I am quite familiar with the response of some students to a chapel speaker at Houghton advocating on justice issues of any sort – for women, for ethnic minorities, for the environment. “I don’t want politics in chapel. Can’t we just preach the Gospel?”
Yesterday, in a gathering of Christians away from Houghton, I heard the same cry but from older adults and from the opposite end of the political spectrum: “Can’t we just preach the Gospel? Do we have to get all caught up in issues of morality (e.g. sanctity of life; sexual ethics) that divert people from the Gospel?”
At one level, I am sympathetic to these pleas. In a time of intense political, social, and theological polarization, the Gospel is all too often confused with, subordinated to, or inextricably intertwined with political ideology. Furthermore, as Christians who yearn for people to be restored to the loving fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is at the heart of the universe, we do not want to set up needless stumbling blocks for people who are on their way home to our waiting Heavenly Father.
So I get the sentiment. The problem is that I do not see in the New Testament a Gospel that can be neatly separated from morality and politics. When Jesus confronts a person, it changes how people live: how they think about their personal choices (woman at the well); how they use their resources (Zacchaeus); whether they live freely or in bondage to political pressure (Pilate); how they think about power (the mother of James and John who wanted her sons to be in places of privilege). Even the purest of all “Gospel” encounters with Nicodemus seemed to have resulted in Nicodemus’s courage to take political risks (see John 19:39). After Jesus returned to heaven, the Holy Spirit picked up this life-changing teaching and transformational work (conversion of Saul of Tarsus; Peter at the house of Cornelius.)
Repentance is all about turning away from actions, addictions, and attitudes that hinder us from loving God and neighbor as they deserve. It’s not at the core about feeling different – or even about singing worship songs with new zeal. Discipleship is about daily “taking up a cross” and following our Lord who refused to value people according to the customs of the day rather than by their true worth in God’s eyes. It’s about a Lord who persistently opened boxes that were supposed to be kept shut by the political and religious powers of the day, and who called out pretentiousness especially in those who handle holy things.
Right now – and perhaps always – Christians disagree (sometimes vehemently) about which social and political issues are most critical to address, about how best to construct a society that makes space for good and discourages evil. We struggle to see beyond the horizons of our own experience to imagine a world fully restored to what our Father in heaven had in mind when He created it. But we do not have the luxury of avoiding these challenges by claiming to want “just the Gospel.”
More than ever, we as Christians need one another from across the political spectrum to see more completely the Kingdom that God is bringing into being. We need one another to keep us from being “conformed to this world” on either the right or the left and to open us to the transformational renewing of our minds that will allow us to accomplish the good work that God is asking us to do (Romans 12; Ephesians 2).
Let us, in this very moment, embrace the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us beyond the comfort of predictable niches on the political spectrum, and that calls us to complicate the current cultural stereotypes of “Christian” and ”evangelical.” Let us embrace the good news that calls us beyond a privatized and disembodied faith that leaves our world unchanged and into the surprising, adventurous, hope-filled and risky work of being the body of Christ in a world that desperately needs this healing, creative, and restoring presence.
As challenging as this is, I suspect this is something like what it means to have “just the Gospel."
Grace and peace to you today,
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976