Bad News in the Gospel

An Examination of Our Message Compared to That of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Several years ago, randoh12 posted this retake of beloved Christian imagery in the humor Reddit[1]:

9864816083?profile=RESIZE_584x

Provoking though it is, it produced surprisingly honest and civil commentary on the site. Most commentators took it as critical of Christian doctrine, so some off-site Christian responses were more defensive, doubling down on man's inherent evil and God's right to destroy it, but even then they could not get over the incongruity of a loving Savior bearing this message[2][3].

To me, the meme is valuable because it allows us to hear the message we preach from the perspective of those who have not been blessed with lifetimes of doctrinal conditioning. If we hear what is heard and know that it is not true to Jesus, then we have to ask: do we preach what Jesus preached? Why or why not, and are the differences right, necessary, and/or beneficial?

Fortunately, we have at our disposal the Gospel of Mark, said to be dictated by Peter as he awaited martyrdom. I don't know whether it is because his days were numbered or because of his characteristic brusqueness, but the account maintains a tight focus without much elaboration. We can guess that the author intended to present only the most essential information, and he begins with the Message. Here it is, in its entirety:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”[4]

The first question I ask is, "Wait. What? What's the good news, again?" Well, "the time has come" points to an obvious "for what?" Repent and believe are responses. The context moves on to the story of Jesus recruiting Simon-before-he-was-called-Peter and the other first disciples. Which leaves, by process of elimination, the bit about the kingdom. That's it. That's the Gospel, according to Mark, and not even twenty verses into the story.

  • No Total Depravity, abridged
  • No Hell or Damnation
  • No bad news in the Good News

Seriously?

Well, we know that Jesus elaborated, but the author here is basically able to summarize it all as, "The kingdom of God has drawn near." OK, this may have been news, but was it really enough of a big deal to be Jesus' main message? Let's take a quick side trip to the beginning...

The Long Journey Back -- Together

In the beginning, goes the account, God carefully constructed a world that was good[5]. This was all wrecked when people realized they had the power to counter God's creation of good by creating bad. The only recourse God had to prevent the permanence of the possibility of bad was to relegate humans to impermanence, the curse of death. The other prices for the disobedient act of acquiring the knowledge of creating bad are listed as pain in childbirth, gender inequality, toil, environmental degradation, and ophidiophobia[6]. Of particular note here is that the list does not include separation from God, outside God's already demonstrated predilection for what is good and the ramifications of impermanence.

And in fact, the account portrays God as reluctant to part company with the humans that completed God's creation. God personally warned Cain, the first murderer, against the temptation of that act[7], then later, when Cain repented, specially protected him against retribution[8]. It is written that Enoch walked with God, much as the first humans had done, and seemingly escaped death altogether[9]. But all this was against a backdrop of increasing human presumption and violence. Lamech even boasted about being eleven times more violent than his great-great-great-grandfather, Cain[10]. It came to the point where God could find only one family to commune with, that of Noah, through whose faith the world, and several species of animals, were saved from mass extinction.

And so has been the general pattern: God longing for lost relationship even as God must limit the way human lusts destroy and otherwise continue to push Creation farther from its harmonious and peaceful intention. We have record of an extraordinary event where God invited Israel, a nation that God had chosen specially to work with, up Mount Sinai to meet, but they refused under the same fear that Adam and Eve experienced upon learning their capacity for wrong[11]. Not deterred, God designed the Tabernacle, a mobile unit, in order to be present ever in their midst, but, to be honest, God's presence is a problem for any with an inclination to do wrong. So first the Ark was depersonalized to be a sort of magical charm, and then it was isolated at a fixed location behind a heavy curtain as a National Treasure, a temple. It wasn't where or what God really wanted to be. God wanted to be out walking Creation with every willing, extraordinary member of it.

