We’ve spent the last couple of months trying to step back a little
and ask the question: why does the local church exist?
Why do local faith communities
and local parishes and local churches
gather week after week?
Closer to home, why do we meet week after week?
And over the last couple of months we’ve been trying to recognize from Scripture
that the local church is absolutely unique in the world
because of Jesus.
There are a lot of things that we (as a local community) COULD be doing;
there a lot of things that we (as a local community) WILL be doing.
But if you strip it all back—when you get to the heart of why this funny phenomenon of the local church exists—it’s because of Jesus.
We believe that Jesus (fully God and fully man) is alive—like, literally alive—
and he meets us and meets the world in the most unlikely of places:
Jesus meets us in the church.
Jesus comes to the world through the local church.
His forgiveness, his healing, his love—they come through people.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and the Word still becomes flesh and dwells among us—through us!
And so we want to be a community learning
to trust, celebrate, and embody this Jesus.
Trust the blessing he speaks over us,
celebrate the life he breathes into us,
and embody his presence in the world.
The living person of Jesus—that’s why exist.
That’s what we’ve been talking about the last couple of months,
and we wrapped up last week.
And so I’ve been pondering for weeks, where do we go from here?
We could just jump into a book of the Bible and start studying it—
I’d really like to do that.
We could wrestle through some well-worn topics that always seem to need addressing:
family life or managing finances or busyness or learning to pray or handling suffering.
There are a lot of different directions we could go at this point—
and I’m still brand new to the whole pastoring thing and preaching thing—
but it seems to me that we ought to spend a little bit of time
reflecting on what we mean by “the gospel.”
The church has been telling the biblical story over and over throughout the centuries
(it’s not a story that we made up, it’s a story that has been handed to us),
and the church has proclaimed that the Bible’s story is good news—it’s gospel.
But the Bible is a big book.
And this causes us to ask a question that everyone asks
about big books in literature class—are there cliff notes?
Is there something that can summarize the general shape of the story?
What’s the shape of the gospel?
I think everyone—both people inside and outside the church—
has some pencil sketch in their mind of what they think the gospel is about.
I grew up in a church and—from a very early age—I had my own cliff notes for the story.
It was something like: “Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins and if you ask him into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior you’ll receive forgiveness of your sins and you’ll go to heaven when you die.”
That might sound familiar to a lot of you,
depending on whether you grew up around the church and what kind of church.
That was the shape of the gospel as my seven year-old mind understood it.
It felt like what was being announced in church felt a lot like a story
about how we “get saved” so that we’ll be safe after we die.
You don’t want to be tortured forever after you die, right?
Sign on this dotted line, and you’ll be good.
And, oh buddy, did I sign.
The shape of the gospel as it was handed to me,
had become primarily about me and about the future.
This is about me—about my relationship with God, about my soul, about my salvation.
And this is about the future—something down the road, something after I die.
Of course were things to do in the present—things that “good Christians” do—
like praying and reading your Bible and going to church and being moral
and especially evangelizing—trying to make sure other people going to heaven.
Making sure other individuals (just like me) are set for the future.
Because, as I understood it,
was a story about good news
for individuals for the future.
That was the shape of the gospel for me.
But then something happened in my early twenties.
First, I started reading the Bible (imagine that),
and I discovered that “the gospel cliff notes” that I grew up with
(“personal Lord and Savior… going to heaven when I die”)
weren’t that easy to find in the Bible.
Has anyone else experienced this frustration—
that the Bible isn’t talking about what you think it should be?
You actually plan on reading you Bible,
you actually pick it up, you actually open it, you actually do read it,
and you walk away saying, “What was that talking about?”
We open the Bible thinking that it’s primarily concerned with
our individual lives (with “me”) and going to heaven (with “the future”)
and we flip around looking for it.
“Is it here in the psalms?
Ok… maybe Jesus in the gospels is the one who addresses it?
Well, Paul’s letters are popular, maybe he wrote a lot about it.
