Lecture given by the Rev. Dr. Clyde Ervine on June 16, 2016, during the mentoring week at the Presbyterian College.
It’s may seem odd to talk about good news when there’s not a lot of it around. We’re bombarded with bad news: a disastrous drop in the price of oil, disappearing manufacturing jobs, an intractable civil war in Syria, and the desperation of refugees who flee from it. Nearer home, news of innocents being gunned down by crazed killers is routine, as is news of corrupt politicians. Good news? What good news? It doesn’t get better around church: in 1964 our denomination had 200,000 members; today it’s 95,000; in 1964 there were 100,000 Sunday school kids; today it’s 15,000. We live in a time when the church seems to be in freefall.
The retreat of Christianity in Western society began a long time ago. In his 1867 poem, Matthew Arnold, having watched the waves roar onto an English beach only to then retreat, interpreted the scene like this:
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Arnold predicted what we now experience-the dilution of Christian faith in the acid of secularism. So what good news do we have to tell? Millions of Canadians, including some who still sit in the pew, have given up on finding any good news in the church.
What’s to be done? For the 36 years that I’ve been a minister in the PCC, our panicked denomination has sought a savior-consultant to turn things around and produce good news through some effective program; it’s usually assumed that such a savior will be American. In the 70’s the great hope was Lyle Schaller; in the 80’s it was California’s Church Growth leaders; in the 90’s it was Bill Easum, Bill Hybels, or Alban Institute folk. In recent years, the search has become more diverse, ranging from radicals like Marcus Borg to revisionists like Brian McLaren or Diana Butler Bass. Some of what these folk say, of course, is very good, and some congregations enjoy new energy because of it. Yet in our fevered search for a savior to fix our troubled churches, we overlook good news at our fingertips. That good news isn’t created by pastors, programs, or even piety. The good news to which I refer comes to us as a gift.
The words ‘good news’ appear regularly in the Bible; so familiar are they that we assume we know what the good news/ gospel is: some can package it in four easy steps; still others think of the gospel as a type of Christian music. Let’s instead listen to Isaiah’s words to exiled Jews in Babylon, centuries before the coming of Jesus:
Isaiah’s good news wasn’t a strategy for disillusioned Jews to implement; it announced an event-the startling fact that God was coming: ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’, wrote Isaiah; “Get ready”, he told the exiles; ‘See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him …all the…earth shall see the salvation of our God’’ [Is. 40:9-10] If the good news is about God’s arrival, then it’s news for us rather than news from us. That’s important, for it means that we don’t have to create good news, nor panic if we don’t immediately find what looks like good news in our congregation. That may sound like heresy to activist North American Christians; but remember: Isaiah’s good news came to people stuck in failure, fault-finding, and seemingly without a future. The good news announced how a sovereign God would redeem and restore them.
Yet we, who have news of God’s sovereignty deep in our Reformed DNA, keep trying to create good news in our churches, as if God’s good news rested on how well the church is doing. The truth is: when we put our hope in human saviors, and try to create good news by implementing the advice of church gurus, many become even more discouraged. Before discussing strategies for ministry or, we get tied up in measuring ministry effectiveness, we have God’s good news available at out fingertips.
That said, Israel waited a very long time for Isaiah’s announced event to unfold. As the New Testament opens, pious Jews are still waiting for God to come; one was a priest called Zechariah. Luke’s Gospel opens with an angel telling him: “I have been sent to speak to you and… bring you… good news’. Despite your wife’s old age, she will have a son, whose job it will be ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. The words directly echo the good news announced in Isaiah 40.
As in Isaiah 40, the good news of Luke 1 announced an event: the Lord is coming as prophesied, and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, will prepare Israel for the event. ‘One who is more powerful than I is coming’, said John; ‘I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’ [Luke 3:16]. At the risk of annoying you, I repeat: the good news announces an event; at its core, according to Isaiah and the Gospels, is the arrival of the messiah.