With this perspective, we can now apprehend the significance of the Gospel: "The time is (finally) come! God is back, Baby!" God had been trying since almost the beginning to walk with humans, and the people/conditions that God needed to put in motion the self-sacrificial, redemptive mechanism to do that were finally in place. The arrival of God’s presence is, in fact, a bold announcement that can be rightly expected to be accompanied by remarkable things, if true. If true, it also begs a remarkable response. Both are recorded by Mark.

The New Kingdom is Not Like the Old Kingdom

After his three-line summary of the Gospel, Mark addresses the question that naturally arises next, “What is going to happen when God gets here?” Certainly, there would be an expectation of the power of a Creator. Also worry about how God would handle expectations for people. Mark goes through several distinct cases, which usually take unexpected turns.

Personal Calling

The first case is about how Jesus went out and asked some fishermen to join him.

And, just like that, Jesus started by rejecting the prerogative of power that requires things of people. He didn’t make an imperial proclamation and then expect people to come to him on their knees. Instead, he headed out and showed up unexpected to invite each personally to join him. That’s really what the picture of Jesus knocking is about.

No effort or action whatsoever is required to come to the Kingdom of God. No changing out of work clothes, or any other change for that matter. Jesus called people how they were, where they were, who they were. No, the changes come after meeting God, as a result of meeting God.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ final command, which starts, “Therefore, go…”[12] Here, we see that Jesus started his ministry doing the same thing.

God makes all the effort to come to every person to ensure that he/she will know God has really missed being with him/her. Is that how people feel when we share the Gospel? Do we require them to go anywhere or change anything to meet God?

So what was the response with the fishermen? Pretty extraordinary. Simon and Andrew, James and John dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus. “Yes, but,” I know someone will object, “Jesus was a divine persuader, and these men were at least honest, if common.” All true. Mark addresses those variables later in his case study here.

Definitive Teaching

Next, Mark handles the way in which the particulars of the Good News are taught. In the next case, Jesus, showing the same freedom as when he had called the disciples, entered a nearby synagogue and started to teach. People were amazed by what Jesus said.

What was so distinctive about the way Jesus taught? It lists here that he taught with authority. This came from a deep familiarity with Scripture, which he often alluded to. Beyond that, Jesus had an intimate familiarity with God, the kind that comes from walking in God’s presence. This allowed him to comment on the purposes of Scripture and discount the suppositions in interpretation and application that professional teachers had layered onto it over the years. There are other things one may notice where (unlike here) Jesus’ teaching is recorded: it was straightforward, high in content for the number of words spent, used lots of everyday illustrations, comparisons, and common sense, and often challenged selfish motivations.

This left a few distinctives in Kingdom teaching after Jesus. To start with, continuing Jesus’ precedent at the synagogue, it was democratic. The apostle Paul later instructed everyone to contribute something in every gathering of the Church[13]. However much experts may master the technicalities of interpretation, the message should remain easy to understand, grounded in familiarity gained in God’s renewed presence, and open to being validated by anyone’s application. And Kingdom teaching continued to threaten human narratives, traditions, selfishness, and power.

God came forth to draw near and converse with every Good Creation. Does our “Good News” invite every listener to that conversation? In particular, those that the World has left out of its conversations of wealth, privilege, and power? Does it challenge the entrenched even as it beckons the distraught?

Spiritual Cleansing

At this point in Mark’s case study, in the middle of the story of Jesus in the synagogue, there occurred a remarkable event. A man under the power of a malignant spirit identified Jesus as the Messiah, God returned, and asked, “Have You come to destroy us?” With a rebuke, Jesus commanded the spirit to be quiet and leave the man.

Here is not the place to get into what spirits are. I will limit myself to observing that the Bible takes such entities as fact, starting with the Holy Spirit. It’s key to understanding such sayings as Jesus’ “God is spirit”[14] and Paul’s technical meaning of “spiritual” as “taught by the (in this context Holy) Spirit.”[15] Let’s just say that there were maladies that seemed beyond even naming in Jesus’ time. Even now, after two millennia of medical and technical advancement, I would guess that such medical mysteries remain.

