This week, a group of about 45 of us are continuing our mission partnership with the community members at Ft Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Here’s one of my reflections from our evening worship.
A few springs ago, I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.
Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.
It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.
At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95.
Below the caption it explained:
“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.”
Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.
We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.
The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.
For me. But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus? Or the message of Jesus?
Christians often are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.
The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’
The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.
Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.
The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:
- All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously.
- Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide.
- Strangers and Enemies would be seen to share in God’s promise and blessing.
- All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously.
- All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.
Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.
Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.
Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.
So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.
And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.
And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.
It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.
Why all this talk about Jubilee?
As you engage in mission this week, it’s critical you not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’
As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.
As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.
Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.
And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.