DANG IT!! Where’s the story about me saved and going to heaven?”
And so we end up piecing that story together. A verse from here, a verse from there, a verse from over here, and we scrapbook all these verses together (mostly from Romans) and now we’ve got the story.
To be sure, the Bible does have some things to say
about God’s relationship with individuals
and life after death.
But there’s a whole lot of the Bible that I had to leave out.
There’s a lot of the Bible doesn’t seem to fit in
when the gospel’s primary shape is about me and my future.
But if that’s not the primary shape of the gospel, what is?
Or another story that I often hear sometimes
can be heard in varying forms on lots of television preaching.
It’s a set of cliff notes that sounds something like “the American Dream Gospel.”
The shape of this story is something like this:
if I will only turn to Jesus, if I will give myself completely to him,
and he will guide me ever-upward into a happy and healthy and “successful” life.
The gospel becomes the good news
about how we can make our lives work better:
How our families can prosper, how our finances can flourish,
how our territory can be enlarged, how our health can overflow.
Some popular pastors say that the good news is that Jesus is here to give us “our best life now” and if we’ll just follow him well enough, then all our circumstances can be smoothed out and all our suffering will be kept to a minimum.
Jesus is here to help us fulfill the American dream
of having and achieving and experiencing our deepest dreams.
And to be sure, it does seem like the Scripture talks about
us finding deep and lasting joy.
But it seems like a stretch to that the good news is primarily
about us always experiencing “the American Dream” of wealth and health and happiness.
But again, we experience the same frustration
when we actually go to read the Bible.
Open the Bible, read it,
hunt around, get frustrated.
You can scrapbook together a story from pieces of Proverbs
and scraps of the Psalms and selections about Solomon.
but it doesn’t produce a convincing sketch of the biblical witness.
Those cliff notes don’t line up with most of the story we find in the Bible,
and honestly they don’t line up with our experience either.
I mean, it’s not like joining a church is a magic way
to cure cancer or secure your dream career or fix your problems.
If that were the shape of the gospel
you would find people breaking down the doors of the church to get in.
So what’s the story?
What’s the shape of the gospel?
And a lot of people in my generation are recognizing that the Bible has a lot to say
about the way we treat the poor.
That the people of God are continually challenged
to be caring for the powerless and the forgotten,
to be protecting the widow and the orphan and the foreigner,
and to be working for justice in our local communities and in the world.
There are young, emerging movements within the church
that recognize a golden thread of social justice running from
Deuteronomy through the prophets and all the way to the ministry of Jesus,
and these movements are saying:
“Don’t you see? The story of Scripture is primarily about people learning
to embody the love of God to each other. That’s the shape of the gospel.
Caring for the poor, helping the needy, caring for those who can’t care for themselves.”
And I think these movements are really important,
because I think they’re helping us reclaim part of the Christian faith
that some parts of the church may have lost sight of.
That God cares about people having clean water and enough food to eat
that people ought to conduct their business practices fairly
and that governments should be working for justice for all people.
That God cares about more than where souls are going down the road—
he care about bodies right now.
God cares about flesh and blood
and daily bread and taxes and justice
and how we treat the environment—
God cares about this world right now.
But, again, is that the primary thing that the story is about?
Are those the best cliff notes to the story?
Is that the shape of the gospel?
Each one of these understandings has got some element of truth in them—
In my mid-twenties, I began to really wrestle with all of this.
The church is the community centered around the person of Jesus and the good news that he brings us—but what is that good news?
So that brings us to two brief questions this morning:
What is the shape of the gospel? And are there cliff notes to help us remember it?
I think the documents that we call the New Testament are really clear about the shape of the gospel. In one letter probably written about 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus one of the earliest Christians puts it this way:
(1 Cor 15.1-11) Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Then skip down to verse 20 and don’t worry about every tiny detail—
just allow the big picture of what he’s saying to wash over you:
(15.20-28) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him [that is, the God the Son will bow before the God the Father] who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
Paul (the guy writing this) says,
“This is the gospel we’ve been proclaiming (v1).