Sat Jesus’ birth, another angelic announcement: ‘I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ [Luke 2:10-11]. When Jesus began ministry in Galilee, he proclaimed ‘the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” [Mk. 1:14]. The long-promised event had arrived.
Before proceeding, let’s look at the Greek word euangelion translated as good news or gospel 130 times in the Bible. In his book, Simply Good News, to which I’m indebted, N.T. Wright notes that the word euangelion had a specific history. He recalls how, after Julius Caesar was murdered by Brutus and Cassius, civil war broke out between those two murderers and Caesar’s son and heir, Augustus. The war ended in victory for Augustus, who then turned on his erstwhile ally Anthony, who in turn fled to Egypt with his consort Cleopatra, where both committed suicide.
Why the history lesson? When word reached Rome that Augustus was the undisputed Emperor, the word used to announce the good news was euangelion. Admittedly, Augustus spent a further two years in a military mopping-up operation before arriving in Rome in triumph. As Wright notes, the good news or euangelion about Augustus had three parts:
- The good news announced an event that had already taken place-the victory of Augustus over his enemies. That changed everything.
- The good news also announced an event that had yet to happen – the triumphant return of Augustus to Rome.
- Meanwhile, the good news immediately impacted the people of Rome. Those who’d backed Augustus in the civil war awaited him in hope, anticipating a new era of peace and prosperity; those who’d backed Anthony waited in dread, ‘or left town in a hurry’.
The best known pre-Christian use of the word euangelion is found in a 9 BC letter known as the Priene Calendar Inscription. It reads:
The key point is this: New Testament writers chose the word euangelion, with all its imperial overtones, to interpret Jesus’ significance. When they announced his birth, the word used was euangelion; when Jesus began his ministry, talking about the arrival of God’s reign, the word he used was euangelion; Mark opens his gospel by writing: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. He appears to challenge the imperial cult, announcing that Jesus is the real emperor, not Caesar.
What I’m getting at is this: the confidence of the New Testament church didn’t rest on its size or success, but on Jesus, and what he accomplished and will yet accomplish to establish God’s reign, all of which the Bible calls good news. This good news was for early Christians, a fact, whether people accepted it or not. It really does mean that we have good news to celebrate, whether the church at any given time is in a flourishing state or not. Now that excites me hugely!
I’m not indifferent, however, to whether the church is flourishing or not; nor is God. God wants his church to be a holy, healthy community of faith that can further God’s mission. As I said, Jesus announced that God’s kingdom had arrived. Matthew 2:23: he ‘went throughout Galilee… proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and …sickness among the people’; 10:7 says that Jesus sent his disciples out, telling them: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom…has come near’. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”; 11:5 says that Jesus sent a message to John the Baptist to say that the kingdom had come; ‘tell John [that] the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised…the poor have good news brought to them’. Those texts indicate that good news announced was followed by good news experienced in human lives. Yet the good news we announce doesn’t rest on the church’s response. The Bible’s good news lies indisputably in the arrival, activity, and accomplishments of Jesus.
But what made Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom good news? To answer that, we need, says Wright, to know the larger story into which his announcement fits. After all, good news is good news only if it contradicts impending bad news. For example, if I go to see my doctor, and she says “I’ve got good news; your tests are clear”, relief floods my body. Why? Because the good news announced contradicts the bad news I expected. So it is with the good news Jesus announced; it belongs within the larger biblical story which I’ll quickly sketch.
The Bible opens with the news that there’s only one God, who created this world and declared it to be good. But Genesis swiftly tells how God’s good creation has been attacked by a malicious power that infects every part of it. We know about that malicious power, and our own capacity to both sin and be impacted by the sin of others.
