A few weeks ago, I announced that I would be writing about the shark-infested waters of Evangelical Christianity. Some people have gotten out of the water entirely (and if that is you, God bless you, I get it). I haven’t left. I’m still there, treading water and (sometimes) wondering when I’ll get eaten.
So, first things first: The word Evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which is usually translated as the “gospel” or “good news.” The writers of the Gospels didn’t make up that word, however. They co-opted it from Rome.
When Rome won a military victory, the battalion would send a runner ahead of them to announce the “euangelion” – the good news that the world was safe once again, because Rome had won the battle. If you were a Roman citizen, you’d be expected to celebrate.
So when the writers of gospels and the epistles use the word euangelion, they’re co-opting a word that was created by the Roman Empire. When the writers refer to Jesus as Lord and Savior, they’re not using religious words; they’re using Empire words. Caesar was Lord (Kyrios) and Savior (Soter), which essentially meant the Head of State who brings peace to the world. So when the gospel writers claimed that Jesus was Kyrios and Soter, they were pledging their allegiance to a different Head of State: Jesus of Nazareth, not Caesar Augustus.
The co-opting of these words was subversive.
The writers of the gospels and the epistles were announcing that there is a new Head of State that brings peace to the world, and his name is Jesus. This announcement was counter-cultural, radical, and the result (at least at first) was that many of the early followers of Jesus got executed for saying and believing those things.
In the early 300’s, the Roman Head of State (Constantine), had a vision: he believed God told him to put the cross and the word “Christ” on the shields of all the Roman soldiers, and if they did, they’d be guaranteed military victory. A few decades later, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. We call that fusing of Christianity and Empire Christendom (which is essentially the heresy that says that God raised up Rome (or America), to bring peace to the world). As Brian Zahnd has said, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, Jesus was demoted from World Head of State to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.
When Christianity becomes fused with political power, it is never good news.
When the line between Christianity any empire’s interests becomes blurred, the potency of Christianity diminishes. Because an empire will always fight to defend itself against its enemies, Christians who are too closely aligned with empire will begin to look for enemies to fear and fight, even though Jesus is explicit that Christians are to love their enemies.
In this milieu, even sincere Christians begin to believe that the point of being a Christian is about escaping this messed up world and making sure they get to heaven when they die, instead of living a transforming life in a transforming world here and now. Is the gospel really merely believing the right things, and praying the Jesus prayer so you can get into heaven when you die? Come on, friends. That can’t be the totality of the gospel.
I contend that the gospel is the much-too-good-to-be-true news that in Jesus Christ, God has provided you (and him, and her, and them) a seat at the table, on which is laid a sumptuous feast, and all anyone has to do is to want to be there.
If that sounds too simplistic, or not theological enough, I would simply point out that there are fifteen stories in the gospels that describe the Kingdom of God as a feast, or party, and only one that uses terms of a court of law (Matthew 25).
Seriously, read the gospels with this question in mind: when someone comes to faith in Jesus, what is the common denominator?
One guy’s sins are forgiven and he doesn’t say or do anything. It’s the faith of his friends who saves him when they lower him through the roof to get to Jesus (Luke 5).
Another guy asks Jesus to heal his servant, and Jesus claims he’s never seen greater faith, even though the guy was a Roman Centurion, and not even Jewish (Matthew 8).
A woman is caught in adultery, and even though the Law of Moses commands that she should be stoned to death, Jesus does not condemn her, even though the only words she says are “No one, sir” (John 8).
Another guy asks Jesus specifically what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus says that he should sell all he has and give it to the poor (Mark 10).
Another guy decides to pay back everyone he has cheated four times the amount that he has cheated them, and Jesus claims that “Salvation” has come to his house (Luke 19).
The gospel, when you really see it, is startling, shocking, and sometimes seems absurd. It’s really good news to anyone who can’t believe it’s for them. And it’s bad news to anyone who claims it’s only for them.
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