In my ministry I have, on one occasion, been accused of ‘not preaching the gospel’. I was puzzled about this statement and I wondered how the person concerned thought of the good news contained in the bible. I began by looking to see what churches, who supposedly did ‘preach the gospel’, actually did which was different. What I discovered was not something I wanted to copy, so I knew I would never be able to qualify to be one of this select company. My investigation of what preaching the gospel meant in practice was to discover that many people go to church in order to have a profound emotional experience. The experience normally consists of three parts. The first stage is what I call the ‘grovel’ part. The audience is invited to reflect on their sin and utter degradation. The preacher will add his commentary with an account of his own ‘unsaved’ self. There will be metaphorical chest beating, spiced up with memories of how the preacher used to drink, smoke and indulge in other doubtful activities which might be described or hinted at. The second part would be a description of the moment of conversion and how all this was put behind him The congregation are invited to remember or renew their own conversion experience and feel the sense of freedom coming from this salvation from future hell and damnation. Alongside the feeling of newness and safety that the climax of the ‘gospel preaching’ is designed to promote is another feeling. That is to look out at the unsaved world around them, lamenting its descent into hell. The congregation is exhorted to preach the gospel to the unsaved around them. That is to be the mark of their discipleship, whether or not they preach and teach others about Jesus. This third section evokes feelings which combine a sense of superiority and smugness with a sense of pity for people who are unsaved.
I hope my readers will believe me when I say I have heard this ‘sermon’ many times. Its main feature, one that I do not copy, is the deliberate arousing of emotions in the listener. I suspect that my accuser was someone who associated this range of emotions with preaching. Therefore when he did not have these emotions of loss, rescuing and sometimes smug pity, the task of preaching for him was incomplete. But there is something more going on for me than a distaste for the arousing of emotions. The whole theology of ‘gospel preaching’ as I have summarised it is based on a thoroughly un-Christian reading of Scripture. Perhaps I should qualify that by saying that it is an Old Testament God who is presented rather a New Testament one. I need to explain what I mean.
At the start of the events of Holy Week, Jesus is presented as riding on the back of a donkey into Jerusalem. Apart from any Old Testament allusions that may be claimed for this act, it is clear that Jesus was acting out a gesture of profound humility. Kings did not arrive on donkeys, they mount war horses, ready for battle and domination. This is clearly how the writer in Revelation thought, when he describes the ‘Word of God … clad in a robe dipped in blood’ with ‘the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, following him on white horses’. (Rev 19.14 ) Such language echoes the concepts of God in some parts of the Old Testament, a God who clearly is understood to reflect the way certain humans behave. Thus he is sometimes merciful but at other times vindictive, vengeful and ready to smite his enemies when they oppose his will or disobey his law. (See how people are treated in these random passages, Deut. 13.12-18, Exod. 31.12-15 & Hosea 9.11-16) The model that seems to have been in the mind of the Old Testament writers who wrote in this way, was the idea of an earthly monarch or ruler. It is, we might remark, all the more remarkable that Jesus had such a different picture of God. Jesus spoke about a father who loves his enemies, one who is prepared to forgive many times, even when the child has wandered off into the desert of his own selfish desires. The doctrine of ‘infallibility’ and the cliché, ‘all scripture speaks of Christ’, has blinded us to these contrasts in the doctrines of God within the Bible. Without going to the extreme of rejecting the Old Testament, we do have to realise that at times this part of the Bible shows a God that is some way from the God that Jesus came to proclaim.
Once again I find myself needing to draw things to a conclusion for fear of overrunning my self-imposed limit. But my summary would be to say that my accuser was pointing to a presentation of God which was not the gospel of Jesus. Rather it was a presentation of a mishmash of ideas and concepts from certain parts of the Old Testament that want us to submit to an arbitrary and tyrannical ruler. The good news that I find in the teaching of Jesus is not all about punishment and separation but rather about reconciliation and forgiveness. The Jesus I follow is not one who rides on a war horse but one who rides a donkey in humility. Christians perhaps need to be braver in their reading of the Old Testament. Because many are committed to a doctrine of infallibility, they consequently have to find ways either to explain away or simply ignore the parts that are, quite bluntly, unedifying. There has to be another way and I believe it is possible to read this literature with the eyes of Jesus. It is he who reads out of scripture and the God who is found there, the qualities of mercy and compassion. At the same time he passes over the passages that seem to imply that God is only interested in revenge and punishment. A doctrine of gradual revelation will allow us to sit more lightly on the ‘difficult’ parts without denying its overall inspiration. My version of the ‘good news’ will draw mainly on the teaching of Jesus, his offer of the Kingdom, a place where the will of God, his ‘shalom’ may be done and experienced. But to this we will return …….