Need we even mention the Gospel according to Benjamin Franklin? It was Franklin who said “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s right, it’s not in the Bible. Then there’s the Jefferson Bible where he picked and chose his favorite scriptures and made it into his own Bible. How about the Gospel according to Dr. Suess, of Peanuts, or Homer Simpson or the Matrix, or Milton Freeman? How about the Gospel we hear on Christian radio that is often sexist, homophobic, and lifts up personal salvation as more important than love of neighbor? Paul says he’s not ashamed of the Gospel. So what is Paul’s Gospel?
Now, Paul has a lot to say to us. His words have also been used to put down lots of people. In fact, words in his letters hardly ever quote Jesus. His viewpoint is more about the meaning of the event of Jesus Christ and what it means for our lives. He is obsessed with the symbolism of the cross. He is also persecuted and he says that he’s going to continue to preach because he is not ashamed of the Gospel.
My friend and colleague Neil Elliot has written a book entitled, “Liberating Paul: the Justice of God and the liberation of the Apostle.” In it, he makes a distinction between the Canonical Paul and the true Paul. Most scholars believe that Paul wrote seven of the 14 books attributed to him in the Bible. He likely wrote Romans, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and most of First and Second Corinthians. Most of the exclusivistic and misogynist writings did not come from Paul, argues Elliot, although readers seldom make this distinction and often lump Paul into the big heap of pain from the Bible.
One of the mistakes people make is thinking that Paul’s words are universal theology. He was writing letters to specific churches with specific concerns. And we only know half of the dialogue. So, while Paul might have written a good portion of the New Testament, he was not writing Gospel—meaning a comprehensive story line or a set of belief-directives. What he was writing was a series of letters to a struggling persecuted bunch of believers. He was writing as a struggling persecuted person himself. Many of his letters were written from prison. If you are put in prison for doing something wrong, then you might (in a state of contrition) be ashamed of what you have done. Paul, on the other hand said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” It’s like Luther saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” It’s like Bonhoeffer saying that “the cost of discipleship is a hard one and that we are to rely upon radical grace.” It’s like Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day or Cesar Chavez or Mahatma Gandhi saying “I follow a higher law. Put me in jail, but I am not ashamed of the Gospel of nonviolence.”
Paul was writing in the time when the Gospel according to Augustus was the prevailing Gospel in Rome and throughout the empire. The Gospel went something like this: Augustus Caesar is God’s Son. Rome is Holy and everything that Rome does is beyond pale. Opposing Rome is siding with Satan. Does this sound familiar? Roman order had ushered what was called in the golden age of peace and security, something known as Pax Augusta, a form of Pax Romana. Walter Wink says that empire is “A system in permanent crisis of legitimation” and is held together by force. Paul’s Gospel said the peace of God truly comes not from the power of empire, but through justice and inclusion. Neil Elliot says that Romans was written to a church whose solidarity with an oppressed Jewish people made them suspicious. He calls Paul’s Preaching, “The Gospel of God’s Justice” and it is for the Jew and the Gentile—for everyone. Would we be ashamed of this Gospel? This is what we proclaim in our Affirmation most Sundays here at UBC.
So, I invite you to enter with me on an imaginary journey into the mind and heart of Paul. Who knows, we might find an intersection with our own heart and mind.
Paul was far from home. He was near the end of his earthly journey and he knew it. The power of the Gospel and its radical message of including people and standing up for justice was just too much for the muckety-mucks in Rome. They conspired to imprison him and were preparing to have him beheaded.
Paul, this man who had once persecuted the church. This one who watched over the stoning of the Apostle Stephen, thinking his fate the just reward for the leader of a church that did not do what the government said. This same Paul met a great conversion on the Road to Damascus. Paul, always encouraging, self-debasing, and self-inflating Paul. The man who spent his converted life traveling around trying to convert the masses to the wonderful power of life in Christ Jesus. The one who established churches just long enough for them to get on their feet before taking off to hobo aboard a ship to take him to the next town who needed to hear about how the love and mission of Christ seeks to break down the barriers of slave and free, Jew and gentile, rich and poor, male and female. This man Paul was now in prison and alone.
Have you ever been alone, I mean truly alone—no TV, radio, ipod, cell phone, no friends and family? One of my first experiences with this kind of solitude was as a youth at a church retreat. We each were required to spend 3 hours in a small spot in the woods. That’s not too long a time from where I stand now, but then it was an eternity. The lesson of this experience, a solo we called it, was that we would have to focus on our inner life and come away with a true sense of what’s important to us. I spent most of the time trying to get a hold of the people near me—in defiance of the rules, of course. I couldn’t stand being alone. I couldn’t stand being apart from friends and family, disconnected. I heard of someone knocking someone down on a trail in Yosemite because he was texting someone instead of looking where he was going.
Imagine Paul, a prisoner for Christ in that Roman cell. Paul was lonely and scared. His prayer life sustained him, I imagine. In today’s scripture he writes, “the righteous will live by faith.” I think what he meant was, “If I can keep my faith, I will live. If I believe that God’s purpose is being worked out in me, that I can hang on. If I lose this blessed assurance, then the evil of my captors takes over and I’m doomed.
