June 19, 2011

I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel

Passage: Romans 1:16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."

It sounds like science fiction—a pill to enhance moral behaviour—“but with medicine getting closer to altering our moral state, society should be preparing for the consequences”.  This was according to a book [Enhancing Human Capacities] that reviews scientific developments in the field of pharmacology.  Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, said: ‘We can change people’s emotional responses but quite whether that improves their moral behaviour is not something science can answer.’ Kahane does not advocate putting morality drugs in the water supply, but he suggests that if administered widely they might help humanity to tackle global issues.”

During her appearance last month on American Idol, Lady Gaga told the audience, without being prompted, that she wasn’t interested in judging the contestants, only in bringing out what was special about each of them. “I want to free [my fans] of their fears and make them feel . . . that they can create their own space in the world.” When an interviewer called Lady Gaga the “Billy Graham of pop,” she claimed, “I'm teaching people to worship themselves.”

I think it correct to classify the underlying assumptions about humanity in both of the foregoing stories as humanism. Humanists insist that we humans are entirely self-sufficient. We may be deficient on account of misdirected will or ill-informed understanding, but we aren't humanly defective in any way. Whatever ails humankind we can cure ourselves—perhaps with advances in pharmacology or a more resilient belief in ourselves having been freed from fears.  God might be knowable but such knowing has nothing to do with the human good and its achievability.  Humankind, say the humanists, has within it all it needs to flower magnificently.

Religious humanists hold a modified understanding about humanity.  Religious humanists admit that something significant is missed when God isn't known. There are profound human needs and aspirations and possibilities that remain unmet when God isn't known. Something significant may be missing, say the religious humanists, but not something essential.

1. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel”, declared the Apostle Paul.  The gospel he preached proffers an understanding of humanity that is in stark contrast to the many flavours of humanism.  The gospel says that humankind is in a predicament we cannot resolve; no humanism would, or could for that matter, create such a self-portrait.  The conviction of the gospel is that while humanist and religious humanist alike are fixated on the notion that humankind is either self-sufficient or slightly deficient, in fact humankind is defective in its nature and facing destruction at the hand of him whom scripture describes as creator and destroyer alike.

In Jesus Christ believers have been take up into a truth and reality to which God alone could admit them; in him we now know that the gospel isn't an "answer" of some sort to the questions that humankind poses concerning itself or poses concerning God; the gospel is that "answer" which exposes humankind's questions as the wrong questions. The gospel is that "answer" which exposes humankind's questions not as anticipations of its cure but as symptoms of its disease. The gospel is a divinely wrought solution to the human predicament which exposes humankind's self-understanding as colossal misunderstanding.

We like to complain that the news is predominantly bad news.  What conclusions about humanity are drawn in this daily litany of human ills, spills, and problems?  On the day I was writing this part of the sermon I read a newspaper full of bad news.

One story was the rise in violent crime in Athens as the Greek government struggles to save its debt-racked economy.  Public anger peaked when a man was knifed to death as he was about to drive his pregnant wife to hospital; the assailants snatched the video camera with which he had planned to film the birth. The Prime Minister made an appeal to Athenians to not let Athens sink further into violence.

Another article chronicled the plight of Syrian refugees as they fled to camps in Turkey; Turkish soldiers warned that Syrian troops were on the border preparing to attack them and they were defenceless against any assault.  Syrian refugees wondered why the UN appears to have abandoned them.

A third article was about a police raid on a vast drug-trafficking network operating on First Nation territories in Quebec and Ontario.  The article noted ties between organized crime groups and some first nation drug dealers.  The Grand Chief of the Mohawk council complained of all the media attention on his community saying it involved only a small number of people; it was not just a Mohawk problem.

We complain about the litany of bad news yet we are drawn to it; we wouldn’t read a newspaper of all good news because we think it unrealistic and we don’t want to be deluded.  Plainly people are fascinated, gripped, by the negative news they complain about but can't flee.  It is important to note (and this point is crucial) in the vast array of stories that are daily reported on in the news no one draws the conclusion that the problem is the corruption of the human heart.  The conclusion announced in the gospel is never drawn from the daily litany of bad news; namely, that all humankind needs saving.  The gospel is the power of God for salvation, wrote Paul.

Our thinking concerning God, our thinking concerning ourselves under God, our thinking is hugely warped. For this reason the prophet Jeremiah says that the heart (the Hebrew person thinks with her heart) is twisted beyond comprehension; for this reason Jesus said it is from the human heart that evil intentions come; for this reason the apostle Paul says of us fallen people that our senseless minds are darkened; our thinking is now futile; fancying ourselves wise we have become fools.

