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THE SCANDALOUS GOSPEL OF JESUS: What’s So Good About the Good News? – PETER J. GOMES

April 29, 2018

TSGOJI enjoyed this author’s ‘The Good Book’ and his Sermons. He was a black, gay minister who was appointed to a prestigious pulpit (Plummer professor of Christian morals at the School of Divinity and the Pusey minister of Memorial Church – he died in 2011) and used it to speak truth to power.

In this book, he says that Jesus came preaching, but the church wound up preaching Jesus. So he asks why does the church insist upon making Jesus the object of its attention rather than heeding his message? He believes that excessive focus on the Bible and doctrines about Jesus have led the Christian church astray. To recover the transformative power of the gospel we must go beyond the Bible and rediscover how to live out Jesus’ original revolutionary message of hope. It is offensive and always overturns the status quo; it’s not good news for those who wish not to be disturbed, and many American churches today preach a health-and-wealth gospel.

Gomes chides “religious conservatives,” because, he says, “What is there to conserve? We haven’t got there yet.”

However scholarly he is, he makes mistakes, e.g. the parable of the prodigal son is in Luke, not John.

Interview with the author:

 Your latest book is The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? Before we get to the good news, who would you say is your audience this time around?
The people in the pews. My audience is the people who still bother to come, those who haven’t been intimidated to stay away, those who are what Davie Napier, dean at Stanford Chapel, used to call “the unbelieving believers.” Churches are full of people who know they ought to believe, and who want to believe, but they don’t know what to believe or how to believe. But they want to come. There’s something that calls them there.

I really don’t care about the cultured despisers outside. If they read my books and get a little something out of them, that’s fine. But I’m not interested in taking on Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or any of that crowd. I’m interested in little old Mrs. McGillicuddy who has gone to church for 40 years, but who really doesn’t have a clue why. She really doesn’t get it. She likes the hymns. She gets great comfort from it. But the truths of the faith are a great mystery. My job is to try to introduce her to the faith.

And yet you make some claims about what the church is preaching these days. You seem to take on the church a little bit more in this book, claiming that the church is preaching Jesus instead of what Jesus preached.
Most churches are not doing the right job. They’re feeding Mrs. McGillicuddy empty calories.

So the book is for preachers as well?
It’s for Mrs. McGillicuddy and her preacher. I want the preacher to say, “Hey, what can I do to make the gospel stories more interesting and more compelling?” And I want Mrs. McGillicuddy to say, “What do I need to be a better believer?”

And you think church leaders and preachers are giving people fluff?
Yes. I think they’re afraid to give them the hard stuff. I make the point that every preacher I know who is a graduate of an accredited seminary has had to deal with the hard theological stuff. But it never makes it to the pulpit, which is why people by and large are so unprepared to deal with the standard issues, whether it is abortion or homosexuality, or war and peace, or whatever it is. They have nothing; there’s no guidance.

What are they getting?
I don’t know. They’re getting a kind of therapy. Maybe the closest thing they are getting is a gospel of success. But they’re not being given anything that says, “We live in a tough cruel, fallen world and this is how we should be thinking about things.”

You’re involved in theological education. You teach preaching. Who do you think is responsible for this failure?
Well, there’s a culture of caution that the church is built on that most preachers are unwilling to challenge. You can’t place blame on the teachers of preaching. They lay out the task, but once the preachers discover what the task is, they back off.

They never get to those things, partly because we live in a hiring society where 51 percent of the congregation are resident voters who can either do you in or do you out. And you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. So the result is, you don’t feed them very much. It’s almost a deal—”If you don’t disturb us, we won’t disturb you.” But preaching is essentially a disturbing act. It offers something that is not there. It criticizes something that is there. And it is based on something that is yet to come. Preachers are basically unwilling to make that kind of statement to people whom they either love or fear, and in some cases both.