Jesus’ preaching was accompanied by the healing of these non-physical and seemingly untreatable disorders – in the individual and, by extension, the community. Jesus communicated not just “in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”[16] In other words, or rather no words, the Gospel should not be solely rational or psychological persuasion. Just the word “God” means “power.” Most people would therefore expect that God’s renewed presence will make a difference – and make it particularly where humans are completely powerless. And yet, I feel, contemporary versions of the Message are almost always shorn of this power[17], at least where the Gospel is not being newly advanced.

But we have blinked and skipped over something curious here. What was a malignant spirit doing in a place of worship in the first place?! Isn’t that just the sort of place such things avoid? According to Hollywood, at least?

Absolute but Anti-Destructive Power

Notice the pronoun the spirit used: “Have You come to destroy us?” The story mentions only one such spirit present. It used the singular when it claimed to know Jesus, so it was not a conglomerate like that in the case of the Gerasene[18]. It would be a stretch to think it meant to imply that Jesus would destroy himself. Who the heck is “us?”

I have a strong suspicion that it is us. The affected man and everyone else present in that congregation – or in any other in this corrupted world that may read this story.

How easily that demon associated itself with people of faith! I think it was not without reason, for the arrival of the absolute power that is our Creator would pose a bit of a problem, which is, “What will God think of me?”

When a schoolmate of my kids spends the night, we clean the floors the night before, lest we be exposed as habitually living among kitchen smudges and lint balls. Mind that these are teens I speak of, so imagine what sort of panic we might be in should God knock at the door.

“Have you come to destroy us?” Are we what God created us to be? Did God intend for us to spend our lives the way we have, ordering far too much delivery pizza and caring so little about all the others of God’s splendid creations? Never mind one or more spectacular failures we may have exhibited along the way?

In his words to that evil spirit, Jesus also addresses that fear: “Be quiet.” Be not afraid.

No, the Good News is that God is not only here but pro-us. God is willing[19] as well as able – for us. Not that there won’t be a few changes – we just discussed how there must be changes – but they’re made gladly on the way to good things. What God wants, most of all, is just to walk at our sides again, as God created us to do at the beginning and called good.

So the spirit spreading fear? Jesus shut it down, and I wonder if that’s why he usually shut them down. They’re not around to help God’s kingdom, after all. They’re the original destroy-the-country-with-fake-news party, and ground zero for them are places of worship and organized religion. There, besides fear of God, they instigate “holy” wars and spiritualized exploitation and pious preening – all sorts of destruction and belittlement of God’s creations.

But this again invites us to look at what is often presented as Good News. If it makes people afraid of God, if it portrays God as a threat of Hell, even for some exalted purpose like scaring them into signing up for a church membership – isn’t that exactly the demonic agenda Jesus acted against?

Physical Healing

After freeing the man from an evil spirit, Jesus demonstrated that this authority extended over physical ailments as well, starting with the mother of the purported source of the record of Mark, ridding her of a debilitating fever. This sort of complaints being much more common, Jesus was soon inundated with people seeking cures of both types – if, indeed, one may make the distinction, as reporting physical and spiritual together suggests they are somehow alike.

A case of particular interest occurs climatically at the end of the list: Jesus heals a man of a persistent skin condition labeled “leprosy.” Similarly to the case of the corrupt spirit, Jesus commands the man to tell the story only to the priests back at the Temple in Jerusalem “as a testimony.” However, humans having the power to disobey, the man publicized the event immediately, causing such a sensation that Jesus began having trouble negotiating the resulting crowds.

Why was leprosy such a big deal? To start with, it was incurable, but then so too were many of the other ailments Jesus addressed. It was also mysterious and had disgusting symptoms, so it had become feared. It was something religiously “unclean,” so, in its permanence, it was considered a curse. Lepers were effectively an unclean class of people.

