Welcome to “The Good News”, a six week Lenten study designed for individuals and groups to reimagine the Gospel through Bible reading/study, personal reflection, and conversation. Each week has some Bible passages to read, a main point, and some reflective questions that could guide small group conversation or be used for personal reflection and devotion. Then there is a blog post going more in depth on the week’s subject. Craft this study together in whatever ways works best for you or your group. The key is simply being intentional about connecting with God and one another. Have a blessed Lent, beloved.
Week I: You Are Here
Scripture: John 1:1-4, 14, John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:1-7
Main Point: You are where you are and nowhere else.
Reflection Questions: Where are you right now in life? That is, where do you live, who lives with you, how old are you, and what is marking your life these days? More than that, what do you believe? Particularly what do you believe about God? About the origins of the world and humanity? How we connect with God (if at all!)? What happens when we die?
Jot down some notes and thoughts on these questions and be ready to share at least part of it with the group.
YOU ARE HERE: In my late teens, I had a radical conversion experience to Christianity. It meant something. I guess you could say “it took”. Having not grown up in the Church, I was at the mercy of the Evangelical Christian leaders around me to lead and guide me in this new found faith. Or as we would say then, “disciple me”. There was a deep wrestling in me in those days. I loved God and I was fascinated with Jesus, but there was a narrowness and a shallowness to the faith that left me unsatisfied and confused. Since stepping more deeply into a life and work in ministry, the Gospel that I was “discipled” into demanded a reimagining, even if it meant being labeled a “backslider” or a heretic (both of which I’ve been accused). For the last 8-10 years, that’s what I’ve been doing.
Two things happened recently to get me off my duff and finally start writing about this. First, I introduced a study at the church I pastor that my congregation hates. It’s by Timothy Keller and it’s called “The Gospel in Life”. I led it about seven years ago at another church and I recall really enjoying it, but as I step more deeply into it today, I realize that it’s not the whole of his study that I like. I like Keller’s foundation, but I don’t like what he builds on that foundation. So in this series, I intend to use his foundation to build or reimagine a different kind of Gospel (so though I don’t like his result, I am grateful for, and want to make sure I give credit to, the foundation from which builds).
The other thing that happened was an article in the Star Tribune in November of 2018 out of a series called “The Unchurching of America”. It described exactly what I’ve been feeling for over a decade about the Church, where it’s headed, and the massive course correction it needs. To be clear, I do not think we need to “reimagine the Gospel” so that it will sell better to Americans. Rather, I think we need to “reimagine the Gospel” because the product we’ve been “selling” for centuries simply isn’t worth buying, and thankfully culture is exposing that. As I felt 20 years ago, it’s narrow, it’s shallow, and in this, it falls short of the complexity and profound grace I see today in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Gospel that is one which truly gives life and gives it abundantly (John 10:10). Also, I don’t believe this reimagining is necessary in order to grow (or regrow) the Church numerically. I’m not convinced it will. I think it’s necessary simply for the sake of authentic vitality. While the Church dies, I believe there is a Gospel that is very much alive. It’s just buried beneath 1,500+ years of Christendom.
So, with that, here’s my “Reimagining of the Gospel”, Part I:
I was originally told that the Gospel begins with the end. It begins with “if you were to die today, where would you go?” The implication is that if we think about the end times, whether it be our own or the world’s, where would I end up? This should motivate us to rethink our lives and “accept Jesus” so that we will float away to Heaven and not be left here to burn up or be sent down into… well… you know. So you start with the end. You think about the end, and set yourself up for that.
But what if the story begins with where we are? After all, in the Christian story, God comes to us and meets us- dwells with us- where we are. Throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I see a God who is now. In fact “I AM” is God’s name in the beginning. God starts right here.
Later in Jeremiah 29, the prophet offers some amazing words to the people who are in exile in Babylon. They are a long way from home, they are unsure of when they get to return home, and they don’t what to do. While this was a very literal reality for them, I think the church in America today is facing a similar kind of metaphorical exile.
Christianity as we know it is no longer the norm in America, we’re a long way from it, and, and we are trending farther away. And, on top of that, as the article in the Star Tribune quotes one pastor “[we] don’t know what to do about it” (speaking specifically about reaching younger generations, but there is an implication here that we don’t know what to do about anything in the decline).