Is there a reason why you are making these claims now? Are these perennial problems, or do you think it is especially acute now?
I think it’s especially acute now. The rest of the culture, the rest of modernity or postmodernity aspire to knock down anything that once stood. We are very critical, we are very picky and, somehow, we think either religion can’t withstand criticism, or we don’t know what criticism to offer, and as a result none of the hard issues are put before it. Most Roman Catholics, for example, can’t tell whether the pope is right or wrong on any of his moral pronouncements, and neither can most Protestants. They may disagree with the pope, but they can’t argue with him. They don’t have the theological or biblical muscle to make the case. It’s the same thing if you watch mainline liberal Protestants try to argue with a Jehovah’s Witness: they don’t know the text so they can’t do it. I’m not trying to prepare debaters, but I am trying to prepare people to take their faith seriously so they can see where faith works and where it doesn’t work, and ask the questions: How do I work, and what do I do? There was once a time when religion was a kind of cultural icon that held up everything with it so that it almost didn’t matter what people knew. But it does matter now because religion doesn’t hold anything. If people of faith and intelligence and good will don’t deal with this, it will either go to the secularists, on the one hand, or to the screaming fundamentalists, on the other, and I am opposed to both. So I’m dealing with this very large silent constituency that, in my mind, is getting a raw deal.

So the finger pointing goes to preachers. They’re not being bold enough.
In large part it does. Most of them tell me they know what to say, but they’re too afraid to say it, or they argue it’s too complicated for their people to understand.

How would you say your preaching and thinking has changed over the years?
I’m very much aware that I’m a different person today than I was in 1970. My preaching is much more confident now. You have to remember that when I came to Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1970, I had graduated just two years before. The Harvard Divinity faculty was sitting in front of me examining me for my degree. If I said anything from the Old Testament, there was Frank Moore Cross and Charles P. Price; for the New Testament, there was Amos Wilder and Dietr Georgi; church history was George Williams; world religions was Wilfred Cantwell Smith. I mean, they were all there! For the first 10 years, my preaching involved a lot of explanation. The next 10 were more doctrinal. I would preach and teach the church calendar, trying to get down the basic concepts of the faith, offering some catechesis because most people didn’t know it. This last stretch has been much more about proclamation. I think I’m a lot simpler now than I used to be, a lot clearer, which is an odd thing because you’d think the older you get the more complicated you get, but that’s not true with me. I won’t say I’ve reached the stage of simple truths, but I think I see things clearer than I did. When I was a young man, I saw all the problems, all the why not’s, all the ambiguities, and I wanted to be honest. You often want to preach ambiguity when you’re honest. I’m beyond that now. Life is short. Time is short. We could all die tomorrow. I have to tell the good news the best I can.

Do you think you are more declarative now in the way you preach because you laid the groundwork 10 years ago by offering the formation and doctrine? So now you’re more free to say it?
For myself, yes. I’m not dealing with a static congregation, and there’s something to be said for that.

Some people have said you’re becoming more politically and socially conscious, maybe even radical. In reading this book especially, people might make that claim. Is there any truth to that?
Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

Why?
I think I’ve become more explicit in trying to connect the gospel to the here and now. I think the notion of political neutrality in theology doesn’t work. So I spent a lot of time on the social gospel.

Did you try political neutrality earlier in your career?
I just sort of rose above it all. I figured people could go to Harvard Kennedy School if they wanted to know for whom to vote; but that’s not true at all, so I now venture a bit more into those areas I stayed away from years ago.

I remember watching you and a small entourage come into Nurses’ Hall at the State House when the gay marriage issue was heating up.
Yes. That was not my scene.

And yet there you were, at a rally. I was surprised, even proud, to see you there.
That was an important thing to do because the Bible was being misused and history was being misread and I had to set the record straight—there was nobody else there to do it. The cardinal was behaving very badly. Mainline Protestants were all on the right side, but none were saying anything definitive. I could. There I was—an out gay man, a decent scholar, an establishmentarian of the first order, a Republican (at the time). Who better than me? If I couldn’t do it on that issue, I couldn’t do it on any issue. I did not want to go there, but I was persuaded that it was the right thing to do, so I said, “I’ll do it.”

Did your stepping out there pave the way for you stepping out on other issues?
Well, I don’t know. You can’t say that I am a born-again social activist. I don’t think I am. I think I’m a little too cynical. I don’t trust most of the social activists I know.

Why not?
I’m not sure what their motives are. I don’t trust all the human emotion or the human reason. A useful but dangerous enterprise. Maybe that’s too careful. When I come to a view, for better or worse, I stick to it and go with it.

In your book, you mention that the question we should be asking is not “what would Jesus do?” but “what would Jesus have me do?” Given your current setting of such great wealth and power, how do you answer that question for yourself?
Jesus has me do what I’m doing.

