wrestling with, though, was whose version of the Sophia of God should love? Apollo’s version? Paul’s? Peter’s? Whose? Whose Gospel is the best? 

Whose spiritual wisdom is the most spiritual? Who is more spiritually gifted and wise? This dilemma turned quickly into a debate, and naturally the debate turned into a political campaign of sorts. Their love of Wisdom left them divided as a church and involved in decidedly unwise and unholy things. 

The church was on the brink and Paul was livid. So he wrote to them saying, “When I came to you people I did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. No, I decided to know nothing among you except this Gospel, of Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Crucifixion by Cimabue, 1287-1288, after a flood in 1966

So, what did you all write? Did you fair better than the Corinthians? Do our confirmands stand a chance? What is the Gospel according to you?  

When a lot of Christians are faced with the question, what is the gospel, they answer with some version of the title of this mini sermon series: “It’s all about love.” 

Something like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “Love your neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself.” The real church nerds might even recite the full version from the Bible, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind, and (love) your neighbor as yourself.” 

Did any of you answer with something like that? 

Guess what? You’re wrong! 🙂

Those “love God and love your neighbor” answers, whether you realize it or not, all have one big thing in common with the gospel according to the Corinthians, and that is… they’re not news! 

That’s what the word gospel means. It means good news, or even “Glad Tidings.” It’s borrowed language from the Roman Empire. The Gospel in Rome was the Emperor’s News. After the Emperor won a military victory, or conquered a new territory, the news, the gospel of his victory would be proclaimed throughout the Empire. 

“Hear ye, hear ye, the good news, the gospel of Emperor Tiberius… Augustus… Caesar, the mighty and victorious.”

Emperor Tiberius on Horseback, from ‘The First Twelve Roman Caesars’, Antonio Tempesta, 1596

Knowing this helps  us understand just why some of our most common answers to the question “What is the gospel?” are incoherent answers.  Imagine the Emperor’s messenger announcing “Hear ye, Hear ye, the good news of the Emperor: You should love your neighbor more,” or “You should have more spiritual gifts,” or “You should all really love Caesar more.” That’s not the gospel. First off, those statements are not news. They’re rules. They’re the law. 

But second, and even more importantly, they’re not the gospel because they’re not even about Caesar’s news. They’re not about Caesar. They’re about you! They’re the law about what you should do for Caesar. They’re not the gospel, the glad tidings about the victory Caesar has won for you. 

This week God prevented me from writing a sermon until very late in the week. Rest assured, it was God’s fault. It had nothing to do with my procrastination. Really, though, I tried multiple times but couldn’t quite get it together until we went to Catholic Mass together as a family. 

For those of you that don’t know, my wonderful wife Allison happens to be a faithful Roman Catholic, even though she married a Methodist minister. Well, I wasn’t a minister when we met… So, some Saturday nights we go to mass together. It’s nice because we can sit together as a family and her one-on-two child wrestling becomes more of a tag-team match. 

But last night 3 things happened that helped me know what to say. 

First, this lesson from First Corinthians was read by someone who read it just beautifully. Slowly. Deliberately. It blessed me. 

Second, the priest preached a bad sermon. Now, I actually really like this priest. He’s usually great. But last night his homily was really all about what we, the church, should do, specifically about how much we, as the church, should donate to the Lenten appeal for funds. 

Again, don’t get me wrong. You’ve probably already noticed that I don’t mind talking about or asking for money in worship. Honestly, I think the ministry of the church is about the only thing money’s actually good for. 

It didn’t really bother me too much until the Eucharist, until Communion. That’s when I saw a woman stand, slowly, clearly feeling weak, feeble. On her head, where there used to be hair, she wore a scarf. It was Cancer. 

That’s when I remembered Paul’s words from today’s reading. “I came to you,” Paul said, “I came to you in weakness, in fear, in trembling.” He did not come trying to impress them with his strength as a person, as an orator. He wasn’t boasting in his grasp of Wisdom, or his holy love of God or neighbor. 

He came in weakness so that, he said, “So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom, or human strength, or human obedience, or human love, or human power, but on the power of God… I decided to know nothing among you,” he wrote, “except the Gospel… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 

What he’s saying to them, to us, is the Gospel is not about what you must pursue, or do, or reach. It is not some mysterious key to divine Wisdom, and it is not the Wisdom of the world. 

The wisdom of the world is that to be happy you have to do more, be more, seek special reserved wisdom, and achieve great things. In fact, in our own time, for the last 150 years or so, increasingly the wisdom of the world has said: “to find true peace, true happiness, all you have to do is look inside yourself, to find your purpose, to listen to your heart, to live your best life, and choose to be a better you.”

I would invite anyone who really thinks that’s the secret to life, that that’s what it’s all about to find that woman living with cancer and tell her that what she really needs is to listen to her heart, or live her best life, or just be a better you.”

You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t tell her to donate more money to the lenten campaign either. You would never do that, because you know. That is not good news. 

See the problem with the wisdom of the world, and much of the preaching of the church (and not just Catholic preaching either), the problem is that at some point that kind of wisdom stops working. Our love, our wisdom, our spiritual giftedness, our bodies… they fail. 

And it’s not just when you get a cancer diagnosis, when you realize being a better you is not something you can just choose. It also happens when you realize you’re an addict and your life’s out of your control. And when you lose your job. And when you do something you know is wrong and you can’t take it back. Or when your past catches up with you, or your marriage falls apart. It happens when you try your best and you don’t make the team, or make the grade, or don’t get the job, and you fail and feel like a fool. And it happens when you lose someone, or experience heartache and your life is changed, just like that.

It’s any time you find yourself, the world finds itself like Paul, weak, and in fear, in much trembling. 

In times like these, you will not be saved by listening to your heart, or finding your purpose, or being a better you. You won’t be saved by Philosophy or the Wisdom of the World. You won’t even be saved your ability to love your neighbor or even your ability to love God. In fact, in times like these, you probably won’t feel a ton of love for God. 

What Paul says is the gospel for those who are weak is that in Christ, God has actually chosen to bless weakness. And the gospel for those who feel foolish is that God has chosen what looks like foolishness in the world to shame the wise. 

The Good News for those who are perishing, which is all of us, is found not in our hearts, but on the cross, on which the son of God perished. That’s it, Paul says, “I have decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 

That’s why I give thanks for the Roman Catholic Church, and that they offer communion every week because it didn’t really matter what that preacher said. No matter what had been said, by the time that service was over, that woman got her chance, in weakness and fear and trembling, to get up and go to the cross, to receive the Good News in the bread and the wine. In that moment, along with every other dying sinner in the place, she got to know and be known by Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

It is all about love. The Gospel is all about love. It’s just not about your love, not about our love for God or one another. The Gospel is about the love of God in Christ on the cross. And that’s why his victory is announced like Caesar’s.

Hear the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One, the mighty and victorious. In Christ God has conquered Sin and Death, failure and cancer, adultery and addiction. When you look into your heart and realize even your best self is still limited, the church suggestions you look next to the cross, to Jesus Christ and him crucified. It may sound foolish, but this is the power of God. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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