When The Gospel Isn't Good News
"So what do you do?" the earnest-looking fellow sitting next to me on the airplane asked me.
I'd unsuccessfully tried to put my Airpods into my ear at least three times, but he kept tapping my arm to ask me questions, and then engage in conversation.
By the time he asked me what I did for a living, he'd been talking nonstop about his travel travails, and how he really didn't like Austin, TX (where we were flying from) all that much because it was, according to him, "too woke."
"I'm a Presbyterian pastor," I replied, and then watched as he checked out my tattoos, and the Iron Maiden shirt I was wearing. [Wait for it]
"You don't look like any pastor I've ever seen," he said at last.
"Thank you," I told him.
He stared hard at me, and then delivered this missive: "Listen, I don't care what kind of church you pastor, as long as you preach the Gospel." He paused, and then asked pointedly, "You preach the Gospel, right?"
I thought about my response for a beat or two, and then simply said, "Yup, you bet I do."
There was a longer response to that question, and I had it ready. But in the end, I decided not to load it into the cannon and fire a volley because I had a book I wanted to read.
Here's what I would have said, though... had I not had anything to read, and didn't mind having a two-hour argument.
"Why yes, I do preach the Gospel, but I need to make clear what I mean when I say the word 'Gospel.' Because what I mean when I say the word 'Gospel' (which means 'Good News' by the way) is summed up by Jesus himself who proclaimed in Luke 4 why he showed up in the first place:8 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”So if by preaching the 'Gospel' you mean reiteratiing what Jesus said in that moment, then we are totally on the same page.But if you mean preaching that if people don't pray a formulaic prayer about being a sinner and accepting Jesus into their heart to escape going to Hell... then we're not on the same page, at all. In fact, we're not really reading from the same book. Because that isn't good news at all.
I know... I know... that sounded pretty harsh now that I see it written down. But the important thing to remember is that I didn't say it. I just thought it.
The truth of the matter is that I didn't really know that guy at all, and I was totally projecting some of my own stuff onto him, which is never a good idea, and probably not at all fair.
Still, it wasn't my first rodeo, and I could tell where the ride was headed because I'd ridden it a hundred times or more. So I said as little as possible, and then retreated back to my book.
I also needed to check myself and ensure that I wasn't being overly judgemental and succumbing to the same kinds of temptations I was railing against in my own head.
A couple of years ago, I read this amazing quote by Fr. Anthony de Mello that convicts me and calls me to faithfulness when it comes to this very thing. He was addressing the problem that occurs when our religiosity becomes an idol, and said this:
You know there are times like that… When worship becomes more important than love when the Church becomes more important than life. When God becomes more important than the neighbor.
If our religion, beliefs, and even our church keep us from seeing the real needs of the world around us, we've ceased to proclaim the Gospel, and have become what Jesus described as "whitewashed tombs"---shiny on the outside, but pretty gnarly on the inside.
And further, when our notion of what passes for 'Good News' isn't good news for everyone, it's not good news at all.
Even when we have the best intentions, we can all too easily slide down the slippery slope of hypocrisy, idolatry, triumphalism, and the like when it comes to our religious beliefs.
If we are not careful, we can also become what we despise, and find ourselves creating exclusive religious spaces where oaths of fealty, "right" ways of worship, and a host of other tests must be passed in order to gain access to God.
We need to return to Jesus' own words and do our best to follow his example as we seek to love God and love everybody, reach out to the broken and hurting, and include everyone in grace.
May it be so, and may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.