Every now and then, in our ever expanding and technologically savvy world, someone discovers something that will purport to shed new light on who Jesus was—something that the church has either ignored, been clueless about, or has suppressed for two millennia.
Most recently, a fragment—and I do mean fragment as it has just four words— from a fourth-century Coptic Codex was found in Egypt.
Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King says “It may reveal”—a subtle qualifier that means she’s not willing to stake her career on this statement—“It may reveal that Jesus actually did have a wife, à la the claims of The Da Vinci Code.”
Now the revelation of this “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as it has become known, follows in the footsteps of a host of other Gnostic “gospels” that have been unearthed in recent years, like the gospels of Judas, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene, just to name a few.
But historians and archaeologists don’t have a corner on the new gospel market.
Just do a search of “The gospel according to …” on Google and you’ll come up with a host of other takes on the Christian gospel— the gospel according to the Simpsons, Dr. Seuss, Elvis, and my favorite “The Gospel According to Biff, Jesus’ Childhood Pal.”
Now I never get worked up about these discoveries and take them as an offense against Christianity. Most of the time, such as in the case of The Da Vinci Code or The Last Temptation of Christ they are simply fictional stories that got made into movies.
But of course there are effects. Some are nonthreatening, while others not so much.
The effects of this “gospel-izing” as it’s called, are usually trying to find themes of the Christian gospel within popular TV shows and characters in an effort to be humorous and then make money, but others are trying to craft a gospel that fits their own conceptions of God as well as their own agenda.
And that is what is happening in the Galatian church—and it certainly still happens today.
And because it was happening in the Galatian church, Paul writes his epistle of awareness and warning.
And because it’s still happening today, we would be wise and faithful to heed Paul’s words ourselves—we should be cautious in making sure that we are preaching and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not a “gospel-ized” version because it is only Jesus’ Gospel that assures us that though we are broken and sinful people, we are forgiven and reconciled to God.
Churches, of course, aren’t immune to this gospel-izing. There are plenty of gospels out there that more reflect the culture than anything having to do with Jesus.
Think about some of them:
There’s the Gospel of Hate spewed by “Christians” from the Westboro Baptist Church, who picket the funerals of soldiers and believe that people who don’t follow their agenda deserve whatever tragedy befalls them.
So much for grace.
There’s the Gospel of Prosperity touted by many a TV preacher who tell their people that God wants them to be rich, and that all they need to do is “name and claim” what they want and God will give it to them.
So much for “…sell all you have and follow me.”
There’s the Social Gospel, which grew out of the Enlightenment idea of progress and reason, which believes that humanity can rid itself of social evils, and that human progress will continue to make things better and better. This sounds nice, but go deeper and you discover in this gospel that Jesus simply provides a good example of how to make the world a better place, while his death and resurrection are mere metaphors for living sacrificially.
This is more good advice than good news.
The Apocalyptic Gospel is all about watching the sky for Christ’s return and waiting for the Rapture that will suck all the right-believing Christians into the great beyond like some kind of Heavenly Hoover vacuum, leaving the rest of humanity behind to wallow in purgatory.
This gospel is more about waiting on the good news than sharing and spreading it.
You can probably think of other “gospels” that get preached all the time.
Gospel means “Good News” so therefore, any time some comes to you and says something like, “Good news, I can make your life better” they are preaching a sort of gospel.
And maybe some of these gospels, some of these “good news” proclaimers, have an element of outward good for others, but what’s interesting about these other gospels is that they often tend to most reflect or represent the people who promote them rather than reflect or represent the good news of Jesus Christ.
But what is really and truly good news, is that God desires our participation in making the world look more like what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer—“on earth as it is in heaven”— but we can’t make that a reality without Christ’s redemptive Good News, without his birth, life, and death for the world, and certainly not without his resurrection that is the ultimate defeat of death.
Sure, people tend to understand the gospel through the lens of their own times, but if we are not careful, or if we choose to seek power rather than to be empowered by the Gospel of Jesus, such can lead to incomplete or distorted versions of the message.
Which brings us to Paul.
Paul is fired up at the Galatians because they have bought into a different gospel, the wrong gospel— a gospel that reflects “the present evil age” –an age where the ways of a few humans is promoted as gospel, and the Gospel of Jesus is ignored.
The “wrong gospel” that the Galatians had bought into was one preached to them by some Jewish Christian missionaries who required Gentiles to be circumcised as Jews before they could become Christians.
Paul regarded this message as a non-gospel because it reflected the status quo of the age before the coming of Christ—an age governed by the law of Moses.
Paul believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection had transformed the status quo, and that the requirement for physical circumcision was abolished because God had reconciled Jews and Gentiles through the grace of Jesus Christ.
What Paul is telling them, and us, is that the real Good News, the real Gospel, does not come from this world.
The Gospel is not a human construction, subject to alteration by every human generation.
The Gospel comes from God, who has taken the initiative to rescue us from sin and death through grace.
The grace of God, enacted through Jesus, enables us to become children of God, bringing people from different backgrounds, cultures and customs together into a new community not marked by ethnicity, circumcision, or even status, but by faith and baptism.
The goal of the gospel is not the mere transformation of our way of life or our bank accounts, nor is it merely about making the world a little better. The good news is that God’s kingdom is near and that will be the means of changing the world, not taking us away from it.
As Revelation puts it, God isn’t about to destroy the world and make new things; but rather, God comes to redeem the world and “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
If a gospel only benefits the individual, you can bet it’s a different gospel, it’s the wrong gospel.
A wrong gospel, a different gospel as Paul says, always seeks human approval and typically only empowers the ones who preach it.
Those preaching this different gospel to the Galatians were trying to keep the power they were losing.
That is why Paul is telling the Galatians, and us, that the real gospel— the gospel of what God has done and is doing through Christ—benefits all by saving all from sin and death.
Preaching a new and different gospel is actually nothing new.
It began in the first century and continues in the twenty first century.
And because this is so, I can’t help but wonder that maybe the real reason we keep coming up with new gospels is because the one Jesus gave us actually requires something of us.
After all, the one true Gospel calls us to serve Christ and others, which is much harder to do than taking any physical mark. It is far more difficult and far less self-serving to live out the Good News of Jesus.
In this season of Lent we are being challenged to stay awake with Jesus, or even to wake up to Jesus.
Some of you have told me how you really like this Lenten theme, but that it is hard because staying awake with Jesus means being more aware of Jesus, which has led to some difficult and challenging realizations.
But while difficult and challenging realizations may be just that—they are faithful—and faithfulness to Jesus is always Good News—it is always the right Gospel.
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.”
So the question becomes then, What Gospel are you preaching?
Do we preach a gospel that has been turned and twisted, distorted and edited until it still looks and sounds like Good News for all, when it’s really just good news for us?
Or do we preach the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ that tells and shows who Jesus truly is and what Jesus truly does?
So as we continue to journey to the cross in this season of Lent, may we strive to stay awake with Jesus…
May we strive to preach the Good News of Jesus in all that we say and do…
And may we always strive to live out the true Gospel that says, and shows the truth that though we are broken and sinful people, we are forgiven and reconciled to God our Creator, through Christ Jesus, our Savior.