June 17, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript for my sermon this coming Sunday, June 19, 2016.
For those who’d rather listen, an audio link is embedded below:
What is the gospel?
In our reading we just heard Paul say that,
The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
This is one of those passages that gives us a beautiful and compelling snapshot of the gospel. But no sooner than I say that, I feel like we need to pause for a bit and consider a very basic question: What is the gospel?
The gospel is, of course, the good news of Jesus; or the good news about Jesus. So far so good, but what is the good news? This is where things get sticky. Many go to another passage Paul wrote—1 Cor. 15.3-5—and use that as their starting point: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. So the good news—the gospel—is the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
While I don’t want to deny that the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is at the heart of the gospel, that can’t be the whole gospel. That’s not all the gospel has to offer. The gospel is good news because it gives meaning to the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. And anyway, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that Jesus was preaching the gospel before he was crucified, buried, and resurrected.
In the first three Gospels—the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke—the gospel Jesus proclaimed was connected with the kingdom, or rule, of God.
So in Mark 1.15, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we hear him saying: Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! The gospel—or good news—is that God’s kingdom is on its way.
In Matt. 4.23—again, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—here’s what we find: Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. Here, Jesus isn’t just preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. He’s also healing all the sick people he comes across. He’s not just preaching the gospel; he’s showing it. Demonstrating it. Making it real for the people. A little later on in Matthew, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will teach his disciples to pray: Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven (Matt. 6.10). The kingdom of God is wherever and whenever God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus showed this by healing diseases and casting out demons. Because God’s will—what God wants—is for people to be healthy, thriving, productive, and in their right minds. Jesus wanted to show all of his neighbors that the kingdom of God is good news for people who are hurting, suffering, afraid, alone, and forgotten. God remembers them, and God is working in the world to make things right again.
In Luke’s Gospel—once again, right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—we find Jesus getting ready to leave his old stomping grounds in the Galilee countryside. The people are begging him to stay, because he’s been preaching with authority, healing all their diseases, and casting out demons. But Jesus tells them: I must preach the good news of God’s kingdom in other cities too, for this is why I was sent (Luke 4.43).
So the gospel can’t just be about the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—though they’re essential to the gospel. It also can’t just be a matter of God dealing with sin in the crucifixion of Messiah Jesus so we don’t have to go to hell when we die. Of course, dealing with sin and giving us hope for a life to come are also part of the gospel. But for Jesus, the gospel has everything to do with the kingdom of God. He was preaching and showing the good news of God’s kingdom. The gospel is God’s victory over evil, sin, death, and the fallen powers. This victory began the moment baby Jesus first breathed the air of earth. It climaxed in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. The good news is that in his life and in his death, Jesus was fighting a decisive battle with the Devil and his forces. The cross was the ultimate showdown between Jesus and the Satan. And Jesus won. That’s why, in another letter, Paul says that at the cross, Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities—Satan and his band of rebels. Then he exposed them to public disgrace by leading them in a triumphal parade (Col. 2.15). The gospel is that Satan’s rebellion, Satan’s power-grab, has been put down. The God of Israel has been affirmed as rightful king of the cosmos. Evil has been defeated, and God is rescuing his people and his creation.
Not to be too cliche, sisters and brothers, but this changes everything. If we go on thinking the gospel is just about God dealing with our individual sins; if we go on thinking the gospel is what keeps us out of hell—well, our vision of the gospel is way too narrow. Then our gospel is too small.
The very good news that we heard in our lesson today is a very big gospel. Big enough to embrace not only you and me and everybody else, but the entire universe. Because Paul said: if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation.
It’s not just where you’ll spend eternity that changes. It’s not just you who is changed. The gospel changes everything.
The new creation
Let’s listen again to the shocking claim that Paul has just made: if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The New English Bible puts it this way: When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world. This is the very big, very good news that changes everything.
