The beauty, and also the danger of the gospels is that each book is written from a contrasting viewpoint. If you are looking for one consistent story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John you will be sorely disappointed. Each writer brings not only his own particular perspective, he is writing to a people who have been shaped by different cultural experiences. Each writer takes on the task of converting this distinctive community through a unique telling of the story which he hopes will capture their hearts and minds. These differing perspectives are exposed in the opening chapters of each of the gospels.
In Mark, the shortest and oldest gospel, the writer shrouds the telling of the story in mystery. The goal is for the reader to discover who this man Jesus is. Clues are given along the way and we are encouraged to race through the gospel believing eventually the truth will be revealed.
The writer of John has no such desire to hold secrets from our hearts. From the very first verse we are told Jesus is the Word and the Word is God. Each chapter builds on our knowledge of God and Jesus being one.
Matthew wants to accomplish more than just the telling of the story. Matthew wants his gospel to instruct a Jewish audience on how to build a worshipping community. It is a story which begins with wise men seeking a child and ends with the children of God seeking a long promised truth.
And then there is Luke. This gospel was initially presented to a group of illiterate slaves and women who had little designs of ever being considered human beings. They desired a savior who was born among them and a God who would respond to their cries with a word of hope.
I have observed in my years as both minister and educator that adults gravitate toward the Gospel of John while writers of children’s materials depend heavily on Luke. The reason is obvious. The majority of the parables of Jesus are found in Luke. Luke introduces Jesus through the stories Jesus told. In John we learn about Jesus through a series of discourses identifying our savior as the good shepherd, the bread of life and the light of the world. John was a theologian who dealt in absolutes. Luke was a storyteller who allowed a little more room for saint and sinner.
Luke begins the ministry of Jesus with a story. The reputation of Jesus as a teacher had spread throughout the countryside. People were amazed by his words. Then one week-end Jesus decided to pay a visit to his hometown. His reputation preceded him. On his arrival at the synagogue Jesus was asked if he would offer a lesson from the prophets. Jesus selected Isaiah 61 and began to read.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
God has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor;
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
Recovery of sight to the blind,
And offer freedom to the oppressed.
I am to proclaim that this is the year of God’s jubilation.
Luke is the only gospel writer to record this event and the reason is obvious. From the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the original audiences were told Jesus came to liberate the poor, the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden. This was their hope and prayer. In the midst of their afflictions, they were assured that God did care for them.
In contrast, the ministry of Jesus in John’s gospel begins with Nicodemus, a man of distinction and a leader in the religious community. Jesus and Nicodemus engage in a powerful discourse in which Jesus introduces the concept of being born again and ends with, “For God so loved the world, God gave his only son for the salvation of humankind.” This is powerful and inspiring stuff. It speaks to inquirers looking for words of truth beyond their own individual journey. But what if more than just your soul is hungry? What if more than just your heart is imprisoned?
In 1986 I traveled to Nicaragua, a country in the midst of a civil war. I was intrigued that many of the leaders of the Sandinistas were Roman Catholic priest. During my stay I met the poet Ernesto Cardenal and asked how he justified his calling as both a priest and a revolutionary. Very quietly he confesed, “As a priest, I taught my people about the love of God. We sang the songs and broke the bread together. At the cathedral, the rich and powerful broke the same bread and sang the same songs. But they never did anything to exhibit the love of God. When I would read, “God so loved the world he gave his son”, my people would nod and go back to their painful lives. But when I read, ‘Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, and free the oppressed’, my people were given hope.”
What I brought back from my Nicaraguan experience was a dramatic understanding that not all folks interpret the Bible the same way. When Jesus read Isaiah 61 some listeners heard it as an unfulfilled promise of the past, some had their hopes raised and the majority wondered how that particular text impacted them at that moment. When Jesus sat down, all eyes were fixed on him wondering why he would choose such a passage. Jesus responded by adding a footnote, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your reading.” That is when a riot broke out. This text about the poor and the captives was fine as long as it stayed in the past tense. Everyone in that synagogue knew about The Day of the Lord. They all prayed for the time when a Messiah would come. But they weren’t necessarily anxious for it to happen. The folks in the synagogue were the leaders in the community. They were the shopkeepers and merchants. Even the father of Jesus had an established business. The Messiah would radically change their lives and change was not necessarily part of their agenda.
