The Gospel (3/12/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I remember when I made the decision to enter seminary. I was attending Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, headed by Robin Meyers, the son of Dr. Robert Meyers. Robin asked if it would be okay for him to announce to the congregation my decision, and I told him to wait until the seminary had accepted me. I was afraid they would take one look at me, or listen to a first interview, and assure me my future was in something other than ministry—perhaps the fast food industry.
But I was accepted at Phillips Theological Seminary, then in Enid, Oklahoma, and I told Robin he could make the announcement. I wasn’t prepared for what he said. From the pulpit, he said these words that Sunday morning. “Gary Cox has decided to leave behind the life he knows and become a preacher of the gospel.”
I wanted to jump up out of my seat and exclaim, “No! That’s not right. I don’t want to be a preacher of the gospel. I want to enter the ministry. I want to humbly save the world one hurting person at a time. But a preacher? Of the gospel? That can’t be right!”
Who would have dreamed that these many years later I would be one of the rare few ministers who has actually earned a doctorate in the field of homiletics—preaching! I never dreamed how correct Robin was in his assessment of the situation at that time.
A preacher of the gospel. I originally had a negative feeling toward those two words: preacher and gospel. The word preacher still has some negative stereotypes, but I’ve learned to live with it. The word gospel, however, has come to mean everything to me.
Listen to this reading from the Gospel of Mark.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.
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As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
There are a couple of important ideas in that passage that we should consider. One is the word gospel, and the other is the idea of following Jesus.
Let’s consider the word gospel. In today’s passage from Luke, like elsewhere throughout the four gospels, we see it written that Jesus himself proclaimed the gospel, that he told people to believe in the gospel. But wait a minute. I thought the gospel was all about Jesus dying for my sins on the cross. What am I to think? That Jesus went all around Galilee proclaiming that he would one day die and my sins would thus be atoned for?
It pushes all credibility to think that is what Jesus was talking about when he said to repent and believe in the gospel. Surely there was something else to his message. The gospel—the good news. When Jesus spoke of believing in the gospel, we may not know exactly what he spoke of, but it surely had something to do with God’s love—believing in God’s love.
When he tells John to follow him, perhaps that gives us a clue as to what the gospel message he is proclaiming truly is. The good news was not that Jesus would one day be killed in the most merciless fashion, but rather that God’s love is higher, deeper and wider than the furthest limits of our imaginations. That is the heart of the gospel. John’s obedience in following Jesus hardly would have made sense if Jesus had said, I have good news. Me and my followers will one day be killed ruthlessly. Come follow me!
That makes no sense. And so the gospel message had to be one that was attractive to the people who heard Jesus speak. The gospel Jesus proclaimed had something to do with God’s love, and it most certainly had something to do with the poor and disenfranchised of the community. God loved more than just the high and mighty people who showed up at the temple every week in their best clothes and offered ritual prayers and gave their tithes to the priests. God loved the poor who cluttered the back alleys of the temple neighborhood as much as he loved the upstanding folks who worshipped within the walls of the temple.
I know Jesus had a powerful message because of the way James and John left their dad on that fishing boat. Have you ever worked for your Dad? Consider the story. Here are two brothers working for their dad on a fishing boat and this itinerate preacher shows up and says, “Quit what you are doing and follow me!” I worked for my dad for a short time. He was in the business of repairing electronic equipment. I can’t imagine being in his little shop and having some bum appear saying, “Put down your soldering iron and follow me!” Quite unlikely! At least my dad would have been quite shocked if I had said, “Okay, see you around, Dad,” and followed the bum who appeared out of nowhere.
What would lead to such an act on my part? Jesus must have been amazingly charismatic! For two brothers to stand there in the presence of their father and suddenly change their whole lives after a simple “Follow me!” Jesus obviously was one charismatic person.
I recall that my Dad was a very serious man when it came to his business. He was a depression child. Work meant a great deal to him. He had been through very hard times as a young person, often having to watch as he and his family skipped meals out of desperation. But when he grew up he cherished his job. There was nothing in life more important than the job—the way he put food on our table and kept a roof over our heads.
He would have been very disappointed if I had walked away from a good way to make a living—an honest livelihood—and followed what appeared to be some street bum whose only claim on my life were a few hollow words: follow me.
When James and John left the fishing boat and followed Jesus, their father Zebedee would no doubt have felt nothing but disappointment. After all, he had started a professional business, saved up his earnings, bought a couple of fishing boats, put his children to work for him. He would have been proud of his little business, and his two sons walk away in the wink of an eye.