Now, most of you have probably heard this verse more like this: if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (KJV). Or, if a man is in Christ he becomes a new person altogether (Phillips). I’m certainly not denying that this is all true. After all, elsewhere Paul has this to say:
All who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6.3-4)
We are gathered into Christ through baptism. We share in his death so that we can share in his resurrection. And even now, those who have been baptized into Christ can walk in newness of life. Those who are in Christ have been made new, and are being renewed daily. In Eph. 4.24, Paul says that anyone who is in Christ can clothe themselves with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness. This is all fearfully and wonderfully true.
But that’s not all Paul is saying in our reading today. For one thing, the word he uses here means creation; not just creature. And creation means everything God has made and called good. Not just individual created beings. To get a flavor of what Paul meant in our lesson today, listen closely to these words from Rom. 8.19-22:
The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.
Every time we just heard Paul say creation in these verses, it’s the exact same word he used in our reading today. It’s pretty obvious that he means the entire world, cosmos, or universe—not just individual creatures.
Not only that, Paul said in our reading today that because there is a new creation, the old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
This is because everyone and everything has been reconciled to God in Christ. We heard something about this in our reading today, as well. Paul said: All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ … In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. So we just heard Paul say that God reconciled everyone—the world—to himself in Christ.
But in another letter, Paul makes sure that we know that what God has done in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ embraces the entire creation; and sweeps up all of history—past, present, and future. In Col. 1.16, Paul says that:
Because all things were created by [Christ]:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
And then a few verses later—Col. 1.19-20—Paul says that:
all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
Paul said that all things in heaven and on earth were created through Christ and for Christ. And he insists that God reconciled all things to himself through Christ. Does all mean all? I suspect it has to, doesn’t it?
All things and all people are reconciled to God through Christ. Jesus has made peace between all of the fallen creation and God through the blood of his cross. How does this work? There are a lot of answers floating around out there—religion scholars call them theories of atonement.
While we certainly don’t have time just now to evaluate all those various answers about the meaning of the cross, here’s something we must understand. No one answer or theory about the atoning work of Christ can exhaust the meaning of the cross. The Bible uses many different metaphors: ransoming hostages; buying back slaves; a battle that has been won; a declaration of general amnesty. If the scriptures give multiple answers to the question, How did the cross make peace?; then we know there isn’t just one answer.
In our reading today, Paul gives one answer to what God was doing through the cross of Christ: God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. This is a difficult passage to unpack—Paul says so much by saying so little. But the assurance that these words hold out for us is this: sin and shame and guilt and death—all the things that made us slaves to fear; and frustrated all of God’s plans for his good creation—have already been dealt with at the cross. They were nailed to the cross with Jesus; they were laid in the tomb with him; and when he rose again, they did not come back with him.
This is exactly why Paul can say that if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. Sin and shame and fear and guilt and death are part of the old order of things. But now, Paul says, The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! Where sin had been, now there is grace. There is mercy instead of shame. Freedom instead of fear. Healing instead of sickness. Renewal instead of decay. Forgiveness in place of guilt. And where death once reigned, there is hope for resurrection and new life.
And so we have the very big gospel, the very good news: Every evil thing that threatens God’s good creation, and enslaves his human children, has been defeated through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Now all of creation, and all of us, have been reconciled—made right—with God through Christ. And so, whenever anyone is gathered into Christ, that person is also brought into the new creation.
And this very big, very good gospel changes everything.
Already, but not yet
Of course, this all sounds spectacular. To say that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is good news because it means that there is a new creation. And this new creation is possible because the fallen creation died with Christ; and when he rose, he brought a new creation with him. And in this new creation, everyone and everything is reconciled to God. This is a very big, very good gospel.
I want to celebrate this very big, very good news. I want us to celebrate the gospel—this gospel—together. But I suspect that some of you might be sniffing around this very good gospel for horse manure. And that’s okay. Some days, I do, too. So if any of you are thinking, Preacher, either Paul was full of it; or you are; or both of you are; I get it. That’s totally understandable.
After all, if we take seriously what Paul has written, he certainly seems to say that all things and all people have been reconciled to God. Not just that they can be; or might be; or will be one day. But that God reconciled us to himself through Christ. And moreover, that God reconciled all things to himself through Christ.