Jeremiah says to the people in exile, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5–7 NRSV)*
In other words, start where you are. Don’t’ worry about what was. Don’t worry about what will be. Be right where you are and embrace it. Be in the city, in the region, in the time and space in which you exist now. For too long too much of Christianity has had the attitude that “none of this matters because God’s just going to wipe it all away someday soon anyway”. Contemporary Christianity has taken the achingly beautiful songs of hope that American slaves needed to sing merely to get through a day, and we have appropriated them on to our relatively liberated and affluent lives today, breeding a Gospel of passivity and laziness about the world we live in and can influence.
The question is “what kind of influence is that? How should the Church influence the world?” And this is a dangerous question. The other extreme of a Gospel of passivity in simply waiting for “some glad morning when this life is over” is a Gospel of assimiliation, where we move into communities and assimilate them to us. The American/Western gospel has found itself moving toward one of two options: Hiding out in passivity about where we are, or stepping into varying forms and degrees of imperialism in taking over and assimilating where we are.
There’s another way to be where we are.
I think God wants us to be where we are, but neither to be passive nor imperial about it. Sociopolitically I think God says “be a part of your community. Be where you are. Love it, pray for it, serve it, participate in it.” But it’s not ours to change. When we try to do the forming, we do so in our image and we end up perverting the image into which God desires to form things. So God says, “be in it, but let me do the shaping.” We sing the words “You are the potter, I am the clay”, but too often we make ourselves the potter of the world around us. The world isn’t ours. For too many centuries the Church has claimed the world, and it has led to nothing but imperialism, oppression, and genocide of varying forms and scopes.
The world is not ours to form or grow, but it is, according to God’s call on humanity in Genesis 2:15 to “till and keep”. That is, it’s ours to be in, to be a part of, to nurture, and to serve. This is what it means to have “dominion” over the earth (Genesis 1:26): It is not to exploit for our own purposes, but to “till and keep” for God’s purposes. We are gardeners, not monarchs.
I think when it comes to our personal faith, God is also saying “be where you are” and “let others be where they are.” We cannot micromanage people’s spirituality. We need to let people be where they are and simply trust that by virtue of breathing the same air we are, the same Spirit of God is at work in them as is in us. That means that in our Christian communities, we need to stop creating mechanisms that make uniform Jesus widgets, and we need to start creating safe spaces for people to explore a Jesus shaped spirituality. We need to welcome questions, doubts, uncertainties, contradictions, inaccuracies, and arguments into our theology and ecclesiology. We need to tone down the Christian education and dial up the spiritual practices. We need to create spaces, not systems.
In the beginning, the image God had for the world was one of life. As God’s gardeners, our job is not to grow the garden but to till and keep the Garden of Life. And though I know next to nothing about gardens (just look at my lawn), one thing I do know is that in order to tend to it, you must work with the soil you have. You need to be where you are. And you need to let others be where they are. You cannot be where you once were, nor can you be where you believe you may be going. You can only be here.
So, step one, in reimagining the Gospel, both for the Church and the Christian? Be here.
Week II: What is Your Name?
Scripture: Mark 1:1, 9-11, Luke 15:11-32, Genesis 1:26-27, 2:15-17, 3:6-9
Main Point: Your core identity is beloved child of God, not sinner saved by grace
Reflection Questions: How do you identify? List as many identities as you feel comfortable and are relevant as you can about yourself. That is, stuff like gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity… but also things like singer, parent/grandparent, runner, etc. Which of these identities matter most to you? What is your full name? Do any of these names have meaning (either in general or that are specific to you or your family)?
Jot down some notes and thoughts on these questions and be ready to share at least part of it with the group.
WHAT IS YOUR NAME: It has always been engrained into me that at its most base level, when it comes to the Gospel, the “good news”, I am a “sinner saved by grace”. Though there is a way in which this is certainly true, is this who I am at my core? The Gospel into which I was indoctrinated says yes. It says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and because of this a punishment needs to be paid to atone for our sin. God is a just God, therefore sin requires a penalty. This all begins in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and are subsequently punished for that sin. None of this is necessarily wrong, except for one thing:
The story doesn’t start in Genesis 3. Sin and death is not the beginning of our story. Life and love are. The story begins in Genesis 1, not 3, where the poet says that we are “created in God’s image”. And by “we” the poet means humanity. Like, all of it. Genesis 1:26 says “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. The argument goes that because of the fall in chapter 3, from then on out humanity is sinful, and therefore our identity is sinner and we need to be saved from that identity and its consequence. But does chapter 3 wipe out chapters 1 and 2? If so, why even include them in the narrative? Why? Because they matter. A lot. The story doesn’t start with sin and death, it starts with love and life. So it is with our stories. We start out as beloved creations of God, not sinners deserving of God’s wrath.
