02 Mar A Fresh Grasp of the Gospel
A Fresh Grasp of the Gospel
1 Corinthians 15:1-4
March 1, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Over the past two months we have been exploring what it might mean for us to have a fresh start to 2020. Not a “turn over a new leaf” kind of fresh start but a life-impacting, life-altering fresh start. As part of this process we’ve looked at fresh worship and fresh peace; at a fresh understanding of God’s Word and fresh courage; fresh mission, fresh perspective and fresh church. And it all began with one essential thing: following Jesus. That is the first and foremost thing we need to do in order to have a fresh start. Today we will bring this series full circle as we come back to Jesus by getting a fresh grasp of the Gospel, and I’ll be honest, after the way 2020 has unfolded so far, I need to think about the Gospel in a fresh way.
Why do I say that? Let me remind us that the word “gospel” in the Greek, euangelion, literally means “good news” or “good story.” From the point of view of the New Testament, the good news means telling the story of God’s salvation for the world through Jesus Christ. So, in the most basic sense, when the church tells the story through words and actions of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection mean, we are proclaiming the Gospel. We’re telling the good story, the good news.
In the recorded gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and as we saw last week with the church’s display of the gospel in Acts 2, the early followers of Jesus did not experience the good news as a set of beliefs or creeds with which a person could either intellectually agree or disagree. That wouldn’t have made any sense to them. In fact, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that that kind of approach completely emaciates the gospel and is nothing that would have been worth Jesus dying for. No, when people experienced the Good News, it was something that drastically changed lives. People who were blind were given sight. People who were hungry were fed. People who were sick were healed. People who had been separated from their families due to torments of body, mind, soul or spirit were relieved of their suffering and restored to their loved ones.
Beyond that, Jesus gave people hope. He offered them a peace that he promised was different from any kind of peace they’d ever known, a peace that could never be taken away no matter what circumstances they endured. Most important of all, Jesus assured people that God loved them, that they were known by and valuable to God, that God was with them and had a purpose and a place for them in God’s kingdom. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, though most of them were poor. It didn’t matter if they had power or not, though most of them were people without a voice and marginalized in society. It didn’t matter if they were Jews or foreigners, men or women, children or slaves. The life Jesus lived, what he taught, the way he died and the astonishing fact of the resurrection meant that all the external categories that are used to judge people—whether in the first century or the 21st—were absolutely irrelevant. What was, and still is, critical is the gift of new life God offers in Christ. It is a life that God initiates. We are invited to respond to God’s invitation in faith, accepting the grace that is part and parcel of the “good story” of Jesus.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul lays out the essentials of the gospel in chapter 15: “I remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news…that Christ died for our sins…that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” In summary form, that is the gospel: Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and on the third day he was raised. After appearing to Peter, then the apostles, then to a group of 500 people, the risen Christ appeared to Saul while Saul was persecuting the church. Because he had been an enemy to Christians everywhere, Paul considered himself the least of all the apostles. That self-assessment gave Paul a deep understanding and appreciation of God’s grace. Without grace, Paul had no place, no ministry, no call, no nothing. And he knows it because it is grace that saves us which is what leads Paul to say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
I think one of the reasons we misunderstand the gospel is that we struggle to grasp how radical grace is. After all, we haven’t persecuted the church or killed people who identified themselves as Christians. Grace saves us? What do we need saving from? We’re good people. We try to do the right thing and live honorably. We work hard. We are taught to value self-sufficiency, independence, and earning what we get in life. The problem is that to this kind of mindset, grace is offensive. Oh, we would never admit it, of course, but it offends our sense of fairness, of justice, of playing by the rules for grace to be so, well, so accessible to everybody—to anybody. Rather than grappling with the profound implications of grace, a lot of us just keep doing what we know how to do—trying to earn God’s favor and be worthy of God’s love by keeping the rules, being good people, checking the appropriate spiritual boxes. We think that if we do the right things and believe the right things, that makes us okay, and it’s okay that it also gives us a leg up on everybody else who doesn’t believe and do as we do.
