If you will, join me in a little exercise of our imaginations. Close your eyes, feel yourself relaxing, letting the worries of the day fall away from your thoughts. Take a few deep breaths.
Imagine yourself far away from Pasadena, far away from Fuller, in Israel, near the sea of Galilee. You can hear the sea birds and you can feel the cool breeze on your face. You are in your small village, having just finished a long day of work. You take some time to walk out away from the commotion of the village, seeking some quiet after a busy day, making sure not to wander in the direction of the group of lepers which you know live nearby. As you walk you find yourself on a small hill overlooking a group of tired looking men. They can't see you, but you can see and hear them talking. One man stands out. The others are obviously deferring to him. He's not at all striking in appearance, but there's something about him, something in his expression which intrigues you.
As you sit, partially hidden behind a bush, you hear, then see, another man approaching. This man is obviously not doing well. He is extremely gaunt, and wearing what can only barely be called clothes. These tatters are wrapped all around him, trying to cover seemingly every part of his body. But the wind and their raggedness keep that an impossible task. As he comes closer, you get a good look at his face. White splotches cover what you can see underneath the rags. Scabs and sores are everywhere. This man, you realize shockingly, is a leper, one cursed by God, whose sin is clearly shown for the world to see -- and he's coming towards this group of men below you!
One of the men, the one who stood out to you, stands up when he sees the man approaching. You expect him to start yelling at the accursed man who is coming closer. But he just stands there, staring intensely at the man as he comes closer and closer. The others in the group have more presence of mind, obviously, because they start backing up, keeping their distance from the unclean one.
The one man, though continues to stand there. Even as, you can't hardly believe this, the leper kneels right before him, prostrating himself with his hands outstretched before him. You then hear a raspy voice, full of emotion and desperation, "If you want to, you can make me well again."
You are shocked by the plea. But as you watch you see an odd mixture of emotions on the face of the man who is standing. You not surprisingly see what appears to be a flash of anger, but the anger is obviously not directed at the diseased man because you hear a quiet, compassionate voice say, "I want to." Then sternly, with more authority than you've ever heard in your life he says, "Be healed!"
As the man on the ground begins to rise, the rags covering his face and arms fall away. You see nothing, no sores, no scabs, no white splotches. All you see is perfectly normal skin. The man's eyes go wide as he notices, and surely feels, what just happened. Before he could say anything though, the holy man, for who else could do something like that, spoke again, "Go right over to the priest and let him examine you. Don't stop and see or talk to anybody on the way. Take along the offering that is required in the Law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy; so everyone will have proof of your healing."
Overwhelmed by what you just witnessed you walk away, eventually getting back to your village. When you get there a commotion is going on, everyone is talking excitedly. A friend of yours catches you before you go inside your house and tells you about the leper who just ran through, telling everybody that he had been healed by a holy man who was camped just a little ways away from the village. He said he was going to the priest to be officially declared as clean. You join the crowd and go back to the man, where you hear him teach and speak of wonderful things, speak of what is truly good news.
As you open your eyes, and come back to Pasadena, think about this: What is the Gospel? This is an important question, and one which we must wrestle with, not simply come up with a trite answer which uses all the stock phrases we have come to master while here at seminary, but to really understand what is good about the news we have been called to proclaim. For the answer to this question is at the heart of all that we are planning to do, and how we answer this question will radically affect what kind of ministry we will have, what we will fight for, and how we will lead a community of those who have been convinced that the news we preach is indeed good news.
You know, to be honest, I’m not sure how good a lot of people think our news is. Sure, some people know what we are saying and ignore it, or reject it because it requires a change in life, but I'm not sure that's true for everyone. In some ways, I think, we have lost the core of what is really good about the news, and with this we have lost the ability to effectively reach out to the world we live in.