In Luke 18 Jesus tells this short, straightforward parable about two men going to the Temple to pray: A Pharisee and a tax collector. That is, one who is a strict adherer to the law and in that sense, who is clean, and pristine; and one who is considered a filthy sinner (and in all honesty those tax collectors were pretty nasty). The Pharisee is standing and praying audibly in gratitude for not having been made like one of those sinners, and then lists the ways in which he is righteous. The tax collector is looking down, “beating his breast” and begging for mercy.
This is often used as a way of describing our proper posture toward God, but the problem is “posture toward God” is not exactly what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about humility and being aware of and honest about our failings, and we could extrapolate from this that this is how God would have us approach God, but I’m not so sure. If our core identity and answer to the question “who am I” is “sinner saved by grace”, and the proper posture toward God is beating out breast begging for mercy, then this doesn’t just say something about us, it says something about God.
It says that God is exactly what we never want to communicate that God is: An angry controlling God waiting to smite us unless we beg for forgiveness. We talk about how loving God is, but if that love is defined by “God didn’t smite me when I deserved it”, then it’s a pretty confined love. The loving-kindness of God, which runs throughout the entire story, is the first and primary move of God. Our logic is backward: When we start with sinner, we presume that God is starting with condemnation, not love. In my early Christian days I heard teachings from 1 John about how it’s not that we love God but that God loves us first, and I remember thinking, “if God so loves me, then why is God so angry with me all the time.”
Yes, we are sinners, but before we are sinners, we are loved. By virtue of being created by God in God’s image, we are loved and cherished by God. Our sin is real and we need to deal with it, but it doesn’t define us. God’s enduring loving-kindness does. And we see this most powerfully in the baptism of Jesus.
In those days baptism was a ritual cleansing and a sign of repentance, as evidenced by the John the Baptist’s call. As Jesus approaches John to be baptized, John is confused, and understandably so. If this is a ritual cleansing and a sign of repentance, why does Jesus want or need to do it? Well, we soon find out. As he comes up out of the waters we do not hear from God, “Jesus, you are forgiven” or “congrats, you’re a Christian now”. No, we read these words spoken to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
This primary ritual act of Christianity, the one we name as the initiation rite into the faith community is not just about the cleansing of our sin. It is about that, but it is first about our identity in God, which at its base is not “sinner”, and is not “saved”, but is simply “beloved”. It is to say, that the good news is not that you’re a sinner who God spares and saves, but that you are God’s beloved child and there is nothing you can do to disqualify yourself from that. The younger son in the Parable of the Lost Sons (Luke 15 11-32) rejects his father, effectively wishes him dead and leaves him, but the father never stops loving his son and never stops being his parent. The beloved son is an identity the son cannot shake. It is his primary and fixed identity- not “lost” or “prodigal”.
This is one of the overarching themes throughout the Gospels: Jesus making sure that those who have been labeled “unclean”, “outsider”, “unworthy”, and “disqualified” (like the tax collector) know that this what’s most true about them: They are God’s beloved, worthy of God’s presence, wrapped in God’s love.
And this is where I get called a heretic.
You see, I don’t think Jesus had to die on a cross to atone for our sin. I think our sin was already atoned for by the loving-kindness of our Creator, our Heavenly Parent. No matter what my kids do, my love supersedes everything else. Yes, they may be punished for poor behavior, but primarily they are my children and I love them. No matter what. I don’t say of my kids “They miserable sinners, but so long as they admit it to me and beg for forgiveness, I’ll love them and be with them.” No, my love for them precedes and supersedes everything. So it is with God and us.
The reason Jesus dies is that he spends his life doing the radical work of dismantling a system that gave a few great power by controlling people through making them afraid of God’s wrath over their sinfulness. It’s not that Jesus had to die on the cross to be a payment for our sin to satisfy God’s wrath. It’s that Jesus spends his life proclaiming all as God’s beloved, declaring that all are already forgiven simply by virtue of God’s loving-kindness, and in so doing the power structures of in/out, clean/unclean, and worthy/unworthy are broken down, threatening the power of those benefitting from the system. And if there’s one thing we know about those who effectively threaten and dismantle power structures, it’s that the power structure eventually kills them. As they did with Jesus.