Therefore the uproar when a leper was cleansed of his disease. What had become of God’s curse for presumed sin? What did that mean for a social order built around abasing people deemed to be accursed? For these reasons, Jesus had wanted the leper’s story to be a testimony to the priests, the people that promoted that theology of accursedness and helped enforce the social order that placed certain classes of people at the bottom. It also happened to be a testimony of the renewed presence of the divine: “Now I declare new things.”[20]

In this light, the story remains a testimony to us, concerning what we say. Do we ascribe divine punishment to certain (i.e., not having happened to us) unfortunate events? Insist on rejection on even flimsier grounds based on doctrines or differences? Assume certain groups of people are beyond God’s desire or power to touch? Fail to apply, to even see as applicable, God’s power as a challenge to a social order where certain groups of people, for no inherent fault of their own, are abused and kept underfoot? Build our doctrines and practices around the idea of accursedness?

Here’s the thing: the record implies that Jesus knew all about Sin and the Law, but it also shows he didn’t insist on shoving peoples’ faces into them. Here, in fact, he challenges the people that do. Is the message we call “Gospel” similarly, just as insistently free of such pre-condemnation?

Forgiveness

As if deliberate, the author next turns to this very topic: sin. What of sin, whether linked to ailments or not?

This story plays out in Peter’s house, so no surprise then, the level of detail in this, traditionally reckoned as ultimately his account. Four men carrying a paralytic bound to a stretcher were unable to break through the press at the door, so they clambered up the external stairs and chopped a hole in Peter’s roof in order to lower their friend down to Jesus. One imagines everyone’s anticipation building after such a dramatic entrance, and, sure enough, the Christ was impressed by their faith. He rose dramatically to his feet and declared loudly in the presence of all, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Wait, what? Jesus!? It should be patently obvious that this man’s problem is that he is paralyzed. You were supposed to say something like, “Pick up your mat and walk,” and the fellow would go leaping and jumping and praising God all the way out the front door[21]. Could Jesus really be so clueless?

A shock of silence gives way to a murmur of disappointment. Consternation among the weary friends peering through the hole above. Some grumble in the back rows: “Only God can forgive sins!”

But then it turned out that all this was at least partly to create a teachable moment. “Why do you grumble,” Jesus responded. “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘experience a miracle?’”

For the people in the back row, as always, were correct. God defines sins, so only God can forgive sins. Forgiveness should be the thing that is harder – nay, impossible – for non-gods to pronounce. Most Christians know as well as any Pharisee that being saved is a divine thing, as opposed to merely being healthy – if, indeed, those are different kinds of things (because the same root word is used to describe both in both our language and scripture).

But on the other hand, there is no remarkable, visible sign of being forgiven, unless one counts the snot and tears that many say should precede it. Salvation is unseeable; it can only be taken by faith on the part of the forgiven and by the onlookers of the forgiven. So from this perspective, God’s forgiveness should be easier to say – at least among the faith blind, who have no ability to immediately verify the outcome either way. Talk, as is said, is cheap.

So, in this way Jesus got everybody wondering. And then he healed the man.

So now what is one to think? Since he did the remarkable thing with the second thing he said, what happened with the first thing he said? Well, if his second word came true, then the first one must have. As C.S. Lewis once noted, a person cannot be simultaneously a great prophet and a liar. But if the first word came true, and only God can forgive sin, then Jesus is… Jesus must be himself the Good News of the presence of God that he preached!

