Sunday, October 26, 2014

Text: I Thessalonians 2: 4-8

Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Writing to the church at Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul speaks of being “entrusted with the message of the Gospel” (I Thess. 2:4). I’m interested in what it means to be “entrusted with the Gospel” because, in a way, that’s my job description. The good folks who ordained me to Gospel ministry trusted me to pass on the Gospel message. I take that responsibility seriously. But I think you, too, have been entrusted with the Gospel. What does that mean to you? Specifically, what is there about the Gospel that requires its bearers to be trustworthy? This phrase suggests there’s a lot riding on if and how well we deliver the Gospel.

If you let the theme song to Mission Impossible play in your head, you can imagine the Gospel as a classified document entrusted to a special agent, as if the fate of the World depends on its careful transmission. In fact, some Christians have indeed treated “the Gospel” as a top secret message only they can decode to save the benighted world.

Just for fun, picture the Apostle Paul sitting on a park bench and pretending to read a newspaper (the Good Newspaper, of course). He coolly scans the front page as inconspicuously as anyone could while wearing a toga in Central Park. Soon a man in a dark suit sits on the opposite end of this same park bench, seemingly uninterested in his robed, sandal-shod bench-mate. After a minute, Paul casually folds up his newspaper, places it on the bench between himself and the business man, and plods away. The agent-disguised-as-a-businessman slides his hand to the nearby newspaper, places it in a black briefcase, and he, too, saunters off but in the opposite direction.

This silly scenario is my way of describing how some Christians understand the Good News/Gospel: as a communique we must gain possession of and then decode so the good guys can be saved from an enemy.

Many think of the Gospel as a set of beliefs that have saving power. When I was part of an evangelical church in my youth, we were taught to “share the Gospel” with our friends who might be “lost.” This Gospel we were to share was really a set of assertions that would save us from hell if we accepted this worldview. That’s no longer my understanding of the Gospel that has been entrusted to me.

What is the “message of the Gospel” as it’s popularly understood? When you’ve heard pastors charge their congregation with sharing the Gospel, what did they mean?

Responses from the congregation

Essentially, the Gospel message I heard as a child was the belief that we were sinners deserving eternal punishment, but we could be spared torment if we believed the blood of Jesus saved us.

Who wouldn’t embrace that message? If most of the people you knew understood the world in those terms, it would be easy simply to agree with the prevailing culture and be assured of eternal life.

The problem is that particular Gospel message is good news only for the people who are able to accept that worldview. It’s terrible news for those never exposed to that worldview or who simply can’t be convinced of it. As you probably know, the word “gospel” is an English translation of the Greek and Latin words euangelion and evangelium that literally mean Good Message or Good News. How do you know if you’re sharing the Gospel? If you’re sharing good news. But if the message you’ve been entrusted with is not authentically good news, then it’s not Gospel. If the news is not good for everyone, then it’s not Gospel.

And the Gospel is not necessarily a message that can be conveyed in words—or not in words only. If we read further in today’s Epistle Lection, we hear Paul explain that he came to the Thessalonians to care for them “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (I Thes. 2:7). In fact, he continues, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (I Thes. 2:8). The Gospel’s effect is not merely intellectual; it’s relational, societal, holistic. The Gospel is not so much about having faith in Jesus (believing certain assertions about him) but is more about having the same kind of faith that allowed Jesus to live selflessly, vulnerably, humbly, courageously. The Gospel’s signature is deep caring and self-giving love (“sharing our own selves”). Paul wasn’t concerned about winning the approval of others. He was entrusted with tender care for others–the core message of the Gospel.

A modern novel set in early 17th century Japan contrasts a Gospel of words and doctrine with the deeper Gospel of care and self-giving love. Silence, by acclaimed Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, is the historically-based story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries sent to Christianize Japan at a time when Christianity was outlawed. Japanese peasants who had secretly converted to Catholicism were ferretted out and convicted of the crime of Christianity if they refused to step upon an image of Christ called the fumie used by the Japanese government to identify suspected Christians.True Christians were exposed when they would not trample the image of Christ.

The protagonist of this novel, a priest name Father Rodrigues, was arrested and subjected to horrific torture for his faith. But eventually he denied his faith. Ironically, by denying Christ, he exhibited, I believe, a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Let me explain.

Father Rodrigues, as I said, remains firm in his faith throughout extended torture up to a point. However, his torturers eventually tell him that they are holding in a nearby cell three Japanese peasants who are parishioners of Rodrigues. They will be tortured until he recants. Rodrigues cannot bear to hear their cries of agony, but he believes there would be nothing worse than to betray Christ. So the torture of people he loves continues.

Then Father Ferreira, Rodrigues’s revered former teacher who has already apostatized (betrayed his God), visits Rodrigues’s cell. Ferreira declares that “certainly Christ would have apostatized for [the tortured peasants]. . . . For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.”[1] Ferriera at last gently leads the reluctant Rodrigues to the fumie, the icon of Christ which he must tread upon to signal that he is recanting. Rodrigues looks at the face of Christ engraved on a copper medal upon a dirty wooden plank. In anguish, but in faith, the priest desecrates the image of Christ:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is not mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.[2]

Readers have to decide for themselves how to interpret this climactic scene. I believe Father Rodrigues comes to understand that a martyred Christ endured pain to end the cycle of violence an expose the perpetrators of injustice. Jesus’ death inspires us to do the living and loving in his name.

Silence concludes with the affirmation that “there is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work.” It implies that our understandings of who Jesus is and what Jesus demands of us continue to unfold. We are told Rodrigues loved his Lord now “in a different way from before.” The narrator continues:

Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring [Rodrigues] to this love. “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”[3]

We may bear witness to Christ without words, even when the world judges our actions and words to be a betrayal of the Church. Love of God and humanity is Christ’s fundamental requirement, not proper doctrine or unswerving belief. Love. Love of someone in the cell next you or on the other side of the globe who is suffering. Love.

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said nothing about sticking to orthodox beliefs. After all, Christian doctrine did not yet exist. Instead, Jesus gave us the love commandment:

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22: 34-40).

Friends, if we are ever arrested for being Christians, and if you’re being tortured in order to force your pastor to deny Christ . . . I am going to deny Christ. I intend to trample on the face of Jesus whom I love. That seeming desecration, I believe, would be the only way to affirm and validate Christ in that extreme situation. To deny Christ in order to share Christ’s love is to honor Christ. To reject a symbol in order to support the reality of that symbol would be my choice. That is how I would hope to remain a trustworthy messenger of the Gospel. That is how I would keep the Gospel “good news.”

PRAYER: Christ of Great Compassion, you have entrusted us with your Good News. May we be worthy of your Gospel of Love. Amen

© 2015 Open Table, United Church of Christ
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