There has been much discussion of just what is wrong with American Christianity. Some will claim the Fundalmentalists have literally ruined the holy imagination needed to serve God. Some will argue that the Liberals threw the Baby Jesus out with the baptismal water. But one wonders if perhaps there is a more pervasive and meta explanation, one which would confront both Fundie and Commie in our pews.
N.T. Wright opens his new book, Simply Good News, with perhaps that metanarrative we have been longing when he argued:
“In many churches the good news has subtly changed into good advice. Here’s how to live, they say. Here’s how to pray. Here are the techniques for helping you become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband. And in particular, here’s how to make sure you are on the right track for what happens after death. Take this advice: say this prayer and you’ll be saved. You won’t go to Hell; you’ll go to Heaven. Here’s how to do it. ” (6)
There is a problem here. Do you see it? The problem is not with the advice. Most of it is good. If you listen you will potentially become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband. You just may find yourself on the right track to Heaven. You may just learn a valuable prayer or three. The advice isn’t the problem, per se. I’ll let Wright hit us with the problem:
“This is advice. Not news.
The whole point of advice is to make you do something to get a desired result. We all need it. But it isn’t the same thing as news. News is an announcement that something significant has happened. And good news is what Jesus and the disciples were all about.” (7)
To some degree what we in the Western church have been feeling is a subtle remainder that something was missing, that something had gone awry with this thing we loved. Yet we have not been able to pinpoint it so we have taken just pointing fingers at each other as the problem . Then going back to favorite verses to provide this week’s three pieces of advice followed by a poem or movie clip. Liberals point at conservatives and then give advice on how to be diverse, open, and loving. Conservatives point at liberals and then give advice on motherhood, being a man, and reading Genesis correctly. Yet like the frog stuck in cold water, we have not noticed or have been satisfied by our finger pointing exercise, consciously, the increasingly hot water in the pot.
At this point , you are probably have a defensive argument percolating in your brain, so let Wright address it here:
“At this point some will object, ‘My church hasn’t forgotten the good news! We know that Jesus died for our sins! He took our punishment so that we could go to heaven! Isn’t that good news? If you were destined for hell and someone told you God had done something about it, wouldn’t that be good news?'” (7).
That would be good news. That would be great news. There is just one slight problem with the answer us, Evangelicals have been given. Wright continues:
“This is the shocking and difficult thing for many people- that isn’t exactly the good news that Jesus and the early church were talking about.
In other words, while some Christian teachers have exchanged the good news for good advice, others have preserved the gospel as news, but they are telling a different story from what the New Testament authors meant by good news. ” (7)
In a sense the gospel as proclaimed in many churches is like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl narrator: it is only telling part of the story and a corrupted part of the story at that. We have become that literary cliche that Flynn spun on its head: the unfaithful narrator. If this is the case, then it is high time that we come back to story and ask what is the full story? What is the truth? Wright in his new book’s introduction argued a point made in several of his other books as well (Surprised By Hope, When God Became King):
“The problem in explaining the Gospels in this way is that Jesus himself didn’t actually say much about heaven in the sense we [in the modern, western Protestant church] normally mean it. When He spoke of heaven’s kingdom, he wasn’t talking about a place called heaven to which people might or might not go to after they die. He was talking about something that would become a reality ‘as in heaven so on earth’ (Matt 6:10). So instead of suggesting that we could escape earth to go to heaven, Jesus’ good news was about heaven coming to earth.” (8)
The good news is not that if we follow the good advice, we will one day get the good news. The good news is that Jesus has come, Jesus has died, Jesus has been resurrected, and in his resurrection we are seeing the first fruits of a new harvest. The harvest has come. The Kingdom is here. Heaven has come to earth.
In a previous sermon, I spoke to the reality of this change, this good news by quoting from Sarah Bessey who had this to say:
“While I was preparing for childbirth, I learned how much of the pain women experience during labor is related to our own fears and resistance to pain. Dr William Sears calls it the fear-tension-pain cycle. Because we are afraid, we naturally hold back and tense up, and then there is more pain, so we experience even more fear, and on it goes, around and around, building with intensity on every turn. To interrupt the cycle, we need to surrender to what is happening, right now. We must lean into the pain instead of resisting it….It seems counterintuitive; we should run from pain, right? But believe me: leaning into the pain makes giving birth easier….Lean into the pain.Stay there in the questions, in the doubts, in the wonderings and loneliness, the tension of living in the Now and the Not Yet of the Kingdom of God, your wounds and hurts and aches, until you are satisfied that Abba is there too. You will not find your answers by ignoring the cry of your heart or by living a life of intellectual or spiritual dishonesty. Your fear will try to hold you back, your tension will increase, the pain will become intense, and it will be tempting to keep clinging tight to the old life….” (Jesus Feminist, 49-52)
This a metaphor that Christ himself used to describe this coming kingdom which he came to announce. It is a metaphor used by John in his Revelation on Patmos. Our world is in the midst of childbirth, these labor pains have have been felt for so long; but the good news is that even now we can see the crowning head of our new world. It can be seen when Justice comes out of our civil society. It is seen when the hunger are fed, and the thirsty given drink. It is seen when the prisoner is set free. It is seen when the shut-in receives a welcomed visitor. It is seen when the sick are healed, when the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and so on.
In a sense, my favorite song about heaven, in these terms, comes from Craig Finn and his band The Hold Steady. Here is Craig’s sermon in song:
The point isn’t that we are to become better. The point is not to punch a ticket out of town. The point is “open your eyes,” heaven is here. Heaven has come. You don’t need advice, you just need to be able to welcome the herald into your home, and receive this grand story. You just need to get the courage to get together and share this news, one with another. The point is we need to get together. We need to listen to records. We need to remember to remember just what news is and what makes it good.
To get a hold of this message is to receive good news, and in it is the best advice we can receive: we need to get together and remember the good news.