So there you go, all of you that say Jesus never claimed to be God, but the wrecking ball that is this story is still swinging. How, for example, does it fit the standard evangelical understanding of Gospel? Let us count the ways…

  • Paralytic was assumed to be sinful without any evidence beyond being hauled about by people who felt no compunction about destroying someone else’s property. Well, that’s inherent sin. Check!
  • Paralytic was forgiven without any repentance on his part or confession of faith. Um… Well, his friends’ sinful destruction of someone else’s property was such a confession, if somewhat unorthodox.
  • Speaking of whom, the paralytic was saved by the faith of someone other than himself, like what happens in infant baptism. Jesus makes that attribution himself. Well, I suppose Jesus being God can make any sort of unique exception.
  • It wasn’t unique. Lazarus obviously wasn’t raised from the dead by his own faith, and Paul writes that people in his day were baptized for the deceased. Well, just ‘cause stuff like “third-party faith” is in the Bible doesn’t mean we have to consider it to be a fundamental to include in our Fundamentalism, right?

But let’s get back to our theme. Again, Jesus is portrayed as acting out of his Good News of the presence of God rather than what we call “the Gospel.” He didn’t take the time to make sure the paralytic knew that he was unacceptable to God or that he had to believe in Jesus – Jesus just spoke God’s forgiveness over him once he had been brought to the Presence. It was completely unimportant to Jesus that the man’s doctrine be catechismically spot-on. Jesus apparently believed that people in God’s presence don’t have to hear the bad news about themselves in order to receive salvation.

But isn’t that too easy? Isn’t such grace too cheap? Shouldn’t it cost at least a little weeping and wailing? Jesus said the man’s sins were forgiven so easily; then said it was because he had the authority to do so. But is this not the same authority that he passed on to his disciples?

Perhaps we that claim to be descendants of those same disciples should be quicker to say, “your sins are forgiven.”

God’s Presence Come to Rest with Sinners

With the next case study, Mark rachets up the line of argument he has been following. Until this point, the stories have recorded how God’s returned presence freed the afflicted. Although Mark has cross-examined the presumption of sin in such cases, such sin, if any, was not detailed. Now Mark turns to the real deal: people who manifestly care little about pleasing God. At the top of this noxious heap, the worst of the worst, was the profession humans in all eras love to hate: the tax collector. His name was Levi, also called Matthew, the same to whom is attributed the Gospel before the one we are reading.

Now in those days, a tax-collector was not a white-collar government bureaucrat but a businessman that had prepaid the taxes at Imperial auction for the right to collect them. Although the emperor had attempted to reduce the corruption of the publicani by shifting a portion of the empire’s revenues to a head tax (famously requiring Jesus’ earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, to travel to Bethlehem to register), there were still opportunities to make obscene amounts of money. The wealth of tax collectors allowed them to manipulate markets and lend people money to cover their taxes at the low, low monthly rate of 4% (60% APR). Moreover, the money that tax collectors paid into the treasury supported the occupying Roman legions, so they could be considered traitors as well as dirty rotten capitalists.

But when Jesus met Levi, he invited him to become a disciple. Levi was a man of considerably greater means than the fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James, and John – he was the equivalent of a millionaire entrepreneur – yet he reacted the same way and abandoned his business without a second thought. But not before he invited Christ into his house, throwing a big party for many friends and associates from the loan-sharking trade – the Bible mentions he was a man of notoriety and influence in those circles.

This invited criticism from those that read their Bible every day and knew that it says that charging interest is a sin. They claimed that God’s Presence was out of place among the revelries of the Unsaved, but Jesus replied that, in fact, this is where God wants to go most. If God took all the trouble of working since practically the beginning of the world on a plan to reestablish God’s presence among humans, God wasn’t about to balk at one relatively tiny step more into the darkest recesses of humanity.

To reemphasize, what Mark mentions as Christ’s message contained only the announcement of the arrival of God’s presence and the imperative to change one’s manner of thinking accordingly. This story makes it more doubtful that Jesus issued calls for what we call “repentance,” because, frankly, throwing a big loud party is not that sort of response. What I’ve usually witnessed of current doctrine is the opposite: a demand that a new believer cut ties with their old, sinful friends. But really, which is the bigger transformation: someone that is sorry they were bad, or someone that, like Levi and the others, gives up his/her entire livelihood to do something with zero promise of financial return?

