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Not Ashamed of the Gospel – II

 

 Romans 1:16-17

I like to go parties (as long as they aren’t on a Saturday night; in view of the claim I must honour on Sunday morning, I don’t party on Saturday night.) I like parties for several reasons. One reason is that I get to know what people are thinking. I’ve learned that some people will say more if they know I’m a clergyman, while others will say more if they don’t know.

Some people are more transparent, more natural, less guarded, less artificial if they don’t know I’m a clergyman; others are more straightforward, even aggressive (not to say angry) if they know I am, for then they can unload the complaint that’s festered inside them for years, a complaint about the faith or the clergy or the church or religion-at-large. Since people either know I’m a clergyman or they don’t know (there’s no third possibility), I can’t lose at a party.

At one party I attended someone moved me into a corner and then denounced the particularity of the gospel; its insufferable narrowness, its insupportable claim to exclusivity, its postured uniqueness. How ridiculous, not to say arrogant, to think that Jesus is the Son of God, that his death is the atoning event that makes the world “at-one” with God and thereby gives the world access to God. How presumptuous for Christians to speak of Jesus as “Saviour” and “Lord” when there have been (and are) many influential religious leaders. My fellow-partygoer thought that we (by “we” he assumed that he and I were in identical orbits, and it never occurred to him that here he was presumptuous) should form a pool of all people of goodwill: Christians, Muslims, Bah’ais, Buddhists, Unitarians. After all, our common denominator was our affirmation that God loves. And the affirmation was important, since all of us need to be loved, and need to be loved with greater-than-human love.

I listened patiently and then volunteered the following. One, 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. Two, there’s little point in God’s loving us if he cannot save us, since his love will forever fall short of our predicament and forever remain ineffective. Three, the other religious groups with which we are to form the pool don’t believe that we need saving (the Unitarians), or don’t believe that the God who transcends us even exists (the Buddhists), or don’t believe that mercy characterises God (the Muslims). Four, the groups with whom we are to form the pool don’t share the church’s understanding of human nature, particularly of perverse human nature. Five, those early-day Christians who recognized God to love them and all humankind didn’t first think their way to the abstract pronouncement, “God is love; God loves us; so who needs the complication of incarnation and cross?” Instead, early-day Christians were first overwhelmed by the Lord of incarnation and cross; it was their experience of the crucified One Incarnate, their experience of him that impelled them to declare that God is love.

At yet another party, in only a few minutes, I had learned a great deal about the mindset of our fellow-citizens and neighbours.

 

I: — Let’s think first about the human predicament. 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. As for God, if perchance God is, we might be able to know him; on the other hand, God also might be forever unknowable. In any case, say the humanists, knowing God has nothing to do with the human good and its achievability. Humankind has within it all it needs to flower magnificently. In fact humankind is ascending steadily. The possibilities for human self-fulfilment are so dazzling, open-ended and limitless as to be beyond imagining.

There is a second opinion concerning the human predicament. Those who hold this opinion (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.

There is a third opinion. It’s more than opinion; it is conviction born of self-authenticating experience: it’s the conviction of those who, like early-day Christians of old, have been overwhelmed at God’s visitation to us in his Son and his victory over our self-willed futility in his Son’s death and resurrection. The conviction of these people 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.

These people (Christians, in other words); just because they have been take up into a truth and reality to which God alone could admit them now know that the gospel isn’t an “answer” of some sort to the questions that humankind poses concerning itself or poses concerning God; they know now that 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. In other words, only in the light of the divinely-wrought answer (gospel) do we see that our questions weren’t the right questions; in many cases, weren’t profound questions; in some cases weren’t questions at all but merely projections of humankind’s “wish-list.”

You must have noticed that when humankind thinks about what is at the farthest remove from the human, it thinks very well; in other words, when humankind thinks about geology or algebra, it thinks well. When it thinks about what is farthest-from-human its capacity for reasoning is least warped. When, however, it thinks about what is a step closer to the uniquely human, its reasoning is somewhat warped. As our thinking concerns what is closer and closer to what it means to be a human being, our thinking is more and more warped. The social commentator, (Michelle Landsberg, for instance), displays a bias and a distortion much greater than anything found in the geologist or the mathematician. When our thinking concerns God, however; when our thinking concerns ourselves under God, our thinking is hugely warped, virtually wholly 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 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. Our thinking isn’t futile when we think about the natural world, the non-human world: our thinking isn’t futile when we are doing astronomy or sub-atomic physics or physiology. But our thinking is “futile” in the sense that it doesn’t yield truth when we start to think about what it is to be human, and specifically what it is to be human under God.