In Mark 1:40-45 which was the basis of our imaginative journey, we find a leper in need of something good, something real, something life-changing. In that day and age to have a contagious skin disease -- all of which varieties were lumped together and called leprosy - was to be one cursed. Not simply by having the disease, but the mere fact that you had it meant that you had done something wrong and you were being punished. Leprosy came because the person lived a wrong lifestyle and thus came under the judgment of God. God hates lepers, the people thought. In the book of Leviticus we find detailed instructions about how to identify these diseases and what to do if someone has them. The person who is finally diagnosed by a priest must, as Leviticus 13:45 says, "tear their clothing and allow their hair to hang loose. Then as they go from place to place, they must cover their mouth and call out, 'Unclean, Unclean!' As long as the disease lasts, they will be ceremonially unclean and must live in isolation outside the camp." That's what I call bad news. And that's how the leper, who we find in Mark, lived.
Jesus, however, did not rebuke the man for not following the guidelines. Instead of rejecting him because of the man's uncleanness, whose uncleanness would spread to anybody he came into contact with, Jesus stood and let the man kneel before him. He didn't tell the bad that he was cursed, he didn’t talk about how he should have lived a lifestyle that was more conducive to avoiding infectious diseases, he didn't say that God has rejected him. Instead, Jesus healed the man. Jesus' cleanness wiped away the uncleanness of the man. In him was something stronger than the corruption that the disease brought. Instead of being contaminated he refreshed and renewed the once rejected man. He made whole that which was broken. He not only spoke news that was good, he acted it out. The man did not need to be told the news was good because it truly changed his life for the better. Even Jesus then could not prevent the man from telling everybody the news that Jesus was bringing.
What was the sign of the Messiah? When John the Baptist asked Jesus if he truly was the one predicted Jesus responded that (Luke 7:22) The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." Jesus did not have to convince people with good salesmanship that his news was good. It's goodness was evident to see for itself, which allowed him to also preach things that were harder to hear. If we in our day and age have to work at convincing people our news is really good, is it really that good? That is a worthwhile question to ask ourselves as we start or continue our work in ministry.
I can't help but think that we in the church were given a similar opportunity as Jesus was here. In the 1980's a disease appeared that was mysterious, contagious, and life-threatening. It quickly became identified as being related to behavior, behavior that was generally condemned by the church. To get this disease meant you were probably doing something you shouldn't have, and God was probably cursing you for your sin. This disease started panic, in society in general, but no where more so than in the conservative Evangelical world where well-known leaders used this disease to preach fear, paranoia, and rejection. The news about this disease was very bad, and Christians made sure everybody knew how bad this news was. Others, however, had compassion and sought to help, to comfort, to heal finding themselves rejected by the church for doing so.
One wonders, however, what society would be like now, what voice the Church would have in countless areas of our culture if instead of preaching fear and rejection, ministers preached comfort, love, and news that was good for those who were facing the worst news of all. I wonder if what we say is good news would be better accepted as being really good, if we acted in a way which showed our goodness. Because we rejected in action, now we are faced with a society that is spiritually eager and starving, but not interested in what we in the church have to say. Though we preached good news, we did not bring good news. Jesus healed the man who was unclean and cursed, and people flocked to him, so much so he couldn't even enter a city anymore. To these people he then preached the good news of salvation, of wholeness, of what God's kingdom is like.
In Acts (3:1-10) we read of Peter and John on their way to the Temple. A crippled beggar asked them for money. Peter told the man to look at them, and then said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk" And he helped the man up, and the man began to walk. He was healed. That's some good news. The man followed them to the temple, jumping and walking, praising God for what happened.
The story is also told of Augustine, who was being given a tour of the grand city of Constantinople in the 5th century. His guide led him by the beautiful Hagia Sophia, the grandest church ever. As they approached the church his guide said to Augustine, "Well I guess we no longer have to say 'Silver or gold I do not have.' Augustine stopped, looked at his guide, and said, "Yes that is certainly true, but we no longer can say "Get up and walk". The Hagia Sophia now is a mosque, by the way.