That’s convenient.
Yes it is. It helps!

Let me push it a little further. How do you stay connected with the poor and the least of these? You talk about not just preaching Jesus, but the message that Jesus preaches.
I don’t always say that I can, but I try. I’m in a very privileged position. I minister to the great and good. There are relatively poor people among us, but not many. Since I’ve been called to this particular community, I need to be as faithful as I can. I don’t spend nights at soup kitchens or at the Pine Street Inn. I encourage those who wish to do so, but I think my work, dealing with the people I work with, is just as important. I wouldn’t have been given the talents or opportunities I have if they weren’t. What’s the old song? “Brighten the corner where you are. . . .” That’s what I try to do. And to many people this would appear to be a very nice corner, but in many ways it is not.

I noticed you quote a lot of hymns, gospels, and spirituals in this book. What resonance do you think that has with your readers, whether for Mrs. McGillicuddy or others?
She recognizes the hymns but the young people do not, though they might be curious about them, these neat little formulas of the faith. If you’ve grown up on nothing but praise choruses and sentence fragments, and a good Victorian hymn represents a complex theology, you might be interested. My job is to reacquaint a lot of people with what I regard as a lost treasure of the church, its hymnody.

Many of the hymns are filled with visions that most of us have given up. What I’d like to do is capture some of that energy. We give the Victorians a very hard time for their hypocrisy and their mercantilism and all that sort of stuff, but we’ve never been able to match their spiritual vocabulary.

Some of the newer hymns have lost the thrust of the good news. To lose poetry and to lose magic, to lose mystery is in my opinion to lose meaning. I want to recover some of that magic and mystery, and do whatever is in my power to do that. And preaching helps.

So what is your offhand definition of the “good news”?
You don’t have to be as you are.

Has that been a title of a sermon?
It could be but I haven’t used it. Jesus calls us to become what God intended us to be, the best we are able to be. Jesus calls everybody and anybody to that. Zaccheaus didn’t have to be just a tax collector. Peter didn’t just have to be a fisherman, and so on. He calls us to a noble calling. And it is good news if we can do it and if we can believe it.

Some of us believe that fate tells us who we are. Nothing can happen to us. It is what it is. It’s a form of double-predestination. I don’t believe that and I don’t believe that’s what the gospel says. What makes the good news so frightening is that it is destabilizing. We can’t rely on things always being the way they are.

I love that phrase Jesse Jackson used to use: God is not finished with us! “Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be.” That’s John Wesley. I believe this and I think it is exciting. I fully believe that I can be something other than what I am now. The older I get, the more I study God’s word, the more God gets close to me and I get close to God, this is it. It is a much better way of looking at life than saying I have a certain place in the world and it just keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s not good news. That’s very bad news.

So is the Kingdom of God when we all realize that we don’t have to be who we think we are?
The Kingdom of God is when we are what God intended us to be, and we know it and God knows it, and we can all cry “Alleluia.” It takes a long time to get there but it’s worth aspiring to. It’s what makes me hopeful, not optimistic, but hopeful. It’s what keeps me going, just moving in that direction. We learn, we study, we correct, we amend. We learn, we study, we correct, we amend. And God is in it with us. I think the direction we are meant to grow is toward that perfect day. It is why I believe the book of Revelation is a good book, not a bad book.

So do you believe life is getting better and better through history, and for humanity?
Not better and better necessarily. The gospel message moves quite contrary to our human predicament. You look at our human predicament and you could say things are getting worse and worse. I’m saying that as our outward nature wastes away, the world in which we find ourselves becomes increasingly less satisfying. When we seek to develop our inward nature, as Paul points out, we might be surprised to discover that we are becoming holier and more spiritual beings. That should be our goal anyway. And the good news tells us that’s possible for us all.

Where do you need this good news most in your own life?
In my daily work, in my preaching and my teaching, I need to be reminded of it, that I don’t have to be what I appear to be. There are possibilities I have not yet imagined. There’s a wonderful collect that has always shaped my thinking on the subject. “O God who has prepared from them that loved thee such good things that surpass our understanding, pour into our hearts such love for thee that we loving thee above all things may obtain those promises which we can neither imagine nor desire.” I believe that.