So is that it? No! The Bible reveals that the God who loved us into being, still loves us, even in our sin, and will redeem and restore his world. The first big announcement of this good news appears in Genesis 12, where God, ready to launch his project, tells Abram, ‘I will bless you …so that you will be a blessing …in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’
God’s plan for global blessing takes all sorts of odd turns as the Old Testament unfolds. First, God made a covenant with Abram, such that when his descendants later found themselves enslaved in Egypt, God faithfully delivered them. That good news event dominates the Old Testament. Yet Israel didn’t remain faithful to God, and became as corrupt as the nations to which it was supposed to offer God’s blessing. Yet God didn’t give up: ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, said Isaiah; the good news is that God is coming to establish his rule among the nations; ‘See, the Lord God comes with might…his arm rules for him’. When Jesus announced that the kingdom had arrived, this is the context that makes sense of it, and made his announcement good news.
But Jesus announced good news not only in words; he demonstrated it in acts of healing, in his welcome of outcasts, and above all, in his death. Jesus’ disciples at first considered the Messiah’s death as a tragic defeat. How could the death of the one who’d announced good news be good news? The New Testament answers that question in multiple ways:
- Romans 8:3: ‘sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh’
- II Corinthians 5:21: ‘For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’
- Galatians 3:13: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us-for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”
The thread running through those texts is that God, in his Son Jesus, took responsibility for the sin that infects us, and in his death, exposed and broke its power. That is: the good news Jesus announced took him to the cross, there to face the full power of the evil that opposes and obstructs God’s reign, so absorbing it, that we needn’t be condemned or controlled by it. Jesus was cursed for us is how the New Testament strikingly puts it. Far from seeing his death as a defeat, the New Testament sees it as the greatest demonstration of love and moral victory the world will ever know. Mind you, the only reason why Jesus’ death was considered like that, adds Tom Wright, was because of what happened next. He writes:
So what’s the good news that Easter announces? That there’s some sort of life after death, or that good will eventually triumph over evil? Easter announces an event, the raising of Jesus to confirm God’s defeat of all that destroys creation, an event that initiated a new creation.
To go back to how Tom Wright characterized the victory of Augustus over Anthony in 31 BC, Jesus’ victory likewise has three dimensions:
- Easter’s good news announces a victory that has already taken place. Jesus is alive as Lord, and that changes everything.
- Easter’s good news also announces an event that’s not yet taken place: for the God who raised Jesus, will also raise us from the grave. That day of total renewal is coming, and for it we pray.
- Meanwhile, Easter’s good news impacts us now. As we wait for God’s kingdom to fully come, we’re part of a new community that lives with new power, new hope, and a new love.
We don’t have to invent good news; it’s at our fingertips. It’s the church’s privilege to receive this good news and announce by the preaching the Word. As with those who heard Jesus, some will believe the good news; some won’t; but the response neither creates nor cancels the good news. Think about it: the early church was infinitesimally tiny; yet it witnessed to Jesus, confident of what he’d done, was doing among them by the Spirit, and would yet do. If I were to use fancy language, I’d say that the priority, when it comes to good news, must be on the indicative, even though the imperative of response must follow.
A tiny yet confident church emerged in response to Jesus. Though Jewish in origin, it moved quickly to include Gentiles; though rooted in the Old Testament, the church had a dramatic newness within it. Examples:
- Though Christians gathered for worship, as did Jews, they met on Sunday rather than the Sabbath, honoring the day on which God raised Jesus and inaugurated the new age.
- Though early Christians sang the Psalms, they also wrote new hymns to glorify Jesus.
- With Jesus, the church cherished the Old Testament, yet received new scripture, what we call the New Testament.
- At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, formerly restricted, was poured out on all, giving the church power to grasp the good news of what Jesus had done, was doing, and would do.
- Christian prayer, rooted in temple and synagogue forms, took on new forms, the most radical of which was to pray to the risen Jesus. An example is preserved in the I Cor. 16:22 word Maranatha.
- A Trinitarian understanding of God soon followed.
