Defending the Good News
Each Wednesday evening, we gather for a period of prayer, sharing, and discussion about the sermon from the previous week. We invite you to join us for that. DEEPER always closes with the host reading the scripture text for the coming Sunday. I listened as Lois Obermller read this week Philippians chapter one, verses 15-19. She read this sentence written by the apostle Paul, I have been appointed to defend the Good News. This one sentence reached out and grabbed hold of my imagination and my mind. I knew immediately this formed the foundation of what I am to say today.
As a pastor, preacher, apostle, and evangelist, I am called upon to describe the gospel, to declare the gospel, and to defend the gospel. And I am to equip you, each of you, to also describe this Good News, to share the Good News, and to defend the Good News. The word Gospel is often translated Good News. When I was a youth, in 1966, the American Bible Society published Good News for Modern Man. Even that title was soon out of date, and they named it the Good News Bible. They still published that volume, edited and updated many times.
The New Testament of that Good News Bible was translated by Robert Bratcher, a 1941graduate of Georgetown College. He grew up on the mission field in Brazil. He pioneered the now poplar strategy of translating thought for thought rather than word for word. Take a sentence like this in the Greek and put it in the best idiom of modern English. It was Dr. Bratcher’s strategy for describing the Good News in ways people could understand, in declaring the Good News in a very readable book, and in defending the Good News against those who seek to destroy it, against those who deny the truth and impact of the Good News, and against those who distort the Good News into something that is often neither good nor news.
In places around the world, people are seeking to destroy the religion of those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord. This week, the American non-profit organization Open Doors published its annual list of places in the world where living a Christian life is dangerous. Afghanistan tops that list, with North Korea second. Three hundred and sixty million people live in places where it is dangerous to follow Jesus.
Powerful people seek to suppress the faith and practice of Jesus because they sense it threatens the establish order in economics, politics, or religion. A long-time friend of mine has spent his life as a missionary among people whose baptism is a death sentence. He has taken a pseudonym, Nik Ripken, in order to protect even himself. His book The Insanity of God describes all of this. God bless those who defend the Good News in the face of those who seek to destroy it.
Others must defend the Good News against those who deny it. This week, a prominent Christian musician, Brady Goodwin of Philadelphia, posted a 24-minute video on his web site to renounce his faith. “I sent a letter to my church,” he said, “telling them to cancel my membership.” He had been a founding member of the contemporary music group The Cross Movement.
Perhaps he had been influenced by a cohort of atheist writers who together formed what is called the New Atheists. They are known as The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. They wrote books with titles like The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and Breaking the Spell.
In every generation, talented writers take up the task of defending the Good News against those who deny the faith and practice of those who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. We give thanks for theologians like Hans Kung, writers like Rachael Held Evans, and scholars like C. S. Lewis. There are playwrights, poets, even comedians who take up the good work of defending the gospel against those who attack it. God bless these apologists for their inventive and influential work.
Still others must defend the Good News against those who distort what we believe and how we live. This is what faced Paul the Apostle as he sat in his prison cell and wrote the congregation in Philippi. He refers to their enemies: Don’t be intimidated by your enemies, in 1:28. He describes those who have false motives in their gospel work: Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. The preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely. 1:17. And he denounces those who substitute religious ceremony for the righteousness that comes by faith: Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved, 3:2.
Then and now people distort the Good News and make it into something it was never meant to be. The Christian rapper had this in mind when he tweeted this week “Once upon a time I thought I was done with Christianity. But the reality was I was just done with the institutional, corporatized, gentrified, politicized, culturally exclusive version of it.”
Yes, from the first day until now, people have turned the kingdom of God into something it was never meant to be. Some have retreated to a hideout, a monastery, or a commune, thinking that following Jesus mean seclusion from the world. Some have marched into the halls of power, thinking that following Jesus means domination over others. Some have gathered on a hilltop, thinking that following Jesus means ceasing the work and rest of ordinary life because Jesus is returning any day now.
Each of these is distorting the Good News. Each of these drains much of the Good out of the News.
Jesus told us to go into the world, imitating the incarnation itself. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn in chapter two which urges us to humble ourselves and take up the ministry of servanthood. Simon Peter wanted to know about the end of the future: Is now the time you give us a kingdom? he asked Jesus, as recorded in Acts chapter one. Jesus replied, “That is not for you to know. But you will have power and you will be my witnesses in your city and province and throughout the world.
Each of these takes some legitimate element of our faith and practice and distorts it, twists it, bends it to the breaking point. We must defend our faith against such distortion. We must defend the Good News: “we” means not just me as a preacher and apologist and evangelist, but you as a witness to Jesus Christ our Lord, risen from the death and alive forever more.
In our day, no distortion is more dangerous than that known as Christian Nationalism. This is the most powerful and consequential religious movement in the United States today. It is driven by this verse in Genesis: So, God created human beings in God’s own image. In the image of God, God created them, male and female God created them. Then God blessed them and sad, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and have dominion over it.”
