Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy
Timothy is in his study in Thessalonika, where he is bishop of Macedonia. It is A.D. 96, and Timothy is under terrific pressure to record his version of the Sacred Story, since, far in the future, a cyberpunk (the Hacker) has been systematically destroying the tapes that describe the Good News, and Timothy’s Gospel is the only one immune to the Hacker’s deadly virus.
This is the theme of the Gore Vidal book Live from Golgotha. Reading the book made me realize that something even more sinister than a futuristic cyberpunk is systematically destroying the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These present day religious punks, these slick dressing, snake-tongue smooth talking preachers have hijacked the gospel and replaced it with an American gospel that bears little resemblance to the good news of Jesus. And we are under terrific pressure to tell the truth about the good news, to make sure the good news of Jesus is not destroyed.
Do you get it? The gospel is in big trouble in America. The word originally meant good news, but we are now a nation that wallows in bad news. And the last few weeks have been a feast for bad news lovers and all of it about the forbidden subject of sex. The news people, not content with the announcement that another actor, director, politician, bites the dust, shovel out icky details about sexual misbehavior. People gasp and wait for more like hogs at the trough. Some politicians fold and resign. Others dig in and deny, deny, deny. All in all, it’s a circus of the absurd. It should be embarrassing but no one turns red in the face any more except in anger. It should make us ashamed, but there’s no shame in America. Bad news has replaced good news.
And in the midst of all this the church has lost her gospel. Like a dancer losing her groove, or a comedian his one-liners, the church has lost her gospel. I want to be among those who help us get our gospel back. Let us once more learn that the Gospel doesn’t exist for the Church but rather the Church exists to proclaim and practice the Gospel. We have been called from the world to be of service to the world and our calling is one of sacrificial love. We are to imitate Jesus who gave himself a ransom for all. We are to imitate Jesus who died for others. We are to imitate Jesus who was servant to all.
Well, we have to find the gospel before we can get it back. And Mark is a good place to start. Most scholars tell us that Mark was the first gospel written. It’s probably the preaching of Peter. Mark is a young disciple, maybe John Mark who went on the first missionary journey with Paul. Remember how John Mark quit and went home before the journey was complete and when it was time for the next journey Paul refused to take John Mark. He thought he was a quitter. Why did Mark quit? We don’t know. Chrysostom, the great fourth century preacher, says that he missed his mama. Maybe. But this quitter bounced back, with the help of Barnabas, and later wrote the Gospel of Mark. Not bad for a second chance guy.
Mark is also probably the guy in the garden that was so scared when the police showed up to arrest Jesus that we ran away. He ran so fast he ran out of his robe and streaked away naked. Should we call him the New Testament streaker? In any event, he seems the nervous, fearful, shy, timid, scared sort. A Christian like many of us. And he wrote a gospel. There’s a sneak preview of the gospel.
Let’s start with Mark: The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ. Now, we are getting down to the basics, this morning, I mean the very essential ABC’s of the gospel. Most of you already know this material but it may be time to see it as if you were seeing it for the first time.
Basic: The gospel is Jewish, cradled in the faith of the Jews, performed by Jews, written by Jews with the exception of Luke and whoever wrote Hebrews. Our salvation comes through the Jews. I am afraid that many Christians no longer believe this and Stanley Hauerwas suggests this may be the main reason that Protestant churches do not regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper. “If God is not the God of the Jews, then our faith is in vain.”
Finish these sentences for me. John the Baptist was a JEW. Mary was a JEW. Joseph was a JEW. The twelve disciples were JEWS. Jesus was a JEW. It doesn’t get any more basic than this. Our salvation is from the Jews. And this is a good thing, because the Jews are a flesh and blood people. They have an embodied faith. And Jesus was an actual flesh and blood human being. We even have a word for Jesus’ birth, life, and death: The incarnation. He was made man.
