The Gospel is about a Person, not a Prayer (by Rachel Held Evans)

The Gospel is about a Person, not a Prayer (by Rachel Held Evans) June 12, 2018

Today, you get to hear from my friend Rachel. I first met Rachel Held Evans on the interwebs back around 2010, when only my grandma read my first blog. We then got the chance to hang out at a conference in SD the following year and have followed along with each other’s journeys ever since. I’m always impressed with her ability to write with such depth and vulnerability.

Well, today, Rachel Held Evans offered up a reflection that comes straight out of her brand new book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. I’m not paid to say this… not even one bit… but, seriously, order this book! If you want to gain some helpful insights on what in the heck we can do with this book we call the Bible as we seek to know and follow Jesus: Inspired will be a great catalyst for conversations with others. Also, I interviewed Rachel about the book for The Paulcast (and yes, we talked about Paul and some other stuff too): it will be available here when it goes live.

The following is an excerpt from Inspired, written by Rachel Held Evans:

I met Jesus at the dinner table. A vast, shaker-style oak, the three-leafed centerpiece of our modest family home had been handmade and special ordered to match a set of eight chairs my mother scored in a bargain at the legendary Woody’s Chair Shop in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. “Woody” chairs are, to this day, constructed using a lathe and mortise machine from the 1800s and are held together without any nails or glue, just the shrinking and expanding of the wood. John F. Kennedy owned a Woody; there’s one on display at the Smithsonian, another at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. For two career educators, that dining set represented quite the splurge—eighty bucks a chair in 1984, according to my mother—so my parents gathered people around it every chance they got, fill- ing their Woodys with hungry college students and friends from church, trimming the table with mismatched flatware and second- hand place mats.

It was at that table, over a steaming plate of spaghetti or pork chops or some other weekday meal, that I learned to pray, “Jesus, thank you for Mommy and Daddy and Rachel and Amanda, and thank you for this food. Amen.” The first thing I knew about Jesus was that he was responsible for the existence of my parents, my sister, me, and my food. That seemed like good enough news to me.

It’s funny that many of us who identify as “born-again Christians” can hardly remember our born-again experience, if at all. When my youth leader asked me, at age sixteen, to share my testimony at a Wednesday night youth gathering, I strained to conjure a single memory in which I “came to Jesus.” From my first prayers at bedtime, to the picture books and songs that formed my early conceptions of the world, Jesus had always come to me, his presence as certain as dinner on the table and Mr. Rogers at noon.

Oh, I could tell of the sermon on hell that frightened me into my parents’ bed at night, or of the day I asked my father to help me invite Jesus into my heart, or of my awkward plunge into the lukewarm water of the Faith Chapel baptistery—but none of those moments would tell the whole story. Had I looked beyond my immediate experience, I might also tell of those great-aunts and uncles who poured their liquor into the grass at Appalachian tent revivals, or my Lithuanian grandmother, who wrote a feisty letter to the pope explaining exactly why she converted to Protestantism. I could tell of Bible colleges and missionaries and reformations and abuses. I could tell of an African saint named Augustine who shaped a civilization’s view of salvation, of a historic meal between a first-century Jew and a Gentile centurion, of a woman running breathlessly from an empty tomb. I’m sure I must have begun that high school testimony by saying I was “raised in a Christian home,” without fully grasping the epic nature of this story to which I belonged.

That’s what’s so striking about the gospel, or “good news,” of Jesus. It’s a story at once grand and particular, sweeping and intimate. News that started as local gossip in a few sleepy fishing villages in ancient Palestine reverberated so profoundly through the centuries and across the world that it reached the ears of a pigtailed kindergartner in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1984. It reached Africa and India, the Andes and the Maldives, influencing ancient Roman soldiers, Irish farmers, Haitian fishermen, and Chinese school kids.

So what is this good news?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

For the apostle John, the gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14 esv), or more literally, God “became flesh and tabernacled—pitched a tent— among us.” After all those years without a temple, and amid all the disputes about how and where to worship, God had taken up residence among the people by becoming one of us, Jesus himself serving as priest and sacrifice, holy festival and divine presence. “To those who believed in his name,” John wrote, “he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12–13).

For the woman at the well, the good news is she doesn’t have to find the right temple after all, for God has started a new family of faith, beginning with despised Samaritans and the kind of women who do not belong at wells.

For Matthew and Mark, the good news is that Jesus is the long- awaited Messiah sent to establish God’s reign on earth, not through conquest, power, and revenge, but through faithfulness, sacrifice, and unconditional love. The kingdom of heaven is not some far-off, future dream; it is here, among us, made real by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is what it looks like when God is king, when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

To the Galilean children who annoyed the disciples by asking Jesus for a blessing, the good news is that Jesus is the kind of king who laughs at their jokes and tousles their hair.

