The Heart of the Gospel
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
January 22, 2006
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20
“After John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, announcing the Gospel of God and saying, `The time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe the Gospel!'” –Mark 1:14
This is how Mark summarizes the story he is about to tell us. Much as Archer tells us each Sunday what he intends to talk about in his sermon, “my uncle Ebenezer, Walden pond, chipmunks, the invention of the steam engine, and the history of FUMC,” so Mark tells us that he is going to talk about the Gospel.
There was a rather bitter lyric poet on the Greek isle of Paros between 680 and 640 BC, named Archilochus, and he is famous for the following saying, inscribed on one of the few surviving stone fragments bearing his text, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Today I am going to follow Mark and play hedgehog to Archer’s fox. I have only one big thing to talk about, the heart of the Gospel. Of course I do not mean that Archer does not in his mercurial and foxy way talk about the heart of the Gospel, rather I am excusing myself in advance for the pedestrian nature of my sermon.
The chief characteristic of the hedgehog is that he wants to discover and then to hold true to the heart of the matter, the one great moment that sets the whole enterprise running, the big bang at the start of every process of creative unfolding, what John the Evangelist calls the Word of eternal life, the light that enlightens everyone who comes into this world, the truth according to which everything in all creation was made and is sustained. We are embarked on the same “hedgehog” adventure.
Mark’s calls this essential information “the Gospel of God,” and he has Jesus give us the contents, “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has drawn near,” and finally to indicate our proper response, “Repent and believe this announcement.” The fact that Mark uses the term “Gospel” shows that this is a summary of everything that is to come in the text. For Mark the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are of the essence of the Gospel, but we have not yet seen these events in the narrative. Clearly, therefore, this term is for those who have already read the rest of the narrative. We are addressed as those who have read the book, and may have seen the movie, or more remarkably might even have witnessed the things themselves: Mark is giving us a summary. Let us take each one of these terms in order, and ask what this “Gospel of God” is and how it pertains to us.
The Gospel of God is the good news about God, who God is and what God has done and continues to do. We assume the OT teaching about God, the loving Creator and giver of land and progeny, the champion of one chosen people, the leader of their armies in battle, the punisher of their transgressions, and the vindicator of their rights. We assume the expectation, called Messianic, that some time in the future God would send a special agent to liberate this people from oppression and reestablish the kingdom of their great king David. What more do we need to know about God than we don’t already know? For an answer we turn to the contents of this good news.
Jesus specifies, “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near,” he says. On a first reading this would mean that the divine promise to intervene in history to restore the fortunes of the people of God has been fulfilled. The time of waiting is past; God is fulfilling his promise to restore his people. So we look around for evidence of this divine action and we see no change: the Romans continue to abuse, insult and tax us, the beggars are everywhere, the sick remain sick, the sad remain sad. Where is this restored kingdom of God?
To this situation we can make at least two responses: we can say that the message is false and the messenger deceived, or we can say that he and we are using the same term “Kingdom” with different meanings. The latter is the case, as we shall see; Kingdom of God in the mouth of Jesus means something significantly different from the messianic expectation that God would restore David’s kingdom. Nevertheless, the fact remains, the promise of God is being fulfilled, and the Kingdom is drawing near. So however we understand the terms the fact remains that we are being given an amazing gift. So let us agree that the heart of the Gospel is a gift from God, and the good news is that this gift has been given. Gospel means Gift!
The apostle Paul calls this gift our inheritance (Romans 8:15-17). Imagine receiving a message that a very rich relative has left you an unimaginably huge sum of money. That would be good news, would it not? What if you did not believe the message and refused to go to the bank in question to try to draw on your inheritance? What if you said, “This is impossible, things like that don’t happen, especially to me; I am no sucker”? That would be very bad news, only you would not know it.