Our era venerates psychology but disdains truth. As a result our psychology-conscious era is always reducing statements about truth to statements about feeling. Our era reduces the gospel’s diagnosis of our situation under God to how we happen to be feeling. We feel frustrated or futile or self-contradicted. And if we happen to employ a religious vocabulary we are said to feel guilty (merely feel guilty, of course), or perchance feel alienated from what we call “God.”

But such reductionism won’t do. The diagnosis the gospel makes is that we are estranged from the God who made us and claims us; we have repudiated our identity as those created to be covenant-partners with God who reflect his glory; we are disordered in our innermost selves since our mind/heart/will are fatally flawed. This is not how humankind of itself thinks about itself; this, rather, is the gospel’s assessment of humankind. This is the human situation under God regardless of whether we feel as happy as pigs in mud or feel as miserable as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Needless to say, in light of the truth of God concerning us it’s appropriate to feel something; there is (or ought to be) a psychological concomitant to our real situation before God just as there is an appropriate psychological concomitant to both heart disease and the surgery that corrects it. But it’s impossible to pretend that heart disease and corrective surgery are no more than how we feel.

Ultimately the gospel has to do with truth, reality, substance.

Speaking of our innermost disorder, I’m always surprised at people who complain about the news. “Why do the news reports always report bad news?”, they complain. The morning I began this sermon the Globe and Mail was full of bad news.

One major article detailed atrocities that the Iraquis have visited on the Kurds, their own people. The article, however, didn’t probe the question as to why people of the same nation kill each other over and over in history’s civil wars. Still, the article did compare the atrocities of the Iraquis to the atrocities of the Killing Fields in Cambodia a few years earlier, and then compared both of these to the atrocities of Europe fifty years ago. The last paragraph of the article quietly mentioned that the Kurds, so horribly victimised this time, have themselves committed unspeakable atrocities.

A second article discussed a huge march in Washington in support of the abortion lobby. The Globe and Mail, however, failed to mention that the abortion traffic itself is an atrocity of monstrous proportions.

A third article, written by a professor from the University of Toronto, discussed the use of brain tissue from aborted foetuses for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. It pointed out several serious ramifications of this procedure. For instance, women may become pregnant deliberately only to be aborted in order to sell foetal brain tissue. After all, said the U of T professor, in some parts of the world human body parts (kidneys, for instance) are being sold. “It is inevitable that a market for aborted foetuses will arise in Asia and Africa”, he continued, “while an underground market will emerge in the western world.” He’s right, of course. Why wouldn’t an underground market arise in the western world when aboveground markets already exist in other parts of the world?

Question: Why do newspapers fill up with such negativity?
Reply: Because this is what’s happening.
Question: Why is this happening?
Reply: (What we say here dpends on whether we are Christian or humanist or neither.)
Question: Even if such negativies are occurring all the time, why do people want to read about them?
Reply: Because if the newspapers were filled up with sweet stories, the public would complain that the papers weren’t realistic.

People hunger for realism (as they call it.) They don’t want to be deceived or deluded. At the same time, it’s plain that people are fascinated, gripped, by the negativity they complain about but can’t flee. Plainly they are drawn to the very thing they say they wish they could escape. None the less (this point is crucial) as often as they hear of it they cannot draw the proper conclusion from it; namely, that all humankind needs saving. This truth has to be revealed; the gospel alone reveals it; and the gospel reveals the truth as the gospel renders this person and that people of the truth in whom the truth burns so brightly as to burn up all doubt about the truth.

 

II: — I’m not ashamed of the gospel. I glory in the gospel. Having apprehended as true that gospel whose truth first apprehended me, I could never then be ashamed of the gospel. 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 baecome beneficiaries of it we acquire information about it.

Everyone is aware that the word “gospel” means “good news.” But the gospel isn’t good news in the sense of mere announcement, mere report, mere information, like a CBC announcer reading the news. News broadcasts always report what has happened; they never make anything happen; they merely detail 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 30 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.

