what is the gospel?


Between Friday and Sunday, wherein our intrepid writer tangles with the question which has haunted him for forty days.

Recently, a friend brought it to Twitter’s attention that Jesus was proclaiming a gospel at the outset of Mark’s account. For Evangelicals–recovering and otherwise–sharing ‘the Gospel’ typically means handing out tracts on sidewalks or leaving them as tips after dinner presenting the fact that a person is a sinner, that Jesus came and died for them and that the sinner needs to ask for forgiveness, or something along those lines. Never mind how positively silly that seems in print–‘Hi! Did you know that you’re a rotten human being and going to hell?’ is anything but good news–but Mark’s account demonstrates that our modern, Evangelical conception of the Gospel is, at best, short-sighted and reductionist. Jesus himself wasn’t proclaiming this thing we refer to as gospel; why do we?

What is the gospel?

What benefit is there to demonstrate to a person who is otherwise likely unfamiliar the utter crappiness or non-existence of their relationship to God? It’s question begging, for one, alienating, for another, and entirely misses the point of Christ’s life and mission amongst us. If the yoke is easy and the burden light, why would we even think to saddle someone with the guilt of their sins?

Yes, substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus died for you, is a fatally-flawed proposition: what would happen to someone who repented and followed Jesus and died before he did? Good Friday, let alone Resurrection Sunday, means nothing to the Christ-follower who may have bit it last Tuesday, circa 30 AD.

What, again, is the gospel? Is it salvation from sin? Reform of systems of power? An inversion of the social order? Leveling the playing field? A rational assent to Jesus’ teachings? A call to radical transformation?

Whatever it is, it’s not Friday. Friday, as I’ve argued here and elsewhere before, is largely symbolic and fundamentally meaningless. Jesus’ death has no salvific benefit for anyone. We tend to take Paul far too seriously, so let’s use his premise: the wages of sin is death. Jesus’ death should, necessarily, settle his own score; yet Jesus is the anomaly, the one who perfectly maintained the contract, thus undermining both the covenant of the righteous and the power of corrupt politicians who exploited the same covenant for their own ends. None of this happens–none of this even begins to matter–unless that tomb is empty on that Sunday morning. Necessarily, Jesus had to be resurrected to prove that his life, the one that fulfilled the ancient covenant, had any kind of efficacy toward reconciliation with God.

That is the gospel: reconciliation with God. And that gospel of reconciliation, if one will but pay scant attention to Tanakh, is ever-present throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is found in the tearing down of high places, community renewal, the folk tales and the indictments of the prophets leveled against the authorities of the day. It is found in both the sojourner and the seed. It just so happens that in the person of Jesus, the gospel becomes, well, all of those things at once.

The trickiness of the gospel is in the fact that it ought to redeem, and continue redeeming, everything. We are all the blind reaching for the elephant, each touching on an important component of the good news. Yes, it is salvation. Yes, it is reform. Yes, it is inversion, leveling, assent and transformation. Reconciliation with God recalibrates everything, just as the Christ-event recalibrated the old covenant in resurrection. That led to a band of misfits and outcasts turning Antiquity on its head proclaiming resurrection and lending themselves credibility through miracles. Our attempts to meld respective political orientation (looking at all of you and into a mirror) to gospel is as perverted as the bloated system in place when Jesus came the first time around.

The good news is that the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Christ’s life was and remains sufficient for our redemption and the possible redemption of all creation. It is incumbent upon us, then, to let the Spirit show us how the gospel can redeem others and redeem the social order in a way that reflects the prophetic call to change and transformation, the graciousness of Christ and the confidence of generations who have gone before us as people of the resurrection.

What does that look like? What is the gospel?

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