I first heard the gospel in my late teens. Before then, I'd only heard it in fragments at best, in caricature at worsteither a hasty, cobbled-together version that was hard to make coherent, or a gaudy, cartoonish version that was hard to find credible.
At 18, scrawny and chippy, I heard the real thing: the Good News in all its tenderness and fierceness, beauty and terror. It told me, without euphemism, the deep trouble I was in, and offered me, without sentimentalism, the deep remedy I could have, free for the asking. I heard about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I heard about Godnot the god I'd imagined who was sometimes doddering and indulgent or sputtering and belligerent, but God: majestic, just, loving, and bent on my eternal good.
But I fought it anyway. I fought it because of the good news. Like the first disciples, I could not believe it for joy and amazement. It seemed too good to be true. And I fought it in spite of the good news. The gospel demanded of me thingslike risking or denying myselfthat I wasn't ready for yet. But the fight was stacked against me, like Jacob with his angel, and it gripped me without relenting, wounded me so I walked differently, and blessed me.
And it saved megloriously, radically saved me.
Well, not quite.
Less than ten years later, having once or twice lost my way again, I found myselfquite suddenly and so unprepared that it was a good thing I didn't know how unprepared I wasa preacher of the gospel. I became a pastor with no intent on my part. At first I was entrusted with a small band of bored teenagers who had grown up in the church and had heard the gospel to the point of inoculation. Its virus could sweep a whole village and leave them untouched. So I went to the highways and bywaysto the nearby high school and local youth hangoutsand shared the gospel with whoever would listen. A small-scale revival broke out thatmiracle of miracleseven claimed most of the bored church kids.
A few years later, that church asked me to be senior pastor, and good things started happening among the adults, just as it had with the youth. People who had hardly ever entered a church were getting saved, and people who had hardly ever left the church were getting saved. We started doing baptisms by the cartload.
At the height of it, I left. It's a long story that's neither titillating nor edifying, so I'll skip over all that to say that almost 13 years ago I came to my current church. I have once again been recipient of, witness to, and agent for the gospel's transforming power.
In almost 20 years of ministry, my sense of what the gospel is has deepened, enlarged, and in places, changed.
All along, in almost 20 years of ministry, my sense of what the gospel is has deepened, enlarged, and in places, changed. I have already shared part of my story in "Singing in the Chains" (an article I wrote for the January 2008 issue of Christianity Today). I won't repeat what I wrote here, except to say that the example of Paul and Silastwo men who were arrested for a good deed, beaten without cause, imprisoned without warrant, but chose to thank God in such a way that their example converted the jailer and his family and subdued the other prisonershas become for me a touchstone of conversion. When the gospel changes me that deeply, and changes the people with whom I share it that completely, truly I have been anointed to share this Good News. But let me tell you the other part of the story, especially how my deepening, enlarging, and changing understanding of the gospel has changed what I preachand how.
It's not just Jesus and me.
I have no recollection from my first ten years of faith of ever hearing that Jesus intended anything more for me than to secure my hereafter, give me solid doctrine, make me faithful to the church, and tidy up my bad habits. This was all good and needed, but I had no inkling that not only did Jesus want to make me a better person, but he also wanted to make me a new creation who is part of a new humanity.
This might have been said and I had no ears to hear it, but I suspect it wasn't said at all. So, when I began to make regular appearances in the pulpit, I didn't say it either. The gospel I preached called individuals to decision, as it should. It called individuals to clean up their act, as it should. It called individuals to think biblically, as it should. It called individuals to commit to the church, as it should.
But it called individuals.
"Though none go with me, still I will follow," we sang. I preached a gospel that elevated moralism and decisionism but failed to subvertand often bolsteredindividualism. "We are one in the Spirit," we also sang. We even held hands while we sang, but none of us shared "everything in common." Fellowship meant we enjoyed a cup of coffee after the service and then minded our own business.