How quickly we took this Gospel of love and welcoming and equity and fashioned it into a Gospel of fear and exclusion and judgment.
Where you are is here. And it is right here that you are loved. You are not primarily a sinner saved by grace. The Gospel, the “good news” is that you are God’s Beloved, created with grace.
Week III: God, Self, Neighbor
Scripture: John 3:16-21, Mark 12:28-34, 1 John 4:7-12
Main Point: When we know who we are, then we can truly love God, love ourselves, and love our neighbor. But it all starts with God’s love for us.
Reflection Questions: Reflect on a moment when you felt loved. Who was it that you knew loved you? What was the situation? How did that assurance of being loved impact you, your view on the world, and maybe even your behavior or attitude? When and how have you experienced God’s love in your life? When have you been assured of it? What does it mean to live in a “right” relationship with God, ourselves, and our neighbor? How does this inform everything God desires of us?
Jot down some notes and thoughts on these questions and be ready to share at least part of it with the group.
GOD, SELF, NEIGHBOR: So in part two we looked at the idea that our primary and overarching identity is not “sinner who needs to be saved” but “beloved who belongs”, not “sinner saved by grace” but “beloved created with grace”. The danger in this idea, however, is that it removes sin from the conversation. In the name of inclusion and belonging, we can too easily start to ignore this thing called “sin”, its impact on both our own lives and the world around us, and that we even do it all. So what about sin?
First, I think it’s important to remember that we do in fact all sin, and this is not a unique idea to Christianity. In fact, some of my atheist friends robustly agree that all have sinned (though they may not choose to use that word). There are very few people and religions in this world that I’ve encountered that doubt that everybody has in some way sinned or done wrong. So, yes, all have sinned. The question is, what do we do about it, and what are its implications?
As indicated last week, I do not believe that our sin (and particularly our “original sin”) condemns us to hell and that we need atonement from God through Jesus in order to be saved from hell. Because, remember, our primary identity in God is “Beloved child”, not “condemned sinner”. Yes, we have sinned, but it does not disqualify us from belonging to God as God’s beloved child any more than the wrongs my kids do disqualify them from being my beloved child. And if there is some kind of atonement that needs to happen, it has already happened by virtue of the loving-kindness of God that is the thread running through both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. From a Christian perspective, God did not come to earth to satisfy the wrath of God, but God came to earth to satisfy and live out the love of God.
So let’s look at the primary Bible verse on these matters (cue guy with sign behind the
end zone), John 3:16. It reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV).
The traditional interpretation of this verse goes like this: We are sinners and because God is just, that sin must be atoned for or we will burn in hell in eternal death. But God loves us, so God sent God’s only son to the earth to suffer the necessary penalty for us in the person and deity of Jesus Christ. We must believe and accept this as God’s eternal truth, because salvation is only for the “believer”. In accepting that God loves us so much that God died to pay the penalty for our sins, we can then have “eternal life”, which is most commonly understood as not burning hell but going to heaven after we die.
Notice that this interpretive rhythm starts with “sinner”, but the verse itself starts with God’s love. I think that’s problematic and is where I’d like to begin reimagining sin. So let’s reframe this famous verse beginning where it begins- God’s love:
We are deeply and eternally loved by God, our creator, and because God loves us like a loving (not abusive nor neglectful) parent, God wants to assure us of God’s love for us. But we often forget (or never knew) that God loves us, which leads to seeking for love and belonging on this earth wherever and however we can find it. This leads to exploiting God, self, neighbor, and earth for our own well being. To more adequately assure us that God loves us, God comes to earth as a fully embodied human to be in a flesh-on-flesh relationship with us wherein God proclaims a message and performs acts of love and belonging, while also dismantling systems of hate and exclusion, and does so even to the point where God in the flesh is killed for it.
We sin. All of us. And this sin creates a kind of hell of earth from which we all want to be “saved”. That hell on earth is feeling alienated, excluded, hated, and rejected simply because of who we are. Therefore, God so loved the world, that God came to earth to assure us of that love and belonging to the degree that we come fully alive.
It all begins in a garden, where humanity is living in a beautiful relationship with God, self, one another, and the earth. And God says, “don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. There is a way in which I think we can say that God is saying “don’t eat the fruit of judgment- it will kill you. It will pit you against one another and alienate you.” But that fruit is tempting. We can’t resist.
