Spreading the Gospel in the 21st Century

Amos 5:14–15; Matthew 28:16–20 , preached by Rev. Doug Conley on July 23, 2023

We are halfway through our July combined services with our friends at First Congregational Church. Since Jane McBride preached the last two Sundays at UBC, I’m glad to be back preaching here at First Church for the next two Sundays. My topic (pulled out of the Grab Bag) will be “How do we spread the Gospel in the 21st Century?“ 

When we think of spreading the Gospel, we often have to wonder which Gospel we are spreading. While we are drawn to spreading the Gospel of love, mercy, acceptance, peace and justice, there are plenty that are spreading hate, prejudice, exclusion, and violence in the name of Christianity. How do we spread which Gospel? In the Gospels there are three mandates from Jesus. There is the Great Commission that occurs in today’s scripture: “Go ye into all the world and preach my gospel to every creature.” Some think this is the be all and end all of Christianity. But what about the Great Commandment, “Love God with all of your heart, strength, soul and mind. Oh yeah, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said that in this commandment is all of the law and the prophets. The Cliff Notes version of the Hebrew Bible. And then there is the Great Criteria that Jane preached on last week. It’s found in Matthew 25 and it says whenever we do or do not do something to the least of these we have or have not done it to Christ. It’s a commandment to make no distinctions and live by mercy and compassion. Matthew’s Gospel also includes the three-chapter Sermon on the Mount veritable manifesto on mercy—starting out with the Beatitudes and getting deep into ethics. In the apostles’ creed, it says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and so on. That comma contains all of the ethical teachings of Jesus, including the great commission, the great commandment ,and the great criteria. Maybe that’s why Baptists and Congregationalists have been so suspicious of creeds, because of who or what it leaves out.

So the easy answer to the question of how to we spread the word in the 21st century is to keep to the great commandment, the great criteria and the great commission. But how do you spread the Gospel and which Gospel do you spread? I read on social media this week a piece by Jim Palmer:

People will often say, “My authority is the Bible.” It would be more accurate for them to say, “My authority is what they told me at church the Bible means.” That’s not meant to be overly snarky. It’s just the reality of it. There has never been a singular or unified interpretation of the Bible. One’s theological understandings are shaped and formed by their religious sub-culture or tradition. Throughout history there have been varying Christian views on even the most fundamental doctrines associated with the Christian faith such as the divinity of Jesus, existence of hell, God as a supreme being, the doctrine of original sin, and the Trinity. The idea that there is an enduring core theology that is accepted as “Christian” is not true. What is “Biblical Christianity” to one person is not to another. There are at least 14 Factors that influence how one interprets the Bible

1. Your views regarding the inspiration of Scripture.

2. Whether you would favor a literal or figurative interpretation of any given passage.

3. Your knowledge and awareness of other “related” Scriptures dealing with the same issue, including the immediate context and the broader context of the entire body of Scripture.

4. Your knowledge and understanding of the background and motivation of the writer.

5. The way in which a given interpretation fits into your over-all theological belief system.

6. Your level of understanding of the original language in which the text was written.

7. The various interpretations and commentaries to which you have already been exposed.

8. The ways in which one processes information—a Western cerebral approach, an Eastern intuitive approach, and others.

9. The degree to which you are willing to accept logical inconsistencies as part of your belief system.

10. Your willingness to change your views in the light of new information.

11. The degree to which you are satisfied with your current views.

12. The amount of time you are willing to devote to your theological study and inquiry.

13. The unwillingness to consider alternative interpretations that diverge from your religious tradition.

14. Your overall view of God that has been conditioned by many different life experiences and relationships. Based on the above variables, does it surprise anyone that there are many different ways the Bible is interpreted? This is especially problematic because many people view the Bible as something to be “right about.”

So, what Gospel do you spread? That’s the question. The Bible is not a rulebook containing no errors. It’s a mirror of God’s people searching for survival and truth. It was written by many authors over many centuries. So, it contradicts itself at times. You can trace the writer by who is favored and who is demonized. It’s like our lives.