All of this reveals how the good news Jesus announced in his life, death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit, created a new community that then announced these events to the world. Acts 8 tells us how Philip proclaimed ‘the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’. Acts 13 reports Paul doing likewise in Antioch’s synagogue
The church then, and now, has at its fingertips, good news, through the preached and written Word. We need to reclaim it as a first priority.
But the same good news, available in the Word, is also available through the sacraments. But do we really understand the sacraments as a way of announcing the good news?
Having taught worship courses here and at Knox College for the last 17 years, I suggest that a significant number of Presbyterian students don’t know what to make of the sacraments. We call them gospel sacraments; Living Faith says: ‘In obedience to our Lord’s command and example we observe two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion. These are visible expressions of the Gospel’. But do we believe that the sacraments at our fingertips no less, express, announce, and offer the good news?
Take baptism. There’s a good-feel factor in church on baptism Sundays, as parents bring babies to be baptized. We’re equally encouraged when new believers are baptized as they profess faith in Christ. But what’s the good news expressed at baptism? That at least on this Sunday, a young family may help to renew an ageing church, or that one newly baptized adult has decided for Christ? I don’t dismiss any of that. Yet the response of young and old to the good news of Christ isn’t what the Bible primarily means by good news, or what the sacrament of baptism offers.
The good news announces what Jesus did for us in his life, death and resurrection, what he’s doing in our lives now by the Spirit, and what he’ll do for us when he comes again to fully establish God’s reign. The good news isn’t rooted in our faith, worship, or discipleship, vital though these are. The good news is God’s gift to us, to which we’re invited to respond. The gospel or good news, says Paul in Romans 1:16, ‘is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’. Now if baptism is a good news sacrament, let’s use it to announce and celebrate God’s good news. Here are some ways that may help us do so:
First: make sure baptism is a thoroughly corporate act. That is: baptism isn’t a private event; nor is it, as some folk imagine, the moment when baby is officially named or ‘christened’. Baptism is a moment when the church of Christ gathers to verbally announce God’s forgiveness and new life through Christ, and to then, in light of that good news, visually apply to new believers and their children. Baptism doesn’t primarily announce our faith or decision, but what Jesus has done, will do and is doing for us.
Second: the element of water should be seen, heard, and touched as it is poured out liberally in baptism. Why? Because water is the symbol Jesus chose to signify what? The good news of the forgiving power that flows to us from his death, and the good news of a new beginning that flows to us from his resurrection. As we pour water on the baptized, we tangibly, visually, and personally link them to the good news victory won by the Savior who died and rose for them.
If baptism is a sign that points back to what Jesus once did, the Reformers also insisted that baptism is a seal that takes a general announcement of good news and applies it to specific individuals; baptism seals or marks you and you and me as belonging within God’s covenant family. ‘Through the rest of our lives’, writes Brownson, ‘God calls us to remember the promises of God…sealed to us in baptism, and to live out the implications of those promises in obedient faith and allegiance’. This sense of good news coming to individuals is well woven into the baptismal liturgy of the French Reformed Church. For each baptized person, the minister says:
Third: as I noted earlier, there’s a tradition, long in sentimentality but short in theology, which identifies baptism as a moment when babies formally receive their name. Naturally, baptismal candidates of whatever age are named at their baptism, since baptism announces the good news individually to them. Nevertheless, in the New Testament, the significant name at baptism isn’t ours but God’s. In Acts 2:38 Peter urged those who heard the good news to be baptized in the name of Jesus. Matthew 28 expands that name to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But what’s in a name? A great deal! The good news announced as the water of baptism flows over us, is that God gives us his name and adopts us into his family, not by our deserving, but by his grace. “You’re mine!” That’s what God says at baptism; “You’re sealed as mine, joining others who are now your brothers and sisters”. We have good news at our fingertips at baptism that we often overlook, but that the church craves.
