Monday, August 11, 2008

What is the gospel?

I find myself returning frequently to the simple question, ‘what is the gospel?’ Without the gospel there would be no church, not even a less institutionalised movement of Jesus’ followers. But what is the gospel? Intriguingly, Scripture itself offers a complex answer to the question. Reading Paul we can quickly conclude something like, ‘our sins separate us from God, but the death of Christ overcomes that separation for those who believe in Christ.’ Reading the Gospels we head in slightly different ways between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel. The Synoptics lean towards, ‘follow Jesus in order to be within the sphere of God’s rule, with promise of life to come beyond judgement’, while John emphasises ‘believe in Jesus Christ as Son of God in order to have eternal life.’ I suggest each version of the gospel is ultimately the same, and the variations enable us both to enter more deeply into the experience of being a gospel person, and to be flexible in how we present the gospel in different cultures and contexts.

This past week I have had a kaleidoscope of experiences in five different cities and towns of our fair land, including conferences, committee meeting, funeral, and many conversations. I found myself thinking about the ‘deep’ picture of human life underlying the gospel.

One form of the deep picture goes like this: ‘we are very materialistic, but we find within ourselves a yearning for something more – a spiritual side to our lives which is unable to be filled by materialism.’ In this view of humanity and its major problem, the gospel is a message that God through Christ is able to meet our spiritual needs. Interestingly, this understanding involves little or no talk about sin or the need for the cross, yet it is a fairly widespread understanding in churches keen on Scripture and the gospel. It is a view which places each human individual at the centre of the universe!

Another form, truer and closer to Scripture, is this: ‘God was complete in God’s own being yet out of love created human beings to enlarge the communion of God. Exercising the God-given gift of choice, human beings have distanced themselves from God and broken communion. The gospel message is that Christ dying on the cross and rising to new life enables communion to be restored: separation is overcome, barriers between God and humanity are broken down.’ On this view ‘sin’ is at the core of the definition– the separation factor- and the cross is essential to restoration of communion. Also, God is the beginning and the end of the gospel. Our response to the gospel is not about our fulfilment but about the life of God filling us: Christ in us and we in Christ. This understanding of the deep structure to the gospel is keyed to words such as ‘harmony’, ‘fellowship’, ‘union’, and ‘communion.’

On this understanding the unity of the Anglican Communion as a gospel church matters. Schism means the effect of the gospel has been undone, and the most powerful human action as witness to the gospel is damaged.

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