We sipped coffee at Starbucks Sunday morning. After church. I offered a post mortem, not unlike the bridge ritual of second-guessing. The sermon we had just heard was in focus. I offered the opinion that the sermon was interesting and even engaging but it wasn’t the gospel.
Two-thirds of those present with me, good churchgoers and smart too, stared blankly at me, as if to say but not saying it, “What for heaven’s sake is gospel preaching?”
So I didn’t say it with the exasperation I was feeling, that the gospel is what I go to church for.
Explanations are in order. Most of you likely share with my fellow Christians and coffee-drinkers, an imprecision, if not an ignorance, about the gospel. Literally translated it means “good news.” It is the news Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his earthly ministry, as in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom has come near.” (NRSV)
Probably a representation of Jesus on the Galilean mount, which text, Matthew 5-7, should be read as a citizen's guide to the way it will be in the new dispensation.
That’s the good news: that something has happened in this world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that changes everything, especially our bent to violence and selfishness. The preacher’s first duty every Sunday is to announce that in the cross of Jesus, and the attendant events before and after, the world, the whole “bloomin’” world, has been transformed. That news, if not front and center in the twenty-minute monologue, is its platform, its rationale, its reason for taking up your time when you could be home drinking coffee and reading the paper, filled as it (the paper) is with the other kind of news, mostly bad.
But the Gospel is news our overly-Enlightened world, often as willfully ignorant as Biblical literalists, quickly dismisses. I’ll not bore you with an eschatological explanation; but I could… both explain and bore you. I’ll leave it at the declaration that we live in the end times and have since the cross was raised and the tomb emptied. It is enough to know that a new dispensation has been set in motion; and, if not visible to the merely curious and mostly murky even to the faithful, the new realm of God has arrived though hidden beneath the world events which continue to careen willy-nilly into tomorrow.
Ask me for evidence and I shall happily provide it. Not proof, evidence, the evidence seen with the eyes of faith. Not only in individual human lives, but also in the arc of human history. But not now, in an essay sometime later.
I want at this juncture, instead, to show how the text for the Sunday sermon, about which I provided the Starbucks post mortem, was right up the Gospel alley. Said text, Matthew 12:46-50 (NRSV), the incident in which Jesus is holding forth and someone tells him that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him. Which leads Jesus to a response some have thought a tad callous for a loving son: “Who are my mother, and who are my brothers?” Of course, you and I know he answered his own question with, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
The preacher the morning in question used that text (1) to amplify his own mother’s wisdom, a remembered aphorism, that “the madness has to stop with you”; and (2) to celebrate the influence for good we can have on one another, especially in the home. Positive themes, yes, but not the Gospel. Which Jesus had in mind when he delivered that line; but when out of Gospel context, might read as a put-down of family.
Martin Luther posited the hermeneutic (go ahead, look it up) that Scripture is its own interpreter. Jesus’ seemingly callous retort about his family causes me to go to John 1:12-14 where it is claimed that henceforth, in the new dispensation (The Gospel), the children of God are “born not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God” … meaning my family can be anyone and everyone in the human family, anyone and everyone who loves God and neighbor.
A revolutionary thought in an age, persisting still, of blood-soaked tribalism!
For another Scriptural corroboration, remember Jesus on the cross, one of those seven last words, the exchange with his mother and a disciple, that she is to see in him a son and he in her his mother. In the new age (The Gospel) those who love Jesus and are determined to follow him through hell and high water share a bond more durable and unbreakable than familial natural ties.
Mary, Jesus, and John where (on the cross, the inaugural, if you will, of the kingdom of God) Jesus affirmed the way it is in the new dispensation of God's grace, a family united in the love of God and neighbor.
And that’s the good news I needed to hear the Sunday in question; good news, a facsimile of which, I look for every time the preacher stands in the pulpit.