Now having said what I’ve said, I add that just as the good news of Jesus announced in the Word must be received by faith if it’s to be effective, so it is with baptism. Baptism, as one of God’s visible, tangible ways of announcing the good news, isn’t magic. At baptism, believers respond to the good news announced to them in the Word; in baptism, the children of believers are pledged to a future response to the good news announced in the Word. What that response will be isn’t guaranteed. What we do know is that the good news announced in baptism must shape our children if there’s to be an eventual response of faith.
Now to Holy Communion: do we use it to announce good news? There’s a long tradition, at least within Presbyterianism, that works against the potential of Communion to be an occasion for good news. Let’s face it: most funerals are less funereal than our celebrations of the Supper.
Recall the Luke 24 account of an early Lord’s Supper. The context is this: Luke 24 opens with an account of Jesus’ resurrection. That event was so implausible, of course, that many of Jesus’ disciples didn’t believe it. Good news is sometimes like that! Luke then reports that two of Jesus’ disillusioned disciples left Jerusalem to head home to Emmaus. On the way, they’re joined incognito by the risen Jesus, and tell him that the one they’d hoped was messiah had instead died a horrible death. The risen Jesus then tells them that the death of the messiah, far from being a tragedy, was God’s plan, an exceedingly costly one. Then comes v.28:
The Supper wasn’t for those disciples a grim formality engaged in every three months; it was a table meal with bread and wine that looked, felt, smelt, and tasted like bread and wine. Most significantly, the broken bread and poured-out wine revealed Jesus to them; the action tangibly and visually announced him: ‘He [Jesus] made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread’ is how they reported it. It’s what Jesus did, said, and offered, using bread and wine that revealed him, not as their dead friend, but as their living Lord. Jesus’ death and resurrection lie at the core of the Bible’s good news; the Lord’s Supper celebrates that.
The good news that moved the Emmaus Road disciples to run back to Jerusalem in the middle of the night to tell how the risen Jesus revealed himself to them at the table, is often missing from communion services. In part it’s because we focus on the cross, but, except at Easter, forget the resurrection; we focus on salvation’s cost but downplay its victory.
Of course the Lord’s Supper focuses on the cross; that’s what the broken bread and poured-out wine announce. Yet we mustn’t isolate his death, or turn the church into a Sweet Jesus Memorial Society. The Supper isn’t an event that remembers a dead hero. The One who broke bread and poured wine with his Emmaus disciples was the risen Lord; which means that though the Supper announces a death, the story moves on to tell how sin and death were defeated in resurrection. That’s the good news that Communion announces and offers.
I like how the liturgy of the Reformed Church of America interprets the Supper; it announces the good news as a past, present, and future event:
We come in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent of the Father into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By his death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken by him.
We come to have communion with this same Christ who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world. In the breaking of the bread he makes himself known to us as the true heavenly Bread that strengthens us unto life eternal. In the cup of blessing he comes to us as the Vine in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit.
We come in hope, believing that this bread and this cup are a pledge and foretaste of the feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come, when with unveiled face we shall behold him, made like unto him in his glory.
These words of good news are illustrated by a dramatic breaking of bread and pouring of wine that reinforces the good news of how Jesus won our salvation, and what awaits us when we shall see him face to face, when bread and wine are needed no more. Until then, bread and wine feed our fragile faith. Ministers, who have the privilege of breaking bread and pouring wine, can make all of this more visual and tangible, by using big bread, big cups, with big breaking and pouring actions.
Now if breaking and pouring actions dramatize the good news of the crucified and risen Lord, the good news of the sacrament lies also in our opportunity to receive. As with the good news conveyed in the Word and in the sacrament of baptism, the good news announced at Communion must be received. Bread and wine aren’t magic. What we’re offered at the table is an opportunity to respond with glad hearts as we take and taste bread and wine, and by means of those symbols, take and taste the good news of the risen Christ. We have good news at our fingertips!
Well, I’ve not offered 4, 7, or 10 ways to get more members into your church. I’ve tried instead to encourage you to claim and lay hold of what we have at our fingertips-the ministry of Word and Sacraments that tells the story of a victory won, even if not yet complete.