What about outside of your role as Plummer Professor and Pusey Minister? Where do you need the good news in your personal life?
That is my personal life. I’ve never been able to make the distinction.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I don’t know . . . between who I am and what I do. Maybe at some time I should have been able to draw a clear line. Here’s the Plummer Professor and here’s Peter Gomes. Sometimes it’s a source of pleasure. Sometimes it’s not. I don’t have an answer for that.

You have written about the hypocrisy of the White House prayer breakfasts, which you said amounted to little more than networking and photo opportunities. Do you expect that to change in the Obama administration? I have no reason to expect to be invited to this administration’s prayer breakfasts, so I have no expectations for them of any sort. Apart from our mutual association with an esteemed educational institution (Harvard) and the fact that we happen to share a race, I’m afraid that Barack Obama and I are not much connected. I must say that I am proud of him. I was particularly impressed with that speech he made in March of 2008-the one in response to criticism of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. That was a very good speech on the subject of race, and I admire the man for that and more. He is certainly admirable, the president-elect.

What is it that you mean when you speak of seeking a “bigger God”? As in what I said to Rick Warren; that “mine is bigger than yours?” [Laughs.] Just as God created man in his own image, people create a God from their own image, and the unfortunate consequence of the latter is that we end up with belief that is parochial and limited in view. People imagine a God who plays favorites, or meddles in human affairs for partisan reasons. This God of the small minds is never prepared for the worst.

Is there anything for to learn from the current financial crisis? Is there a moral dimension to what has happened on Wall Street? Oh yes, there is unquestionably a moral dimension to the financial crisis. But what interests me more is the degree to which the situation represents a failure of imagination. It has been experienced by those involved as a crisis of secular faith. There were many bright and competent individuals involved in finance who believed in this market, and there were others involved who had given up believing long ago. The institutions gave support to a secular faith in success that proved unsustainable, and now those who lived by it are being brought to question that belief.

Why are you so sympathetic to the “non-heroic” side of Jesus? I have nothing against the miracles, but for me the qualities of Jesus that endure for contemplation are his stability and serenity. I like thinking about what gets Jesus from day to day. The Gospels are full of wonderful evidence about what took Jesus from morning to noon to night, and these details are great sources of spiritual insight. The portrait is of a man living through these highly dramatic events, yet who sees beyond them to their real meaning in the context of an eternal life. I feel this is someone I want to know.

Are you really such a grinch as to have confessed a dislike for Advent? That’s right, I wrote that I was impatient with Advent, and I still am. I’m sick of the precious passivity of it. All this waiting and hoping and opening of cardboard windows-no thank you. It’s not that I have anything against waiting in eternal hope for the coming of the Messiah; it’s just that I want to be up and dealing with the thing. It’s like what you see in the first letter of Peter-what kind of people should we be while we wait? That’s the question I am after asking.

Quotations:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once warned against cheap grace, and I warn now against cheap hope. Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.

with that world-class twinkle in her eye, the Queen Mother remarked, “I do like a bit of good news on Sunday, don’t you?”

Recently I asked some of my students in the ministry if their biblical studies had any effect on their preaching, and most said that they found it next to impossible to translate what they knew of biblical criticism into the vernacular of their preaching. When they tried to do so, people complained. When they offered to Bible classes the benefits of their knowledge, they were told that people preferred the way they had always done things; and this re­mains the case. In his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Wm?” Harry Emerson Fosdick famously said, “… people don’t care about the Jebusites, etc.”

Some years ago, a study was done of those who accepted Billy Graham’s altar calls at the large urban rallies held by him around the world, and among the things the study revealed was that any number of people who came forward at the meetings had done so before. It was not that they were like “professional mourners,” people who as a matter of routine went forward, nor was it an ad­mission that their first response hadn’t “taken.” Some of those in­terviewed noted that they went forward again and again because they found themselves renewed, empowered, and encouraged each time. In other words, they understood that religious commitment is a process and not a one-time event, that each time they heard and responded to the call they were in a different place than they had been previously. They were engaged in a movement, and each call brought them nearer the goal.

Critics of revivals, such as those in which the same people often come forward, have argued that it is obvious that such meetings don’t work. Billy Graham and others reply, however, with this tell­ing analogy: “Just because one bath works is no reason not to take another.”

At the heart of the best evangelical preaching is an invitation to the future, and an opportunity to try that which has never been tried before. At its best, evangelical Christianity invites us into terra in­cognita, an unknown land where we move not by sight but by faith.

