For some years I have believed the gospel is good news about Jesus and his reign in this world and in the world to come. Thus we pray as our Lord taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The gospel of the kingdom is not about grasping facts, repeating words or saying some version of the “Roman Road” with proof texts that invite a closing prayer. Do not misunderstand me -- the death, burial and resurrection of the man Jesus are historical realities, not pious myths. This man from Nazareth was more than a mortal man, which we forget he really was in some churches. He was, and is, divine. I hold to an orthodox Christology. But the gospel is much more than Christology, especially when Christology is understood simply as “right beliefs” about the person of Jesus Christ.
The living truth of the gospel is something that we access through a faith journey, a journey that is antithetical to human certainty. This journey may/will bring us to make clear doctrinal statements but these statements are not the gospel. Remember, you can believe all the right things and not know Jesus. It is only as we step out in faith into the things to which God calls us that we experience God’s faithfulness, but this step is always taken in uncertainty and with a lack of full understanding. Faith is not an irrational leap in the dark but it is not a rational grasp of beliefs either. Faith is not anti-rational but it does transcend reason. The ancient mystics always understood this point. So did the Reformed thinker Jonathan Edwards. But few modern Christians understand it at all.
Most modern religion supplanted this type of spiritual journey and claimed that faith was believing in the truth of certain sacred doctrines. Or faith was hearing these truths and accepting them by the will. But all of this is very different from the kind of faith the gospel calls us to in Jesus. Jesus never associates faith with a belief in sacred doctrines. Instead of doctrinal beliefs that offer certainty, Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” That’s it.
When we follow Jesus we discover a God that is very different from what we had anticipated based upon religion or human/biblical forms of faith. The Jesus that religion and theology present to us is often very different from the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This religious Jesus that we follow is very often a tribal Jesus who shares our values and conforms to our notions of right and wrong. He punishes evildoers and rewards good people who believe the right things and practice the right kind of behavior. (Quite often such good people are those who are most like us since we believe that we have the truth and understand the mystery of true faith! This is why we keep creating new denominations and movements.)
The problem with this is clear. We make Jesus into our likeness and ignore all the things that he says that seem strange and mysterious to our way of religion. We convince ourselves that he did not really mean it when he said we are to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. And we cannot comprehend how the last are really not first and the first are actually last so we spiritualize this saying to make it fit our religion. We especially have a hard time believing that God is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” And we fiercely debate how Jesus could speak as true God and pray for his torturers to be forgiven while he was on the cross. This is just too foreign to our human understanding. Consequently, we go on imagining a Jesus who will fit nicely into our fearful and limited understanding. This is so much easier than believing in a Jesus who changes our understanding in order that we might come to know the mystery of God’s mercy.