The “So What” of the Last Things: Part Two

For most people the word “evangelism” conjures up images of tent revivals, pleading evangelists, threats of hell, promises of heaven, and “getting saved.” Evangelism is all some churches and Christians want to talk about while in other churches it is one of the most uncomfortable topics imaginable.  One of the hardest positions to fill in most Disciples churches is the chair of the evangelism committee. I would not want to deny the importance of an individual decision to follow Jesus, to accept God’s forgiveness, and to begin the journey of discipleship and salvation. For many people a radical decision and break from the past is necessary for them to begin life again with the Lord. But what about the rest of us? What about all of those who have grown up in the church and over time “grew” into their salvation without a definite time they can pinpoint when they were “saved”? Furthermore, if evangelism means “getting saved” and making that radical, life-changing commitment to Christ, then what is the significance of evangelism to people once they “are saved”? Of course, the answer given by Evangelical churches is that they are to go out and do all they can to convince others to make that same decision. As a result of this type of thinking, most people (and many churches) have a very narrow understanding of evangelism. The mission they seek as a part of the Body of Christ is truncated. It touches only a small part of the commission given by Jesus to his disciples. And they never grow in their discipleship.

To overcome this limitation, I would suggest we begin with a word study. The word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word for “good news.” The church did not invent this word. It borrowed the term from the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world. The Greek word for “good news” was a political term used by the Roman emperors in their political propaganda. Messages were sent out over the empire touting all the good gifts Rome and the emperor had given the people. The emperor boasted of bringing peace to the world, prosperity, harmony, salvation, justice, and blessings from the gods. He was even called “the Savior of the world.” “Good news” originally was used by the powers that be to convince the populace that these rulers were responsible for all the blessings the people enjoyed as a part of the Roman Empire. 

The early church took this political word and used it so proclaim the “good news” of Jesus Christ. By using this word, the church was saying that Jesus, not Caesar, was the true bringer of peace on earth, salvation, harmony, justice, reconciliation, and community. The blessings of God come through Jesus, not Caesar. Jesus is the good news of God. The earliest confession of the church was “Jesus is Lord.” The good news in the New Testament is that God who created and loves this world is at last becoming King and that Jesus, God’s Son, whom God raised from the dead, is the world’s true Lord. Through Christ the powers of evil have been defeated and God’s new world has begun. 

The church went out with this message and invited everyone to join this Kingdom movement, to experience forgiveness and healing of their past, and to discover an astounding destiny in God’s future as well as a noble and joyful vocation/calling in the present. With Jesus’ resurrection, the new creation has begun and will be consummated when at long last heaven and earth become one. But right now, those who choose to follow Jesus into this Kingdom are little bits of this new creation in the present time. Right now, the world can or should be able to see in Jesus’ followers a foretaste of the final Kingdom when God will resurrect and transform the whole cosmos into its final, healed form. Paul puts it very plainly: “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation.”

Now what does all this mean for evangelism? Listen to the wise counsel of New Testament scholar N. T. Wright regarding evangelism: “To see evangelism in terms of the announcement of God’s Kingdom, of Jesus’ Lordship, and of the consequent new creation, avoids from the start any suggestion that the main or central thing that has happened is that the new Christian has entered into a private relationship with God or with Jesus and that this relationship is the main or only thing that matters. Seeing evangelism and any resulting conversions in terms of new creation means that the new convert knows from the start that he or she is a part of God’s Kingdom project, which stretches out beyond ‘me and my salvation’ to embrace, or rather to be embraced by, God’s worldwide purposes.” (Surprised by Hope, p. 229)

Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness/justice.” His whole message was about this Kingdom of God. He instructed us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is what the good news is all about. We are saved to become a part of God’s Kingdom. We are saved to build for that Kingdom. We are saved to make this earth, as much as we can, look more like what God would want. We are saved to allow our entire lives to be shaped by Jesus so that we might be God’s blessing to all the earth. (If you are bothered by the word “save” because of its truncated and manipulated use among some Christians, substitute the word “healed.”)

