Serving the World, Loving Others
When I began this series, I argued that the gospel in America has suffered a serious reduction from its full biblical meaning and that this reductionism has left many Christians confused and/or misguided with regard to their mission and calling. The reduction of the gospel to merely personal salvation has narrowed our conceptions of what we believe we are called to do in the world to little more than sharing some facts about Jesus and inviting others to agree with these facts.
However, as the Scriptures show, the gospel of the kingdom is better understood as the announcement of God's in-breaking reign. The kingdom of God is a present reality, inaugurated at the cross when Jesus broke the power of Satan. Jesus has entered the enemy's house, bound Satan and robbed him of his ill-gotten gain, including those enslaved to sin (see Matthew 12:29). This kingdom represents God's redemptive rule and reign, in which Christ the King is making all things new, setting right what sin has set wrong in the world, and gathering a people for himself, the church.
Interestingly, this ancient truth seems to be emerging from its recent historical obscurity. Pastors, scholars, and teachers are increasingly emphasizing the gospel of the kingdom over and against the reductionist gospel. Furthermore, the notion of Christ's kingdom as an entirely future reality-an idea that came to dominate American evangelicalism during the past 150 years-is beginning to disappear.
In light of this deeper understanding, the implications for the church and its mission to the world can be better understood. As indicated earlier, the Scriptures appear to outline a threefold approach to expressing the "good news" of the kingdom. First, the church demonstrates what life looks like under the reign of God within a distinct community, the church. I have already addressed this in terms of our relational unity within the body (see John 13:35), its necessity in our witness, and offered examples such as charity toward each other, the strengthening of our marriages, and our care of our elderly as demonstrations that could and should be manifested.
Now I want to address the second way in which the church bears witness to the gospel: service to the world and loving those outside the church. No longer being our own, the church surrenders itself as a redemptive instrument in the hands of God to bring forth the fruits of the kingdom-justice, righteousness, and peace. Paul writes, "For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). This power is the present lordship of Jesus Christ to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (see Matthew 28:18) and this spiritual power flows-by grace-through his body, the church, producing "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22,23).
It is these virtues, empowered by God's spirit, that then drive the church out into the world, seeking to set right what sin has set wrong, to alleviate suffering, to provide comfort, to enact justice, to liberate the oppressed, and to heal the sick. One need not look long to find opportunities to express the redemptive gospel of the kingdom through acts of service in a lost and broken world. Nonetheless, looking may be our challenge. Despite the profuse suffering in this world, we either find ourselves so overwhelmed we don't know where to begin, or our selfish nature compels us to apathy and indifference. But this nature has been replaced with a new nature that is to be sensitive to suffering. We are to look upon the world in the same way that Jesus looked upon Jerusalem-with tears in his eyes. Apathy is sin!
Share the Gospel at all Times and When Necessary, Use Words (St. Francis)
I have friends, Doug and Debbie, who illustrate this sensitivity quite well. Several years ago they encountered an eighteen-year-old who came into their church from the streets. If you had met this young man, however, you never would have guessed he was eighteen; he seemed rather a kind boy-a child really-whom life had very nearly destroyed. This young man had absolutely no sense of self-worth, believing himself to be of no value to anyone anywhere.
Eric, as it turned out, had been essentially abandoned years earlier; he lived alone on the streets, in derelict homes, or with his grandmother occasionally. His mother was an unstable addict; his father was merely one of the many men passing in and out of her life. Absent any parental support and guidance, Eric had had some trouble with the law, and had been expelled from school in the eleventh grade; greatly lacking in his education, at this point he had little or no future. His was a real human tragedy, a story of generational sin, bondage, and the real wreckage that follows.
Despite having six children of their own at home and often struggling financially, Doug and Debbie invited Eric into their home. He became a part of their family, this young black kid from the streets-he became their son and brother. They discipled him. They schooled him at home until he could obtain his GED. They loved him and brought him into their community of faith where he was equally loved and received. There were various members of their church who offered assistance as needed to restore what sin had taken from this young man and ready him for life. Lawyers volunteered to represent Eric, getting his juvenile record expunged, thus giving him a chance at life. Countless steps and many expenses followed. With his record cleared, a high school degree obtained, Eric could pursue his dream of joining the United States Marine Corps.
Here once again, Doug and Debbie worked tirelessly to prepare Eric, helping him study for the ASVAB (armed forces entrance exam), obtain the necessary documentation, medical records, and so on, until this young man finally made it. In November of last year, Eric graduated from boot camp, having earned the title of Marine. I saw Eric the following week. He was proud and standing tall, a young man now utterly in love with Jesus and also able to love himself. All I could think was Here stands a restored human being.
Eric said something to me that I thought so encapsulated the gospel that I nearly wept when he said it. He was telling me how his fellow Marines were teasing him about buying so many graduation photos (he spent over $300!). They asked, "Why are you getting so many pictures?" He said: "I told 'em, I got a lot of people who love me."
That's it! Brought out of darkness into light, out of alienation and into the community of God's gracious love. His humanity had been restored through the love of Christ, seen, felt, and expressed through this family, a family that looked upon this boy with the eyes of Jesus and followed Jesus into his life as Christ worked through the muck and mess of redemption.
This is what we are sent into the world to do and in so doing we "share the gospel" in ways far louder or more clearly than mere words could ever communicate!