I wish the Bible told us more about Zebedee’s reaction, but it doesn’t. We hear plenty more about James and John though. These were two of the twelve apostles, two of the eleven who stuck by Jesus to the very end. James and John helped start the church after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John was the youngest of all the disciples, probably no older than his early teens. But he and his brother heard something that made them leave behind the lives they knew and become preachers of the gospel, followers of Jesus.
And what about being a follower of Jesus? It seems to me that it is just as difficult today as it was 2000 years ago. It is a lot easier to worship Christ than it is to follow Jesus. Worshipping Christ only takes a few minutes on Sunday morning, but following Jesus—that takes some real commitment.
I don’t think a person can follow Jesus without making a few changes in the way they go about life. Consider the way we adapt to our culture as we grow up. We are bombarded from all angles from the time we are very young with messages that run contrary to the gospel, with messages that have nothing to do with love of God and neighbor and everything to do with getting ahead, grabbing a bigger piece of the pie, living in such a way that your neighbors are simply green with envy at all the things you have accumulated.
We play games at school, from first grade on, both at recess and in class, that attempt to make us stand out from the crowd. I can play baseball better than you. I can run faster than you. I can solve math problems quicker than you. I won the spelling bee.
And that is just the beginning. By the time we are nearing our teen years the types of clothes we wear become badges of success or failure. If your shirt doesn’t have the right label, there is obviously something wrong with you. If your sneakers don’t say Nike on the side, well, you must be some kind of second class citizen. What did you do, get those shoes at a discount store? For shame.
And by the time we finally reach adulthood, we are thoroughly acculturated. It may be that we only need a thousand square foot house to live comfortably, but if we can afford a house with 5000 square feet, we buy it. It’s just the way things are done. And a car is little more than a way to get from point a to point b, but if we can afford it, we plop down enough cash for a single car that we could have bought five normal cars. Why not? It’s the way things are done.
Pamper yourself. You deserve the very best of everything. The problem comes in following Jesus when all your stuff is getting in the way. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I don’t think one must live in poverty in order to be a follower of Jesus. And as I’ve said many times, if any one of us actually gave away everything we owned to the poor, we would simply become one more poor person who needed to be taken care of.
When Jesus said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, he did not say it was impossible. It’s just that all those possessions get in the way of following Jesus. They occupy us. We get obsessed with hanging on to all our stuff. And that’s where fear enters into our lives. We’re afraid of losing our stuff—our life, our home, our family, our job, our new car—it goes on and on.
I think the main trait of a person who follows Jesus is a lack of fear. And really, what’s there to be afraid of. You can’t hang onto your stuff forever. It will all turn back to dust eventually, and we’ll do the same long before most of our stuff. And so what if we lose our house? We won’t likely end up on the street. We’re a fairly resourceful lot, those who gather here on Sunday morning. We’ll land on our feet.
And it’s not our stuff that stands between us and the kingdom—it’s the way we love our stuff. That’s why Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. To follow Jesus, it seems to me we can have our stuff, we just can’t think of it as our possession, or our birthright. All that stuff is a gift from God. But somehow, the more we have, the less we seem to be aware of that fact.
Having said that, some of the most generous people I know from this congregation are also among the wealthiest. The good they do in this community and beyond is immeasurable. They are following Jesus, feeling the call of something greater than themselves to appreciate their blessings enough to share them with the less fortunate.
But it takes a commitment. A commitment to the gospel. To get past one’s selfishness, regardless of the amount of wealth a person has, and everybody in this room is wealthy by any global standard, to get past that selfishness one must believe in something greater than himself or herself. One must believe in the gospel message, the message that God’s love really is higher and deeper and wider than we can possibly imagine, the gospel message that Jesus really did show us the way to live our lives, the gospel message that our sins and weaknesses are covered by God’s love and the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, which always results from clinging to that which will not be ours forever anyway.
Most of us have not had an experience like James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We have not forsaken everything we know of life to take a new path and follow Jesus. But something has happened to us over the years, and at one time or another we have realized there are two paths through life. One chases after selfish desires, and the other considers the greater good.
Those who gather in this place have bought into the idea of a greater good. We understand that God is eternal and we are mortal. We learned that following Jesus isn’t a promise to pray every so often and to attend church on a somewhat regular basis. We discovered that following Jesus is a way of life. It’s a way of treating the next person we meet. It’s a way of living life fearlessly and joyfully, because what other choice is there, really?
And it is knowing that in this vast and confusing universe, there really is a Living God, and God is good all the time, and our journeys are made both toward God and with God, led by the one who came in the name of love, and who we call, lovingly, Jesus.