I discovered the gospel's radical call to "one another" the hard way: I got lonely. I wish my discovery was the jewel of a careful excavating of Scripture, but the exegesis came later. What came first was a sense of how dislocated and isolated I felt from the very people to whom I was announcing good news. I never knew themnor they, me. We didn't do life together. I ran a preaching station. They filled the seats and paid the bills. Most of them could slip away, unnoticed and unsought. When one suffered, he suffered alone. When one rejoiced, she rejoiced alone (though perhaps she provoked our envy).
Writing this, I realize how little has changed and how slow the change has beenboth in me and in the church. What has changed and is changing is my preaching of the gospel. I am much more in tune with the communal nature of Scripture. When Paul, for example, tells the Corinthians they are God's temple, he does not have individuals in view, but the entire church (actually he has both: 1 Corinthians 3:16 applies to the church, while 6:19 applies to the individual). When Paul tells those same Corinthians to examine themselves before taking Communion, he doesn't mean for them to dredge up some private thought or take inventory of their personal moral life. He wants them to see if their actions and attitudes are in some way breaching the oneness that Christ died to impartto see if they are failing to "recognize the body of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:29), that is, the unity of the church (1 Corinthians 12:12).
I preach this now: the sin of one stains us all; the virtue of one beckons us all; the sorrow of one downcasts us all; the joy of one lifts us all. I talk about living and dying not to ourselves, but for the Lord. This is inseparable from living with and for each other. If we love him, we'll feed his sheep; if we love him, we'll obey his command, which is to love one another, lay our lives down for others, and prefer others to ourselves.
But my discovery of the communal dimension of the gospel didn't end there. As I ventured deeper into this lost continent, I stumbled upon the nations. God has much to say about the nations, and has purposes for them that span history and consummate in eternity. From the beginning, the nations posed a problem for God. Psalm 2 says they rage against God's Messiah, but the Messiah simply has to ask in order to inherit them. The gospel is for all nations, starting with Abraham's mandate to bless them and culminating in Jesus' sacrifice to win them. Heaven, the Book of Revelation says, is where the glory of the nations and the splendor of their kings come before God, and its company is made up of people from "every tribe and tongue and nation."
I suppose we've understood this well enoughit's the impetus behind missions. But have we really understood it? Jesus turned over the moneychanger's tables because his temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations. Jesus' ire was directed as much toward the ethnic homogenization of the temple as it was to the crass commercialization of it. It was directed to a way of "doing church" that said, "Only our kind of people." Our churches hardly have a reputation for dress-rehearsing heavenall tribes, tongues, and nations. They are often society's last bastion of apartheid.
The gospel I have begun to preach asks God to give us the nations as an inheritance and asks the Church to welcome them gladly.
It's not just about personal salvation and sin.
Related to this widening sense of the gospel's reachembracing the individual but also breaking down dividing walls to join together those who are far apartis a deepening sense of sin's reach. Sin is the enemy of our soul. But sin also infuses the broad texture of our whole lives. There is a systemic, endemic, structural reality to sin. It's found in capitalism and socialism, the county office and the country club, the school board and the church board, your neighbourhood and local rotary. The sin that is present in these places is not simply the sum of its partsthe result of simple arithmetic that says one sinner plus one sinner plus one sinner equals three sinners. There is an exponential factor at play. Sin inhabits the ground on which we gather. Sin is the leaven in our life together, working its way into everything. We are not just better together; we are also worse.
And the gospel is remedy for all.
Again, I missed this my first decade of preaching. I often preachedand still doabout personal sin and the need to repent and receive God's cleansing. But increasingly I lean to texts such as Matthew 5:1314 ("you are the salt of the earth the light of the world") and Romans 8:1921 ("the whole creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed") and all of Romans 12 (we are "transformed by the renewal of our minds," learning to "test and approve God's good, perfect, and pleasing will," so that we will "not be overcome by evil, but instead overcome evil with good").