The good news is not what I was taught in South Carolina. It is not that Jesus came to die for me so when I die, I can go to heaven. The good news is that God has come in Christ to begin God’s reign on earth. (Clarence Jordan said that the good news is not that “God is in heaven on His throne and all is right in the world. The good news is that God has come down to earth, and all hell’s broken loose.”) The good news is that God through Christ is beginning a new creation which will be fulfilled in a cosmic resurrection and transformation when heaven and earth become one. The good news is that we can begin right now as a part of this new creation, experiencing forgiveness, joy, love, and purpose that exceed our imaginations. The good news is that God is committed to seeing Her will done on earth as it is in heaven, and we can build for the Kingdom right now as we bless the world with our discipleship and build for that final Kingdom which knows no end. 

When you see the gospel in the context of Jesus’ whole message, life, death, and resurrection as well as in the context of God’s reign on earth and the cosmic resurrection at the end of time, then evangelism takes on a much deeper and more comprehensive character. Evangelism has just as much to do with acts of justice and compassion in our world as it does with calling people into a healing, transforming, and saving relationship with Christ. It is as much about feeding the hungry and protecting our environment as it is proclaiming the forgiveness of God which allows personal lives to begin again. Evangelism is as much concerned with the appreciation and enhancement of the beauty, creativity, and potential in our world as it is concerned with our personal destiny. I know this is not what many think of when they hear the word evangelism. But let’s repeat what we have already said. The word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word in the New Testament for “good news.” And that good news is that God has begun Her reign on earth through the person and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is King and not any form of Caesar or Herod in our world. All the forces of evil and death have been decisively defeated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is Lord, and we are invited by Jesus to join his Kingdom movement as we receive forgiveness and dignity from him as children of God and follow his way in letting God’s new creation shine through us. In following Jesus, we build for the Kingdom of God which will find its final fulfillment in a cosmic resurrection when God will redeem all time, space, matter, and life. All creation, including each one of us, is destined for an eternity of joy, love, sharing, community, and growth. What started with Jesus’ resurrection will end in the glorification of heaven and earth. The news is good! God is good! Life is good! There is nothing ultimately to fear! Why? For God so loves this world with a love that will never abandon it.

Now, what might happen if we allowed this to be our evangelistic message? People would be invited to experience the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, everlasting love of God. This type of love is unconditional—nothing we do or don’t do will ever cause God to stop loving us. That in itself is more than enough good news. Our world knows precious little about unconditional love, and traditional evangelism with its scare tactics of hell and damnation has not exactly encouraged a vision of a loving God. John says that perfect love casts out fear. There is no room for fear once we know the God of Jesus Christ, for God is love.

This love is also indiscriminate. That means that God does not love anyone on the face of the earth any more than God loves you. Did you hear that deep in your heart? God does not love anyone more than God loves you. But God does not love you any more than God loves anyone else. This gives everyone of us an identity of dignity and worth that no one and nothing can take away. But it also makes it very clear that God’s love is not ultimately partial. As we trust and follow Jesus, we enter into God’s heart in a very special way. We find our place in God’s heart and discover that this place is equal to the space of every other person. And we discover how all those places are woven together by a tapestry of love emanating from God. When realize deep down how much God loves each of us, we are able to forgive ourselves, others, and even our enemies. And such forgiveness allows for a reconciliation of cosmic proportions. Paul says that God’s ultimate goal is to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth through Christ. Such reconciliation, which I think we all would agree is our world’s most pressing need, becomes possible only when we realize that what unites us even more than our sin is the amazing love of God. If we really believe God loves all of us the same, then we have all the motivation we need to reach out in love, compassion, truth, and justice to all the world as we seek to love that world through the heart of God. 

God’s love is self-giving and sacrificial. That is what the cross is all about. It costs to love unconditionally and indiscriminately. Anyone who has ever loved another person that way knows how much that person can hurt, disappoint, and reject. Real love is costly. And the cross says that God loves us that much.

And God’s love is everlasting. When the last star has flickered into oblivion and earth time is no more, God’s love shall still endure. As Paul says, nothing—not even death itself– can separate us or creation from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Once we realize that awesome truth, nothing will ever make us afraid. We and the whole universe are in God’s hands, and because God is love, there is nothing to fear. There is only love, light, and life.