For that reason the second part of Jesus’ message is that we must repent and believe the message. Now repentance in this context is not merely the act of feeling sorry for sins, asking forgiveness and promising not to do the same again. Repentance is a change of mind and a change of direction; the Greek is metanoia (= a change of mind) and the Hebrew is teshuvah (=change of direction). Paul calls it “the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2). Repentance is a seeing of the world in a different way from before, a new point of view, a new sense of reality.
Without the ability to see things differently we cannot believe the message. Our normal attitude of watchful cynicism will keep us from the bank where uncle Ebenezer’s gift lies untouched, and pride in our stoic endurance will prevent us from seeking help or acknowledging that help has in fact arrived. We
need new eyes to see and a new heart to rejoice before we can believe and so enjoy the great gift of God in the Gospel.
What is in question here is nothing less than a new view of the world. Paul describes this new view of the world as the life of “as if not (1 Corinthians 7:2931)” The Christian lives in this world as if not part of it, because we are in fact citizens of another world, subjects of the divine kingdom not the earthly empire. Paul expected that new world to overwhelm the old world soon and so people are not to marry and procreate children, but, he said, if you wish please go ahead because it is better to marry than to burn with passion. For this eminently reasonable advice he has gotten a bad rap down the ages.
So to conclude: God has prepared an amazing gift for us, nothing less than a new world, or as John calls it, eternal life. God has done this entirely of his own accord, as a gesture of love for us, and so it is a fact whether we know it, believe it, or claim it. When, however, we do claim it we find that by that act of claiming itself our minds are renewed and our vision expanded and our lives flooded with divine joy. We do not first believe then clear our minds and then claim the gift, but rather claim the gift, and then find our eyes opened and our faith aroused. The gift of the Kingdom entails the gift of repentance and faith.
Mark goes on to tell us what such a move might be, by telling us the story of the calling and response of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John. With great economy of narrative Mark tells how they “left all and followed Jesus.” We are the fishermen and today as we toil in our little world of nets and boats and long nights on the water the Kingdom of God comes upon us and we lift up our eyes from the minutiae of life and we see a whole world in which we might be “fishers of men,” and we leave all for the sake of that vision. We change our minds about what is important and we change our direction in life.
Where do we see all this? In that marvelous young man striding down the beach and calling us to follow, and so we are at the point of discovering the hedgehog’s “one big thing.” The big thing is no thing at all but a person, with a personal name. The Kingdom did not come to the fisherman as and idea, or a theory, or a word of explanation, or an insight, but as a person, as a young man like them. (It was the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard who said, “Thank God that He entrusted the Gospel to fishermen and not to professors, journalists and other members of the chattering classes” – or something like that). All that Mark is telling us, all that I so clumsily have been trying to explain, comes to the point in this: they followed Jesus.
Jesus is the Gospel, he is the hedgehog’s treasure. Jesus is the immense new/old gift of God. Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life. For that reason every little section of the gospels makes the same point, whether it is a miracle story, a parable, a saying, a narrative of Crucifixion or Resurrection, all make one point, namely, Jesus is the one.
Now I know how difficult it is for folk like us, trained in words and theories and insights and explanations to accept that the heart of it all is none of the above, the heart of the Gospel is a relationship, with the divine creativity in the divine self-revelation in our flesh, in Jesus. It is hard for us to be ranked with all those unwashed Christians who simply whoop and holler and carry on for Jesus
(it is not my aesthetic I confess, and I turn away embarrassed), but despite my negative view of their aesthetics I think they might understand the Gospel better than many of us sophisticated folk.
So let’s go from here renewed in our relationship with Jesus, eager to follow him as Peter, Andrew, James and John did (I love it that they are named; shows how important relationship is for Jesus.) The hedgehog’s one big thing at the heart of the Gospel is Jesus offering us the gift of sharing his relationship with God, the privilege to leave all and follow him, the joy of seeing the world through his eyes, and the opportunity to love and serve one another as he does. Repent, believe, and most important, receive, and rejoice, …and follow Jesus.