Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
After Jesus was raised from the dead he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Jesus added that anyone they met who believed the good news should be baptized into the family of God.
And for the past 2000 years the church in every generation has wrestled with how to go about obeying these commands.
I don’t know about you but I keep coming up against two questions: (1) what exactly is the Gospel, and (2) how does one go about preaching it? And a corollary: does this command apply only to clergy, or does it apply to everyone?
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed Jesus meant this for everyone, and that God empowers all people to share the gospel. And I’m with Mr. Wesley: Jesus’ instructions are for all of us.
As I was thinking about this, I thought back to the 1980s. There was a guy who used to carry around a “John 3:16” sign.
He would photo-bomb sporting events (back before photo-bombing was a trend). He would do things like buy tickets in the end zone to a football game that was going to be televised, and whenever the action came to his end of the field he would stand up and hold up a sign that read “John 3:16” so the TV cameras would pick it up. “John 3:16” was all the sign said. Some people thought it was funny, some people thought it was annoying, but most of the people I talked to just wondered what on earth he was up to.
Not that I’m encouraging anyone to go out share the Gospel this way, but his actions led to a LOT of water-cooler and break-room conversations…
…like this one: Years later I was having dinner in a pool hall with a friend and his buddies and The John 3:16 Guy came up in conversation. One of the guys asked, “so what does ‘John 3:16’ stand for anyway?”
The friend I was with looked at me and said, “Well, preacher-lady?” (I was not yet a preacher-lady at that point but I think he saw it coming.)
I said, “Are you serious?”
He said, “Do you know it?”
I said, “I know it. Do you really want me to say it?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
And I said, “OK.”
And the whole table grew quiet as I quoted the familiar words:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
The guys at the table thought for a minute, and then the guy who had asked the question said, “Cool.”
And the other guys nodded and said, “Cool.”
And the conversation moved on from there.
I have no idea if the seed planted that night ever took root. But thanks to The John 3:16 Guy four men heard the gospel who might not otherwise have heard it. And I figure if God can use The John 3:16 Guy, God can use you and me too.
So what exactly is the Gospel then?
Gospel is an old-fashioned word meaning “good news”.
When Jesus preached the gospel he often said, as he says in our reading from Mark this morning, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.”
When Jesus preached the gospel he preached about the kingdom of God. When the apostles preached the gospel they preached the good news of King Jesus. So the coming of Jesus and the coming of God’s Kingdom are one and the same.
When people believe the good news and follow Jesus, their lives take a new course… and that’s what it means to repent. Repentance does not mean we’re horrible, terrible people who need to wallow in guilt. It just means to change direction, to head into something new: a life inspired by God.
Getting back to today’s reading from Mark – after preaching the gospel, Jesus calls Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, to be his disciples. Knowing they were fishermen, Jesus adds:
“Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Books upon books about what it means to be ‘fishers of men’. I’ve heard it said, for example, that when fishers fish they have to use bait, and the secret to successful fishing is using the right bait, and if we want to catch people we likewise have to use the right bait: the right kind of worship service, or the right preacher, or the right style of music. Sounds like we’re all sitting here in a boat-shaped church baiting our hooks and trying to figure out what will make the fish bite!
This is NOT Jesus’ point. It’s not even how people usually fished in Jesus’ day. Back then they used nets. Fishermen worked in teams, and they often went out at night, and when they cast their nets, they cast wide – and all kinds of things would get caught in the net. The first thing fishermen did after coming to shore with their catch was to sit down and sort out the catch, separating the fish from any other marine creatures that got into the nets.
Likewise when we share the gospel, it’s good to do it together as a team. And like the fishermen going out at night, sometimes we have to carry the gospel into dark places. And we need to cast the nets wide, and let God do the sorting later.
So to answer the first question, ‘what is the Gospel?’ – it’s about God’s kingdom, that Jesus is the king. It’s the good news that the one who loved us enough to lay down his life for us, and then walked out of the grave alive, is the king of hearts and the king of souls and his kingdom has no end. (“Grace is the beginning of glory.”)
As for the second question, ‘How does one share the Gospel?’ – we’ve already begun to answer that question. We can dig a little deeper as we look at the Old Testament lesson from Jonah.
In this reading, God tells the prophet Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh. The message God gave Jonah was not exactly good news; in fact it was bad news: God said the city of Nineveh was about to be overthrown, because the city was full of violence and its people were evil.
To set the scene: Nineveh was the capital of the ancient empire of Assyria, located on the opposite side of the Tigris River from what is today the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
Nineveh was a very ancient city, dating to around 3000 BC, and it was the largest city in the world in Jonah’s day. Given its size and power, what army could possibly have conquered it? God could, and God intended to.
Another thing about Nineveh: Israel and Nineveh were enemies. In Jonah’s day the Assyrians had conquered the northern half of Israel, deporting its people, and had attacked the southern half including Jerusalem – which is why Jonah didn’t want God to show mercy to the Ninevites!
Nineveh’s people were also Gentiles, not Jews, and they knew nothing of Israel’s God. When we find a story like this in the Old Testament it’s a reminder that the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is also the God of all the nations, both then and now. God’s prophets were given the same message for the nations that they were given for Israel: turn from wickedness, be people of peace; do justice to the poor; be people who are holy and loving – be God’s people.
So two things happened the day Jonah arrived: (1) Jonah spoke the message God gave him, and (2) the Ninevites believed God and changed their ways!
It’s interesting to note Jonah’s message did not include the option of repentance. In fact it offered no hope at all. “The city will be destroyed” – that’s all Jonah said. But the Ninevites said to themselves and to each other, “Who knows? Maybe God will hear us and not destroy us.” And they declared a nationwide fast, and they prayed, and they put an end to the violence in the city… and God saw and heard and spared Nineveh. Then as now, God is a God who hears prayer and sees changed hearts and changed lives. This is the gospel, and it was good news for the Ninevites.
So how does one share the gospel? By speaking God’s truth. By hearing God’s word and repeating it faithfully as God leads.
One more question then comes to mind: why share the gospel?
First, Jesus tells us to share it – that’s reason enough. Second, the gospel turns away disaster and brings salvation, as the people of Nineveh discovered – which is more than reason enough.
And beyond that, we have the reason Paul gives in our reading from I Corinthians: the time is short.
Life is short to begin with, and the older I get the more I become aware of just how short life is. Paul says, with this in mind:
“…let those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions… for the present form of this world is passing away.”
Paul does not mean this to say, ‘get rid of your spouse, don’t laugh, don’t cry, and don’t own anything’ – that’s not what he means. He’s saying this world is passing and we need to be getting ready for the next world. He’s saying ‘don’t allow anything in life to be more important than a relationship with God’. It’s like the old hymn says:
“In our joys and in our sorrows
Days of toil and hours of ease
Still he calls in cares and pleasures
‘Christian, love me more than these.’”
– Jesus Calls Us (Cecil Frances Alexander, 1818-1895)
This world is passing. As the English theologian Charles Simeon put it:
“We scarcely behold the glare and glitter of this vain world,
before the enchanting prospect vanishes
and the phantom passes onward,
to astonish and delude succeeding generations.”
Or to put it another way: if the ship you’re on is sinking, don’t get attached to it. Help people into the lifeboats and GO!
When God speaks, things happen. When God said, ‘Let there be light’ light happened. When we share the gospel, God’s word is active there too. God speaks through human beings, and things happen. Cities repent. Lives are spared. Fishermen become disciples, and disciples become apostles, and apostles end up sharing a message that changes the course of history.
The kingdom of God is here, and Jesus, the Lord of love, is king. Let us join with the saints throughout history in sharing that good news. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/25/2015