We must always be sure we grasp the logical order of Paul’s understanding. It isn’t the case that he found himself haunted by, let alone wallowing in, personal unsatisfaction or frustration, then accurately analysed his predicament, then posed questions about himself and humankind in general, and finally just happened to learn that the gospel answered all his questions and confirmed his analysis. The logical order of his understanding is the reverse of all this. Perfectly content with himself, he was unforeseeably arrested by the risen one; under the impact of that seizure he was startled by a truth he couldn’t have anticipated; this truth (it amounted to a bombblast) exploded the understanding he’d carried about for years; the bombcrater that his life now was was then filled with that gospel-understanding of himself and others which his arrest and seizure at the hand of the risen one had brought with it. From that moment on he had seen countless other people undergo as much themselves simply upon hearing the gospel story. In other words, to hear the gospel story is to expose oneself to the power of God operative for the salvation of anyone at any time.

Ashamed of this? How could he be, why would he be, ashamed of what had turned his life 180 degrees, what had he seen do as much for so many more?

In 1982 a well-known British preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, died at age 83. When he retired an admirer gushed about the enormous sacrifice he had made to enter the ministry. Lloyd-Jones had first trained as a physician and then as a cardiologist. He was touted as a rising star in the firmament of British medicine. At age 30 he left his medical practice to pastor a depression-worn, working-class congregation in the Calvinist Methodist Church of Wales. Eventually he became the preacher to one of the largest congregations in London, 2000 people per service. He didn’t own an automobile until he was 51 years old, never having been paid enough to afford one. When the admirer fawned over his sacrifice he cut the fellow short. “Sacrifice? What sacrifice? What could ever be more glorious than declaring what God renders his operative power to save?” If the gospel were nothing more than a cozy bromide telling people that before God everyone is really OK after all, then Lloyd-Jones would have been a fool to give up cardiology. It was his experience and therefore his conviction, however, that the gospel alone has within it the effectiveness of him who first created the world ex nihilo, from nothing. He knew that the gospel recreates ex nihilo every time the gospel, the power of God, brings someone to faith.

I can only shake my head every time I hear newly-ordained clergymen and -women tell me they understand the primary responsibility of ministers to be facilitators. They have entered the ministry in order to facilitate. Facilitate what? I don’t know what image comes to mind when you hear the word, but the image that always swims up before me is that of grease. Ministers are greasers who lubricate the machinery of a group. No apostle ever settled for this. No apostle ever said to a congregation, “You decide on your own agenda; my vocation is to facilitate it for you. You decide what you want your religious package to be; my job is to help you get it..” No apostle ever thought facilitating anything to be his vocation. The gospel isn’t the lubricant of group dynamics. The gospel is the operative power of God himself. Only this power can triumph over the spiritual indifference, inertia or hostility that it finds everywhere.

Paul insists that the gospel is God’s power to save just because in it, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is rendered operative. “Righteousness” in this context has a very specific meaning. The word gains its meaning from the days of Israel’s exile in Babylon, 400 years before the advent of our Lord. The exile in Babylon was a terrible experience for the Israelites. They were far from home, aliens in a strange land, mocked and molested, demoralized; they viewed their helplessness as hopeless. And then through a Hebrew prophet whose word we find in the latter chapters of Isaiah God told them he would see them home again. He would deliver them from the oppressor, end their exile, and bring them home. Not only would God bring them home, he would bring them home with honour; and he would vindicate them before all who had despised them and therein vindicate himself as their deliverer. When God promised to make things right with them, his righteousness included all of this. Paul insists the gospel renders God’s righteousness operative. The gospel is God’s power to bring us home to him, bring us home with honour, bring us home vindicated as his sons and daughters and therein vindicate himself as our deliverer.

The gospel is God’s power wherein his righteousness operates as God puts men and women right with himself. But precisely whom does the gospel set right with God? Let the apostle tell us himself: “In the gospel the righteousness of God is made operative through faith for faith, faith from first to last.” And then he sums up everything we have pondered this morning: “Those who through faith are righteous shall live.”

Faith is simply the bond that binds us to Jesus Christ. Faith is our embracing the One whose arms first embraced us. Faith is our refusal to run past the outstretched arms of the crucified. Faith is the gospel in its own power forging its own reception within us.

And of this gospel I shall ever remain unashamed.

Victor Shepherd       

June 2000