I find myself drawn to the parts of the Bible that challenge oppressive structures and that point people toward a more holy life that is based upon love, mercy, compassion, justice, and peace. When I find passages that don’t point in that direction, I’m challenged to find out why. What outside forces were bearing down on the people? I’m challenged to find the words between the words. The stories of those left out, those unnamed, those to whom Jesus always seemed to gravitate. And here’s a hint, it was those whom established religion had shunned.

Womanist theologian and scholar Wilda Gaffney has written a women’s lectionary for the 21st century. She lifts up forgotten stories and centers women’s experiences. This lectionary informs some of our worship planning at UBC and I bet it holds sway here at First Church as well. Take this passage from Amos, that great eighth-century prophet who spoke shocking words to a Hebrew community that was prosperous and the center of society. They held their rituals with great devotion and celebrated how great they were because of it. It was into this mindset that Amos bellowed his pointed words of condemnation of the empty rituals of the Hebrew people. While they sat in luxury and ease, their neighbors were starving. While they celebrated their exclusive religious club, Amos berated them saying

Seek good and not evil, that you may live, and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14–15) 

Amos was largely ignored. Told that he was not educated enough and should keep to himself. In a fit of rage, as if turning over the tables of the moneychangers he raised the ante and quoted God saying, 

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21–24) 

My ordaining pastor and mentor George Williamson wrote a memoir entitled Born in Sin, Upended by Grace. In it he wrote about how there are two bibles to which we are beholden. One is a Priestcraft Bible, which is focused on religion, spiritual cleanliness, or holiness. It calls its opponents idolatrous and abominations. Its goal is eternal individual salvation. It is the stuff of absolute belief and sacred dogma. It contains religious comfort and it organizes itself so as to make an institution thrive. It’s the official bible of the church. 

Then there is the Prophetic Bible and it criticizes organized religion and individual spirituality as evil. This bible is a minority of voices but it is a strong and subversive one. It can be found in the eighth-century prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah). It can be found in the Gospels and also in Ruth, Job, Song of Songs, Jonah, Acts, James, and Revelation 21. This prophetic bible’s focus is that creation and people are good, not evil. And its goal is the transformation of history. It inspires not the Church but the Prophetic Remnant.

So when I read something like the great commission, I read it from a prophetic lens. Preach the gospel of love, preach the gospel of mercy, show the gospel of compassion, live the gospel of peace and justice, and let that spread to the whole world. And yes, engage the world in this movement—causing people to take the baptismal plunge of commitment to a transformed world. I wonder what God would say to our churches here in the 21st century? How do we spread the word in the 21st century? At our University Area Sanctuary Coalition meeting on Tuesday of this week, we heard a warning that certain southern governors are going to be sending busloads of migrants to northern cities. Perhaps as early as this summer. We’re trying to figure out the best response to this crisis. What is the Christian response? Well, I suppose that depends on how you define your Christianity. But I know the Sanctuary Coalition that our churches are a part of are part of a remnant movement of subversive service and sacred solidarity. We welcome your prayers and ideas as we seek to take another brave and even foolish step toward radical welcome. That’s spreading the word in its best form. 

So find ways individual and collectively to spread the word in the 21st century. In this age of cynicism and defeatism, we are compelled and drawn to the good news as an antidote to all the bad news out there. 

Spread the word that mercy and compassion and love and justice and peace are not just quaint euphemisms, but rather the very thing that will save us. 

Spread the word that redemptive violence is a myth. 

Spread the word that exclusion and downright meanness in the name of religion is not only idolatry, but a threat to our very survival. 

Spread the word that justice is always God’s way. Justice not just us. I like what Richard Roth says: 

Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

Think of God or the Gospel as a tree. Justice is the hard trunk, able to withstand strong breezes. Love is the sap stored in its roots and pumping through it giving way to growth. Mercy and compassion are its fruits. And under its shade is peace. And don’t we all long to rest under its shade? 

May you lose yourself in the woods to find yourself again. 

May you keep on singing and dancing ‘til the end. 

May your dark turn to light, and your death into birth. 

May your spirit be wild and may your heaven be on earth.