I once again apologize at the outset for another explicitly and overtly Christian post. And not even a clever one with funny references to Magic Eye posters and the party in the food court at the mall. Sometimes things just need to be said.
I seem to have been confronted a lot lately with people speaking on the topic of the “gospel message.” These discussions haven’t been confined to a pulpit (or a black music stand or tall round bar table, for that matter). They haven’t even been confined to those praising the gospel message. A few of them have. A few renditions of the gospel were during a sermon. Some during a class. But while both of these settings promoted a welcoming discussion, some of my conversations have focused on a disbelief or inability to accept the central message of the Christian faith.
One thing I’ve noticed during each of these encounters, though, is that no matter you’re disposition toward the gospel, the message itself seems to be remarkably uniform. It goes a little something like this: (1) a long long time ago the world was good, (2) Adam and Eve ate some fruit, which brought sin into the world, (3) therefore we are sinners, (4) but luckily Jesus died to save us from our sins, (5) and because of this we can now go to heaven.
Sometimes it’s told just that simply. Sometimes it can be told with a bit more flare. I heard a pretty good rendition of this gospel a few weeks ago as the question, “Why did Jesus die?” was being answered in a class at church. The speaker utilized the idea of story/narrative, and the importance of tension, climax, and resolution to discuss the Christian narrative. The sinful state of the world was the tension, Jesus’ death on the cross was the climax, and our ability to now be children of God who will one day go to heaven because of the personal salvation we’ve received was the resolution. It was entertaining and well delivered, but at the end of the day, the message remained the same. We are sinful but saved by Jesus to go to heaven.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not disagree with this message. I wholeheartedly believe the Christian narrative, including the fallen and sin-filled world in which we live, Jesus’ death on a cross that declares victory of the evil nature of our world, and the restored state in which followers of Jesus stand. But is that the whole message? Or do we shortchange the gospel when we discuss it in this way?
The problem I have with this is that we skip an awful lot of the story. Virtually the entirety of the Old Testament narrative, in fact. We jump straight from Adam and Eve to Jesus, which leaves a substantial number of people wondering what exactly we’re to do with the Old Testament. How does it fit in to the Christian narrative?
Secondly, this rendition of the gospel narrative focuses for the most part on going to heaven when we die. It’s focused on some event in the distant future, and it’s focused on the idea of escaping our current reality. It creates a mindset that chooses to merely endure this world today because we have the hope of a better life in heaven at some point in the future. And while, I’m aware the New Testament has language to this effect (see 1 Peter and the “alien” language), encouraging those who were enduring suffering that those who were persecuting them did not have the final say and that their current trials weren’t the end all be all, I don’t think these passages teach the kind of complacency toward the world that we seem to accept today. That is, I don’t think these passages teach us to just accept that the world is the way it is and look only to the future, but are more so an encouragement during persecution.
For both these reasons, I think we’re short-changing the Christian message.
I think if we want to take the Christian message seriously, we have to look at the whole message. And in doing so, I think we’ll find that it’s not a message purely of personal salvation from sin, but of the restoration of a fallen world to the beautiful and wonderful place that it was originally intended to be. A restoration taking place through a people chosen by God. If that’s the case it’s not a message of trying to escape, but a message of trying to restore. Not of personal salvation so much as an acceptance into the community of the people of God and the work that flows out of us because of that newly-found social identity.
I think when we read the Christian narrative in its entirety, this is the message we get. It is a message of God calling Abraham and using him and his descendents to bring the world back to rights. It’s also a message of a fallen people who tend to royally mess up that mission over and over again. Of people who disobey, fall short, and embarrass themselves and those around them. But it’s a message of a people, across generations, who embrace their identity, who accept their covenant, and who work to make the beauty of the final days a reality.
In this light, Jesus and his death on a cross is not just the event that allows us to make it to heaven. It’s the event that allows us to once and for all overcome the evil in the world and complete the mission of its restoration! It’s the event that allows us to fully embrace our identity, not so that we can go to heaven, but so that we can more perfectly bring heaven to this world. So that we, as God’s people who have victory over death and the “evil one” can change the world around us in a very real and pertinent way.
The implication, in contrast to the inward focus of the typical gospel pronunciation, is a Christian message that focuses upward and outward. That focuses not only on our relationship with God, but truly focuses on the world around us. It’s a focus that guides the way we interact with the world around us, not because “I’m a Christian now so that means I need to be a better person and be nice,” but because “I’m a Christian and in light of that new identity it’s time for me to live into my role in the long and established narrative of a movement of people bringing the world back to its original beauty.” A long and established narrative that continues today, and in which we play a vital part.
If I’m wrong about this, leave me your thoughts in the comments section. If not, stop short-changing the gospel. It’s not about making it to heaven, it’s about bringing heaven to earth. Do so. Today.