Are they much different from us? Our Brief Statement of Faith ends with the pronouncement, “Come Lord Jesus”. Is that really what you want? Some of you are lucky enough to have lived in this beautiful valley from birth. Most of us worked our entire lives just to get here. Do we really want Jesus showing up on our doorsteps and turning our whole existence upside down? Could it be what we are really praying is, “When I die, come Lord Jesus, and make heaven an extension of what I am now experiencing.”
Established folks in the town of Nazareth were not excited about the Messiah showing up because they were, for the most part, content with their lives. The same could not be said of the early readers of Luke’s gospel. They desired to be liberated from their economic status and captivated by a faith that offered hope. If we learn nothing else from the gospels we need to understand Jesus comes to us where we are. That is not only OK, it is enlightening.
A recent article in Christian Century spoke about the churches, or rather the lack of churches in Vancouver. At first glance one might think Nellysford and Vancouver have little in common. Thirty years ago Vancouver was a sleepy seaport with cheap real estate. But with its spectacular scenery it remade itself into place where people desired to live. Soon retirees who loved to recreate flocked to Vancouver. The population grew but not the size of the local churches. Hiking and skiing became a lot more important than church on Sunday morning.
Most of the churches in Vancouver tried to hold on to their traditional ways of being a church. They vocally attacked the new culture that embraced their city. Most of these churches have now closed. But a few congregations saw this as an opportunity to explore seeing the gospel through different eyes. Instead of condemning the emerging culture, they listened to both the spiritual and corporeal needs of their new community. By not doing church the way they had always done it, these churches have become relevant to a new and changing culture.
The Spirit of God has always brought the gospel in a way that is meaningful to our particular lives. Nothing new with that thought. But consider this. What if, from the beginning, God understood that we live in a large diverse world? What if, just as the gospel writers brought a different Jesus to each of their communities, we might consider that the Jesus we claim might look a bit different to someone who has not been raised in a traditional congregation? If we can move past the idea that only one understanding of God works for every situation, think of the opportunity that lies before us. The Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring the good news to a world that is not the same audience once confronted by Billy Graham. To some, like the readers of Mark, the name Jesus is a mystery. To others, like the readers of Matthew, they are folks who left the church and aren’t going back. To many, like the readers of John, they have been in the church all their lives but need to be challenged by the spirit of God in a new way. Then there are those folks like those who first heard the Gospel of Luke, the outcast of society who hunger for a word of hope. There is not, nor has there ever been, one formula for telling the story. And the good news is the Spirit of the Lord has always been leading the church toward new and creative ways to engage others in what for us has been the life changing truth that God loves us and God cares for us.
Each gospel begins differently. Each gospel writer tells the story of Jesus in his own way. But each gospel ends with the same command, “Go and proclaim that the Spirit of God is among you.”
This is our unique challenge. We are called not only to speak of our faith but hear perspectives that might seem foreign to both our tongue and heart. No single word can fully embrace the immenseness of God’s grace. No single thought can fully explain the vastness of God’s love. The Spirit of God combines both heaven and earth. The Spirit of God finds intersection within body and mind. The Spirit of God seeks justice, loves mercy and humbly engages in every facet of the human experience. I suspect if we claim to love God with all our heart, mind and souls we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls because God’s imagination is too grand to be limited by a singular human thought. The writers of the gospels knew this. Together they accomplished what one writer alone could never achieve. God is now calling on us to embrace this concept because there is a huge world out there desperate to hear God’s story of grace and reconciliation. Some of them listen to Jay Z. Others still prefer Sinatra. And that is wonderful, unless I think the story can only be told “My Way”.
Spirit of God, capture us with your wild imagination. Then liberate us sing to Your diverse gospel of grace. Amen.