Again we are faced with the question: have we got a clue to what the Gospel of Jesus is?

We say God’s presence rests in holy (high) places that we call churches. People must be convinced by our doctrine of their unworthiness and mourn before we invite them there. Or, worse, we wait there for them to somehow be convicted and just show up.

Jesus demonstrates and claims here that God’s presence travels to where sinners are, announces itself, and celebrates its arrival with them. It is in spirit a party not unlike the homecoming of the Prodigal Son[22], only that which was lost was God’s presence, and the Son welcomed back home is Jesus. The transforming power of God’s presence is assumed.

Repentance, scripturally understood, is not regrets; it is abandoning one’s life to start another, like being reborn[23]. This can happen only after entering God’s presence. It makes sense only as a response, not as a prerequisite. Or, a better way to describe it, it is the senseless reflex of falling violently in love.

Institutional Repentance

This completes Mark’s case studies of the impact of the return of God’s presence on individuals, but now he zooms out to group level. The next case involves a religious practice, a fast, observed both by Jesus’ usual rhetorical opponents, the Pharisees, and by the disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus’ movement, which had come out of John’s and whose message had first been preached by John, could reasonably be expected to follow suit, but (following the celebratory feasting theme of the preceding story) they did not.

Jesus then explains with analogies of sewing new, unshrunk patches of cloth to old clothes and putting new, still-fermenting wine into old skins that have already been stretched into a particular shape by a previous generation of wine. These are, in short, recipes for disaster that can result in the destruction of both new and old.

I argue elsewhere that this can be applied to tradition in general, to the observances and institutions every group and generation of believers must properly be given to make for themselves. My church, for example, retains many of the decisions and structures from its founding 75 years ago, songs from 19th century revivals, doctrine from five hundred years ago, and a quick-fix discipleship format meant to cope with a surge of new believers about 1500 years ago. And then we wonder why our young people and new visitors don’t tend to stick around. The new wine bursts out of the old skin and runs off across the packed, hard clay.

But let us return to theme: the arrival of God’s presence changes everything. What sense, Jesus effectively asks in this case, does it make to fast for God’s presence when God has become present? The human reasoning behind observances is challenged by the new perspective brought by the divine. The problems for which solutions were formed appear much different in the light of a Creator that forgives and salves body and spirit. As for traditions… As we asserted above, traditions were a big part of what relegated God further and further away from the people he created. Both Jesus and the prophets railed against them, and here Jesus models a rethink of, a repentance from traditions.

Mercy Over Observance

But what about observances that come not from human tradition but from the Bible? Surely, if it’s in the Bible, that’s something we should do!

Mark addresses that with two final cases. The first involved how Jesus’ disciples plucked agricultural produce on the Sabbath. There is much Jesus would have to say about the Sabbath, but basically his posture was that it was more than a mere demonstration of piety or cultural identification; it was an actual exercise of faith. One day out of the week, one did not work to feed oneself but relied completely on God’s work to survive.

But here the Bible experts were technically correct in saying that Jesus’ disciples were “working” to feed themselves. At the end of his response to this, Jesus says something that completely overturns how observances and other structures from scripture (scripture!) are perceived: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” What is written is not a heavy yoke of iron Law that will drag us to glory or bust; it is actually meant as a vehicle to carry us toward the presence. When it fails to do that, as when, in Jesus’ example, David’s followers were starving, mere observances can legitimately be abandoned at the side of the road.

Christians generally, if unthinkingly, take that to heart and do not follow most scriptural observances, including rules about the Sabbath (which, even when they did, they took the liberty to apply to the day after the Sabbath). Yet I still hear things like, “I happily sacrifice so much time from my week/money from my income to honor Jesus (so they should also)! We gladly sit through N-hour services X times per week because we love Jesus!”

