What is your authentic Gospel? This week, the lectionary lifts up readings that seem to speak about how and what we proclaim, when we claim we follow Christ. What is our responsibility? What is not our responsibility? I found quite a bit to think about this week, and perhaps you will also!
Ezekiel. Not Isaiah, not Moses, not Abraham. This is not a book that I really know, though I hope to get to know it through coming years. How to begin? Wikipedia! I think Wikipedia is a fabulous starting point for picking up an introduction to any book of Scripture. Let’s see… the Hebrew Bible begins with the familiar Torah, follows with Nevi’im (Prophets), and then finishes with Ketuvim (writings). Nevi’im has two parts – former prophets and latter prophets. The former prophets contains the narrative books of Joshua through Kings. The latter prophets contain prophesies in the form of biblical poetry. I know this isn’t absolute (for example, Chronicles falls within Ketuvim), but let’s start here anyway.
So, we’re in the realm of the former prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets. Last week we shared a reading from Jeremiah that I found to be filled with sour grapes. Walter Brueggemann describes Jeremiah as reprimanding and dismayed, and Ezekel as filled with hallucinations. Ezekiel lives in exile, and descibes visions of the “glory of YHWH” leaving the Temple in Jerusalem, moving toward Babylon where His people live in exile, and ultimately returning to a new Temple restored in Jerusalem. So, YHWH walks with His people at all times, being their constant companion through all manner of highs and lows.
If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life. – Ezekiel 33:8-9
Reading these verses multiple times, I hear God explaining that even though the “wicked” may be warned, their demise is still on their own heads. It’s not Ezekiel’s responsibility to convince anyone, but merely to warn. I’m reminded of every time I’ve dreamed up a new idea or project for Christ Church, and overwhelmed myself with stress because I felt like I had to convince people. Other People’s Property. God goes on to describe how His people have been warned that they waste away because of their transgressions. But, there’s hope. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (33:11), but hopes for the wicked to turn from their ways and live. If only.
I confess to not understanding “their blood I will require at your hand,” though. Or, the whole “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel.” (33:7) This feels so heavy-handed coming from God, especially when God seems to be liberating us from so much responsibility. Hallucinations are pretty powerful, considering that they’re not real, but yet, compel us to react. If this passage arises from within one of Ezekiel’s hallucinations, then it could just be conveying the compulsive sense that Ezekiel must be experiencing when he hears God speaking to him.
My sense of this reading is the importance of preaching a responsible Gospel. I am not responsible for convincing you or anyone of anything, but I am called to share a message of hope for you to hear. God makes this very clear to Ezekiel, and I think the message carries over to us as well. I’m reminded of how we can hear a teaching over and over again, in infinite variations, and not really hear it. Then, one day, re-hearing a story that you previously glossed over, the teaching will come through loud and clear. Teaching, wisdom, guidance – use your favorite word here. And conversely, you need to tell your story, because it might proffer that magical hearing for another person.
And you are responsible for the authenticity of your story. If God is relieving us of the responsibility of persuasiveness, then you are freed to be real. So what is a “responsible Gospel”? Martin Luther speaks of the viva vox evangelii, the living Gospel transmitted through our words, and I think, our writing and actions. Your responsible Gospel is your authentic truth-telling – only tell the truth as you understand it. With all of our stories bound together in the body of Christ, we are a lectionary for the world.
And so I decided to write a prayer for the Church of Christ:
Living God, bless all of us who make up Your Church, grant us courage and inspiration to tell our stories of what You have done for us, that we might be a living Gospel for the world, for all people who need to hear of another way that gives life and peace to all people.
Let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. – Romans 13: 13
Paul bridges the gap between historical commandments and a new teaching of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (8:9) Because of the preceding reading from Ezekiel, I find this passage advising us in how we tell our stories – how we proclaim to the people around us. Licentiousness, quarrelling, jealousy, all these things happen so easily when we proclaim what other people should do, or think, or believe.
