Two Sides of the Gospel
As minister of Word and Sacrament I promised in the words of the Book of Church order and the document that I signed, “to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.”
I do my best to be faithful in doing all of these.
There are times when it is easy to preach the Gospel, the good news of salvation. It is easy to preach about God’s love, mercy, grace and forgiveness. It is easy to focus on Jesus as the welcoming Son of God who gives us life, peace and joy. Whenever the Biblical texts guide me to focus on these loving and gracious elements of the Gospel, I find it easy to prepare a sermon.
And here is how I normally do it: I read the Bible texts in English and then I read them in either Hebrew or Greek because translations do not always do justice do to the texts. As I read the texts I make notes on what I think the texts mean. Then I read a few commentaries by theologians to see how they interpret the texts. I read newspapers and weekly magazines, in my case the Economist, to see what is going on in the world. In between I visit and talk to people to hear about their concerns and joys. I make mental notes during the week to determine what are the pressing issues of our time. And then I try to apply the meaning of the text to our world. My experience is that the Good News of the Gospel sheds her bright light on all the dark places of our world. The Good News brings joy, hope, and new life to those whose spirits are cast down and are carrying heavy burdens. This beautiful side of the Gospel is one that most people want to hear: it is positive, it is uplifting, it enhances our lives. No wonder that many preachers focus only on this side of the Gospel. It is easy, it is fun, it attracts many people.
There are a few preachers who enjoy preaching about this uplifting side of the Gospel so much they don’t bother to wrestle with the other side of the Gospel. They never mention suffering, death and the brokenness of the world. It is not easy preach from these texts. So some preachers simply ignore them.
I cannot ignore the dark, confusing and downright gloomy parts of the Bible. In order to be faithful to my calling I have to include both aspects of the Gospel- the uplifting Good news side but also on the reality of suffering, death, and brokenness of our world. Focusing only on the easy, joyful side is easy but in essence is only part of the Gospel. Jesus after all was born into a world where power hungry, authoritarian dictators ordered his underlings to kill infants. The world Jesus entered was a world where evil people had innocent people like John the Baptist beheaded. Jesus came into a world where people were sick with stigmatized disease like leprosy, and where people died. He walked this earth and met his violent end when people preferred criminals and turned the other way when an innocent man died a horrific dead.
You see this side of the Gospel is often ignored because it is not easy to face the brutal truth about our species. I think this is one reason why relatively few people attend Maundy Thursday services. People prefer the joy that accompanies a new-born baby on Christmas and the resurrection of the dead on Easter. These services are normally packed!
The truth is that we live in a broken world. We can face it or we can pretend everything is fine. We were all shocked about what recently happened in the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Turkey. It is too horrific for words. I initially refused to read anything about how Jamal Khashogghi was tortured and killed. For a few days I simply ignored that it happened. Why would I let details of the gruesome murder enter into my world? My life and my world are intact, safe, peaceful! Why would I read about events that are so horrible that it would upset my good life? I did what many of us do in order to survive and to stay happy! I would rather focus on the uplifting, pleasant and interesting things in life!
And then it struck me that the real world is not as peaceful and as intact as our world here. For 100’s of millions of people the world is an unfriendly, a dangerous and brutal place. The world of millions of people is violent, dangerous, so awful that they pack up their few belongings and leave, not knowing where to go!
I realized that for millions of people, people just like us, with family and friends, hopes, dreams and concerns, the words of Isaiah are not beautiful poetic words; they are actual and personal experiences. Many millions of people do not have the luxury of reading these words and contemplating the meaning in a philosophical and theoretical sense. They don’t care whether the suffering servant in Isaiah 52-53 is about Moses, or about another prophet or the collective people of Israel. They are not aware or they don’t care whether it is correct to say that these words predict the coming of Jesus or not. They don’t wrestle with the historical context of the Jews going back to Jerusalem after their 30 plus years’ Exile in Babylon and their hardship of resettling in Jerusalem.
For many people these words of the Prophet Isaiah simply express some of their personal experiences: being wounded in conflict or civil wars, bruised because of domestic violence or by attacks by racists, suffering from disease with no health care, medicine or clean water, being oppressed, suffering by a perversion of justice and cut off from the land of the living, and whose graves are with the wicked. Being despised and rejected are common experiences in many places of the world. Many people are suffering, whether by enemies or natural disasters or the heinous acts of those hungry for power!
Let’s face it: Suffering sometimes creep into our worlds in various forms. When a loved one dies, when we hear a bad diagnosis, when we are disappointed or when we disappoint, suffering is involved. There are many for whom suffering is a constant companion!
Now it is very possible that some of you may be disturbed and troubled and may think: Enough already! Some of you may even think: “Is this really necessary to bring all of this sadness and talk of suffering into our lives? This is becoming a pretty depressing sermon!”
The Gospel has two sides. I think it is necessary to think about and be aware of the fate of many of our sisters and brothers in this world. We cannot and should not close our eyes and ears for their suffering. I think it was Bishop Desmond Tutu who said: “We are part of the same society. We are part of the same humanity. When humanity is happy, we will be happy. When humanity is peaceful, our own lives are peaceful. … We must develop the sense of ‘we’. Once you’re able to develop that sense of common humanity and the oneness of humanity, then naturally you will want all others to be free from suffering and enjoy happiness.”
Furthermore Jesus, the Son of God, came to this world, this broken world where real people are really suffering, and he suffered with them, so that they may have life with him. So, you see pretending that this world is fine as it is, is in fact declaring that Jesus birth, life and death and resurrection were unnecessary! The Hebrew author sees it in a different way: “Jesus entered this ignorant world of sin and weakness and he offered up prayers and supplication, with loud cries of tears to the One who saved him from death. He learned obedience though what he suffered and he became the source of eternal salvation.”
If we close our eyes for the brokenness of this world and for the suffering that is part of this world we won’t see a need to pray the way our early sister and brothers prayed: when they looked at their world and they experienced suffering, being persecuted they prayed “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!” Thye had a deep longing for this world and its suffering to end. They longed for Christ to return!
Jesus’ disciples did not immediately grasp the importance of who Jesus was and what he came to do. In Mark 10:32-34 Jesus takes his 12 Disciples and explain to them what is going to happen: “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes and they will condemn them to death. They will mock him, spit upon him, flog him and kill him!”
And the immediate response of two of his closest friends, John and James? “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” “We want to be important – one on your right hand and one on your left hand!”
This was their response to the suffering of Jesus: Give us authority, give us power!
One of the many reasons why the Gospel, both sides of it, is so compelling is that it is honest. It understands people and has a clear picture of the world. Instead of doing what Jesus preaches namely that greatness in God’s kingdom is about serving others, the Disciples desire positions of power. The Gospel understand human nature, and it gives an antidote to humankind’s worst instincts: Instead of fighting for power – the Gospel calls people to serve. Instead of ignoring those who suffer, the Gospel urges people to be compassionate and help them, instead of caring only about myself care, the Gospel shows the wisdom of caring for others. Bishop Tutu once said: “we do not heal in isolation. Connecting with others is how we develop compassion for others and for ourselves.”
So people of God, if you came to church today to hear the sweet sound of the Gospel, about love and joy, forgiveness and good life, you may be a bit disappointed. I understand. But please, don’t say that you did not hear the Gospel. You did, just another side of it: the one about a world that has gone bad and one that is in dire need of redemption because there is a lot of suffering going on right now. Jesus became one of us to save this world from itself!
Tutu wrote: “Remind yourself that every person you encounter carries a sorrow and a struggle. Recognize that we all share a fundamental humanity.”
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross sums it up beautifully when she says, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.” Amen