It’s easy to gloss over who and what we are. Sometimes we need to be reminded that our pride is ugly. It causes us to judge others whom we know nothing about based on a set of standards that we ourselves can’t even fully meet. Our selfishness is injurious to ourselves and to people we love. When our anger leads us to lash out unkindly or drive aggressively or behave impatiently, we are exposing the fragility of our egos. Anytime we are pushed and provoked and our first response is not love, we know we are a long way from being Christlike in our attitudes and actions.
Yet Paul says, no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve failed to do, God reaches out to you just like God reached out to Paul, and in loving grace, saves you, lifts you up, and sets you on a new course, giving a fresh and quite different meaning to your life. “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” Paul says. The question is, can you say that as well?
Grace also nurtures us. Not only did God’s grace save Paul, that grace also produced fruit in his life. It was not given to Paul in vain. In other words, Paul did not squander the grace God gave him, a gift for which he was, like us, totally unworthy.
We know some of Paul’s fruit: he made three missionary journeys that took him to Asia Minor and then to Europe. He founded numerous churches in the process—churches at Iconium, Derbe, Ephesus, Colossae, Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, and Rome, to name a few. He wrote letters to many of his churches, some of which survive as part of our New Testament. He’s been described as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” because it was Paul more than any other apostle who was responsible for Christianity becoming a dominant influence in the Western world.
Our fruit will be different, of course, but the question is as relevant and essential for us as it was for Paul: has God’s grace nurtured you, or was it given to you in vain? Paul wants you to understand that the gospel is not something you believe; it’s your life’s work. By God’s grace we are who we are—parent, partner, employee, retiree, member of Christ’s body. As we live out the gospel in every area of our lives, God’s grace is not in vain. God’s grace saves us and nurtures us.
Lastly, God’s grace empowers us. Paul was a hard worker, just as we are. He wasn’t paid for his missionary work but supported himself making tents as well as relying on the hospitality and generosity of others. He worked hard, yet he says it wasn’t really him, “but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul’s words remind us that we take a lot for granted. The fact that we are not refugees running from violence and war, or that we did not grow up with opportunities for education, basic health care, and good nutrition denied to us because of where or when or to whom we were born—these are significant graces that shape our lives over which we had no control. Even when Paul was suffering as a result of his missionary endeavors, he remembered God’s grace at work in him, and he was grateful.
As we all do when we work hard, Paul inevitably became tired and weak at times. It is possible he had a physical infirmity that contributed to his difficulties. He alludes to it in one of his letters, though we’re not told the nature of it. When he reached times of fatigue and weakness, when he felt his ministry was adversely impacted by his deficiencies, God’s response was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
What can Paul say to that except, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
It is no accident that Paul gives the Corinthians his synopsis of the gospel, calling them to be saved, nurtured and empowered by the grace of God, within the larger context of his lengthy discussion of the resurrection. The gospel is the good story, it’s good news because Jesus has defeated every single enemy that can separate us from God’s grace and love, including the fiercest enemy of all, death itself.
I don’t know about you, but I have needed to return to these words again and again in recent months. With every death we’ve suffered as a congregation, with the pain of every loss, in times of fatigue and illness and self-doubt, as 2020 has not by a long shot started the way I hoped, I have desperately needed a fresh start. I’ve needed to hear again Jesus’ invitation to follow him, to find fresh courage and not be afraid, to open the eyes of my heart to see with a fresh perspective. I’ve needed to be reminded what it means to be the Body of Christ along with you, for us to work together for fresh peace and experience fresh worship, to hear a fresh Word from scripture and be part of God’s mission to the world, which is always new and always fresh. I can’t do any of that without a fresh grasp of the gospel. It is only the power of the gospel that helps us persevere in this life of faith, clinging to God’s extravagant gift of grace, trusting and living into the promise that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.