I know the measure of the gospel is not my ability to believe it. It doesn’t stop being good news because I don’t believe it. But it does have to sound like good news to me for me to believe it, or to put my faith in it. More, I’m convinced that the gospel should make some sense of my experience–not just things in the abstract–but the way the world actually is. And the gospel, to be news, must make sense of the world in surprising ways, in ways that CNN or Fox News or the US government can’t or don’t.
This considerably narrows the field for me. There are many versions of the gospel out there that I simply can’t believe. Chief among these are the varieties that grow up around the exaltation of the individual prominent in Western societies. The interior of the individual becomes the place where all the action takes place. The problems here run in many directions–a faulty view of reality rooted in the autonomy of the individual, a distorted picture of God’s identity, a narrow understanding of the meaning of the cross–but the clincher for me is found in critiques like Michael Emerson’s who argues that when personal salvation becomes the big enchilada, then it becomes excusable, even permissible, to divide along the lines of race, class, etc. As long as I’m alright with God, it doesn’t matter if I worship with only white, middle-class people. While none of us would say this out loud, the fact that the worship hour is one of the most segregated in American life suggests that there is some relationship between the two.
In fact, this is increasingly the test question for me: what kind of social reality is created by your version of the gospel? If you don’t think that question is important, then I would suggest you’ve been co-opted by Western individualism. The gospels proclaim a Kingdom, a new social reality, a re-arranging of the life given to us by the principalities and powers of this age. And the sign of this Kingdom is a table, a concrete place where new social realities become visible.
Another version of this gospel that fails the “fit-with-the-world-as-it-is” is the God as controlling power gospel. This version of good news sounds comforting. God arranges every detail of life for your salvation. He’s sovereign, which means he controls everything. Everything that happens, therefore, is known by God and serves the ultimate purpose of shaking out the saved from the damned. It’s comforting to think that in a world decidedly out of control, there is someone behind the scenes who is in control and working things for your benefit. Sovereignty here is power expressed as control.
But I have a hard time looking at the conditions of the world and seeing God’s sovereignty, if by that we mean God’s control. My only option, if I stay in this version of the gospel, is to believe that God is running the world into the ground as a cautionary tale for the saved. The holocaust, slave trade, sex trafficking, the New York Yankees, all object lessons.
So, what am I left with? God is sovereign through self-giving love. The gospel is not that God is only concerned with the status of the individual, but that he would bring all things back together under his good order, that he would reconcile all things to himself and to each other through his love. This is God’s power. Not control. Not by lording it over or exerting control, but through self-giving love.
God’s reign has come near in Jesus. It’s here, but not fully. It’s present wherever the self-giving love of Jesus is present. It makes a difference. It is an effective power producing visible results. Sometimes, on this side of the eschaton, this power looks more like a mustard seed than an empire, more like leaven than the results of an election or of a coup. In fact, the power of the Kingdom unmasks as fraudulent all other powers that pose as ultimate or as exercising some kind of control over things or of being the instruments of righteousness. And those that long for a different world, a world that will endure in God’s eternal future, live in the power of the Son of God and resist all other notions of power.
This already-not yet gospel fits the world that I experience. At the interpersonal level, I’d much rather be in a room with a generous, open-handed, self-giving person who can forgive and doesn’t keep score, than with a person who is attempting to pull the entire room into his orbit, who is always working the angle, always settling scores. Here the power of God is obviously superior and does more in the way of creating authentic community, of sustaining trustworthy patterns of hope.
On a larger scale, I’m less likely to read of Kingdom style power in the newspaper or see the reports on CNN or Fox news, but this has to do more with the kind of power we find newsworthy than with the presence of Kingdom power in the world. Frankly, we don’t look in the right places. We don’t consider what happens at the margins newsworthy and don’t have the attention span requisite to see the good news there. But it is happening. There are stories. And occasionally a Mother Theresa will grab the attention of the world. But these stories are happening all the time if we have eyes to see. In the name of Christ, disputes are being resolved. Housing is being provided. Panhandling laws are being challenged. Prisoners are being freed. People are being fed. Wells are being dug. Hospitality is being provided. Broken lives are being made whole. Racial divides are being overcome.
Is it enough? No, not by a long shot. But where stories like this are occurring, results come through the effective power of self-offering love. Here, the Kingdom of God is near in power. I can believe this account of things.
So, the one thing that has to be true for me is that God is truly and clearly seen in the cross of Jesus. The one thing that has to be the case is that God has fixed himself to the world, outside the city walls, outside the gates of worldly power, on a scandalous cross. The one thing that has to be true is that God has not absconded from creation into some distant heaven, but is passionately involved in the healing of the world by the love of God displayed in the cross of Christ Jesus.
This is a stumbling block to some, foolishness to others, but for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. It is good news.