The command Have dominion over it has produced a philosophy called Dominionism. It calls for Christians to take dominion over all of society, over all of culture, over all of our common life in these United States. In fact, they have identified what they call seven mountains of culture power. Take control of these seven mountains, they claim, and we will control the United States. Take control of these seven mountains and we will make the United States a Christian nation. Take control of these seven mountains and, at last, we will be all that God predestined us to be.
What are these seven mountains? Family. Business. Government. Art. Education. Media. And Religion.
These distortionists take over the family and impose male domination over female. These distortionists take over education, one school board after another. These distortionists take over religion one denomination, one congregation at a time. These distortionists take over government one legislature at a time, one justice at a time.
This is the way to evangelize America, they contend. This is the way to a create a national community as Jesus envisioned it. This is the way to obey the command of Jesus to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The surest sign of the fullness of the Spirit is to take over everything of importance. That is their distortion of the faith and practice of Christianity. That is what Jesus meant when he said, Come, follow me! Or so they say!
What say ye? What do you think?
Does this sound like your religion? Does this describe what you embraced when you said Yes to Jesus? Does this feel like the way Jesus calls you to live and move and have your being?
Like Paul the Apostle, we must defend the Good News against this distortion.
Last weekend, I wrote Katherine Stewart. She is the New York journalist who wrote the book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. That book is a history of the rise of Christian nationalism, beginning 70 years ago. It is a description of the agenda of Christian nationalism, taking over congregations, denominations, schools boards, legislatures, and a national political party.
I ask her, “Is there a version of Christian faith and practice that is strong enough, organized enough, and courageous enough to push back against Christian Nationalism and offer a compelling alternative of Christianity?
She wrote back these sobering words: “the religious movements of the left are mainly theological movements, while the religious movements on the right, Christian nationalism, are political movements.”
Her concern is our concern: people claiming the name of Jesus are distorting the faith and practice of Christianity. This is why thousands, even millions of people are quitting church, giving up on Christianity, even turning away from Jesus. They are saying, “If that—Christian Nationalism—is what it means to be a Christian, count me out.”
They see Christian nationalists leading the mob that stormed the capital one year ago and they are disgusted. We are disgusted.
They hear Christian nationalists twist religious freedom into the right to discriminate against anybody that does not believe like they do and vote like they do, and they are discouraged. We are discouraged.
They watch as Christian nationalists use religious rhetoric to undermine the basic element of democracy and education and freedom and they are angry. We need to be angry.
Like Paul the Apostle writing to these Philippians, we need to repudiate these who distort of gospel message of Jesus, those who long for the return of white Christian America, who cloak their denial of the rights of women, minorities, and immigrants in favor of their own preferred status all in the name of Jesus.
We need to offer our own testimony: this ain’t right! this isn’t the way to follow Jesus and worship God and love our neighbor. This is not the Good News that people everywhere need to hear.
There is nothing good in it. It is bad news. For the country and for the church of Jesus Christ and for you and me and all our neighbors.
Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News, the old apostle wrote to those new believers.
Live as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. he wrote to them a little later in this letter.
And when he wrote earlier to understand what really matters, we listed those three things as love for one another, joy in every circumstance, and a constant focus on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
This is our best defense of the Good News. To sing with joy and live with hope.
Yes, some defend the gospel through intellectual arguments and theological explanations. I have been powerfully influenced by such people, like C.S. Lewis. His Mere Christianity has sold millions because it is a clean and clear argument for the truth of the Good News.
And yes, others defend the gospel through organizational arguments. They point out the history of good works of Christian hospitals, orphanages, schools, and global non-profits, like the Church World Service and the Lutheran World Relief and our own Global Missions Offering.
But the most powerful way to describe the Good News, declare the Good News, and defend the Good News is through your life, a life well-liked, a life patterned after Jesus of Nazareth.
Let this mind be in you that was also in Jesus Christ, Paul writes in chapter two, introducing that early Christian hymn. It is a life shaped by that grand trilogy of Micah the prophet: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
C. S. Lewis himself, the greatest of modern intellectual defenders of the faith, wrote this: “When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.”
When Christians squabble, the world is listening.
When Christians act with lust or pride or prejudice, the world is watching.
When Christians are more interested in our own rights and privileges, the world points a finger and accuses us of failure to live the gospel.
A life of beauty and kindness and courage is the best defense of the gospel. You be that person tomorrow.
To fill the world with love and grace and mercy is the best defense of the Good News. Let us do that today.
To speak the winsome word of forgiveness to the fallen and offer a warm welcome to the stranger is to be the very presence of Jesus for somebody today. You can do it and do it with flair.
To sing with joy and live with hope is to declare the gospel and defend the gospel all in one motion. Let’s do it. Let’s set aside our irritations and prejudices and sing for joy. Let’s walk through our disappointments and disagreements and live with hope. Let’s forget our preferences and our needs and put on Jesus Christ. Today and every day.