Today I wrap up “Reimagining the Gospel”. What is this exactly? Is it some kind of hack systematic theology of my own making? Is it just basic theology that’s been written and talked about in a million times? Probably both to some extent. Mostly I think it’s me finding my way out of what I perceive to be the damaging areas of the conservative evangelicalism that was the entry to my Christianity, while not losing the power of the Jesus story that I do love. So if you’re still here, thanks for coming along on the journey. Today I wrap it up with “Good News: The ‘E-Word;'”.
The word “evangelism” or “evangelical” is a big word these days. Progressives, whether within Christianity or not, tend to hate it. It’s got all kinds of baggage with it. I think part of this series has been me trying to come to grips with this word because if we are going to be Christians we must necessarily be “evangelical” to some degree. But not “evangelical” in the sense that we normally mean it these days. Not in the sense that it’s nearly a denomination unto itself and is a quantifiable demographic.
I mean it in what I believe to be its truest form: The word literally means “good news”. It comes from a Greek compound word made up of the word “EU” (εὖ), which means “good”, and “aggelos” (ἄγγελος), which means “message or news” (it’s where we get our word “angel”. Angels are messengers). The two come together to mean “good news”. When you see the word “gospel” in the Bible this is usually (if not always) what the Greek word is. When we say “the good news of the Gospel” what we are actually saying is “the good news of the good news”.
I say all that because it matters in terms of where we are today in regards to these words. The word “evangelism” or “evangelical” has been hijacked by (or perhaps more accurately said, given away to) a certain sect or denomination of Christianity. It has come to be associated with a version of Christianity that is rooted in some of the ideas I’ve been breaking down in this series, but it is also largely connected to a white, male-dominated, American nationalist expression of the faith.
This is a stream of Christianity to which I once belonged. It has some really good and well-intended people within it (I mean that); its commitments to Bible study, prayer, and corporate worship are admirable; and it also has created a culture of damaging hyper sexual focus which limits women, colonizes minorities, and all-out excludes people who identify as LGBTQ+. And it does all of this in the name “good news”.
What I want to do is reclaim and reimagine this word “evangelism”. It means “good news”, so somewhere in it’s beginning it was a “good” thing. Good news should be good. People should like to hear good news, but most of what ends up coming out of evangelicalism doesn’t sound good at all: As we looked at in Part II of this series it tends to begin with “you are filthy sinner condemned to hell and without a savior that’s where you’ll be for eternity”.
That’s not good news! That’s really bad news! And it’s why so many of us refer to “evangelism” as the “e-word” and want nothing to do it. Because deep down we’re actually evangelical and therefore we don’t want to spread bad news! With that in mind, I want to close this series by looking at one story from Jesus’ life that, at least for me, reclaims evangelism for us.
It’s the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. It contains in it one of the hallmark verses of evangelicalism, “…for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (19:10, NRSV). But let’s take a look at what happens in this story to reframe what may be actually lost and which Jesus saves.
The traditional reading of this story is that Zacchaeus, who is a top dog in the nasty and exploitive business of tax collecting, is a bad man- a sinner headed for eternal hellfire. When Jesus comes to town everybody wants to get a look at him, including Zacchaeus, who is short in stature, but it is also implied that he is short in character as well. He climbs a tree to see Jesus over the crowds, Jesus sees him, calls him, and goes to stay at his house. It is there that Zacchaeus repents and then Jesus proclaims that “salvation has entered this house today” and Zacchaeus is saved. The point is that we are like Zacchaeus: Lost, filthy sinners in need of being found and saved, but we must repent.
What this has translated to, however, is simply this: Those in the Church who have clearly and boldly professed Jesus as Lord are found and saved, while those who have not done so are lost and condemned. It has propelled millions of Christians over time to view our neighbors as “lost sinners” to whom, in the name of “good news”, we must go to say and “you’re lost and condemned and you need to be found and saved.”
