Thursday, March 20, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: What?

In the last two weeks we have looked at why we should tell people the Good News about Jesus and how we should tell them. This week we get to what we should tell them.

The gospel can be as simple or as complex as needed, just like most things in life. If you want to explain atoms to kids or laypeople you can use the picture of a ball or clump of balls being orbited by other balls, rather like a planet with many moons or satellites. If you want to explain it to a physics major, you can go into the fact that the traditional picture is a very simplified image of the way atoms really are.

To get a really good look at our really big God and the different ways he relates to different situations, you need to read the whole Bible, preferably in the original languages, and then read Bible dictionaries, commentaries, theological works, etc. But not everyone can do that. And even if they did it would take a long time to do it and then digest it all. So when people want to become Christians, while we encourage them to start a lifelong habit of reading the Bible and other good Christian literature, we first just give them the basics. The church even took the traditional baptismal formula and expanded it into what is now know as the Apostles' Creed. It is a good summary of the essentials of the faith and we say it every time we baptize someone, as well as frequently throughout the year, alternating with the Nicene Creed which is really an expansion of the Apostles' Creed. We use catechisms to get deeper into the beliefs we build our lives around. But for starters, we can use something even simpler than the creed.

By the way if you wish to see how the apostles summarized the gospel read Acts 10: 34-43. It is Peter's speech to Cornelius and his family, the first Gentiles he ever evangelized. He talks of the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit. Jesus went about doing good and healing, was crucified and rose from the dead. He will come to judge the living and the dead but those who trust him will be forgiven their sins. Bible scholars call this basic outline the kergyma, Greek for proclamation. You see variations of it throughout the book of Acts.

There are other ways to present these facts and we will discus them a little later but first let's look at the elements using the 5 W's you were taught in writing class: who, what, when, where, why and, for good measure, how.

Who is the subject of the good news? Jesus, of course. But who exactly is he? The early Christians, during times of persecution, came up with a secret sign to identify each other. It was the ichthus or what we call the Jesus fish. It was not an arbitrary symbol. Some clever person realized that the Greek word for fish could be used as an acronym for everything one needed to know about our Lord. Ichthus stands for Iesus Christos Theos 'Uios Sator, or in English, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. The first letter of ichthus was the same as the first letter for the Greek form of Jesus. Not only is this his given name, it also means the person we call Lord is a real human being. No reputable historian denies that Jesus of Nazareth lived. He was a real man. What it means for us is that when we look at Jesus we see what a human being can be. He lived and died as one of us; he ate, got tired, got angry, slept, felt pain, was tempted but without sinning. He is the epitome of humanity.

The second letter stands for Christ, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah, the Anointed one. Christ is not Jesus' last name but his title. It means he is God's promised and anointed prophet, priest and king. He speaks for God; he acts for God; he is to be obeyed as God. Jesus is not merely a philosopher or a good teacher. As C.S. Lewis said, after all Jesus said about himself, he can only be one of 3 things. If he is wrong about himself, he either knew it was false and is therefore a liar. Or he didn't know he was wrong and so was deluded and a lunatic. Or he is right in what he said about himself and therefore is the Lord. There really aren't any other choices.

The 3rd and 4th letters stand for God's Son. As his son, Jesus shares God's nature, the way a person's offspring shares their DNA and is a human being and not a dog or a frog or a rhesus monkey. The Bible says that Jesus is the very image of his Father and so when we look at Jesus we see what God is like: just but merciful, loving and forgiving. As J.B. Phillips put it Jesus is the God who is beyond our ability to comprehend focused in terms we can understand, in time and space and human personality.

The last letter of the Greek acronym stands for Savior. He redeems us, literally, buys us back from slavery. He saves or rescues us. But from what?

What he rescues us from is evil, which can be defined as the misuse, abuse and neglect of the good gifts God gives us in creation. There is nothing in this world we have not turned against ourselves or others. We have used our God-given intelligence to makes weapons out of everything we have discovered: our muscles, rocks, sticks, metals, chemicals, germs, and nuclear materials. We have created civilization and used it to create dictatorships, war, slavery, prostitution, and exploitation. We have enormous inequality in the distribution of pay so that those who work the physically hardest and most hazardous and nastiest jobs get paid less. Except for professional athletes, who first have to risk their bodies for no money in school and college before we pay them large sums for short careers that are over just when other people's careers are hitting stride.

We do evil or sin by our thoughts, by our words and by our actions. Jesus says, in Mark 7:21-23, “...from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, promiscuity, envy, slander, arrogance and foolishness.” The evil conceived in our heads comes out in what we say and what we do. We even manage to sin by what we don't do, like not helping the hungry, the threadbare, the sick, the imprisoned, the person who is not like us in appearance or culture or status. The typical attitude toward God, at least when his way conflicts with our way, is “My will, not yours, Lord, be done!” Like rebellious children, we don't see God's will for us as loving but as telling us what to do and we would rather suffer the consequences of our bad choices than do what we don't want to do. This contrarian way of thinking, speaking and acting alienates us from God, which in turn alienates us from everything else he created: nature, other people, even ourselves.

This separation from God, the source of all goodness and life, causes spiritual illness. Sins are the symptoms of this spiritual and moral disease which can lead to spiritual death, the ultimate separation from God. That is what Jesus came to rescue us from.

When did Jesus do this? During his earthly life. He preached, that is, told us what the problem is with us and what the cure is: himself. And to show that he was right in his assessment and that he was what we need, he healed all who came to him and trusted in him from whatever illness enslaved them, be it physical, mental or spiritual. When an illness is really severe, a transplant can be the only thing which can saves the sick. And some transplants, like a heart, require the death of the donor. Such is the spiritual disease of the whole world, that the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, gave his life on the cross. (Crucifixion is, not coincidentally, a method of death that was the product of evil minds, who communicated that evil idea to other people who built it and evil leaders commanded that still other people act on this evil thought by nailing folks to it.)

Of course, Jesus could have been a liar caught in his own snare or a lunatic who didn't know he could die. But God raised him from the dead on the third day since his burial. This event vindicated Jesus and turned his followers from fugitives into witnesses to his mighty act of self-sacrifice and triumph over death. It was his resurrection that showed that Jesus was right about who he was and what he was sent to do. He was God doing for us what we could not do: live a human life perfectly in harmony with God's will and take on all the consequences of human evil. As Paul wrote in Colossians 1:19-20, “For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, to paraphrase 2 Corinthians 5:19.

Why would he do this and at such a high cost? Because he loves us, as John 3:16 says. Or as Romans 5:8 puts it, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If you really love someone you would do anything you could to save them. The extent to which Jesus went to save us shows how much he and his Father love us.

How should we respond to this good news? How should you respond to anyone who offered to save your life? If it were your doctor and you trusted him, you would do what he said. You would undergo a heart transplant if the doctor said that was the only way to save you. You would put yourself in his hands. And if afterward he said to stop doing these things and start doing these other things, you would do what he said. That's all Jesus wants us to do: believe what he says and act like it. Respond to his love and faithfulness with love and faithfulness.

That is the gospel or good news in a nutshell. Notice I stated the problem—evil—and the solution—Jesus. You could tell the gospel as a story. Jesus often did. And he used common things and experiences to make the gospel more understandable. You'll see that I used medical metaphors to explain it. Use ones from your own background if you find appropriate examples. Or from the background of the person you are talking to. Which is the second part of successful communication: know your audience so you can tailor your message to their level of understanding. That's what we'll discuss next Wednesday. 

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