Of course, we also need to look at this from another direction. The 20th century gave us seemingly two paths of the Gospel. One was the purity of the preaching as seen by the fundamentalists and the evangelicals. The preached Gospel, and evangelization, was all that mattered. The other came from the liberal side, exemplified in the person of Albert Schweitzer, a medical doctor, a well-regarded musician, and theologian who when he was in his late twenties wrote a famous book about how we can't know the real Jesus. Not long after he left what was shaping up to be an amazing career in various fields of academia to become a missionary doctor in the heart of Africa. He had no good news to preach but he brought news that was good to those who were sick.
The splitting of the Gospel has resulted now in what is oftentimes a message without action, or action with no message. The fullness of the news that Christ taught has been lost, and people are no longer really interested in what we have to say. Jesus was able to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan because he first was the good Samaritan, helping those in need without placing burdens on them. Jesus did not heal the leper to use him, he healed him because what he taught and how he lived truly was good, and so the healing was a reflection of who he was. Indeed he told the leper not to tell anyone, possibly because he didn't want the rest of his message to be lost. Because the goodness of his news did not end with the man's healing of his body, it also included the healing of his soul. Good news is both preached and shown.
News that is simply preached can become empty or indeed hypocritical.. In scandals and in simple abandonment of what we were called to be we find people rejecting the church not because of the Gospel that is preached, but because of what is revealed by the actions of far too many Christian leaders. Good works though are in themselves simply band aids covering more fundamental problems. The Gospel, in its fullness reaches to both the present and the future, speaking good things to our current and eternal existence.
Before 313AD, Christianity was illegal. Christians were at times persecuted, tortured, and killed. Yet the movement grew at alarming rates. Christians were known to be a people who took in orphans, who ministered to prisoners, who associated with all types of people in a way which was scandalous to those in the upper classes. Yet people were drawn to them because of this. Tertullian, a famous Early Christian author, writes that he became a Christian because he was so intrigued with how they treated the poor and sick, as well as their willingness to stay true to their beliefs.
In the 18th century a man became convinced that there was something more to the Christian life than was being taught in the churches of his day. He began organizing Christian gatherings and teaching that God wants us to really be holy. He also began movements of prison and hospital reform, fought against slavery, and led all sorts of helps for the poor and needy. Certainly the effects of this whole ministry of John Wesley are evident for all to see even to our day. He said we cannot do good works without God, but we cannot help doing good works if God is truly with us.
So what does this mean for us now? Simply that in our ministries we must continually make sure that we are both preaching and acting out the news that really is good. We are now in a situation where because of a lack of doing, what we say as Christians is looked upon with suspicion. When we speak now of Christ, the news which people may hear alongside our words may include such bad things as sexual abuse and racism, rather than hope and life. We have an uphill battle now, but if we stay true to the fullness of word and deed we will find ourselves once again able to adequately speak to this broken world. I see light in what Bono, the lead singer of U2, is doing in seeking to organize a global movement to help poverty and AIDS victims in Africa, taking our treasury secretary on a tour, and getting vast amounts of money to fight against these evils. From this kind of action we can speak further of news that is good and whole. We may not now be able to always see the kind of healing like we see in the Bible, but we can offer hope, comfort, friendship, and love in a broad amount of ways which illustrate and authenticate what it is we speak.
Fuller has taught us the words of Good News, but it is our responsibility to continue to seek the deeper level of working out the news that is good in the lives of those who come into our lives. It is vital for our message, the message of salvation and eternal life, that we recover the image of ones who truly do minister to the broken and broken hearted. This full ministry is what Jesus shows us in the Gospels, what we see in Acts and throughout the New Testament, and indeed throughout Church history in those who were willing to find their strength and guidance in God. The Holy Spirit has given us gifts, not only us but all those in our communities, to preach and bring in reality news that is really good to those who really need to hear it, and experience it. That is our calling and our joy. May we all have wisdom and grace to truly become the ministers that really bring good news to those who gather around us, and in doing so glorify the one who is the source of all good things.
(Read Isaiah 58:3-11). Let's pray.