In short, I'm learning the social obligations of the gospel. A redeemed people, living Christ-like lives in a broken world, ought to reclaim that broken world here and now. The atonement of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit will always be the sole remedy for personal sin. But the church of Christ, empowered by the Spirit, will always be part of the remedy for the world's sin. God entrusts you and meGod's new creationswith the ministry of reconciliation. It's you and me through whom he makes his appeal (2 Corinthians 5:1820).
This alone has almost flipped our church inside out. We are seeking ways to be God's redemptive presence in the world. We have hundreds of people involved in "non-religious" initiatives in our community. For example, we help the First Nations people (indigenous peoples in Canada) host the North American Indigenous Games in our town. We provide lunches, free of charge, for students at one of our inner-city schools. We throw banquets for local teachers, thanking them for their work. I sit on a Social Planning Committee that seeks community solutions to the problems of homelessness and transportation for the elderly. I chair another committee that coordinates resources for families of young children.
Good news shouldn't require translation. The oppressed, the imprisoned, the impoverishedthe last, the least, the loneliestshould be able to instinctively recognize good news when they see or hear it. For the First Nations people in Canada, the gospel has too often meant the destruction of their families, their culture, their prosperity, and their identity. It's too often meant a priest with a fondness for young boys or a residential school teacher with a taste for blood. They shouldn't have to wonder whether good news really means bad news for them.
But this also: the oppressor, the tyrant, the exploiterthe first, the worst, the greediestshould be able to instinctively recognize that the good news is bad news for them. They shouldn't wonder if there's a way to use the message of Jesus to their own advantage. "Here are the men who turned the whole world on its head," the men of Thessalonica said, dismayed at bandy-legged Paul and his few companions. "Now they're coming here as well!" they said in fear (Acts 17:6).
"The church is coming!" That should strike terror in the hearts of tyrants and ignite joy in the hearts of the broken. That it typically does not is no failure of the gospel; it's just our failure to live it out.
The gospel I have begun to preach asks the Church to be, not just to speak, good news to the least of these and bad news to the worst of these.
It's about the kingdom of God.
Another thing I missed in my preaching was the kingdom of God. Nothing in the three years Jesus taught and preached was more central to his message. Nothing in the first ten years I taught and preached was more absent from mine. "Tithe," I said. "Pray. Read your Bible. Behave yourselves." But what I never said was, "Repent and believe, because the kingdom of God is near."
I never said it because I never saw it.
But you can't keep reading the gospels and miss the theme of the kingdom. Finally, in my thickness, a slow awareness dawned: the Good News is news about the kingdom. Jesus' gospel and his kingdom are inseparable. What makes the Good News good is that Jesus came not just to die and forgive and one day whisk us to heaven, but to invite us here and now into the rule and reign of Another.
Now hardly a Sunday goes by where I don't talk about the Kingdom of God. I talk about what it's like, what matters within it, how we live out its values here and now in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoodsin our churches.
Recently, as people entered the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, we gave them small pieces of colored papersome textured, some notwith a crayon or a colored pencil or a felt pen. For five weeks we gave them permission to doodle as I preachedmuch like the first disciples mended their nets as Jesus preached. Then we asked them to hand the paper back as they exited.
Each week, three artists scrunched, folded, and wove the pieces of paper together. They mounted the pieces on a hopscotch of painted canvases and hung them on the sanctuary wall. As the weeks went by, the little scraps of individual paper grew into a breathtaking mosaic that eventually covered two walls of the sanctuary. Each week, before and after the services, more and more people stood beneath it, delighted, surprised, and amazed. I overheard one teenage girl talking with another. She pointed to a blue scrap of paper on which was drawn, in purple, a family of stick people holding hands around a cross. "I did that," she said.
The kingdom of God is like a teenager who drew stick people. Then she went away. And while she was gone, skilful artists worked what she had done into a masterpiece that filled God's house and inspired God's people.
It's not the preaching I started with.
But it's the gospel.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.