What I want to propose here is that it is not Zacchaeus that is lost. It’s something much bigger. First of all, let’s look at Zacchaeus’ name. It literally means “pure” or “clean”. But by virtue of being a tax collector, Zacchaeus is labeled as “unclean”. When Jesus goes to his house, Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for having gone to “be the guest of one who is a sinner.” That is, by virtue of going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus has yoked himself with one who is “unclean”, which would render Jesus unclean.
Before we continue we need to back up a bit and look at Jesus’ literal name. It literally means “salvation”. That’s what “Jesus” means. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to be dedicated, and there this old prophet guy called Simeon looks at Jesus and says, “my eyes have seen your salvation”. By virtue of his name, wherever Jesus is, so too is salvation. He’s literally looking at “salvation”. So Zacchaeus’ name literally means “pure/clean” and Jesus’ name literally means “salvation.”
OK, now back to Zacchaeus and Luke 19.
We don’t know all of what happens, but if we look at what is recorded in this story Jesus never says anything to Zacchaeus other than “Get out of the tree, I’m coming to your house” (my paraphrase). He doesn’t say, “Hey Zach, here’s the deal: You’re filthy sinner and you’re headed to hell unless you accept me.” He merely says, “I’m coming over”. And this is scandalous. Because remember Zacchaeus is considered “unclean”, and Jesus can’t go over there or he too will be considered “unclean”.
There are two ways to look at this: One is that Jesus overcomes the “uncleanliness” and makes Zaccaheus clean, and that’s all fine and good. And then because of that we must go to the “dirty” places in the world and in the “name of Jesus” make them “clean”. We must call out their “dirtiness”, hope that inspires them to repent, and then they will be clean, worthy, and good. And we’ll call this pointing out of how unclean people are “evangelism”- that is, “good news”.
But there’s another way that for me is a whole reframe in terms of what “evangelism” could be and I think should be.
What if Zacchaeus isn’t unclean? What if Jesus goes over there because Jesus knows that the “uncleanness” of Zacchaeus is a lie and that he actually is clean. After all, his name (and in this sense his character and nature) means “clean”. What if this primary character is named “Zacchaeus” because the whole point is that he’s not unclean, but is “pure”? And what if Jesus doesn’t need to say anything about his “purity status” because merely by virtue of saying “I will dwell with you in your house”, Jesus is saying “you are clean. You are pure. It is at your most basic/core level. It is what is most true about you.”
Zacchaeus isn’t loss. What’s lost is what’s most true about him. He has entered into the nasty and ugly field of tax collecting, but at his core, he is “pure”, “clean”, “beautiful”, “beloved”. What’s lost is his name. It’s not that he “hasn’t accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior” and therefore he’s condemned. It’s that the world has gotten the best of him to the degree that he doesn’t remember who he is, he doesn’t remember what his name is.
What Jesus does is simply by staying at his house he reminds Zacchaeus who Zacchaeus is. He reminds him of what is most true about him: You are not “unclean sinner”, but you are “pure, clean beloved child of God.” When Jesus says he’s come to “seek out and to save the lost”, it’s not about people who strayed away from God and are now lost. It’s about people so beat down the oppressive powers and rhetoric of hate that they have lost a sense of what is most true about them: That they are beautiful, good, worthy, and beloved.
Evangelism- “good news”- is not saying “hey, you’re lost, and I’ve got the answer for you. Subscribe to my religious expression and context and you’ll be saved from eternal hellfire.” Evangelism is making sure that people know how beautiful they are. It’s making sure that all humans see their value and worth in this world. I don’t know about you, but I can get fired up about that. That’s some actual “good news”.
So this is my reimagining of the Gospel: The good news (the “gospel”) is that you are beautiful and beloved of God. And the story of Jesus is making sure that those for whom society has buried that truth the most know it. He uncovered that beauty so deeply and so broadly and in such an empowering and therefore subversive way, that the powers that be killed him for it. And it was a message he deemed worth dying for.
So in the end, if you believe anything, believe this: You are beautiful. You matter. You are the beloved of God in whom God is well pleased. And that, my friends, is, if you ask me, the good news. That is the Gospel. Let’s not be shy about it.