Alas, in much that passes fill.. evangelical preaching these days, that impulse for the new and untried is lost in a rhetoric of personal

The priests of Baal dance and scream and slash themselves, as was their custom, but their god does not show up. The prophet Elijah taunts them and says, “Call him louder,” suggesting that he is asleep or, in the delicate translation of the King James Version, that he is on a “private journey,” meaning de­tained in the loo. The Baalim and their god are humiliated, and Elijah and the God of Israel prevail. This whole encounter can be wonderfully experienced in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, or one can simply read about it in 2 Kings 18.

In the Greek church and in most Eastern Orthodox communions, the symbolism of baptism is made real when the priest strikes the baptized three times with a cross, hard ough to inflict pain so that all may know that the baptized is now prepared to engage in a lifetime of struggle. Somehow we have communicated that baptism is an inoculation against the germ of sin and its consequent troubles, when actually baptism declares that one is now prepared to fight against sin, the world, and the devil. It is no small point to note that immediately after his own baptism by John, Jesus was forced to submit to three excruciating temptations at the hand of the devil. Baptism did not protect him from conflict; it enabled him to engage in conflict and by God’s grace to prevail, at least for the time being

Earlier generations, more familiar than ours with Pilgrim’s Prog­ress, would have recognized the themes of enterprise, conflict, and courage that describe the Pilgrim’s epic journey through the Slough of Despond and other allegorical distractions on his way to the Celestial City. In his travels he fights with giants, or “hob­goblins and foul fiends,” as Bunyan calls them, and is tempted and attacked at every point. Life is a struggle, the devil is not just in the details but everywhere, and the only way forward is forward, fighting for every inch of ground and every virtue. In an age in which fighting was what religious people seemed to do all the time and the church was described as the church militant, or the fight­ing church, such lyrics made sense, and this hymn became the anthem of dissenting Protestants. That it should still prove popu­lar in the late twentieth century is an interesting commentary on the viability of metaphor.

One of the five people who selected the hymn tells why. Frances Lawrence first sang the hymn as a child and was fascinated its imaginary worlds of hobgoblins and lions, foul fiends giants, in the original language of Bunyan before Percy Dearmer cleaned it up:

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit, He knows he at the end shall life inherit. Then fancies fly away, he’ll fear not what men say, He’ll labor night and day to be a Pilgrim.

She imagined such a world as far removed from the safety of the church in which she sang, and then, she says, “It was only years later that the murder of my husband brought those fairy-tale images sharply into focus and grounded them in reality.” The violence of this world was no metaphor but painfully and existentially real to this woman whose suffering is well known, and whose heroic response to it in the creation of The Philip Lawrence Award toward the advance­ment of peace and understanding is widely appreciated. She writes, “… we must not listen to skeptics who proclaim that there is nothing to be done. Instead, we must stretch across the streets of violence, fighting not with our fists but with the integrity of the human spirit.” No “dismal stories” for her, and she will not fear what men say. “If we have the courage to make this pilgrimage an integral part of our daily lives,” she says, “perhaps we shall overcome the vanity of the material world and discover a more sacred destination.”

Saint Augustine reminds us, in The City of God, that much of the pleasure of the righ­teous comes from knowing and witnessing the fate of the wicked. They are not only pleased to be saved; they are pleased to watch the unsaved suffer.

Vicarious Thrills

Who is it who does not like to see the wicked “get theirs”? One of the appeals of “professional” wrestling is the notion that the desig­nated villain of the piece, while apparently triumphing through dirty tricks unseen by the referee, will eventually be destroyed b the talent, strength, and justice of his virtuous opponent. One the reasons I am a keen admirer of Steven Seagal’s television movie is that I know his character will always triumph in the end, matter what horrors and terrors he must endure to get there; not only will he “win,” but in doing so he will punish righteously all f the wicked who until the film’s last twenty minutes appeared to prevail. The formula worked in the old television westerns, and in such hero-driven fantasies as Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. Not only do we want virtue to win; we want evil to be punished and to be seen to be punished. Our national infatuation with the death penalty, a cause supported by an embarrassingly large company of Christians, can be ascribed to the same fundamental human desire.