We eat it, and, like Adam and Eve, we become aware of our nakedness, our truest selves and we doubt that this true naked seld is loveable. We become afraid, and we hide. In our shame of ourselves, of our bodies and our souls, we feel we have no choice but to protect ourselves, and we do so by tearing others down. We are no longer tilling and keeping a garden of life, but we are tilling and keeping our own self-preservation. So we seek power and protection in whatever ways we can. We move from living a life in communion with God, self, neighbor, and the world, to living a life where I make sure I’m ok at all times and in all places.
Sin begins in doubting God’s love for our beautiful bodies and souls, and it continues in the fracturing of relationships that happens when we seek to compensate for that lack of love.
Too often, our following of God’s commands has been communicated as an act of obedience that comes from a sense of guilty gratitude for a God who died in our place. That may not sound bad until you break it down: God doesn’t want to kill us. We don’t kill that which we love (except in cases of mercy to prevent suffering). What’s embedded in all of this is still a debt to be paid. It puts us into a sort of slave/master relationship with God, an image which (by the way) the Apostle Paul fully embraces. It’s the idea that God purchased us, and it’s in the Bible, to be sure, but this “slave/master” relationship also contradicts the loving-kindness of the “parent/child” relationship that permeates the whole story, and which I think is primary to any other relationship type we have with God.
The sin we commit, whether it is participating in or benefitting from systemic sin or personal sin, is not about disobeying rules from a master. It is about denying our own and others’ worthiness of love, leading to a breakdown in our relationship with God, self, neighbor, and the earth. When we walk away from God, we hurt God’s heart, because God wants to be with us. When we hurt our literal or metaphorical neighbors, we fracture the communion God desires that we have with one another. We hate ourselves (both body and soul), we hurt our own hearts and God’s, as God declares us beautiful and beloved just as we are. When we exploit the earth for our own benefit, we fracture the communion we God desires that we have with the earth and fail to do the job God set out for us to do.
Sin is real, but it is not a lack of obeying God’s rules. It all begins with a lack of knowledge and acceptance that we are loved. The rules God set up for us (e.g.: the 10 commandments) are not arbitrary rules from an angry God that we are to obey. They are meant to help us live into a mutually loving relationship with God so that we can be in a mutually loving relationship with ourselves, with one another, and with the earth. Sin is when we fail to do any of those. And we all do it. Everyday.
The good news is that when we really get that first part, that God deeply and eternally loves us, we can know that our “sin” never disqualifies us from God’s love and belonging. That is a fixed, eternal, and unbreakable truth. It’s a scary world out there. There is a lot of hate and a lot of fear. The antidote is not “if everybody just obeyed God’s laws, we’d be fine”. No, the antidote is “if everybody just knew how deeply and eternally loved and accepted they are, the fear and hate would go away.”
If the whole earth were 100% centered in the idea that we are deeply and eternally loved and accepted, we could live in mutually loving relationship with God, self, neighbor, and earth, and I think then we could even say that the “sin” would go away. Will we ever get there? I don’t know. But I’m sure as hell finding abundant life in trying.
Week IV: It’s All One
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47, John 15:1-11
Main Point: We’re all connected, and therefore we must live our lives and faith that way.
Reflection Questions: Who do you spend most of your time with? Who are 2-3 people in this world who really know you? What does the phrase “doing life together” mean to you? When have you been a part of something where it felt like a true community, like you were intimately connected to others for a common purpose, task, or cause? How should the idea that everyone you encounter is a beloved child of God change the way you view and treat them?
Jot down some notes and thoughts on these questions and be ready to share at least part of it with the group.
IT’S ALL ONE: So far we have dealt with the idea that the Gospel must begin wherever a person is (“Here”), that the “good news” is that our primary identity is “Beloved”, and that sin is a reality but it’s not about breaking rules as much as it is denying our true identity. So what’s next? Well, that’s the question. What’s next? What’s next is the way in which we live out this identity.
This idea that what is most true about us is that we are the “Beloved” and that we are worthy of that love, runs the risk of becoming an entirely internalized and individualized notion. And while we need to internalize this and claim it individually, it cannot stop there. Belovedness suffocates within us if it is never breathed out in community. This idea of belovedness is not just a nice idea to make us feel warm and fuzzy, but it’s actually how it is that we live and move through the world together. This thing we call “our faith” is not personal but necessarily communal. And its greatest enemy may just be the kind of proud individualism out of which the bedrock of the “American Way” is built.