Many are ashamed of the gospel at this point because it seems, well, harsh.  Here we are saying give me the bad news because I want reality; give me the unvarnished version so I can face life as it really is; and yet when the gospel is announced we balk that it is a little too much realism. Humankind's deepest need isn't to be loved. Our ultimate need isn't to be loved in that we are emotionally deprived; our ultimate need is to be saved in that we stand guilty and condemned before the just judge.

2.  We know that the word “gospel” means “good news”.  What is the “gospel” that Paul declares?  It would be better to ask the question, who is the gospel that Paul declares. When Paul preached the gospel he was not offering people a new way of being what we call “religious”, as if what the world needed was a new religion.  What the world needs is a Saviour.

In the opening sentences of the letter to the Romans Paul tells us what he means by the gospel of God.  It is “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord”.   Every Christmas we read those angelic lines we love to sing about; I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.  Jesus is the gospel.

Why would we be ashamed of the gospel, which is to be ashamed of Jesus?  Sadly, it is the church that is too often ashamed of the gospel.  In the June 2011 issue of The United Church Observer (denominational magazine) there was an article about the church experimenting with recruitment as a method to find new ministers; it featured a 22-year-old psychology and religion student as fitting neatly into the category currently targeted by United Church recruiters.  One leader of this drive said: “Young leaders probably won’t feel called to a ministry of ‘saving’ the church of the past, but they might be very excited about imagining a community for the future.”  There was no mention of Jesus or the gospel in the entire article.

In the same issue was a favourable interview with Tom Harpur about his new book; the headline trumpeted Harpur’s assertion that Jesus never lived.  In the interview Harpur underlined this assertion; “If you have a view of Jesus as a concrete, historical person, it can be a block to your own spiritual growth.” In a clear and purposeful distortion of the New Testament he went on to say “the Christ is the true inner spiritual self of every one of us”.

In the Apostles’ teaching Jesus was very much this concrete, historical person; Paul said he was “descended from David according to the flesh”.  When Paul speaks of Jesus Christ he thinks as a Hebrew not as a Greek dualist—he would never say that the Christ was some spiritual component of you and me and Jesus.  For Paul “the gospel” is the announcement that the crucified risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord; this is precisely what he means by Jesus Christ.

Both Mark and Luke in their gospels give us Jesus saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”  Some theologians have suggested that when Paul writes “I am not ashamed of the gospel” he is citing a, early Christian creedal statement.

3. Paul tells us in his Roman letter that he isn't ashamed of the gospel just because he knows the gospel to be the power of God for salvation.  Note: the gospel isn't chiefly information, even information about God, even information about God and us. The gospel is the power of God that effects salvation, and as we become beneficiaries of it we acquire information about it.

The gospel isn't good news in the sense of mere announcement, mere report, mere information, like a reading of the news. News reports what has happened; news never makes anything happen; it merely details what is already the case. The news never forges anything new.

But the good news of the gospel is different: when the gospel concerning the saving event of Jesus Christ is declared, the power of God operates. The gospel is the only report of things past that genuinely forges a future. Information about someone who got strung up at the Jerusalem city dump in the year 33 is of no significance to us today unless disseminating the information unleashes something whose power can make new our ruptured relationship with God, can restore to us the destiny we have abandoned, and can recreate our otherwise fatally flawed nature.

It is this saving power to everyone who has faith. Faith is simply the bond that binds us to Jesus Christ. Faith is our embracing the One whose arms first embraced us.  Faith is the gospel in its own power forging its own reception within us.

4. David Brooks is a Canadian-born political and cultural commentator who writes for the New York Times.  He wrote a piece on a new Broadway production titled The Book Of Mormon from the creators of the television comedy South Park.  The play depicts naive Mormons travelling to Africa.  Brooks titled his piece Great musical, bad message.

Brooks wrote: “The Book of Mormon (the play) is not anti-religious. It just endorses a no-sharp-edges view of religion that is all creative metaphors and no harsh judgments”. “The religions that thrive (in the real world) have exactly what The Book of Mormon ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth. ... But it’s worth remembering that the religions that thrive in real-life Africa are not as nice and naive as the religion portrayed in the play. ...

I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa. The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behaviour. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies — right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better effect.”

5. The gospel isn't methodology for self-healing; it's power, says the apostle, the power of God for the salvation of all who admit humankind's powerlessness before God and entrust themselves to the empowered One whom God raised from the dead.  The people who are trapped in a crumpled automobile; do you think they are ashamed of those mechanical jaws used to wrench apart the folded-up car and free them when they have no chance at all of freeing themselves? Do you think they would ever complain that the mechanical jaws lack good taste or delicacy or subtlety? Do you think they would ever speak of the rescue-operation as an affront to their dignity?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.