When one combines these fictional heroics with fundamental human desires and with the highly suggestive elements in the book of Revelation, along with a lethal mixture of paranoia and entitle­ment, one ends up with one of the most popular series of novels ever written, the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. These are novels about people who are taken up, that is, raptured, and the chaos that ensues in the world they leave behind. The world will now have to face its various tribulations, and those believers left will have to do battle as “The Tribulation Force,” helping to save the lost and prepare for the coming conflict that will consume the world for seven years. The novels represent the kind of virtue-versus-violence that appeals to contemporary fans of sci­ence fiction, epochal conflicts, and revenge theater. Add to this the dispensational readings of Revelation, with all the power of Holly­wood special effects, and one has a series that cannot fail to please many people. It is to the book of Revelation and the scholarship on it what The Da Vinci Code is to the four Gospels and the teaching traditions of the church; but in a world where fantasy is more ap­pealing than fact, such works make their mark. We take them seri­ously, but not too seriously:

Online, I discovered a document known as “Rapture Letters,” which would seem to be a work of fiction but is, I fear, a fact.

Noting that the “rapture” means that all those who are born again will be taken up into heaven and that only nonbelievers will be left on earth, the document’s creators pose an urgent question: who will tell those who might be interested—family and friends who perhaps spurned advice on the rapture—what has happened and what might happen? The answer is a computer program that will send an elec­tronic message to anyone designated to receive it after the rapture has taken place “and you and I have been taken to heaven.” How can this be done? First, it is free, and the hope is that someone who receives one of those letters will get into heaven. The following is from the Web site:

If you wish to do something now that will help your unbeliev­ing friends and family after the rapture, you need to add those persons’ e-mail addresses to our database. Their names will be stored indefinitely and a letter will be sent out to each of them on the first Friday after the rapture. Then they will receive another letter every Friday after that, from “Rapture Letters.”

There is a generosity here, but it is nearly overwhelmed by the combination of technology and absurdity. I can’t imagine what Saint Paul would think.

They stand, those halls of Zion, all jubilant with song, And bright with many an angel, and all the martyr throng; That Prince is ever in them, the daylight is serene; The pastures of the blessed are decked in glorious sheen.

The clarity of those images of heaven stands in stark contrast to the view of the nineteenth-century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whose hymn, now seldom sung, is most appropriate for the postmodern solemnities of death. He begins:

I know not what the future bath of marvel or surprise, Assured alone that life and death God’s mercy underlies.

There is a sense of pious agnosticism here, no claim to superior or secret knowledge except for the knowledge of God’s mercy that he is convinced sustained him in life and will not leave him in death. The image that follows is drawn from classical antiquity, the “silent sea” over which the dead were ferried to their final and permanent abode. This journey is neither neutral nor fearful but, rather, benevolent:

And so beside the silent sea I wait the muled oar:

No harm from him can come to me on ocean or on shore.

Where is the place to which one is conveyed? Whittier is not certain. His journey is like a mystery ride or an adventurous cross­ing at sea, and it almost doesn’t matter, for confidence is placed not so much in the place as in the person who conducts one to that place; it is an exercise in faith:

I know not where his islands lift their fronded palms in air: I only know I cannot drift beyond his love and care.

Saint Paul reminds those who would tell us all about heaven that we really cannot begin to imagine what it is like. To the Corinthians he writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

When I am asked if people who are not Christian get into heaven, and if they can expect a joyful future, I reply with a question: is God just God of the Christian, and is the only way to God the way that we know? Some of my Christian friends are horrified by the notion that God is not a Christian and is God and Lord of everybody, but if God is the author of the universe, God of everything and every­body, then how can anyone say that some people are outside of God’s providence? When a Christian says, as a former president o the Southern Baptist Convention once said, that “God does n hear the prayer of Jews,” then I know that, at the least, that pers has an inadequate doctrine of God. As J. B. Phillips famously said “Your God is too small.” Such a God is parochial, provincial, unworthy of the praises directed toward him; only God, who d provide for everybody, even in ways unknown or unclear to Christians, is a God who deserves the tide “Creator of the World.” Just because you and I cannot account for the religions of other people not mean that the God whom we worship cannot.

ithin the teachings of Jesus we have case after case of Jesus ting to a God who is larger than the conventional wisdom, who t downsized by the petty pieties of those who would constrain by their own limited knowledge and experience. In my youth I to hear of the competing songs from the Methodist and Bap-churches on opposite street corners on a Sunday evening. The ethodists would lustily sing the hymn “Will There Be Any Stars My Crown?” and the Baptists would sing one of their favorite ngs, “No, Not One.” Each church thought itself alone, not in the iverse but in God’s favor, although Jesus constantly points out that God’s generosity is greater than ours. How fortunate it is that God is in charge, and not simply Christians.