When Paul asks us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” (13:12), I find myself reflecting on how very much we want the best for other people. Carroll O’Connor (All in the Family, the Heat of the Night, etc.) used to have a public announcement spot about “getting between your kids and drugs, no matter what it takes.” Not exactly his words, but I think that was his fundamental message. That’s what we all instinctively want to do. So, how do I tell my authentic story of hope and give up the earnest hope to persuade? It does feel like warfare, and I must be fighting myself. Armor isn’t really armor unless we can trust it to do its necessary job (of protection), thereby liberating us to do our job. So, the challenge is to trust my story to do its job, while I do my job. What is my job? To be true to myself, to represent. Once I lift up my story, I have to let it go to stand on its own, if for nothing more than my own sanity.
Lay aside the works of darkness (inauthenticity) so that I don’t have to fret over how I represented myself, or worry that I manipulated. I don’t have to win, per se.
So, I guess this reading speaks to me, as someone trying to engage in active ministry in my congregation. But, I think it can speak to anyone in the working world, who must collaborate or work with other people. We naturally want to win the debate, because we think that’s how we know we’ve been heard. A faithful collaboration would instead trust in its own truth, to find its own way into the collaborative process. Frustrating, sure! But with time and experience, we will find ourselves having been putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14)
And so I decided to write a prayer for our leaders and governments, for the salvation of the world:
Renewing Christ, grant wisdom and collaboration to leaders throughout the world. Direct their words and actions, not for votes or popularity, but toward hope and shared life, that all people might benefit and thrive. Grant safety and hope to military and relief workers throughout the world as they strive for the sake of all people.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. – Matthew 18:18-20
These verses jump out at me, with this theme of “authentic Gospel.” I’ve had the idea of a “wide God.” For there really are so many questions, so many mysteries, that we compose answers to face. But, how do you really know you have the right answers? What if there is no right answer, or multiple right answers? What’s right for any other person? If I’m not on the hook to persuade, then I really can’t be on the hook to proscribe either.
Isn’t it in my best interest for God to be as wide as possible? For God to grant us the widest latitude possible? I should want anything other than having to squeeze through a narrow gate, because I may not fit. Whatever I loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, the shepherd spake. If my hope lies in God’s forgiveness and mercy, don’t I want to proclaim that for all people? I want to come from a place of love, not a place of judgement. And sometimes, I have the sense that judgmentalism might very well be bourne from a subconscious belief of scarcity – there’s not enough grace to go around, and if I restrict that grace to other Pharisees, perhaps there will be enough left over for me.
Grace is free and abundant for all people. There’s nothing to restrict, nothing to meter out, nothing to protect. God doesn’t need my protection, and God certainly doesn’t have any use for my restrictions or austerity. And so it must go for all churches, congregations, and any group of two or three, gathered in Christ’s name. Whether or not they agree or believe it, I am free to believe it. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling a sense of sadness, that they really could have it so much better. And yet, if they don’t see it, they don’t see it.
And so, back to the opening verses of this reading from Matthew: if another sins against you, point out the fault when the two of you are alone (18:15), get witnesses if you need them, tell it to the church if that fails, escalate as needed. I always thought of Matthew 18 as primarily a guide to navigating disagreements. At least, before now, where I find myself latching onto a wider question of what is the rightness or wrongness of what I expect. My authentic Gospel.
and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. – Matthew 18:17
Jesus reached out to Gentiles and tax collectors, luckily for Zacchaeus. Again, I may be rejected, but my relationship continues anyway. There seems to be a warning here – be warned that when you escalate, it may not work, and not without some ramification for the corresponding relationship. So, take another look at what you’re proclaiming, your authentic Gospel.
I was inspired to write a prayer for our communities:
Reconciling Spirit, renew us with your forgiveness and wideness that exceeds our expectations. Help us to proclaim a message of welcome and reconciliation in our communities that reflects your welcome and reconciliation with us, for in You lies the promise of peace and serenity that can transform the face of the earth.
And so, I hope this week you might have a chance to reflect on your own authentic Gospel, a story of God’s goodness and blessing in your own life. And perhaps you can offer your story for the sake of another who hurts or needs hope. Because you are God’s co-redeemer, blessed and empowered with Christ’s healing power to transform your corner of the world. Blessed be God.