I believe people need to hear about and witness that kind of love. And as a part of God’s new creation, we can be vessels of that love as we bear witness by word and deed to the goodness of God. If we share in this amazing love of God, then we will love ourselves, others (even our enemies, Jesus said), and the world. And if we love the world as God loves it, we will seek justice because justice is what love looks like in the public arena. 

But there is another dimension I want us to consider. If God made this world and called it good and if God will resurrect this creation and transform it into a new heaven and a new earth, we should see how precious creation is. Creation is not God and certainly is not perfect, but it is good and filled with breath-taking beauty and mystery. Somehow God will keep all that and will use it in the building of the new creation. Creation matters as much to God as we matter to God. And as the psalmist says, God takes delight in this creation. And so should we. I think one missing part of evangelism is the call to an appreciation of and participation in the beauty and mystery of this world. I know my life has been enhanced by the beauty of music, art, and literature as well as the breathtaking grandeur of nature. How impoverished our lives would be without such precious gifts! As beings created in the image of God we share in this potential for creativity. And such efforts to do our part in making this world more beautiful can give hope and nobility to humans and creation.

Listen to N. T. Wright’s comments about Romans 8, one of the most moving passages in the Bible about the cosmic resurrection. “Romans 8, with its rich theology of new creation, offers us a way of appreciating natural beauty. Paul speaks of the creation groaning in travail, waiting to give birth to God’s new world. The beauty of the present world has something about it of the beauty of a chalice, beautiful in itself but more hauntingly beautiful in what we know it’s meant to be filled with; or that of the violin, beautiful in itself but particularly because we know the music it is capable of. Another example might be the engagement ring, which is meant as it is to delight the eye but which is meant even more to delight the heart because of what it promises” (Surprised by Hope, p. 222)

“When we read Romans 8, we find Paul affirming that the whole of creation is groaning in travail as it longs for its redemption. Creation is good, but it is not God. It is beautiful, but its beauty is at present transient. It is in pain, but that pain is taken into the very heart of God and becomes part of the pain of new birth. The beauty of creation, to which art responds and which it tries to express, imitate, and highlight, is not simply the beauty it possesses in itself but the beauty it possesses in view of what is promised to it: back to the chalice, the violin, the engagement ring. We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as—by God’s grace alone!—one day it will be. And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the paradigm, first example, and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nails were not just visible on his hands and feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission… Art at its best draws attention not only to the way things are but also to the way things will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.” (Surprised by Hope, pp.223-225)

Every one of us is an artist capable of making this world more beautiful. And every one of us is a little bit of that new creation which is to come. We can show the world its future/its destiny as well as be a blessing through our own contributions to its beauty as we build for that coming Kingdom. All this would bring immeasurable joy, hope, dignity, and inspiration to our world. Imagine every church on every continent adding its contributions to making this world more beautiful and in doing so, bearing witness to the eternal value of this creation in the heart of God! But if God is King and Jesus is Lord and the new creation has already begun and nothing will be lost but will be raised by God in a cosmic resurrection to glory and joy, love and mystery, then why not be that kind of church right now? How could we not help but dance and sing? All this is news too good to keep to ourselves.

There is a quote from the Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves which beautifully expresses the “now” and the “not yet” aspects of Christian eschatology: “Hope is hearing the melody of the future; faith is to dance it.” Imagine you see a teenager gyrating down the sidewalk. At first, you think he may be psychologically impaired or on drugs. But then you notice earbuds in his ears and you realize that he is responding to music you and the world around him cannot hear. As the Body of Christ, we hear, know, and have experienced something much of the world has not heard, does not know, and has not experienced. In Christ, we have heard the melody of the future. The only appropriate response is to dance to that melody in our here and now. In Christ we know where we and all creation are headed. I believe that evangelism for our day means to live right now as though that final transformation has already happened. Already we are a new creation. Already God is King and Jesus is Lord. Now is the time to reach out in faith, hope, and love. Now it the time to dance to the music of God’s tomorrow so that today can be blessed! 

(Quotes from N. T. Wright come from his book entitled Surprised by Hope. The quote from Rubem Alves comes from his extraordinary book entitled Tomorrow’s Child, p. 195, the most insightful analysis and critique of Western society I have ever read.)

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