There’s a neat story tucked away in the Bible about four leprous men (2 Kings 7). The story goes that the city of Samaria, capital of Northern Israel, was besieged by its Assyrian enemy. Being cut off from the outside world, the city began to starve and deteriorated into chaos…
These four men were not only starving, but were socially cut off, having been forced outside the city walls because their disease. They decided that since they were dying anyway, they would surrender to the enemies and maybe be spared. Then they took a risky step in the direction of the enemy camp.
To their utter surprise, they found the entire enemy gone. Tents were empty, horses gone, and food and supplies left behind. The story goes that the Lord caused the sound of a vast army to scare the enemy army away.
So, the men went from tent to tent and started filling their pockets. Imagine their relief and excitement. But, all of a sudden, a thought struck one of the men. What about the people in the city? A whole city starving without knowledge that salvation was just outside the city gates? This led the people back to the city with their amazing news and the city ultimately returned to peace and justice.
Jesus and the lepers
The Gospel of Saint Luke also tells a story of lepers, this time 10. Some 700 years after the text in 2 Kings, Jesus was traveling near the same area. Jesus told these 10 to go to the priests, and like the other lepers they left where they were in hope of a miracle. By the time they showed up to see the priests, they were all miraculously healed. But only one returned with praise and thanksgiving to Jesus. The other nine disappeared never to be heard of again.
These two stories are helpful images of gospel, a word that means good news. In one story, four receive God’s favor and all four acted by sharing their good news. In the end, they would have still remained diseased and separated from others, they had nothing to gain. In the other, 10 receive God’s favor and only one shares his good news. He is a Samaritan, although healed, he will remain a guy at the bottom of the social ladder because of his ethnicity.
These stores also help us imagine our cities and the needs in our cities. We might even ask ourselves: is it time for the church, which has largely moved out of cities, to return to the city and with legitimately good news? Even if it costs us, even if we can have it better outside the city separated from its crises?
But what is our good news? In the original language, the word gospel was used for a proclamation, something big enough to affect the whole kingdom. In the New Testament, Good News is synonymous with news of Jesus and our Gospel books are accounts of Jesus (i..e the Gospel of Matthew, Mark and so on).
Imagining a bigger Gospel
Gospel often takes the particular meaning of atonement, or the saving work of Jesus. Essentially, it means that if we accept it, God’s grace and love go beyond our sin and is bigger than all our obstacles combined, because that’s who God is and what his love is like. But is that Gospel big enough?
Writer Dallas Willard answers, “no.” Willard suggests that a second gospel is needed for a complete picture—the Gospel of the Kingdom. In short, the Gospel goes beyond what Jesus has done and asks us to live into what Jesus is doing, namely restoring or redeeming creation, including people.
Willard tells the humorous story of a church member that goes to his pastor to inform him that he will be leaving his wife and family because he’s fallen in love with another women.
The pastor is, of course, livid and instructs him that cannot possibly follow through with this decision. The mans argues that of course he can, after all the pastor himself preaches that Jesus will forgive us or sins if we simply believes that Jesus died on the cross for us.
This of course is distorted example of Gospel. But it does demonstrate how the Gospel of Atonement alone is not enough alone to respond to such behavior. We are also invited into Jesus’ Kingdom including living in a new way and in step with his ongoing work in the world.
The following questions are helpful at contrasting the two:
- What is the Gospel?
- And, What is the Gospel like?
For example, I live in Montreal, a big city. If I ask: What is traffic in Montreal? There are some pretty concrete answers including when and where it often happens and what the causes are.
If I ask, What is traffic in Montreal like? The answers are very different indeed. I might respond that traffic in Montreal is like getting a tooth pulled!
The Elixir-like Gospel
So… what is the Gospel like? And, what is the Gospel like for our city? Answers flow not from a theological construct, but out of rich experience and creative imagination. Therefore, we need more images of what the Gospel is like and could be like, painted as if by an artist or a poet.
One such poet was a 17th century Anglican priest and poet named George Herbert. Despite his accessibility to more prestigious vocations, he entered the priesthood and ministered in a humble position in the countryside. Shortly after his early death at 39, a collection of his poetry was published, including a poem titled, The Elixir.
In his day, people were fascinated by alchemy and the birth of modern chemistry was right around the corner. There were myths about a Philosopher’s Stone, which could turn any material to gold. There was also the famed Elixir of Life. It was this Elixir to which Herbert compared the Gospel, although not in the way we might think.
This Elixir was an elixir of healing but not by magical touch for that would not require any change on our part. Rather, the Elixir was an active sense of Gospel, of living into the work of Christ as he restores and redeems the world around us.
“Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.”
Actively living the Gospel was life-giving for Herbert and the more we participate in it, the more we live in its power. It sets us running back to the city gates and shouting for the guards to open the doors! It is the one out of ten, who receives healing and then lives out his healing in everything he does.
Ultimately, every church has a gospel for their city today. But what is our gospel like? Unless our gospel is like: joy, hope, healing, growth, forgiveness, sharing… practiced and lived out in real time, I’m not sure it will make a difference. Unless our Gospel is like Jesus really being here with us… really restoring things now, people may continue to wonder if our news is really that good at all.
Tim Keener lives and works in Montreal, a big city with big needs. His believes in a bigger Gospel for all of creation. He is a minister with the Evangelical Covenant Church of Canada.