In Matthew 20, Jesus makes the point of God’s generosity in one of his most controversial parables. Whenever I preach on this par­able of the workers in the field, with its irritating last verse, “The last shall be first, and the first, last,” I sense an almost instant hostil­ity in the congregation. It is a wickedly delicious text to preach in college chapels, where everybody is obsessed with academic rank and position, and to reverse those ranks by making the first last and the last first is to introduce chaos and confusion into what is in­tended to be a place of order and dependability.

The story, simply put, is that those who arrive late to work are paid exactly the same as those who have worked all day. Those who worked all day did so for a set wage, and because they were faithful and responsible hard workers, and in light of the owner’s generosity to the late-coming workers, they not only expected the agreed-upon wage but possibly a bonus. They therefore regarded the owner’s treatment as basically unfair, for why should those who did less than they receive -exactly what they did? This to them was an act of capriciousness on the owner’s part.

Jesus has the owner confront the angry workers as follows: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last shall be first, and the first,

last.”5 At first glance this looks like an assertion of power: I am in charge here, the money is mine, the field belongs to me and, for their cost, so too do the workers. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” The rights of the owner are held up for all to see, along with his liberty to exercise his rights. Capi­talists find this much totally agreeable.

Then we discover that the parable is really not about power but about generosity. There is perceived in the owner’s compensation

theory a dangerous profligacy: what will happen in the order of things if people either don’t get what they deserve, or, in this case, get more than they deserve?

An English bishop and dear friend of mine not long ago sat for his portrait. Friends said to him, “I hope the artist does you justice,” to which the bishop replied, “At my age and at this stage, I ask for mercy, not justice.” Strict economic justice may well be what was called for in Jesus’ story, but the owner demonstrated generosity and mercy.

Now, when Jesus tells one of these stories it is usually to disturb rather than to console, for those to whom he tells it are the people

who think they already know the answer. Jesus, in effect, says to them, “Wait a minute. You do not know the mind of God, you is his, and since everything is his, everything is subject to the generosity as well as to the judgment and mercy of God.” We know this about God, for we have encountered him before. In the book of Micah, we read:

Who is a God like you? You take away guilt, you forgive the sins of the remnant of your people. You do not let your anger rage forever, for to be merciful is your true delight.

Who can forget what it was that drove poor old Jonah to utter desperation? God told him to tell the people of Nineveh to repent, and Jonah said, in essence, “What’s the point? They will, you will forgive them, and my prophetic career will be in shambles.” The people did repent, and scripture says, “This greatly displeased Jonah”:

It is just as I feared, Lord, when I was still in my own country, and it was to forestall this that I tried to escape to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, long-suffering, ever constant, always ready to relent and not inflict punishment. Now, take away my life, Lord; I should be better dead than alive.?

Jonah would rather die than allow God’s mercy to prevail over his own sense of justice, and while we may despise his attitude, we must applaud the fact that he knew the character of God, and knew it to be greater, more capacious, and more loving than his own.

We should be aware of the dangerous temptation, when speaking of a God larger than our own limited imaginations, to argue that “my God is bigger than your God.” I know how tempting it is to use that argument as a clincher in a theological debate, but if we do, we should make the argument about us and not about God. Karl Barth, the great German theologian of the twentieth century, re­minds us of not only the greatness of God but also the “otherness” of God, which means that when we presume to speak about God at all we should do so at a distance and with the realization that we cannot speak of God as simply an immense version of ourselves.

“Given all that you have said and we have heard, are you optimistic about the future for your beloved country?” Paton paused, scowled, and said, “Madam, I am not optimistic, but I remain hopeful.” He did not expand upon his distinction between optimism and hope, but I have thought about it ever since. I too think there is a useful, even helpful, distinction to be made.

The cynic Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defines opti­sm as:

The doctrine, or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and every­thing right that is wrong … an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death.

Voltaire, writing in 1739 in Candide, spoke of optimism as … the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.

