by Rev. Sarah Buteux
preached at Common Ground
A few Sunday’s ago, Julie and Mary took me to Iconica Social Club for brunch. Have you been to Iconica yet? Imagine if Harry Potter and a unicorn had a steampunk baby. It’s got that sort of vibe and the menu is to die for. They have those Japanese souffle pancakes, amazing juices, lotus root salad?! It was awesome. So the following Sunday, when new friends moved to town, I took them to Iconica. Why?
Because it was wonderful and I wanted to share the goodness of Iconica with them.
Evangelism is a loaded word, but all it really means is “sharing the good news.”
It was a Greek word (evangelion) that the Romans used. Whenever the emperor wanted to send a message out to the people, it was called an evangelion – it was the good news of what the empire was up to, news you needed to accept and get on board with or…. else. The Romans motto was peace through victory, but that victory was won through violence and the peace was kept by the threat of more violence.
Well the early Christians co-opted the empire’s word for good news to describe the new kingdom Jesus and his followers were bringing about; a kingdom that was not founded on creating a world of peace and prosperity through violent coercion but through sacrificial love.
You see the gospel Jesus preached and sent his followers out to preach was very simple. You just heard it. What does Jesus send them out to proclaim? “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
That was his message from the very beginning and that was his message until the end. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In his first sermon in Nazareth, when Jesus unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then, with the eyes of everyone in the synagogue upon him, he says: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4)
Grammar nerds – what is the tense with which Jesus is working? Is he talking about the past? Is he talking about the future? No. He’s talking about the present. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4)
Friends: Jesus comes preaching that the kingdom of God is NOW!
He doesn’t talk about the kingdom of God as something you get to go to when you die, but as something to participate in now while you still live. Which is why Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done – where? – on earth! – on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s why Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus wants people to know that the time for change is now.
You don’t have to live the way you’ve been living any longer.
You don’t need to participate in the oppressive systems you were born into any longer: those patterns of oppression and injustice that increase the divisions between the rich and the poor, between people of different races, between people of different cultures, religions, and lands.
Brian McLaren says:
for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets…was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future: the dream was being fulfilled today (Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts! The time has come today to forgive. (The time has come today) to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts (and the refugees in), to confront oppressors not with sharp knives but with unarmed kindness. (The time has come today!)
The Kingdom is coming now.
And notice this: Jesus didn’t come preaching “repent so the kingdom of heaven can draw near.” He preached “repent for the the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” It’s a subtle difference but it’s a subtlety that makes all the difference in the world.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not repent and believe so that God will draw near to you, love you, forgive you, and grant you eternal life. Jesus’ message – the good news! – is that God loves you already, whether you repent or not. You’re forgiven already. The kingdom is yours, already, whether you believe in it or not.
The doors of heaven are wide open and everyone is welcome just as you are without one plea. “Acceptance precedes repentance – not the other way around.” Think of his parable about the Prodigal Son. God always moves first, goes first, loves first, forgives first.
The keys to the kingdom, if you will, are repenting – turning yourself around and realizing that all you need to do is love as you are loved and forgive as you have been forgiven. When we love and forgive we enter into the kingdom of God. We experience the kingdom of God. When we extend the same grace to others that God has extended to us, we step into the kingdom.
This is the gospel Jesus sends his disciples out not so much to preach to people, as to live out with them. Notice that Jesus didn’t send the 70 out with pamphlets explaining his new religion, a religion full of ideas people could either accept or reject if they wanted to go to heaven when they died.
Jesus sent his followers out like sheep amongst wolves, that is he sent them out as vulnerable as could be: to live, to eat, and to make peace with people very different from themselves.
He didn’t send them out to convert or coerce or threaten those other people with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert and accept the good news.
He sent them out to live in relationship with people, to cure their sick, break bread with them at their very own tables, and invite them, just as they were -be they Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female – to join with Jesus and his friends in forging a new kind of kingdom here on earth – a commonwealth if you will – where all are welcome, all are safe, all are well.
A society where every last person has a place at the same table – a table where all is shared and no one goes home hungry – a table we recreate and a fellowship we re-enact ever time we break this bread and share this wine with any who desire to share it with us.
Jesus sent his disciples out in such a way that they became living witnesses to the reality of their message, the reality that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Because here is the thing: when we live it out, it does. The only true way to share this gospel is to live this gospel, not just in all you say, but in all you do.
For those early Christians the goal was not so much conversion as transformation. They didn’t just set out to change people but to change the world. The question was not – have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior so you can have eternal life when you die? But who is Lord of your life right now – Jesus or Caesar? Who is making the world a better place? Jesus or Caesar? Whose kingdom would you rather be part of? Jesus or Caesar?
Do you want to align with the one who welcomes all to the table or with the one who feasts while others go hungry.
The one who sets the captives free or the one who takes captives and turn them into slaves for the empire.
The one who heals or the one who hurts.
The one who collects debts or cancels them?
Whose news is better for you and the world? Jesus or Caesar?
People chose Jesus, and the movement grew and it spread. It began with the poor and the marginalized. It grew from the outside and the underside. But grow it did, until people across the board began to embrace the vision.
Ironically – as Christianity became less of a non-violent resistance movement and more of a more mainstream and socially acceptable faith, Christians, managed to twist the good news back into an ultimatum. Accept the good news or else … or else what? God’s gonna get you. You’re going to go to hell. We’re going to burn you at the stake, confiscate your property, take over your country, enslave you, indoctrinate you, incarcerate you, destroy you.
Which sounds more like the evangelions of Caesar than Jesus.
And tragically, Christians (from the time of Constantine on) began to align themselves with the empires of their day rather than question them.
When this happens:
when the gospel gets turned into a threat rather than an invitation,
when it becomes the faith of the empire rather than a challenge to it,
well, then a faith that should be about bringing heaven to earth, healing the planet, reconciling all people, welcoming everyone to the feast, becomes more about who is in and who is out.
Jesus himself is reduced to little more than an escape mechanism.
The gospel becomes nothing more than an evacuation plan, a quest for personal salvation; an urgent, fearful story about how to find your way out of here, because it’s all going to burn.
And the good news is so much better than that. Friends, I believe the good news got co-opted a long time ago, and it is time to co-opt it back and share a better gospel with the world – not just with our words but with our actions.
This is a gospel people need to see and hear. They need to experience that the kingdom of God has drawn near and see that we can bring it to earth if we’re willing to try. Which in my mind, means they need to see us – not just as progressive activists showing up at rallies to free immigrants and re-unite families, but as Christians who are showing up to do that.
They need to see us showing up to help heal the planet, not just as progressive activists but as Christians.
They need to see us advocating for a livable minimum wage, universal healthcare, prison reform, racial reconciliation, nuclear disarmament, peace talks, you name it – not just as progressive activists but as Christians.
They need to see us doing these things as Christians so they can see who it is that inspires us to make the world a better place…not Caesar, not the empire, not power or fear or violence or coercion, but Jesus….and join us in the work he has called us to do.