But we look around our world. We see mass shootings. Terrorist groups. War. Starvation. Poverty. Human trafficking. Racism. Corruption in every level of business and government. Abused and abandoned children. Cruelty to animals. Cancer. Environmental devastation. So-called “natural disasters.” Not to mention that most of us have lived our whole lives under the shadow of nuclear weapons stockpiles, with all their potential for unfathomable destruction. Everything doesn’t look reconciled, does it? Not hardly.
And then, we examine our own lives. Our sins and failures and inadequacies. Our bodies that are wearing out. All our prayers that seem to bounce off the ceiling and back in our faces. Things we have done, and that have been done to us, that can’t be undone. Relationships broken beyond repair. Wounds inflicted on us that no amount of time has been able to heal. We certainly don’t all feel reconciled, do we?
And yet, Paul is in our face, telling us that everything and everybody is reconciled to God. We want to trust Paul. But we also know we can’t get by without being able to trust our eyes, our experiences, and our gut. And our eyes, our experiences, our minds, and our hearts all tell us: No, everything and everybody is not already reconciled. Not to God. Not even to each other.
Some preachers will just tell you not to trust what your eyes can plainly see; what you have learned from experience; or what your heart already knows. I’m not one of them. There is a very real tension between what Paul has told us, and what we see and feel and experience every day. It would be dishonest of me; or of you; or anyone, to deny that this tension exists.
The theologians have come up with a phrase to describe this tension: already, but not yet. What this means is that Christ has already won the victory over sin and shame and guilt and fear and death. Satan has already fallen like lightning from the heavens. God is already king, and his kingdom has come already. Everything and everybody has already been reconciled to God. The new creation is already upon us.
But not everyone knows this yet. Many simply haven’t heard. Many have heard, but can’t or won’t believe it. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul suggested that this is because the god of this age—Satan—has blinded the minds of those who don’t have faith so they couldn’t see the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4.4). Still others not only refuse to believe the good news, they actively resist it. And as long as everyone does not yet know that God is already king; that everyone is already reconciled; and that the new creation is already here—as long as the kingdom of God meets resistance—we still live in a war zone.
Satan and his forces were fatally wounded by the death and resurrection of Jesus. But they’re still firing rounds at God’s people and God’s good creation as they stagger and fall. This will continue until Jesus puts all his enemies—and ours—under his feet. And when all things have been brought under his control, then the Son himself will also be under the control of the one who gave him control over everything so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15.28). Then every not yet will become already.
Until then—whenever it is—we have work to be doing here. Paul told us what this work is in our lesson today: The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. In other words, Jesus has laid claim to our lives. If he gave his life for us, what can we do but live for him? But how do we do that? Paul tells us that, too. When God reconciled us through Christ, he gave us the ministry of reconciliation. Now we are ambassadors who represent Christ. This means we continue the work that God began in the world through Jesus. We proclaim that God is king; everyone is reconciled to God; and a new creation is upon us. And we show that this is all true by how we live and what we do.
How do we live lives that tell others that God is king; everything and everyone is reconciled; and a new creation has arrived? Well, we just heard Paul say that because of what God has done through Jesus, we have become the righteousness of God. Not just that we have been made right with God; made righteous; or declared righteous even though we aren’t. Paul says that because our sin and shame and guilt and death were put to death with Christ, we are God’s righteousness. Our lives—how we live in the world, how we live together as the church—are the places where God’s love and grace and comfort and loyalty and justice and mercy and healing are made known to the world. So it’s all in the big and little choices we make every day. To listen well, instead of just blurting out our treasured opinions to be heard. To stand beside the hurting. To embrace instead pushing away. To be gentle. To form dangerous friendships—meaning to love people our world, our culture, our peers tell us we should not love. To be patient with those who frustrate us. To comfort those who hurt. To make sure that no one has to die alone. To do it all for Jesus. To do it all as Christ’s ambassadors.
When we choose those ways of doing and living, we bring some already to all the not yets in the world. Our very lives tell the story of Christ’s victory. We become the truth that God is king; everything and everyone is reconciled; and a new creation is here. In other words, as Paul said, we become the righteousness of God.
And that is the very big, very good gospel that changes not only us; but everything.