my incomplete gospel

I think those of us who call ourselves Christians should be on a faith journey from the moment we decide to follow Jesus until the day we die. And, for most of my life, I probably would’ve told you, “Sure, I’m on a faith journey. Always growing closer and closer to Jesus!”

But was I? I’m not so sure. For a very long time, my faith stood very very still.

Which doesn’t sound bad. Still = firm, strong. Right?

That’s what I thought. Now, I have a different word for it.

Stuck.

And I was in good company, surrounded by fellow stuck people.

We were taught a list of unchanging, non-negotiables about our faith, and once we’d mastered those, it was kind of smooth sailing from there. Just defend those principles against anyone (atheists, liberals) who tries to change the script, and we’d be good to go.

I looked at the Bible as the final say on today’s every issue and totally ignored the fact that God spoke to different people in different ways as time marched on in the pages of Scripture. I took every word at face value, even when it contradicted other things the Bible said. I didn’t bother to study cultural context.

And I was very very afraid of people with differing views who might challenge my carefully-honed beliefs. I built my life on this foundation, and I couldn’t afford for it to crumble.

When it finally did start to crumble, it was more awful–and more wonderful–than I could have imagined (and that’s a story for another post).

The fear is gone. And I am free. Free to learn and grow and love.

It’s funny (except not) that the more I search and study and read my Bible to figure out how I think Jesus would respond to the issues of today, the more pushback I get from fellow Christians. “You’re watering down the gospel.” Or “this issue is a distraction from the gospel.”

And I shake my head, because I know something I didn’t know way back when.

My gospel, the one I’ve clung to for decades, is incomplete.

We’re sinners. Our sin separates us from God. Jesus took our sins on himself, died, and now we can be reconciled to God by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice and asking him into our hearts to be our personal Lord and Savior.

It sounds lovely. And I believe it’s true.

But when I believe that the paragraph above is the whole gospel, then I believe a few untrue things.

I believe that loving the poor is fine, but it’s not the point.

I believe that talking about racism is a distraction, that it’s not about black lives mattering; it’s about all lives needing Jesus.

I believe that addressing someone’s personal sin (as I define it) is the single most pressing thing. And that it’s the most loving thing I can do for them, if I don’t want them to end up in hell.

This is a very “thin” gospel as I have heard people say. And I agree.

What I have found to be very, very good news (and that’s what “gospel” means–good news!) is that the gospel is MORE than this. And the MORE is so beautiful, so wonderful, that I’m filled with brand-new hope and excitement.

(Whole books have been written about what I’ll attempt to say in this short post, so some simplification is necessary.)

Let’s go back to Creation. (And whether you think it’s a literal account or an allegory or whatever, let’s just look at the words used to describe it and what they mean.)

When God says that what he has made is “very good,” the Hebrew words for that are tov me’od. In her wonderful book, The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper explains that the Greeks located perfection within objects themselves, but Hebrews understood goodness to be located between things.

Tov me’od, what God considers good, is “relational wholeness and wellness.”

One of my favorite words, the Hebrew word shalom, appears 550 times in the Bible (in five different forms). It means “well-being, wholeness, the perfection of God’s creation, abundance, peace.” Everything as it should be, all in right relationship with each other. We don’t have a single English word to do it justice.

Genesis 1 and 2 are a picture of shalom.

Adam and Eve have a good relationship with God. They walk with him and talk with him in the garden. They have a good relationship with the animals (Adam names them all and they’re cool with it). They have a good relationship with each other. No fighting, no bickering. They like themselves and have no qualms about being naked. The garden gives them food to eat and comfort and beauty, and they treat it well.

All is as it should be.

“Nothing in the Bible makes sense if one does not begin with the garden of Eden as a life of oneness–human beings in union with God and in communion with the self, with one another, and with the world around them. Life is about ‘oneness’–oneness with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the world. When this oneness is lived out, God is glorified and humans delight in that glory.” (another great book: The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight)

And then it all falls apart.

Oneness becomes “otherness.”

Adam and Eve sin, and they lose communion with God. They hide from him. They’re ashamed of their own bodies and feel personal guilt. They blame each other, and God says they’ll want to rule over each other, instead of a mutual relationship, as was his perfect plan. He kills an animal to cover them. And they’re evicted from their beautiful garden, and thorns and weeds become a thing.

“Sin is a cracked relationship of otherness with God, with self, with others, and with the world.” (Blue Parakeet)

I’m sad that we western Christians, historically, have jumped on the “reconciling individuals to God” piece at the expense of all the others.

“‘Not so fast,'” God must be saying to the many individualistic Bible readers who want to shake the fall loose by making a beeline to the cross and resurrection. That’s not the way God wants us to read the Bible.” (Blue Parakeet)

It’s not? But that bracelet I made at every single Bible school growing up (black bead for sin, red for Jesus’ blood, white for the new me, green for growing in Jesus, yellow for heaven) made it so simple.

And skipped a few hundred pages of the Bible between Genesis and Matthew.

Have you ever thought to yourself, what’s the point of all those other books if it’s just sin, fall, Jesus on the cross, end of story?

All of those many many books and pages are about hundreds of years of God forming a “covenanted community.” One that “focuses on oneness with others.” God will use a covenanted community–first Israel, then the church–to bring everything back to shalom.

Focusing solely on my personal oneness with God sorely, sadly misses the mark.

And SO MUCH CHANGES when we realize the gospel is about restoring 1.) oneness with God. 2.) oneness with ourselves. 3.) oneness with others. And 4.) oneness with the world around us.

Jesus did come to save us from our sins, but not in the limited way I had thought for so long. He’s not just saving me from personal sins I commit against God. He’s saving me from the effects of sin on the world, the broken relationships in and around me.

Jesus came to restore oneness.

When he talks about the two greatest things we can do in life, it’s not “stop sinning.” It’s 1.) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And 2.) Love your neighbor as yourself.

All of the cracked relationships are covered there. My relationship with God, with others, with myself. And creation? Well, I think it’s safe to say that loving someone includes loving what they have made. God made this world for us, and it’s crazy arrogant to think that it’s okay to treat it with contempt.

Paul speaks to this restored oneness in relationships in Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The implications of embracing this bigger, fuller, more perfect gospel are staggering.

For those of us who have always preferred the “Genesis (1, 2)… (skip a few)… Jesus (99,100)” gospel, this new (right) way of looking at things puts a lot more responsibility on our shoulders.

Things that we previously thought were distractions (racial reconciliation, creation care, equal rights for all people created in God’s image, knowing and loving the poor as ourselves, loving our enemies) have now been placed front and center.

And this changes everything.

But, as I’ve discovered, living in light of the two greatest commandments–and living as Christ’s ambassadors, bringing reconciliation wherever we go–is a beautiful, fulfilling, freeing way to live.

Freaking hard with lots (and lots) of screw-ups, but I would never, ever go back.

The world will know we are his disciples by our love. May that be true of me.

Shalom to you, friends.