The simplest definition of evangelism I ever heard is: “preaching the Gospel.” But that of course begs the question: What exactly is the Gospel?
A few years ago, I was leading a workshop on evangelism, and said something about “the Gospel.” An elderly gentleman in the front row spoke up and said, “I’ve been in church all of my life, and I can’t say I have ever heard anything I would call ‘the Gospel’.” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), his priest was sitting beside him, and turned to him open-mouthed: “But you hear it every Sunday!” he gasped.
So who was right? In a way, both of them were. Certainly there are many references in our prayer books (both BCP and BAS) to “the Gospel” and we always have a “Gospel” reading-so the priest was right. But Gospel means “good news”-and somehow that parishioner had never heard anything in church that struck him as really, really Good News.
So what is the Gospel? There are many ways to describe it, but I believe most of them, while true, are not big enough:
- The Gospel is that through the death of Jesus our sins can be forgiven, and the gates of eternal life are open to us. That is great news, of course, and we celebrate it every time we say confession and are absolved. But it’s only a piece of the truth.
- The Gospel is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are offered reconciliation with God, and as a result, a peace and a purpose that comes from knowing our Creator. That’s wonderful news-and many people long for such peace and purpose-but it’s more than that.
- The Gospel is that by following Jesus, we become the people God designed us to be. The Holy Spirit shapes us, drawing out our gifts, helping us deal with our failings, so we can become more like Jesus. That is truly good news-far better to be God’s person than to be “my own person”-but it’s still not the whole story.
So what is the whole story?
I was born after the Second World War, and I remember my parents talking about the effects of that victory. My father came home, put aside his army uniform, and entered university. I was conceived and, in due time, born. Windows no longer had to be blacked out at night. Food rationing came to an end (though not as soon as people hoped). Every single change that peace brought was good news to someone. Every aspect of “normal life” that was restored brought joy to people.
But none of these single changes was the biggest good news of all. All were the trickle-down effect of what was truly the best good news: that the war was over.
Something similar is true of the examples I gave of the Gospel above. They are some of the authentic ways the Gospel impacts us as individuals. They are real and they bring joy. But what then is the overarching truth, the equivalent of “the war is over”?
I can’t do better than to quote Jesus’ words at the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
The good news is that God, the God of Israel, Creator of the cosmos, is doing something new in the world, and we are invited to be a part of it. That “something new” Jesus called “the Kingdom.” That “something” hinges on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That “something” is at work in the world at this moment, bringing life and hope and healing everywhere it goes. And that “something” will ultimately bring about the renewal of the whole of God’s world, such that it can be called “a new heaven and a new earth.” That’s the really big good news, that’s the equivalent of “the war is finished.”
And our response to the Gospel? According to Jesus, “Repent and believe.” Too bad “repent” and “believe” have become such exclusively religious (and often negative) words. They’re not meant that way. “Repent” means basically to change our minds. Jesus is saying, “Give up your petty ambitions and plans: they’re not big enough. Don’t you know the amazing adventure God is inviting you to?” And “believe” means to commit ourselves to that adventure -to throw our lot in with Jesus and with the new thing God is up to in our world.
Isn’t that good news?
First printed in The Anglican, Newspaper of the Diocese of Toronto, October 2008