“If the trumpet sounds an uncertain sound, who will prepare themselves for battle?”
I once used this quotation from St. Paul to encourage my choir give a proper lead to the congregation. The verse came back to me at a recent Synod.
The discussion was on our recent ‘Decade of Evangelism’. On the African continent, it had been the signal for outstanding growth. In the Western nations, it had more or less gone nowhere.
In our Western churches, people seem to have doubts as to what the Gospel is, and why we should need it. Perhaps in other countries, where paganism and its effects are more obvious, the need and value is more obvious also.
The Gospel, above everything else, is ‘Good News’. And the ‘Good News’ we are talking about is the story of the birth, ministry, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the ‘Gospels’ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit as recorded in the book of Acts. That good news has shown us what a perfect life is like.
The Gospel story tells us what Jesus was like—compassionate, loving, humble, wise, forgiving, but also a man of prayer and of power, in close contact with, and obedient to God the Father, able to heal teach and lead, and willing, through his poverty and his sufferings, to make others rich.
“These things are written”, says St. John, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
Often enough, our thinking makes us make a difference between Jesus and the Father—the idea, for instance, that Jesus is a sacrificial lamb placating the wrath of an angry Father. Yet ‘Son’ means a belief that Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed, and has a common nature with the God who created the heavens and the earth and is present in this world through the Holy Spirit. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”
So if we believe Jesus to be the Son of God, it means that we now know also what God, the Creator of the universe, is really like. God is not a powerless ‘blind watchmaker’ who set the universe up in the beginning and has done nothing ever since. He is not the sadistic ‘president of the immortals’ of Thomas Hardy’s novel. He is not the angry looser of thunderbolts, like the Jupiter or Zeus of ancient mythology. He is not contained in man-made idols, as the Babylonians believed, even if those idols take the form of sex, power, money or attention, idols worshipped by many today. He does not encourage people to blow themselves up along with innocent civilians for the promise of paradise, or take revenge on those who do them harm. He is ever patient, ever willing to forgive those who turn to him, ever seeking the lost. Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” God the Father ‘emptied himself’ also, making a universe in which others had free will to disobey him, sacrificing his obedient Son in order to bring them back from their disobedience.
The meaning of it all? I love a verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “That through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be shown to the principalities and powers in heavenly places.” This humble and despised church, to which we are called to belong, by following the way of Christ, is called to be the instrument to prove to the spiritual world that this way of love, forgiveness, suffering and humility, is in the end victorious over all other powers in the universe.
Do we want God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven? I think we’d prefer this to the murders, warfare, persecutions and other disasters that fill our newspapers day by day. It is when we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and follow his way of life, and pass this idea on to others, that we are doing our job as a church.