When we ask ourselves what the gospel is we ask ourselves what message we proclaim. The gospel is understood to be the good news that Jesus proclaimed. Yet, when I reflect upon the gospel I was taught to share (that Jesus died for my sins to restore relationship with God) I have a problem. This was not the same message that Jesus and his disciples proclaimed in the years before his crucifixion.
Over and over again Jesus is focused on the ‘good news of the kingdom of God’. Looking through the Gospel of Luke we see right away in chapter 4 Jesus responding to a crowd. He had just healed people. It was at that moment he told them that he must leave. Jesus gave this reason, saying “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
Many of the parables go on to help us understand this kingdom. The miraculous works of Jesus can be seen as the present reality of this eternal kingdom breaking into our midst (if only for the briefest of moments). This was the message that the disciples were sent out to proclaim. That this divine kingdom was at hand, and that we are being called to allegiance to both this kingdom, and to Jesus its king. Allegiance to Christ our King.
At the onset of Acts (the second part of the Gospel of Luke) Jesus ascends to this Kingdom. The early creeds of the church affirm this, and that he now sits at the right of the Father.
Divine Right of Monarchs
Over its first centuries this new Christian movement was thrown out of the Synagogues for being decidedly not Jewish. To this day when individuals convert to Christianity they lose their Jewish faith. The act of proclaiming the kingdom of God drew people to live in solidarity with marginalized individuals, and to speak out against injustices which are not allowed in the Kingdom of God. Our ancestors in faith were trying to find ways to manifest the eternal reality of the kingdom of God when and where they lived. They saw the actions and teachings of Jesus as the realities of the kingdom of God which they could manifest today.
Over time Christianity came to dominate the religious landscape in Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. It supplanted the old pantheon of Gods from the Greek/Roman world, and those in leadership converted as well. This posed a practical problem for those leaders who were used to being revered as divine, or at least in close/special relationship with the divine. Anyone claiming divinity would be instantly tossed out of a monotheistic religion. Furthermore, all are children of God on the equal footing of grace in the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.
One of the new solutions to this was the Divine Right. This was based on the belief that today, just as in the Old Testament, God chooses leaders who therefore have a special relationship with God. The problem with this from a Christian perspective is that Jesus is the only king of the kingdom of God. There are no other leaders to revere, to pick, or to elevate. How can anyone demand allegiance when Jesus tells us that to follow him will cost us our lives?
Divine Right ignores that seismic shift Jesus brought to the Jewish/Roman world that, in part, lead to him being murdered by both the Roman State, and the Jewish religious leadership. While the Romans called him king of the Jews, we know him as Christ the King. As we jump forward to the Middle Ages we see Divine Right in full swing. The eternal and divine Kingdom of God was domesticated by mere humans with the force of the sword behind them. These earthly rulers would not be subjected to other kingdoms, and theology developed to support them and their positions.
Rather, every earthly nation will be forgotten. They are temporal blips on the eternal landscape overseen by the kingdom of God. The focus and care of the triune God is on the kingdom of God. That Gods jealously restrains God’s ordination, blessing, or selection of earthly rulers now that Christ is enthroned. Instead, those rulers must see themselves as stewards whose obligation it is to free and support all people in freedom, hope, and love. They should feel the overwhelming need to realize justice, and to ensure those who Jesus was most concerned about are cared for. They should be peacemakers.
So the “Good News” adapted, and in many ways grew out of this historic reality. It became palatable to those in power. These individuals and institutions created world views to simplify the gospel into something which would not threaten their reigns or rules. Instead of “proclaiming of the Kingdom of God being at hand” there comes the development of a transactional gospel. Instead of the resurrection of Christ proving his eternal kingship, and power over everything (including death – that ultimate result of sin) the “Good News” becomes – and is reduced to – a commercial/legal exchange of debts (sins).
Implications for Today
In Western Europe the majority of countries have become legally secular (I don’t know how to understand the English monarch as the head of their church). This creates an opportunity for us to rediscover the kingdom of God. How can we live, proclaim, and realize the kingdom of God today? There are so many opportunities for this. For us to embody our allegiance to Christ the King, by doing the work of Jesus in our midst. Leaving tastes, samples, and glimpses of the kingdom of God where we have been.
Proclaiming the kingdom of God demands that we dream bigger than the smallness of the gospel I had been told, taught, and proclaimed. The kingdom of God means restored relationship with the Father. It means acceptance, hope, grace, and love are given freely to all. It means that we become adopted children, and heirs to the promise God made to Abraham. The gospel means that the law was fulfilled in Christ, and that the cross has given us eternal freedom from the impact of our sin. When we talk of the kingdom of God we speak of the wide sweeping transformation of all things into harmony, into wholeness, into grace, into love, and into the holy presence of God.
Our call is not to abandon the reality that Jesus died on the cross for us. It is to embrace the full reality of what Christ has done. To accept that we fight against the Kingdom of God in our actions, our lives and in what we have inherited (systems, institutions, culture, etc.). To proclaim that the kingdom of God is near we must then follow our words with actions taken in faith with God to realize that hope.
We are called to get together every Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, and the affirmation that the kingdom is real. To preach in such a way that people can feel their souls resonate with their true home. As John the Baptist leapt in his mothers womb when Jesus was near, our charge in preaching is to bring the reality of this kingdom down into the room with us, so many can hear. That each of our souls may leap as the Kingdom draws near to us.