5 Epiphany—Year B
February 8, 2015
In our short reading from 1 Corinthians this morning Paul uses the phrase “the gospel” five times: If I proclaim the gospel… woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel… I proclaim “the gospel free of charge”… “not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.… “I do it all for the sake of the gospel”.
You’re at a party and it comes out that you attend church. Then someone pulls you aside and asks: what is the gospel?
What do we say?
For most of my ministry my default setting has been to respond with a personal story about what God or Jesus or the Spirit has done in my life: The time my daughter was in a terrible car wreck in Florida and as two of my members from Grace, New Bedford, drove me to the airport in Providence and as I talked on the phone to a close friend whose son had nearly died in a car wreck a few years before—in all that I felt the blessing and comfort of God in and through these friends in Christ.
Certainly that was good news for me and countless others who have experienced the same comfort of God.
Yet, if the gospel is confused with my personal experience of God then it is easy to for others to imagine the gospel is about my personal experience and it’s not before the gospel is about what you need to do to make God show up in your life. Then the gospel is about your prayers, your efforts, and your feelings.
In short the good news can become about us and not about God. Going to church becomes about what you must do and clergy preach sermons about what the people need to do to make god happen in their lives: an Evangelical church may say you have to repent before God can forgive; a liberal protestant church may say you have to work for social justice for God to be pleased; a catholic church may say you have to make sure you aren’t gay or lesbian or divorced, and that you go to Mass every Sunday.
I have preached plenty of well-meaning sermons that gave good advice on what we must do. In other words, I was preaching Law, what we need to do, and not Gospel, what God has done and is doing.
In the New Testament the gospel, the good news is about God the Father who transformed creation through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is what Jesus announces in the beginning of Mark: “The time is fulfilled the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It all starts with God. If we rush over that part and just go to what he says next: repent and believe we end up in Law again and not gospel.
Certainly the arrival of the kingdom has huge effects on people’s lives: for Peter’s mother in law it means she is healed of a fever. (tell joke here?)
For the town shows it means Jesus heals them.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t make them prove they’ve joined the right church, or confessed their sins, or given money to the poor in order to receive healing.
God’s healing is freely given because the inner life of Father, Son and Spirit is a mutual indwelling of love that overflows into creation and creatures. Jesus comes out of the heart of the Father to enter our darkness in order to set us free to receive this love, so we can know that even people like us have been caught up into the inner life of the Trinity as adopted sons and daughters.
Our fallen minds, however, can’t comprehend grace, so we keep coming back to religion which tells us the correct steps we must take to get to God. So, for example, you can find numerous books on prayer that will tell you how to pray, how to climb the stairway to heaven, without telling you that Christ is already praying for you.
Of course in Genesis, as we’ve seen in our Bible study, when Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven it isn’t a way for him to climb up to God but is a way for the angels to come down to him.
So in the fallen mind carve up our lives into those actions that we label as religious, while everything else we assume has nothing to do with God.
One day a young mother came into Baxter Krueger’s office with tears in her eyes as she started shouting:
“I’ve been reading these newsletters from friends and missionaries all over the world. They’re all out there doing these wonderful things for God. Even their children are perfect. And it just hit me what a worthless life I have. For Pete’s sake, I do three loads of laundry a day, and when I’m not doing laundry I’m grocery shopping, and when I’m not grocery shopping I’m unloading the groceries, or cooking the groceries, or cleaning up after cooking them. And somewhere in there I try to keep my mess of a house presentable…and find a little time for my husband. By the end of the day I’m too tired even to read my Bible. What do I have to offer God?”
Baxter says, “Well, did you just decide that you were going to be a good mother and flip a switch that created this concern for your [family]. Did you take a ‘good mother’ pill?
“What are you getting at?”
“I’m asking about the origin of your love for your…family. What is the source of your determination that they eat right every day, that they be safe and loved and nurtured and clothed?”
“I’m their mother. Who thinks about stuff like that?”
“I do, for one. There are important questions, and they might just have some serious freedom in them for you—and dignity.”
“Okay, but what’s your point?”
“My point is that Jesus is not up there watching from a distance. He’s not waiting for you to do something for him in his absence. He is here, in you.”
“I’ve always believed that, but what does it mean, really?”
“Well, it means that through you the Father, Son, and Spirit have created several unique persons. Never before in the history of the cosmos have your children existed. They are one of a kind and now that they were born through you they will live forever in Jesus. That seems like a rather huge thing to me. It is loaded with serious dignity.”
“I see that on my good days. Somewhere inside, I know that’s true, but it’s hard to feel it every day.”
“And it means that Jesus is sharing his love…with your family through you. It means that he put in your heart his own concern for your [family].”
“It is not simply your concern and delight, but his and there is no more noble thing in all the world than cooking a meal for your family. For that is nothing short of the Father himself, through the Son and in the Spirit, sharing his royal feast with his loved ones. You are in the middle of it. There is far more going on in your life than you ever dreamed. If you don’t see it… life will become a long frustration, and you will not know the joy of who you are.” The Shack Revisited, page 212f
The gospel has been at work in our lives from before we were born. It is the gospel that transforms our world and our worldview. It is the gospel that heals our vision so we can see what is really going on. And like Peter’s mother in law, once we’re well, or well enough, we can get up and serve.