Scripture Readings: Matthew 9:35-10:1, Romans 5:1-8
What is our gospel message? What is our good news? What is the good news that we have to share with others? Before I attempt to answer this question, ask yourself how you would answer. What does being a Christian really mean to you? What is the heart of your faith?
All Christians answer by affirming faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, it is obvious that Christians differ in their understanding of this faith. The diversity of belief, as well as the continuity of faith, is revealed by the history of the church. Therefore, we should be humble and tolerant rather than dogmatic about specifying the beliefs necessary for Christian faith. Nonetheless, we believe strongly that some beliefs are better than others, and that certain beliefs are destructive and dangerous. So, how can we explain why our beliefs about Christian faith are better than the beliefs held by many Christians who disagree with us?
Think about biblical passages that stir you. These passages are central to your faith. Now, try to recall texts in the Bible that make you cringe. These may well be central to the faith of other Christians. Conflict in the church reflects the way Christians interpret parts of scripture. So, to clarify our "good news" we have to be clear about how we read the Bible.
In Matthew 10:1 Jesus gives his disciples "authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness." Most of us do not like the passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus as an exorcist. Yet, the power of Jesus over evil spirits or demons and his battle with Satan (sometimes called the devil or the evil one) is central to the gospel narratives.
In the first three gospels Satan tempts Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, and Jesus battles demonic powers until he is crucified. The gospel of Matthew depicts the "scribes and the Pharisees" as tools of the devil and vilifies them as "snakes" and "vipers" that will be sent to hell. (Mt. 23:33) In the gospel of John, Jesus says to his Jewish adversaries, "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires." (Jn. 8:44) The belief that Jesus Christ will win a cosmic war against Satan and his human allies is not only dramatized in the Book of the Revelation to John at the end of the Bible, but is substantiated by many other passages in the New Testament.
In her analysis of The Origin of Satan, Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels writes: "So compelling is this vision of cosmic war that it has pervaded the imagination of millions of people for two thousand years. Christians from Roman times through the Crusades, from the Protestant Reformation through the present, have invoked it to interpret opposition and persecution in myriad contexts. To this day, many Christians – Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox – invoke the figure of Satan against ‘pagans’ (among whom they may include those involved with non-Christian religions throughout the world) and against ‘heretics’ (that is, against other Christians with whom they disagree), as well as against atheists and unbelievers."
This black and white, win-lose view of history and the end of history has also shaped the beliefs of non-Christians, as well as the beliefs of agnostics and atheists, who see the forces of good in conflict with the forces of evil. Pagels notes that: "Millions of Muslims invoke similar apocalyptic visions and switch the sides, so that those who Christians believe are God’s people become, for many Muslims, allies of ‘the great Satan.’" Similarly, Communism has captivated millions with its secularized version of this cosmic conflict between the demonic forces of capitalism and the workers of the world.
Christians need to acknowledge that this tradition of faith and belief does not come from the Greek and Roman side of our Western heritage, but from the Christian Bible and the witness of the church. Satan is hardly a character in the Old Testament, except as a literary device in Job, but the devil is a major figure in the New Testament and lives on in the life and witness of the church. The church has to take responsibility for unleashing and embellishing this dangerous belief in Satan. Christians, not Jews or pagans, have proclaimed that the good news, to quote from Matthew 25:41, is salvation for the righteous and "eternal fire" for the unrighteous and for "the devil and his angels."
There are, however, other ways of understanding the good news in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1-5 affirms that through our faith we have "peace with God" and that "God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." This belief may not have been dominant in Christian history, but it has always been present in the witness of the church. We may proclaim, therefore, that the good news of Christian faith is the love of God for us and for the whole world – a love not only revealed in the sacrifice of Jesus, but also in the Holy Spirit given to all those who are faithful.
In Matthew 5:43-44 we read: "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.’" In Romans 8:38-39 Paul affirms that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ." 1 John 4:16 proclaims that "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." The testimony to the love of God in Jesus Christ and among those with faith is at the heart of the gospel message.
Yet, before we quickly claim this loving Christian witness as our own, we need to admit that we want "to win" just as much as more dogmatic Christians. We may not share their apocalyptic view of history, or their longing for the final judgment of God, but we certainly want the forces of good to vanquish the forces of evil. And just as our Christian adversaries are convinced of their righteousness, so are we.
Thus, our challenge is not only to affirm love, God’s love and our own love, but to strive for what we believe is right without demonizing those who believe we are wrong. This means not using the language of war, even as a metaphor, because this kind of speech encourages the dehumanization of our adversaries. Renouncing the crusader spirit is imperative now, as government officials and Christian leaders call for war against all those complicit with the forces of evil.
As Christians, we are commanded to respond to threats against us and to our own fear with the spirit of peace, rather than the self-justifying rhetoric of war. We are called to love our enemies and to pray for our adversaries. Our goal is justice and reconciliation, rather than victory and retribution. The church should not to be a staging ground for holy war, but a place of safety and hospitality. Our nation should not sacrifice its fundamental freedoms for a false sense of security, but should defend our way of life by strengthening the rule of law at home and abroad.
What is our good news? It is not that Jesus Christ will free humanity from bondage to Satan. For centuries this has been horrible news for Jews and Muslims and people of indigenous traditions. What is our good news? It is not that our nation’s armed forces will destroy all those who see America as Satan. This, too, will wreak horror on countless innocent men and women and will not secure justice in our world. What is our good news? It is not that we are on the side of righteousness and thus will prevail over our benighted Christian foes. Our lack of faith is obvious, and the fact that others may be wrong does not necessarily mean that we are right.
What is our good news? Our good news is that love, divine and human love, is stronger than evil. Cling to this belief. Share this hope. Live this faith.
June 16, 2002