When I read the Book of Acts, one of the things I see is an authentic community of people, wholly (and “holy”) dependent on one another not only for their faith in Christ, but for their regular daily living as well. The classic passage at the end of Acts 2 says “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:44–47 NRSV).
It’s funny: When I read this passage in suburban American contexts suddenly the Bible is something not to be taken literally. A man living in a fish for three days, yes, that is literal, but “holding all things in common” and “selling possessions and distributing the proceeds to the poor”? Slow down, sailor. We can argue the merits of free market capitalism as the only or best way for a nation to operate, but as Christians, we must wrestle with the idea that there is something in it that is distinctly un-Christian. Or that at least leads to something distinctly un-Christian, which is a fierce individualism that keeps us from not only sharing resources but sharing our very lives as well.
We are the Beloved of God. Every one of us. And that Belovedness is to be the primary and guiding value of all we do. We are to inhale the belovedness of others into ourselves and exhale the belovedness of ourselves into others. God is a necessarily communal God, to the point where Christians believe that God so loves us that God showed up as one of us to be in an in-the-flesh relationship with us.
Later Christ dies, ascends to heaven, and then sends us the Holy Spirit in a new fresh and powerful way, and what’s the immediate outcome of it? Being together, sharing life together, living communally. And living communally to the point where the ritual act that differentiates these “Christian” Jews we call the “early church” from more mainstream Jews of the time is what we call today the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion. The primary ritual act was a meal shared together.
This speaks to the way in which our faith is communal, is relational. And this relationship is not just something we do for an hour on Sundays. It’s the whole of the faith. It’s what defines the faith. The way we live out Belovedness is by being so enraptured by it that we live in intimate, generous, honest, and fearless love toward one another and with one another in this world. It means that we recognize that we are all in this thing called life together. It means that we live closely and intimately with those in our faith communities, being what Eugene Peterson calls in The Message translation of Acts 2, “deep-spirited friends”.
But it also means that when we’re out in the world, out in the marketplace, that all those with whom we interact are treated as the Beloved as well. The gas station worker, the loan officer, the car who cut me off (I know.), high schooler not giving a crap about the road and just crossing the street to get to McDonalds without a care in the world, the annoying guy in the cube next to me, the stray dog, my literal neighbor, the grunter at the gym, even the very soil and water we need to survive are to be treated as God’s Beloved. Because they are.
This sounds nice, and it is, but it’s also tough. You see, when someone “has need”, that is, when someone doesn’t have enough, when there isn’t enough food in their cupboards or a sufficient roof over their heads or proper clothes on their back, it becomes difficult for them to know that they are the Beloved. There is a message embedded in it that you don’t matter. So not only the marketplace, but the very structures that govern the marketplace are in need of deconstruction of individualism and a reimagining rooted in belovedness.
We need each other. We need to share in our belovedness. We need to reclaim the communal nature of this faith. We need to understand that this world, the whole world, from the small farmer way out in “flyover country” to the biggest most populated urban centers, are part of one connected and communal system. We need to be a part of that system (because we can’t not be), but we also need to take critical looks at the ways that system can hijack communal belovedness.
When we come to the communion table, we are not just performing some ritual act of forgiveness. No, we are claiming that we are in this together. We are making a bold claim that God is not only present in the bread and wine, but is also present in you and in me. This is why we pray “pour out your spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine…” In order to experience the fullness of God’s presence in my life, I need to experience you in my life. Every encounter we have with another human is sacred. It is holy. For we, that is, we humans, are the Body of Christ, and therefore we cannot live out this faith without living in and growing in such a community.
Week V: The E-Word
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Main Point: Evangelism is making sure people know that they are a beloved child of God.
Reflection Questions: Has someone ever tried to get you to convert to or join something you didn’t want to convert to or join? What kind of tactics did they use? Why was it so important to them? Has anyone ever done this to you with a religion? How did that feel? How did it end? What kind of message do you think the world needs to hear these days? What is something you’re excited to tell people about? Why are you excited? What does it mean to you to be the “beloved” of God? How do you describe that? What messages do we hear that contradict that message?
Jot down some notes and thoughts on these questions and be ready to share at least part of it with the group.
THE E-WORD: We are nearing the end of “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.
Week VI: Resist…
Scripture: Luke 4:16-21, Mark 8:1-11, Mark 11:15-19
Main Point: The Good News is both macro and micro: We need to make sure the humans in our midst know that they are loved, while also making sure the masses know they are loved by combatting systemic exclusion in all forms.
The rest of Part VI coming soon!