People have a lot to say these days about the Christian faith, specifically the iteration of Christianity labeled “evangelical.” What does it mean to be evangelical? Should people continue to use the term because of historical or theological significance? Has the current political climate rendered the term void? The takes are countless.
I want to consider this from a different angle though. The word “evangelical” is derived from a Greek word εὐαγγέλιον meaning “good news” or “gospel.” Those in favor of keeping the term in use are often quick to point this out. Evangelicals, in the historic sense, are about sharing the “good news” or “gospel” of Jesus Christ, which has come to be understood as a personal decision to follow Christ, or “invite Jesus into your heart.” Beyond this initial deterministic step, the further implications of this 21st century gospel are left largely to the discernment of local church congregations and, moreover, to the individuals who are claiming relationship with Jesus themselves.
What is the gospel? To many 21st century Americans, it’s that Jesus died for their sins, and that they can now have a personal relationship with Jesus, resulting in everlasting life.
Historic Christian tradition (as well as current Christian tradition in communities of color, and in countries outside of North America) would invite us into a deeper understanding of “gospel.”
During the Roman Empire religion and politics were completely enmeshed. The Caesar was referred to as the “son of the gods” and was venerated along with the other Roman deities in the temple. To gain access to the marketplace, a person would use money imprinted with the image of Caesar, they would sell meat that had been sacrificed to the gods, they would barter with crops they had grown after praying in the temple to the gods for rain. Religious life was neither considered private nor something of personal determination, it was simply the order of public life.
As the Roman Empire spread, the Caesar would send out envoys with “good news” to the newly conquered towns and villages. “Good news! Caesar is lord! You are now part of the Roman Empire!” The gospel of Rome was inherently political – in that it reorganized the way of life for the people in the newly conquered territory. It was also inherently religious – because Caesar was considered a god. But the gospel of Rome had a cost to those who were forced to encounter it. Namely, pledge your allegiance to empire or die. The Romans called it the “Peace of Rome,” but this peace was only wrought by exterminating all opposition, often in violent, public displays serving to terrorize any others who may dare to defy the Empire.
Enter in to this time, a man of disputable birth from a town of no repute. An ethnic and religious minority, who begins to gather followers around him and make proclamations about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. As though Caesar were not god!
In a time when the proclamation of “good news” meant more authority for the empire, heavy taxation of the poor and the risk of execution if one dared to raise dissent, Jesus enters with this:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What kind of Good News is this? Certainly not the kind Caesar’s messengers were carrying out.
Good News, you who are poor. You are blessed, you will be filled, and those who are rich? They’ll be sent away empty and cursed.
Good News, you who are in chains. You are released! You who have been called an enemy of the empire, a threat to our peace – go free!
Good News, you who are blind. Receive sight.
Good News, you who are oppressed. Your burden has been thrown off!
The time has come for God’s favor – the year of jubilee! All the scales will be balanced. All that has been taken from you will be returned. Those who are growing fat off their excess while you starve in the streets must give up their feasting so that all may live well.
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel he himself claims!
Yes, there is forgiveness of sin, and in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are now caught up in the life of God. We are promised inheritance and renewed, full life as the children of God. We do a gross disservice to the Gospel of Jesus when we divorce our “spiritual” understanding of salvation from the implications this carries in the here and now. In the season of Christmas of all seasons we remember that God in Jesus Christ has taken on flesh and blood, and is shouting over the earth, our bodies and all of creation: “Yes and amen!” The birth of Christ is a witness that spiritual hope must be connected to physical hope; that the saving of our souls must also mean there is a redemption of our bodies; that the hope of the life to come is bound up with answering the groaning of creation. This hope is not a general, warm sentiment, Jesus’s proclamation of Isaiah’s words assures us that the Gospel Jesus offers is very specific: this is Good News for the poor, the oppressed and the outcast.
We cannot claim a life in Christ if our telling of the “good news” isn’t one and the same.
As so many weigh the implications and the usefulness of keeping “evangelical” as a label, I hope we consider well that there have been people proclaiming different versions of “good news” for thousands of years.
Good news! The empire is bigger. The wealthy and the ruling class will receive even more. Your crops, your land, your livelihood will be heavily taxed – but it’s for your own good. Really.
Good news! Caesar is lord, the son of the gods! Our political might and genius is beyond questioning or critique. You are so blessed to now be under this authority. Be grateful.
Good news! The way of salvation is alignment with Caesar. Mostly because the way opposing Caesar leads to your death and the death of everyone you love, but try not to think of it that way. Caesar will take care of you!
That’s one version of the εὐαγγέλιον – the good news. It’s a version that has been in circulation for thousands of years, and that persists even today. If you listen closely, it is not that hard to spot imperial evangelicals. Their enthusiasm for the days ahead, the coins in their pockets. Their undying allegiance to the empire, void of any critique or concern of what may lie in the wake of the machine that serves them so well. Their insistence that their leader has been appointed by god – chosen! A savior! Thank goodness this one is leading us now, we are so blessed.
This is not the εὐαγγέλιον – the Good News – of Jesus though.
Good News! The poor are blessed, the captives are set free, the outcasts are restored, and the oppressed are liberated.
Good News! The days of this empire are numbered. There is a new Kingdom breaking through, where the first are last and the humiliated are exalted.
Good News! The way of salvation is sacrificial love of one another. The empires and authorities will lie and tell you to watch out for your own, they’ll tell you to be afraid, they may even kill you. But there’s nothing to fear, even death gets swallowed up by life now.
So, is “evangelical” still useful? Can “evangelicalism” survive, or be redeemed? My life doesn’t hang on the answers to those questions. There have always been multiple meanings, multiple messages when an εὐαγγέλιον is spread. But only that which is εὐαγγέλιον – Good News – for the poor is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any other εὐαγγέλιον is just the empire parading around it’s false peace and dying authority.
For me, I will live and die on the fullness of the Good News of Jesus Christ – which is the revelation of the God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Good News! The Child born in Bethlehem declares that all the dirt and sweat, mess and beauty of Creation is good and worthy.
Good News! The Man on the Cross ends the need for punishment and retribution forever.
Good News! The Risen One pronounces that the reign of death and destruction is over, and new life is always bursting out in unlikely places.
Good News! The Ascended Lord Jesus is the rightful King and Authority, and this rule and reign is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, or could dare to imagine:
The hungry are filled.
The lost are found.
The oppressed are liberated.
Those cast out are given the seat at the head of the table.
And it is all Good News for the poor.