This is not what Jesus demonstrated or preached. He approached us as a friend; not reigned from far-off, like an emperor, to exact tribute. Jesus never forced anyone to listen to him speak but happily attended parties (supplying the wine on occasion[24]). I suspect the day we use to honor him (not the Sabbath but the first day of a new week) was meant to be a celebration (he supplies the wine for that as well[25]). No wonder his “yoke” is easy and his “burden” is light[26]! It is never a burden to spend time with a good friend. Per Jesus’ words here, if people find something in church life a burden, then it is not Jesus.

Mark’s final case is sobering (as if none of the others were!). The religious experts brought a man with a shriveled hand to Synagogue, seeking to accuse Jesus of impiety if he healed him. “Which is lawful,” Jesus asked them, “to do good or to do evil?” It seems like the answer should be Sunday-School obvious, but the experts offered none.

We’ve seen this many times: people appealing to the “Law” to excuse lack of action to help save hurting, starving, falsely imprisoned, or unjustly persecuted or dying people. We know that, at one time, the Bible was used to justify slavery. It’s been used to justify invasions and genocide. What is Jesus’ response to this false reverence for Scripture?

My Bible says it makes him angry and deeply distressed.

Evenly applied justice. Mercy. Mutual investment. Life. Love. Hospitality for aliens. These are the Way. The return of God’s presence forces a reboot, a rethink, a repentance even of the way God’s people perceive and uphold Scripture.

Making the Gospel Good News

Having reached the end of our study, I have a few concluding remarks.

I’ve felt uncomfortable for some time with the disconnect between what we proclaim and what the Bible says Jesus proclaimed. All the same, it was a revelation for me to see this careful, logical, and intentional arrangement of material at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. I suspect this is true of the rest of the account. It would be of great benefit to uncover the other rhetorical structures and figure out why they are there, what ideas they were so carefully constructed to support.

In my discussion, it may sound at times like I have lost all respect for Reformation doctrine, but this is not true. What is preached all sounds like ingenious ways to explain Biblical things, but then, I am no philosopher. I am just someone that reads Scripture and tries to figure out what it says, because I believe that Scripture provides reliable instruction and modeling for disciples. What happens to me is that I start to see discrepancies between that guidance and actual practice and understanding. This is what I am calling out here. Perhaps I am naïve. Perhaps the nascent theology of Scripture needed to mature, but here I choose to exercise my royal priestly prerogative to wriggle out of my deep doctrinal conditioning and see for myself, like a sort of doubting Thomas, but one that chooses to believe the Christ that is no longer present.

The difference that I’ve documented here between our “gospel” and that of Jesus applies directly to evangelism. We know that response to ours is tepid. I would agree that our context in a post-evangelized society is very different than that in which Jesus preached. But how much can be attributed to how unappealing our message is, how it must condemn and control, how very much it is bad news? We see that Jesus didn’t do that, and we see how people just, well, fell in love with him. I submit that if people never fall in love with us, there are reasons: we speak ugly words and act in ugly fashion.

What if we went out and asked, “If God were here, what would be different?” And then proclaimed that, as a matter of fact, God’s presence has been reestablished? And then expressed how glad God is to be with people, wherever they may be found? And then prayed for the implications of God’s power in their lives? And quickly proclaimed forgiveness and spiritual, emotional, and physical healing over them? And celebrated the reunion instead of making people feel guilty for requiring Jesus’ death? And then encouraged bold responses of love, however naïve and impractical, without restraining them by what others have done before?

That’s what Jesus did. He fermented new wine wherever he went.

The last part is the most challenging. I look at the responses to Jesus’ Gospel of God’s presence and think again about the implications of that Presence. Then I look at what my responses have been. I inevitably wonder, “Perhaps I have not heard nor believed.”[27] But the truth is, ‘til now I have known in part, but I am coming to know fully.[28] I’ve made many decisions that I would not have made outside of God’s presence. I am a different person than I would have been had Jesus not befriended me. I may not have thrown all away for Jesus, like his first disciples, but I’ve definitely thrown away… what seems like a lot. And every time I think back through it all, I don’t end up regretting that I did.

