Grace to you and peace from God. AMEN.
Today we’re talking about the Gospel. Well, I hope every Sunday we’re talking about the Gospel, but today I want to spend a little more time talking explicitly about what the Gospel is...because that’s where Paul goes in Galatians.
In Galatians, Paul has no introductory thanksgivings! No I thank God every time I think of you, no joy for our partnership in ministry, no even-though-we’re-not-together-we’re-together pleasantries. In Galatians Paul, asserts the Good News of God and his connection to it, and then chastises, lambastes, admonishes the Galatians for going after other gospels. At first glance, and I’m guessing just about everyone, if spoken to like this, in our day in age, would not welcome Paul’s perceived tone. “Excuse me?”
It’s the kind of tone that inspires sarcasm in me, maybe rebellion in a teenager, back-talk, or maybe passive aggressive behavior and gossip among co-workers. How do you deal with high-handed, bossy, authoritative comments from people in your life?
There is way in which we can read Paul’s first words to the Galatians like this. But let’s sit with Paul’s tone and passion for just a minute. He’s talking about the Gospel here.
That’s a word you probably hear all the time in church communities, and I hope this one too. But how often do we stop and talk about what the Gospel really is. If you had to describe the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” to a child, what you say?
I don’t know that I was ever pinned down by that question until seminary. That’s because I had this preaching professor, who, in my opinion had a tone like I imagine Paul to the Galatians: high-handed, authoritative, even bossy. He didn’t want us to preach in congregations until after we had his class. Many of us had preached (or thought we were already preachers) in our home congregations, where people told us we were so great. But Professor Satterlee made it clear that we were to no longer preach until after our preaching course. Guess how I reacted to him? With sarcasm. Some with rebellion, some with back-talk, some passive aggressively and with gossip.
I didn’t go into that class with a great attitude. I didn’t care for his style and perceived arrogance. He lectured like he was shouting at us. And, man, he had a temper.
But do you know what his whole schtick was? I shouldn’t say “shctick”: it wasn’t a gimmick (that’s my residual sarcasm).
Do you know what his whole “central message” was? It was preaching the Gospel. He had no patience for students and pastors alike who didn’t or couldn’t preach the Gospel.
In the class -- as you might imagine -- we got up and practiced preaching to one another. Then we analyzed each other’s sermon. And what that looked like was after every sermon Dr. Satterlee would simply ask (in this calm but patronizing tone ;) , “So did you hear the Gospel? What was it?” Then we would discuss that question.
My whole preaching educational experience can be summed up in that simple question, which continues to haunt and bless me every time I prepare a sermon. “So did you hear the Gospel?” This is not unique to my preaching training, Lutheran preaching is centered on Gospel preaching. It’s centered on Paul’s words here to the Galatians.
The word “gospel” was not a new word to the ancient world. Whenever there was news from Rome, it was announced as gospel, the good news of Caesar. For Paul to say that there is only one Gospel is radically illegal and offensive to the mission of Empire.
So what is the Gospel? It’s always seemed so nebulous to me, like a fancy word pastors, bishops, seminary profs, liturgies toss around.
Here’s what it is: The Gospel -- are you ready? -- the Gospel is the “grace of our lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the holy spirit be with you”. It’s that Pauline greeting “Grace to you and peace from God.” That’s it.
This might sound simple...maybe you’ve known and certainly heard this your entire life, but it took me years to get it.
Like a beige cross on a beige wall, it doesn’t exactly “pop”... unless we talk about what the Gospel is not. And that’s what my preaching class, Professor Satterlee, and many other friends and mentors helped me see:
The Gospel is not great life lessons, it’s not endless entertaining and touching stories, it’s definitely not Chicken Soup for the Soul. Ever heard sermons like that? Maybe you like sermons like that… The Gospel is not sentimental. The Gospel is also not finger-wagging about how you should live a better life, a more Christian life. I’ve hear lots of sermons like that. And I’ve given sermons like that. [Dad: “People love it.”] The Gospel is not a Bible Study, it’s not verse-by-verse mind-blowing information about the text. This is good, and a gift, and what I love to experience in a Bible Study, but that’s not Gospel preaching either...
The Gospel is the Word of Truth proclaimed: that God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The Gospel is the truth that because of Christ, you are forgiven, saved and sent. Not because of anything the preacher thinks about you, not because of anything you’ve done, the Gospel is always based on God doing the action and us simply doing the receiving, opening our hands and accepting. The Gospel is good news -- not teaching news, not personal news, not entertaining news. The Gospel is God-through-Christ’s war-ending, eye-opening, dead-raising, stranger-welcoming, prisoner-releasing radical grace-based love poured out for you and for this whole world! If you don’t hear that in sermons, then I -- and any pastor --has failed in preaching the Gospel, and Paul may as well lambaste us.
Paul was sick and tired of the people of Galatia going after all these other messages, all these other stories, all these other inspirations. So bold was he to say “THERE IS NO OTHER GOSPEL!” All of that -- if it doesn’t point to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion/community of the Holy Spirit -- if it doesn’t point us to God’s abiding presence and love, even if it comes from the saintliest of angels, all of that is worthless. (I get that, btw, that angel comment he makes. Sometimes the saintliest of angels make me feel the worst, because I can never be so saintly and angelic. Sometimes some pastors can make me feel like that too.)
The Gospel is not showing off; the Gospel is moving in. It’s a Word about God’s moving in, dwelling among us, loving us in spite of ourselves, and sending us out to share this good news with everyone we meet. That’s worth hearing...and that’s the church’s one foundation. AMEN.