The church has always had trouble with the humanity of Jesus. One of the earliest heresies was Gnosticism, a group of Christians who wanted the faith to be otherworldly, about all kinds of spirits out there in space, about the spiritual. And the Gnostics are in charge among American evangelicals who have changed Christianity into the desire to go to heaven. The kingdom was postponed until eternity. How does one say with a straight face to a brother or sister without food, clothing, or shelter, “Don’t worry. You will be rich in heaven?” Whatever this is, it is not the gospel.
Basic: The gospel is about Jesus, a flesh and blood, real human being, meeting the ordinary, flesh and blood, actual, material needs of other human beings. Walter Rauschenbusch, Baptist scholar and prophet, said, “Kingdom of God is the first and the most essential doctrine of Christian faith. It is also the lost social ideal.” Many Baptists have forgotten that after Rauschenbusch, there is no gospel that is not “the social gospel.” Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis is as needed in our day as it was in his. The passion for justice and the institutions for humane care he created are needed now more than ever.
The beginning of the good news is Jesus Christ relating to real humans in real need. Let’s make a quick run through of Mark’s Gospel and maybe we will see what the gospel really is. The man with the unclean spirit. Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever.That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. A leper cleansed. A paralytic. A tax collector called. A man with a withered hand. A storm stilled. The Gerasene demoniac. A girl restored to life. A woman healed. Jesus rejected at Nazareth. Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. Feeding the five thousand. Jesus walks on water. The Syrophoenician Woman fighting for her daughter’s life. A Gentile woman’s daughter healed. A deaf man hears again. Feeding the four thousand. Maybe it didn’t sink in our thick skulls the first time. The Healing of a Boy with a Spirit. A Blind Man at Bethsaida. The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus. Jesus blesses little children. The rich man rejects Jesus. The Widow’s Offering. The Institution of the Lord’s Supper. Peter’s Denial. The inclusion of the Lord’s Supper is not accidental. The Gospel exists where the sacrament is faithfully administered. On the site of the Eucharist we are positioned as fed – gift from God of ourselves so that we must exhaust ourselves in self-giving sacrifice for others. This is the Gospel and it can never be made intelligible independent of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and God’s presence in the Holy Spirit.
In reaching for an example of what this means to us, I came across the suggestion that the Gospel leads Christians to deny ourselves extraordinary medical care in order to provide care for the poor who receive so little of the expensive care medicine seems determined to develop. Sure this sounds outrageous but only because we have so long ignored the Gospel. After all, we are an abstract bunch and we like to argue about medical care not make it personal like the Good Samaritan did. We are prepared by training and inclination to expend any amount of money and do everything we can to prevent our own death, but the gospel insists that this may not be done if it makes it impossible to care for the least of these, the weakest member of our community. Imagine dying prematurely for others. The gospel, my friends, is a scary experience.
Now do we get it? Jewish. Jesus: Human and Real. We have Jesus and we have all this human need. Our business is to serve human need. The gospel is preaching, teaching, praying, and healing. We need to get our gospel back. Why, for example, did the church give up the healing ministry? We turned it over to the doctors even though we invented hospitals – places where Christians could be with the dying. Now, we have turned hospitals into shrines of the idolatrous idea that doctors can get us off this planet alive.
Getting our gospel back means getting back to the basics. Any church worth its gospel should be involved in healing people: wounded people, sick people, hurt people, confused people, lost people. What has happened to our faith in the healing power of the gospel?
Healing is not the same as curing. I’m not talking about faith healers and miracles. I’m talking about the church knowing that we are healers. We are called by God to heal a broken, confused world filled with lies, deceit, and violence. This is why I think we should have a service of healing right here at FBC Peoria every Sunday morning in the chapel after fellowship time. Laying on of hands, anointing with oil, prayers for one another for the healing of our land, for the healing of our brokenness, for the healing of our souls and bodies.
The gospel is the good news of Jesus and it’s meant for all of humanity. The good news is Jesus teaching, preaching, and healing. Jesus is the sacrament for a hungry world and we are to be the sacrament to the world in the world’s needs. It is a material, bodily, fleshly, need-oriented faith. Heaven can wait. The gospel takes on the hell that is here and now on planet earth among the poor, the down and out, the left behind. Let’s get our gospel back!