The Methodist preacher Halford E. Luccock, writing in 1957 during America’s season of cheery, religious expansion as repre­sented by such figures as Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carne­gie, observed rather tartly that

Christianity did not come into the world with a fixed, silly grin on its face and a vapid “Cheerio!” on its lips. At its center was a cross. That heritage must be saved from being perverted by the bright-side boys, whether in the pulpit or out of it.’

The age of optimism had as its unofficial motto the madly popu­lar psycho-mantra of Monsieur Cone, who in the 192os had nearly everyone convinced that “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” America in the first half of the twentieth century was well supplied with “Optimist” clubs, which regarded the power of positive thinking as essential to the American creed. Moreover, the constitutionally guaranteed right to the pursuit of happiness was fueled by optimism. Optimism and opportunity went hand in hand: no one made the pioneer wagon journey across the American continent expecting to fail, most people expected that they would end better than they had begun, and to “accentuate the positive” was almost the moral imperative of citizenship. Optimism was as American as apple pie.

Muscular hope such as that of which Saint Paul speaks to the Romans comes with a price, and usually suffering and privation are involved. This kind of hope requires work, effort, and expen­diture without the assurance of an easy or ready return. Paul’s sequence reminds us of this: we pass from sufferings that are not avoided to endurance, which is the quality that allows us to keep on when it would be easier to quit. The process of enduring pro­duces character, that inner quality not to be confused with image or reputation that is who we are when no one is looking. It is from character that hope is produced. This is where the old aphorism comes from that says, “Show me what you hope for, and I know who you are.”

Hope can seem a wimpy word, and it can be as flaccid as typical Advent service, yet if we remember, as Paul reminds us, genuine hope, a hope worth having, is forged upon the anvil of adversity, and that hope and suffering are related through the formation of character, then we will realize that hope is much more mere optimism. Hope is the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens.

Optimism will not do, for they have little about which to be opti­They are the people of the promises, the covenant, the e of Job and of the psalms, the people whose earthly homes always been under assault but whose hope, even at Auschwitz, never wavered. The kind of hope of which we speak, nourished generations of suffering and frustration, is in the DNA of the -sh people, who hope that people will behave better, particu­ly Christian people, but their ultimate hope is in God, who mised never to abandon them. With that hope, all suffering can borne and overcome. The rabbis tell us that when a wise man s asked what he would do if he knew that the world was soon end, the man replied that he would plant a tree. There is no ore hopeful sign in the world than a tree planted in faith by one who will likely never see it in its maturity but whose experience, however limited, is sustained by hope grounded in God and nourished by suffering.

Hope works where nothing else does. If we want to know how and where hope works, we should look at the most desperate places and among people who suffer, for that is where hope is both neces­sary and evident. Hope, let us remember, is not the opposite of suf­fering; suffering is the necessary antecedent of hope.

When justice shall be throned in might, and every hurt be healed;

When knowledge, hand in hand with peace, shall walk the earth abroad;

The day of perfect righteousness, the promised day of God.

Life in such a world is neither dreary nor fearful. God’s love, present at our creation, will also sustain our redemption, and to be redeemed is to become what God has always intended us to be. We are accepted, as Paul Tillich noted, but it is our joyful task to accept what God has proposed for us, a future in which promise and fulfilment…

“That the image of martyrs, the suffering faithful, and oppressed witnesses to the truth does not seem to be the prevailing images of Christians in the world either in ancient or modern times serves to demonstrate the sad fact that conformity is a greater characteristic of the Christian community than nonconformity.”

“God is greater and more generous than the best of those who profess to know and serve him.”

“Perhaps the greatest tragedy of September 11th, 2001, and the life we have come to live in its aftermath, is that we have since been programmed to live by our fears and not by our hopes.”

“Quoting John Newton: When I get to heaven, I shall see three wonders there. the first wonder will be to see any people there whom I did not expect to see; the second wonder will be to miss many people whom I did expect to see; and the third and greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there.”

“The means that allows the winds of change to blow through the corridors of conformity is the powerful work of the Spirit, that third member of the trinity that makes the church a slave neither to history nor to the moment , but rather an agency of transformation.”

nowhere in the Gospels is there a claim that he [Jesus] came preaching the New Testament, or even Christianity…” and “It still shocks some Christians to realize that Jesus was not a Christian

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