To the physician Luke, the gospel is especially good news for the poor and oppressed, the disinherited and the sick. Defying nearly every culture’s understanding of blessing, Jesus declared, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:20–21). Luke, more than any other gospel writer, shows that these promises of liberation are meant to be taken literally, that this is a God who rescues and heals and sets things right.

For the bleeding woman who spent her life’s saving on doctors, the good news is Jesus touches those the law deems unclean in order to make them well.

The apostle Paul describes the gospel as the good news that, in Jesus, the story of Israel has reached its climax, and through him, the chosen people of God will finally fulfill their purpose of blessing the entire world with salvation. This means Gentiles have been “grafted in” to Israel’s story, so any law or ritual that might keep them from full inclusion into God’s family must be set aside for the sake of unity.

For the blind beggar, whom Jesus healed with a little dirt and water, the good news is pretty simple. “One thing I do know,” he told the skeptical religious leaders, “I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).

The good news is as epic as it gets, with universal theological implications, and yet the Bible tells it from the perspective of fishermen and farmers, pregnant ladies and squirmy kids. This story about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity smells like mud and manger hay and tastes like salt and wine. It is concerned, not simply with questions of eternity, but with paying taxes and filling bellies and addressing a woman’s chronic menstrual complications. It is the biggest story and the smallest story all at once—the great quest for the One Ring and the quiet friendship of Frodo and Sam.

Much has been made in recent years about the value of rendering the gospel into a single, digestible aphorism. D. L. Moody claimed he could fit the gospel on a coin; I was once challenged to sum it up in a tweet. But it strikes me as fruitless to try and turn the gospel into a statement when God so clearly gave us a story—or, more precisely, a person.

Indeed, in Scripture, no two people encounter Jesus in exactly the same way. Not once does anyone pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” or ask Jesus into their heart. The good news is good for the whole world, certainly, but what makes it good varies from person to person and community to community. Liberation from sin looks different for the rich young ruler than it does for the woman caught in adultery. The good news that Jesus is the Messiah has a different impact on John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet, than it does the Ethiopian eunuch, a Gentile and outsider. Salvation means one thing for Mary Magdalene, first to witness the resurrection, and another to the thief who died next to Jesus on a cross. The gospel is like a mosaic of stories, each one part of a larger story, yet beautiful and truthful on its own. There’s no formula, no blueprint.

Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story.”

So when someone asks, “What is the gospel?” the best response is, “Let me tell you a story.”

You might start with Abraham, Isaiah, or Luke. You might start with the Samaritan woman at the well. You might start with a story about your grandmother or a rural church camp or a dining room table surrounded by Woody’s chairs. At some point, you will get to Jesus, and Jesus will change everything.​

(KURT): I hope this inspired you… it sure ‘Inspired’ me (OK, dumb joke). But seriously, such an important insight about the nature of the good news!

Have a great rest of the day–and remember–Rachel’s latest book, Inspired, is on sale today!​

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  • Matthew

    It has taken me nearly two years (at least) just to wrap my head around what Rachel describes
    so succinctly about Paul´s version of the Gospel. I think it took N.T. Wright nearly 5 books and
    thousands of pages to say the same thing – SHOCK! A toast to brevity at its very best! 🙂

    Thanks so much for this Kurt (and Rachel of course). Very useful for those of us trying to come
    to new grips with the Bible, with Jesus, and with his story.

    • Matthew, this is so great to hear. I think you are right in some ways… what Wright does in five books, Rachel does in five paragraphs… hahaha. But seriously, thanks for this comment. Although I didn’t write this particular blog I resonate with much of what she wrote.

  • R/R 2016

    “For Matthew and Mark, the good news is that Jesus is the long- awaited Messiah sent to establish God’s reign on earth, not through conquest, power, and revenge, but through faithfulness, sacrifice, and unconditional love.”

    And with that, Rachel entirely, perhaps even willfully, misses the point of Kingdom.

    • How is that not what Jesus taught in the gospels? Or Paul? Jesus loves his enemies… teaches such… and models such as he dies for them to liberate them from sin and death. Not sure what Bible you read, but that is at the front and center of the whole New Testament. I would be glad to hear from you what you understand the ‘point of the Kingdom’ to be.

      • R/R 2016

        Read carefully. I never said that’s “not what Jesus taught”. I said Rachel misses the point of Kingdom (which entails quite literally conquest, power, and revenge). The three are packaged nicely in the confession “Jesus is Lord (Greek Kyrios)”, which is a political statement, saying essentially that Jesus is Caesar above caesar, and that his Kingdom will be built upon the thrones of dead kings:

        “Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.'”

