Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Other Side of the Gospel

August 31, 2014–– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7–9 / Romans 12:1–2 / Matthew 16:21–27
The Other Side of the Gospel

Gospel means Good News. The Good News can be expressed a number of ways. Perhaps the most well-known is John 3:16––For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God’s love is a major and recurring theme throughout Scripture. A popular Evangelical cliché says “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” So, again, Gospel means Good News.

There is a prominent TV preacher (whose name I’ll forgo) who uses a stadium for the crowd that gathers each week to hear his always positive “talks” (I can’t bring myself to call them sermons). Now, only the Lord knows his heart, but he is not proclaiming the whole counsel of God. His is an incomplete and stunted “gospel”. I have never heard or read anything from him that boldly proclaims Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. This is the other side of the Gospel.

There is no good news without bad news. The very word “good” requires a larger context that provides its contrast. No one has reason to be happy about being found if they have no idea that they are lost. To have any comprehension of being “saved” we must first know that we are in grave danger. The Good News of the Gospel comes to us in the context of the bad news of sin and the very real and appropriate fear of a holy God.

We live in a part of the world that can avoid facing this. We can insulate and distract ourselves from ultimate reality––for a while. Our danger right now is not that of our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. For them, the danger is a very real persecution. They are faced with the issue of whether Christian Faith is worth dying for (the very literal application of Jesus’ words here). Our greatest danger is seduction. We are inundated in an atmosphere of comfort, convenience, and pleasure. We face hard things, of course, but we want answers that do not cost us the price of even a personal inconvenience. The world tells us we should be able to spend our money on what makes us feel good. The world tells us that our culture’s obsession with sex as a means (and a so-called “right”) for personal pleasure is not so wrong. The closest we get to persecution (so far) is the ridicule and vitriol directed at us when we try to give a witness to traditional Christian values and morality. And there is a suggested way to avoid that: keep religion private; do not give your “personal” beliefs expression in the “real” world because “faith” (instead of being any kind of objective reality) is just an inner feeling that helps some people feel good. This is a betrayal of the Gospel.

We can too easily forget––too “conveniently” avoid––facing a huge divide that is clearly revealed in Scripture and taught by the Church. Jesus warns Peter about thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. We do not like to hear this. It goes against everything the culture around us believes. It goes against our natural desires for ease and comfort. It is obvious that a one-sided “positive” gospel can attract––the popular stadium preacher proves it, but that does not negate Jesus’ warning in another place: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mtt 7:13,14).

The Scriptures give this other side of the Gospel over and over. God speaks through Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (55:8,9).

This is what St Paul is exhorting in today’s Epistle: Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…. (Rom 12:2). If we are too much like the world around us, our souls are in danger!

Yes, our salvation is based totally in Jesus Christ. Yet this is more than what Jesus has done for us. Christianity is not merely forgiveness. Billy Graham’s famous Crusade invitation was accompanied by the song Just As I Am. That is indeed the love of the Gospel. God welcomes you just as you are. We do not have to become, first, “good enough” to gain God’s attention or earn his love. But––and this is a huge interjection––God does not leave those who belong to him where they are. We are to be transformed. We are to become like Jesus.

Christian Faith means following Jesus. And before we can hope to follow Jesus into the glory of the resurrection, we first follow him to the cross. This is the other side of the Gospel. The way that we are transformed into his likeness is to put to death in us all that is not like Jesus. When I want to please myself instead of loving and serving others, the Spirit of Jesus in me wants to put that to death. When my thinking is not as God does, but as human beings do about things such as money, possessions, sex, power, or even “freedom”, then I need to follow Jesus and submit my errant thinking to the cross.

It would be nice if the role of a Christian preacher was only to make people feel good. Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah in today’s reading: 

I am ridiculed all day long;
    everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
    proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
    insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
    or speak any more in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
    a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
    indeed, I cannot.

I have been called a “Bible thumper”. I have known people to leave the congregation because what was preached offended them. But some day I am going to stand before the Judge of all the earth––as are each of you––and there will be an accounting. Matthew gives us these words from Jesus: I promise you that on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken (12:36, CEV). I do not want to be “careless” in my preaching. I want to be faithful to what God has said. To be faithful to my calling, I must give the other side of the Gospel, especially when the Church faithfully draws our attention to texts such as these.

But before I quit I want to be clear. It is not my intent––and Jesus did not say these things––to discourage us or merely make us feel guilty. Notice that I said “merely”. Guilt is a good thing when it accomplishes its intended purpose. Paul told the Romans: God has locked all people in the prison of their own disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Rom 11:32). God wants us to know the full hard truth so that we run to him. That is the Gospel. In spite of the hard things––even through them––God is at work for our salvation. Jesus gives us the whole truth because he is our Savior.

Hear, truly hear these words of our Lord: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. This is the Gospel.

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