What would you say if you had the chance to explain the gospel to someone who had never even heard the name Jesus before? That would mean not relying on any assumptions about any biblical background knowledge or familiarity with the Jesus story, as well as being careful to avoid “Christianese” — those theological terms we sometimes employ in conversation that to the uninitiated sounds like the kind of technical jargon you might here in a conversation between two computer programmers. Personally, if I were faced with this opportunity, I would not be interested in explaining things in a concise, point-form, “4 Spiritual Laws” kind of way. I would want to tell a story. I want the message of Jesus to be captivating. So here’s my version (naturally a little more formal in this written version than the way I would speak it):
I follow the teachings of a man named Jesus who lived nearly 2,000 years ago in what is today called Palestine. But I don’t just follow his teaching, I follow his lead. By all contemporary accounts, there was something undeniably different about him; and by the four accounts contained in a book called the Bible, that difference was that he was God. At other times in history, great religious teachers like Mohammed or Buddha or Moses have pointed their people toward God in some hugely significant ways, but Jesus didn’t simply point the people toward God, he wanted people to have an up-close-and-personal, face-to-face meeting with God. Jesus was God with skin on.
Jesus wasn’t satisfied with reinforcing the status quo or letting those he met continue to believe whatever they might about God, wrong or right. He made it his mission to show people that God isn’t at all like many of them thought — most thought God was primarily interested in people being good and playing by the rules. If they did so, he would be pleased and might make their lives easier; but if not, disaster and punishment might ensue. But God, according to the teachings of Jesus, loves everyone all the time, and there isn’t anything we can do to make God love us any more or any less.
That isn’t to say that God doesn’t care what we do or how we live our lives; in fact, God cares very much. But the kind of God that Jesus taught about, the kind of God that Jesus himself embodied, knew that the kind of behaviour that would make the greatest impact in the end isn’t about following a list of dos and don’ts, it’s about operating with a bigger vision of life. This is what Jesus modelled for us when he took time to give a blind man his sight back, or healed a man who hadn’t had the use of his legs since the day he was born, or healed a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. He showed everyone who was watching that God is concerned about more than what people do or don’t do, but about who we are on the inside and our complete emotional, physical, spiritual, and social well-being. And he wanted us to know that God was already getting started on his grand master plan to set things right for good: a plan to totally change humanity and history.
But Jesus didn’t stop there, because he hadn’t gotten to the root of the problem: Jesus also taught that at some level, each of us is messed up. We sometimes do the things we don’t want to do, say the things we don’t want to say, think the things we don’t want to think; and we sometime don’t do the things we want to, or say the things we really want to, or think the things we really want to. And that doesn’t just mess each of us up as individuals. That spills over into the way we act toward each other. We can hurt each other quite badly; we can quite easily, given the right circumstances, abuse, manipulate, and intimidate. And it seems even some of the social systems that we have set up in this world thrive on injustice and inequality, on power and its abuse And at times it seems like we are powerless to rid ourselves of this twistedness completely. Is that just part of being human? Or is there a remedy?
Jesus offers us a remedy. He actually freely offered to take the rap for everything every single person who ever lived and would live had done and would do wrong; he collected all our wrongs and transgressions, the patterns of negativity that we could never seem to get rid of it, and when he died, they went to the grave with him — buried, never to be seen again. He didn’t put up a fight, but let people kill him unjustly, and so exposed the world’s ugliness and hatred for everyone to see.
He was able to do this because he knew how the story would turn out in the end; his death was only mission half-accomplished. He didn’t actually stay dead. He was God, and you can’t kill God. He got back up again and dusted himself off, and then he offered us the remedy to our problem. He offered to allow us to share in the kind of unending life that brought him back from the dead. He said to everyone who was following him around at that time, “Look, I have put an end to everything that is bad about you and this whole planet, but if you don’t have the ability to live any other way than you have been living all along, then what’s the point?” So everyone who asked for it then, and everyone who has believed in this story and asked for it since, has been given the ability to live life differently because God himself has put his own power inside of everyone who wants it.
Jesus asks us to envision a different life: a different us, a different way of being in relationship with one another, and a different way of conducting ourselves in the world that will work toward ending hatred, oppression, inequality, and injustice. And the best news of it all is that Jesus stayed alive and continues to live on, empowering those people who even today want to become his followers. And one day, no one knows when, God will have had enough of the way this whole world has been running, and will come back again to clean house and set everything in order once and for all. And those who choose to be on his side, who choose to imagine a different life and a different world, and move toward making that a reality, will enjoy the new world that Jesus will be setting up — enjoy it forever and forever because like him, we will live life on without end.
What would you say? I think it is so crucial for each of us to at least have some idea of what we might say if we were to have that opportunity to speak about Jesus to someone who just doesn’t know much about him. How can we speak with passion about what we hold true, and make it sound as stirring and game-changing as it did to that original group of men nearly 2,000 years ago? Post a response with your version, and let me know if you feel I have accomplished my aim — think of the person you know who understands the least about the Christian message, and see if you can imagine sharing with them what I have written and if he or she could make sense of it (whether or not he or she agrees).