I feel God’s presence now. I have not stopped transforming.

 

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/1lqcbe/knock_knock_its_jesus/

[2] https://atheistforum.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/jesus-knock-knock-picture/

[3] http://www.geeksundergrace.com/christian-living/whatdoyoumeme-jesus-knocks/

[4] Mark 1:14-15 NIV

[5] Gen. 1:31

[6] Gen. 3:14-19

[7] Gen. 4:7

[8] Gen. 4:15 v.16 says explicitly that Cain had been in God’s presence

[9] Gen. 5:24

[10] Gen. 4:24

[11] Ex. 20:18-19

[12] Matt. 28:19

[13] 1Cor. 14:26

[14] John 4:24

[15] 1 Cor. 2:13

[16] 1 Cor. 2:4

[17] 2 Tim. 3:5

[18] Mark 5:9

[19] Mark 1:40-41

[20] Isaiah 42:9

[21] Acts 3:8

[22] Luke 15:11-32

[23] John 3:3

[24] John 2:1-11

[25] 1 Cor. 11:25

[26] Matt. 11:30

[27] John 5:24

[28] 1Cor. 13:12

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  • tl;dr

    Differences in what the Gospels record as Jesus’ message and what we preach as “Good News” to outsiders can be summed this way: Jesus’ message was not so much “I know that my Redeemer lives” as “your Creator is here” (“the Kingdom of God is drawing near to you”). I’ve been especially struck by the opening chapters of Mark (1:14-3:12), which can be viewed as structured case studies of the implications of God’s presence:

    • Personal calling (1:16ff): God’s extreme measures to establish God’s presence among people lead to “Go ye therefore” evangelistic models
    • Definitive teaching (1:21ff): God’s presence implies authoritative revelation to everyone in it
    • Spiritual salve (1:23ff): God’s presence results in the removal of spiritual corruption
    • Liberation from condemnation (1:24-25): God does not come to condemn but liberate – something I see as a critical difference with “Gospel” explanations that start with condemnation
    • Physical salve (1:30ff): God’s presence results in the removal of physical corruption
    • Forgiveness (2:1ff): God’s presence brings forgiveness of sin by (here third-party) faith, in this instance without even identifying the sin (beyond the obvious one of destroying the roof of Peter’s house). This is the effect that the usual “Gospel” focuses on to the point of excluding all the others.
    • Sanctification (2:15ff): the cleansing by God’s presence makes ritual purity – indeed all the ritual regulations of the Law – moot. “It is not what goes in that corrupts, but what goes out.”

    Significantly, after this presentation of what the Kingdom does, Jesus delegates it all to his followers (3:14ff).

    Anyhow, one practical application is this: what if we preach more like Jesus did here? I imagine asking someone, “If God were here, what would be different in your life?” And then, after the response, saying, “Well, Jesus declared God has come here for us,” and then declare or pray as led by the Spirit.

  • Now couple this with the notion that souls being immortal is pagan (neo-Platonic) nonsense*, and the Gospel becomes a simple invitation to immortality. With such a gospel, one is not threatening people with eternal torment for disagreeing, but extending a saving arm to invite them out from natural dissolution. Much more fun!

    I think Protestant witness is greatly influenced by Paul's epistles, which explain the situationas and mechanics of rapprochment with God (but that is not what Jesus focused on preaching). I would like to walk through Paul's preaching at some point to see if, indeed, his witness to prospective believers shows the difference.

    Another thing to note is that Jesus's emphasis on the return of God's presence is much more appropriate to his Jewishness than our (and perhaps Paul's) Greek philosophically oriented rhetoric.

    * https://www.patreon.com/posts/discussion-forum-57869884

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