The truth is that God will hold us up and strengthen us even when everyone else is against us. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for they did that to the prophets before you.” Paul knew what he was in for and he stood up for what he knew to be right. In like fashion, many of our Baptist forerunners stood up against injustice, slavery, lack of voting rights and even military conscription, centuries ago by saying,
“Here I stand, I can do no other. May my faith not be shaken by the powers of this world.”
Always, it seems, we stand at the crossroads of justice and injustice, of equality and inequality. Of good and evil. Is it right to build an Islamic Center a few blocks away from the World Trade Center? Hidden in this question is the unasked question: do we still think that Islam is defined by the radical fringe?
Should we make English the official language of Minnesota, as if it isn’t already? Hidden behind this is blatant xenophobia. I loved how a commentator recently said that if English became the official language of our state, then we would have to do away with words like Mississippi, Mankato, Minneapolis, Minnesota, St. Croix, even the motto on our flag “le’toile du nord”.
Should the rich get taxed if it means that the poor will be helped? Hidden behind this is the notion that you are on your own if you have any needs.
Are we ashamed of the Gospel, or are we willing to speak out, to stand up and to be counted as people of faith who believe in justice, peace, security and hope for all people, not just our friends. Are you ashamed of that Gospel?
The Gospel is an idea—a very good idea. But it only really lives if it has taken root in a community. For Paul, he could embrace the Gospel because of the church. You see, the church had taken a big risk taking in Paul, this sinner, this persecutor. He knew that the church had no business trusting this former dupe of the powers of Rome, but slowly, the church came to love him and together they supported Paul and helped Paul to grow in his faith. The church was there as a welcome haven of rest and as a beacon of hope to a sin-sick world, from which Paul was quickly turning.
Paul loved the church and the church, at least the parts that got their names in the Bible, loved Paul. But now, Paul was in prison and he was lonely and he needed the prayers and support of the church. He needed the assurance that he was not alone—that there were people who believed as he did and who were willing to support and carry on the message of Christ in his absence.
The true church’s existence and the commitment of its members and friends ensures that there will be an alternative to evil, that there will be an alternative to persecution, to racism, to sexism, to harassment, to homo-prejudice, to the inequalities which plague our loves and the lives of our children. That is what the true church is: the force of good in this world bent upon evil.
Paul in his longing wrote this letter to a church that he would not see again. He writes in verse 8, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.” Why does he say that? Is it because he likes them? Is it because he knows they have not forgotten him? Is it because he misses them? Is it because the church is his security blanket when the coldness of the world had beaten him down?
I’m sure it is all of that, but it is more than that too. For Paul goes on to say, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” In just a generation since Jesus’ crucifixion, the faith of the churches was known. Ah. Paul is thanking the church for carrying on his mission.
Our faith in Christ Jesus enables us to do amazing things in the world. Many of us who here on Christmas Eve heard the story of Chang Kiu Lee standing up in his neighborhood to protest the demolition of housing. He was standing up for the poor and the voiceless because he saw an injustice happening. He said that he did it because the Gospel demanded action. Thank you Chang Kiu for your powerful witness. You and I are part of the church which Paul thanks. When we make a commitment to the church, we carry on the work that Paul describes. What an opportunity we have to give light to a world bend upon darkness. But the church is more than that. It is more than just an agency which helps out the needy and carries on the faith. Yes the church is even more than that. The church is also family.
Paul did not have a family outside of church, as best and we can tell from scripture. In his letter to the church in Corinth, he told them that the church was the living body of Christ. Each of his letters was written swimming with praise for his extended family and his desire to get back to be with them. Paul needed his church family and longed for a family reunion. He needed their support, their love and their unconditional acceptance.
We have drunk deep of the faith, work, love and commitment shown to God by so many people through this church. At our best we stand, with our forbearers and with Paul we say, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ of Lord,”(Romans 8:38-39)
Is it enough to not be ashamed of the Gospel? Are we willing to embrace the Gopsel? That’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s the hard work. But it is work we don’t do alone. We do it alongside others who have been caught up in the imagination and blessing of the Gospel. It is hope for he world. It is justice for the oppressed. It does point to a more healthy way to live. It is a more excellent way. I don’t know about you, but I’ll even quote Paul, “I am not ashamed of that Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
May we live and love the Gospel that sets people free, that empowers people to see God in themselves, their neighbors and even their enemies. May we embrace the Gospel that tells the truth in love, that gives light and hope and support and power that is tied to love and power from on high. May we embrace that power, that Gospel together. For it is only in redemptive community that the true Gospel takes root and bears fruit. I am not ashamed of the Gospel. In fact, I kinda like it. How about you? Don’t answer with words. Answer with action. That’s the true Gospel at work. And it’s our mission as followers of Christ. May the Gospel we embrace give light, hope, power and love to a world in need.