Let’s set aside for a moment the latter clause and ignore that Jesus preached what Jesus preached because Jesus was— is— Jesus. And you, dear friend, are manifestly not Jesus. On the other side of Good Friday, Jesus was just another first century rabbi, teaching teachings that were not all that novel. What makes Jesus’ teachings unique and worth our attention is that God vindicated them by raising the teacher of them from the dead. Therein lies the rub.
What makes Jesus’ teachings compelling, cross and resurrection, is the very event that requires us not to preach— at least not primarily so— what Jesus preached but to preach Jesus.
To preach about Jesus. The word that ignited the early church was what the Apostle Paul calls the “word of the cross.” The task of the preacher— and, by your baptism, you’re all preachers— is to proclaim not what Jesus did as teacher but what God did with that teacher:
Made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.
Raised him from the grave for our justification.
The Gospel, by defintion, is the announcement of news. It’s not news if it’s directions about what you ought to do. It’s news only when it’s the proclamation of what the Father has done in the Son and is doing now through their Spirit.
Back to the former clause in the accusation, the one about peddling afterlife insurance.
Go back and read the Gospels straight through from front to back. I dare you. Better yet, just choose one Gospel— John, say— and read it. Actually read the damn thing.
If you’re coming from a mainline Protestant tradition where the accepted wisdom is that Jesus was concerned with bringing the Kingdo to the here-and-now, showing solidarity with________, and standing up to empire and its oppressions and “those other Christians” (ie Catholics and/or Evangelicals) have ruined it all with cross talk and obsessions with heaven, then you’re likely going to be surprised.
Jesus talks about his death for sins literally all the time.
From the get go.
As both Karl Barth and Robert Capon point out, every parable he tells is about it.
If Jesus was really about bringing salvation in its “healing” varietal (a popular stress point in the mainline), then he was a crappy doctor indeed to the poor bastard on the mat.
“Your sins are forgiven.”
Likewise, if the feeding of the 5,000 was really about Jesus showing solidarity to the poor and the hungry and standing up against the oppresive economics of empire, then no one appears to have told Jesus that was what he was supposed to be up to. As soon as he begrudingly feeds the crowd, he’s back to talking about himself (again):
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
We’re lucky Jesus doesn’t shout ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to all of us too.
In our determination to have any other Jesus but the one who dies for sinners, we’re no different than Peter.
But is it afterlife insurance, preaching about what God has done by grace through this Jesus who died for our sins and was raised for our justification? Is it a pie-in-the-sky promise that neglects to change the here-and-now? It’s interesting that the early Christians, comforted as they were by the promise that they were safe in Christ’s death for them are the same Christians who built the first hospitals and, for that matter, changed the character of an empire. Look, like any good mainline liberal, I used to hate questions like: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?” I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers. I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.
But something is missing in all of our “Blessed to be a blessing” and “We have been changed to bring change” sloganeering.
The agency of God.
All our urgent talk about changing the world for God ignores— or, has forgotten— how the God we claim to believe in brings change.
It’s fine for us to think of ourselves as his hands and feet in the world but not if it’s at the cost of forgetting that he doesn’t need our hands and feet to be at work in the world.
It’s not proclamation is ancillary to the real work of change in the world. The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us. The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did. The Gospel is what God does.
Is the proclamation of the Gospel the only means by which the Living God works change in our world? Certainly not— the Spirit blows where it will and Jesus is Lord.
But the proclamation of the Gospel is the particular means of change God has bestowed upon his particular people called Church.
We cannot take the Gospel of grace for granted then and focus instead on serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.
We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel of grace alone is the means by which the Living God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.
In other words— and, after sitting through a hortatory-heavy community Thanksgiving service (“Be grateful!!!”), this is evidently a forgotten bit of Christian wisdom:
You cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did.
Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect. Thus, we’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus. I left the Thanksgiving service feeling less grateful than when I entered it.
People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.
People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.
To put it in churchy terms, our sanctification does not come by being told that we need become sanctified. Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves. Period.
The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because the Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.
The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful. The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it. That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.
In Christ, God has set you free for freedom from him even.
This Gospel- admittedly, it’s odd.
At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.
At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.
Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural. Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. What we think Jesus is saying about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25– that’s fair. There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy. No wonder we, like the Galatians, trade it out constantly for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.
The Law which tells us that the Gospel of grace must be a hustle to get suckers to buy bunk real estate in the great bye-and-bye.
Only by faith do you know the opposite to be true.
We’re not peddling the promise of heaven.
Rather the promise of grace, by way of him who is the Kingdom of Heaven, is the only word that frees us for our neighbor in the here-and-now.