        So yes, their portrait of Jesus gives us an example of love, grace, and mercy, but the NT authors also write of a physical, in-the-flesh Kingdom whose reign is established by God’s judgment.

        Edit: established, not initiated. That happened already: “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you.”

        • So… I agree that Jesus is Lord and therefore Caesar isn’t (thus, I find it odd that your profile pic is of modern day Caesar’s emblem (all presidents, not just Trump), the US flag… but I digress). Also, I agree that the future consummation of the Kingdom will involve God’s judgement: a judgement that ultimately abolishes the powers of darkness behind the thrones of empire…. and every other evil thing they affect, including death itself. However, the way you quote Revelation with the assumption that it describes the future in a specifically plain sense way is a point I strongly disagree with as a student of the New Testament. Rather than go through the various reasons why, here… I invite you to consider listening to my podcast: I’ve gone into depth on this stuff in that space on how to read apocalyptic literature, etc. (edited for clarity)

          • R/R 2016

            Wow that’s a lot of stupid. Let’s start.

            1a. My profile picture is of WWF legend Hacksaw Jim Duggan of whose character I was a fan as a child. 1b. Caesar was a world ruler who elevated himself as a god. The flag is the emblem of a republic self-stated “under God”.

            2. *Principalities* and powers. The reign and rule of God is physical, both political and cosmic. Timing, means of fulfillment, and mechanism are other matters which I have not here addressed, o’ presumptuous one.

            3. You’re not the only student in this exchange. Don’t care about your podcast or that you disagree. “…but I digress.”

          • That went from civil to jerk pretty quickly. And remember, this is my blog you are reading…. you came to me… not the other way around.

            1) Cool on the WWF part. The US civil religion bears the residue of Rome. It is similar even if we don’t declare the President a god. I could spend time defending it but that won’t be worth it here as a comment.

            2) I’m fully aware of the terms. ἀρχή or ἄρχων [plur. ἄρχοντες/ ἀρχαί] are rulers/principalities. In Paul, these are typically spiritualized, just as they are in Daniel 10 where the term ruler is applied to an angelic oversee of a territory/nation. That is a somewhat debatable matter, but your point can be made in one sense without misusing Revelation to get there. I’d make a book suggestion, but that won’t be taken seriously I assume. But since others will likely read this, I highly recommend Michael Gorman’s “Reading Revelation Responsibly” –

            3) I’m glad you are a student. I hope you actually learn since you seem to love to “instruct” which here seems sort of like “trolling”… and if you “don’t care” then stick to blogs that you “do care” about rather than getting offended by pushback.

            Lastly… I hope you have a good rest of the week but I am reminded that these sorts of conversations are not life giving.

          • R/R 2016

            I haven’t misused Revelation to make the point that the nature of God’s Kingdom is not without its own manner of power, conquest, and an exercise of his right to vengeance. And no, these attributes do not preclude those of love and mercy. To say Jesus as Lord is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, is to say he is a clash of stark extremes. One who can extend both the harshest judgment and the richest mercy and stay true to his own essence of rule. The two are not exclusive.

            And believe me, I’m not offended. I just don’t suffer stupid lightly, whether on your blog or elsewhere. Besides: (1) you replied to my comment. (2) I didn’t ask for a link to your podcast. (3) Popular opinion isn’t education (and never expect your student status to convince anyone). See ya!

          • I’m offended by being called stupid. Not that I get any value or identity from your opinion from across the web. Oh well. I’m going into my office to burn my two masters degrees in theology/bib studies, now that I’ve learned all of this wisdom from you. 😉 (Edit: And in saying this, I realize that education doesn’t automatically equal wisdom or correct knowledge…. just being silly granted to context of this conversation.)

          • R/R 2016

            I didn’t say you were stupid. What I did say is your reply was stupid, that you’re presumptuous and demonstrably so. The fact that you have a degree(s) isn’t sufficient to defend the veracity of your claims. Or did your degree neglect to teach you the fundamentals of first-order logic?

  • Lester Bauman

    Terrific post. Now I need to go and find the book. She catches the simplicity of the gospel message very succinctly. Something you educated theological gurus so seldom manage. [Glad to be considered stupid…] 🙂

  • alwayspuzzled

    “fruitless to try and turn the gospel into a statement”

    Didn’t Jesus (not to mention Hillel) sum it all up in a couple of sentences?

  • jekylldoc

    I love the “mosaic” of relations that Rachel holds up. This is not “all things to all people” but loving every child best. Meaning is usually fragmented. In Jesus, many strands of meaning, from questions of eternity to squirmy kids, come together. That’s what Logos looks like.