I Got Your Good News Right Here
John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. – John 3:16-18
We who are labeled, or perhaps label ourselves, “progressives” in the Church – and oh how I wonder what that particular label means – are often accused by our brothers and sisters of being too mealy-mouthed, unwilling to offer both the bad with the good, at least when it comes to presenting the clarity of the message of the faith: that believing and living faith in Jesus Christ has real consequences, in this world and the next; likewise choosing not to hear or so live has real consequences as well, and not what any would call good. Just the other day, the Rev. Christy Thomas wondered in an aside in a piece recounting a visit to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, if we who bare that meaningless label “progressive” have the ability to remain vital precisely because we concern ourselves with openness rather than building clear boundaries between ourselves and others; the latter, she noted, seems to be a particular human characteristic that is almost ubiquitous. Part of the discomfort, I believe, includes a hesitancy in presenting the message of salvation – what we call the Gospel, euangelion, Good News – in its full import and weight. That would include the flip-side of all our talk of Divine forbearance, grace, the holy life, and the Grand Welcome at the New Creation: the very real (in Scripture) word that some, at least, shall turn to God to plead their case and the God whose endless love, dogged pursuit, and all-embracing grace shall turn to them and say, “I don’t know who you are,” and their end shall be, shall we say, less than pleasant. First the Pit, then at the New Creation, a turn in the Lake of Fire before that, too, is destroyed along with all that is sinful, broken, and evil in “the former things”.
My wife and I have always enjoyed a good chuckle at the above partial-passage (the fancy term is the Greek word pericope). Yet, the message of Jesus . . . was it any different? Substantively, of course we have to say that it was, if only because of who Jesus was as opposed to John the Baptizer. Yet Jesus always insisted there was a not-so-happy ending for those who rejected him and his followers. The mystery of Divine Judgment is a difficult point of contention among Christians, to be sure. As I noted yesterday, our human understanding of justice have absolutely nothing to do with Divine righteousness. So, too, the passages in Scriptures regarding judgment, damnation, and most especially those that hint at predestination have led many over the centuries to conclude the mass of humanity, regardless of their most sincere efforts and honest faithfulness, shall nevertheless wind up someplace uncomfortably warm when all is said and done. Particularly in our current moment, with a resurgence of neo-Calvinist thought from what was once called “the Emergent Church Movement” offering young men especially the consolation that cultural and social norms of masculinity bear the stamp of Divine approval, it is with a wariness Calvin himself (if rarely in those who followed him) enjoined that anyone should venture to speculate on the mysteries of predestination, damnation, and how one could know how one fits in to the Divine Economy.
Personally, I’ve always thought the occasional hell-fire and brimstone sermon was a good thing. It reminds us that our business is serious, that this whole Christian thing is no trifle but, on the contrary even the most mundane moment carries eternal significance, both in a sublime but also in a terrible sense. I also think such things should be targeted carefully. Everything is context dependent. For example, telling a young Palestinian Christian that he has to believe in Jesus and be good or he will go to hell ignores the fundamental hellishness of his day-to-day existence. My guess is such a message would receive more of a shrug than anything. On the other hand, telling a young, upper-middle class white woman that baptism enjoins her to incarnate the love of God for this world; that failing to do so, whether out of ignorance or a preference for comfort or worst of all refusing to see in the naked, hungry, and imprisoned her brothers and sisters, does indeed bring with it a cost far more high than the occasional discomfort she might experience being with those who are dirty and in need. In other words, we privileged Westerners – we privileged white Westerners in particular – could benefit from the reminder that “the Good News” carries with it concomitant bad news. We are, after all, like the Pharisees as presented in another Gospel account of John the Baptizer, who responded to their approach: “You hypocrites! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” We need to recognize our place in the current Providence of God, and live accordingly, always with the memory that we are not Christians to be comforted in our already-comfortable existence. We are Christians because God has called us to a great work. Failing to do that work and coming up with excuse after excuse as to why we aren’t doing it carries an eternal cost.
This is serious business. Life-and-death stuff. Hearing the whole Good News and remembering it is always bad news for someone else – including us – is a good thing. Even for a mushy progressive like me.