John’s first epistle is written to combat gnosticism in the second-century church. Gnosticism divides the world between the physical and the spiritual. Gnostics believed that Jesus was the man and Christ was the spirit. Thus, John proclaims in his opening statement, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” The Incarnate Word was fully man and fully God.
So why has the gospel message become truncated? Why are we led to believe Jesus died to save our soul that we may be with him in heaven, but that the other parts of our humanity are of peripheral interest to the Lord of life?
This is the CliffsNotes version of the “gospel.” Sojourners chief church engagement officer Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right tells us why.
As a black man, I combat conflicts about my identity as I live in this “Christian nation” daily, and sometimes moment by moment. Growing up, I heard from evangelicals that God doesn’t see color. God is not interested in our physical bodies — God redeems the soul. As I matured in my faith, I never doubted that God loved me, but I did begin to question how books, sermons, and conferences were interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. Hours after I would leave church or a conference, I did not feel empowered to engage the world as a person created in God’s image. Rather, I felt like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
One day I visited Dr. Perry Yoder with my mentor and friend, Dr. Samuel Barkat. Yoder is a professor of Old Testament who has done exceptional work studying the biblical concept of shalom. Shalom is one of the most misinterpreted words in scripture, he explained. He shared that Jesus’s work on the cross redeemed more than souls. Jesus repaired more than just a “spiritual” relationship with God. Jesus redeemed the brokenness in the relationship between humanity and the earth, humanity within self, humans in relationship with each other, and more. Professor Yoder helped me to see that God actually saw me in all of my blackness mixed with Native American, Jewish, and European heritage. God wants to redeem me and the culture that nurtures my identity. God is redeeming whole people.
The gospel is Good, but we don’t grasp how good it really is. It redeems brokenness and provides justice when injustice is present. The gospel is good, because Jesus died for the sins I committed, but also the sins that were committed against me.
Recently I read an article describing the early days of Georgetown University. The institution was struggling financially. In order to meet their obligations, the Jesuits sold their slaves to owners in the Deep South, mostly Louisiana. The priests pleaded with the purchasers to continue to share the gospel with the slaves, because they have been sharing the gospel with them.
The Jesuit’s version of the gospel provided opportunity for slaves to meet God in heaven, but it wasn’t good enough to free them from their taskmasters.
Lisa Sharon Harper’s book seeks to recalibrate this gospel and explain how very good the news really is.
As a campus minister, I would disseminate The Very Good Gospel to my seniors. Before they graduate, I would want them to know how to articulate Jesus’s impact on every aspect of human life.
Millennials are frustrated by the duplicity of those who attend church. On Sunday morning Christians sing, worship, pray, and engage in rituals, but once the workweek begins, all of the practices from Sunday are repressed. Either they forget what was taught, or it didn't mean much to them, or it wasn’t relevant to the world they live in. I strongly encourage use of The Very Good Gospel to offer students a tool to build relevant faith. They need to know the gospel is good. It is very good!