This is the good news that that brings salvation (v2).
This is what has been handed down to us (v3).
Let me remind about this good news—
it’s about what God has been up to in Jesus.”
The good news is not primarily about what happens to us after we die.
The good news is not primarily about us being happy right now.
The good news is not primarily about us doing good stuff right now.
We are not the center of the story.
We are not the axis on which the earth turns.
The good news is not about us.
The good news is about Jesus the Christ—Jesus the king.
The good news takes our eyes off of us,
off of our lives, our dreams, our problems—
the good news releases us from our obsession with ourselves,
and gives us something good and beautiful and true on which to gaze.
The story that the early church told again and again and again
was the mystery that had taken place among them:
that Jesus had died (v3) and Jesus is risen from the dead (v4).
And this Jesus only the beginning of the resurrection of dead (he’s just the firstfruits, v20),
and he’s going to come again (v23) to remake the world
and destroy all powers of darkness and evil (v24) and even death itself (v26).
The good news is primarily about what God is like and what God does in Jesus.
The story of Jesus that the earliest Christians were telling is about
what kind of world we’re living in, where history is headed,
and that life and love will restore all things.
Jesus is the shape of the gospel.
Christ has come,
Christ has died,
Christ is coming again.
The confession of the church is good news precisely because we’re not the center—the good news doesn’t depend on us. What a relief!
The gospel doesn’t depend on us somehow securing our salvation.
What an impossible responsibility—I have no idea how to save myself.
But the good news is about God—God saves us.
All we ever do is trust that he is saving and allow our lives yield to his love.
The gospel depend on us always moving ever-upward happiness.
Talk about a burden—I’ve always got to experience fulfillment in my life right now?
The good news is about God—God loves raising the dead.
And while we do have experiences of peace and deepening joy as we follow Jesus
we patiently trust that our lives will be made right on the deepest level.
It doesn’t depend on us doing fixing the world through the good we do.
What an old and impossible task that always ends in despair.
The good news is about God—God will one day be all in all (v28),
and everything will be put under the nail-pierced feet of our self-giving king (v27).
In the present, we do indeed get to do all kinds of meaningful work in the world (v10)
because God’s grace is with us, but nothing in the world depends on us.
And that’s why all of this good news.
Jesus is God’s good news to the world.
Jesus is the shape of the gospel.
And it just so happens that there are some really old cliff notes (some ancient cliff notes) that Christians have used over the centuries to help us remember and retell this story.
Just listen to this:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
These “cliff notes” are called “Apostle’s creed,” and a lot of really smart people would argue
that these words have been around since as early as the second century.
I didn’t grow up in a church that said the Apostle’s Creed,
but I found it incredibly helpful as I was wrestling through my mid-twenties.
Because this is just a way of summarizing—simply and beautifully—
what we believe as Christians.
It’s a way to help us remember the good news
and retell the good news.
And so through the end of May, we’re going to be walking through these cliff notes.
We’re even going to saying these words together on Sundays
to help ground us in the good news of what God has done in Jesus,
to make sure we’re seeing the general shape of the gospel,
and to remind us that the hope of the world doesn’t depend on us.
Because the gospel really isn’t
a proposal or a challenge or an agenda—
the gospel really is news.
And we’re invited to learn to believe it a little bit more.
This table is something we do each week to remember
that the person of Jesus is where we return weekly, daily, hourly to find new life.
We believe that Jesus meets us in these moments,
that he condescends to common, ordinary items (like crackers and juice),
and common, ordinary moments (like today and everyday)
and gives us his Spirit—gives us new life.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Our table is an open table,
so if you’re looking to Jesus for good news that doesn’t depend on you,
you’re invited to come down the center aisle, receive a cracker, dip it into the juice,
and return to your seats along the sides.
So when you’re ready, you’re invited to come to this table,
you’re invited to receive these elements, you’re invited to believe good news.