TC Ryan
finding calm in the midst of chaos

Have you ever heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Appearing in chapter six of The Book of Revelation, only one of them was named, Death. Tradition named the other three War, Famine and Pestilence. Just think of them.

War. Famine. Pestilence. Death. Whoa.

Our attention is seized by the imposing, commanding appearance of these Four Horsemen in the dramatic saga of the Apocalypse. Because most of us share the notion that not everything is right in this world and that there ought to be some sort of accountability, these Four Horsemen serve as necessary elements we’re fascinated to observe but personally hope to avoid.

If you’re looking for a great opportunity to be distracted and waste time, Google the Four Horsemen. Last time I checked there were over half-a-million entries. You might be gone for hours. Or days.

I thought of the Four Horsemen recently as I was working through the Twelve Steps. Again.

Those of us in genuine recovery—just like those of us pursuing genuine spirituality—must repeatedly return to the basics. That’s how we learn. That’s how we break old patterns and develop new ones. That’s how we re-wire our lives.

The Last Three Steps have to do with living the life of recovery, or as the authors put it, “entering the world of the Spirit.” They speak of ongoing self-examination and honesty, prayer and meditation, integrating every aspect of our lives by our core principles and taking the message of hope, healing and redemption to others.

The challenge and opportunity of living a life of genuine recovery—just like genuine spirituality—is to grow in understanding how life truly works and becoming more effective in living our lives.

Though now associated with judgment, destruction and the end of time, the root of apocalypse means to reveal, or to uncover. Genuine growth requires ongoing examination, a personal revealing, or uncovering.

The “Big Book” of AA talks of four behaviors/characteristics we must continually watch for: selfishness, dishonesty resentment and fear.

Selfishness is being chiefly concerned with ourselves.

Dishonesty is lying, cheating, defrauding or deceiving.

Resentment is rehearsing our anger over hurts, slights and loss.

Fear is the gnawing awareness that we are vulnerable to threat or harm.

Admittedly, these four characteristics are far less sensational than the Four Horsemen. Yet if we carefully examine our lives, it becomes clear they’re no less threatening to our well-being.

They may not overwhelm our senses nor signal the end of history. And yet, they are all—in their own way—harbingers of our own death.

They are the things that rob us of life.

If we want to live a life truly worth living, can we afford to ignore selfishness, dishonesty, resentment or fear when they take root in our souls?

It does cost us something to confront them, to weed them out. But what does it cost us to let them grow? I hear pounding hooves.

Is there a thought, a story, an event, something you heard about or saw with your own eyes, that when you recall it, still makes you stop? Something that still fills you with child-like wow? Still makes you wonder, marvel, want to say, wait did that really happen?

There is for me.

It came around just before this last Christmas season. I won’t say it snuck up on me, exactly, I mean, I saw it coming. But all the same it walloped me. Again.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

The Word became flesh. And dwelt among us.

The Word. The Second Personal Expression of God. The One through Whom all things were made. Wonderful Counselor. Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven. Messiah. Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. God with our skin and our bones and our muscles and our feelings.

Among us. Here. Not on my street, exactly, not even on a street like mine. But still here, walking and eating and enjoying cool breezy days and sweating when it was hot.

Listening and talking and telling stories and learning peoples’ names and generally acting like you and I might act in a similar situation.

It still grips me when I think about it, it seizes my imagination.

Full of Grace and Truth.

Grace. Mercy. Steadfast love. That conviction deposited deeply in a soul that whispers no matter what you’ve done, no matter how weak or limited or stupid or stubborn you are, you are truly loved. No matter what, you belong.

Truth. Things do matter. There is a better way and another way that is not better but worse, maybe much worse. Truth about God and us and the way the world works and doesn’t work and was meant to work and might work again.

Truth often causes us pain; but Grace helps us not waste it.

I recently told a group of therapists and ministry leaders, Jesus loves us as we are but never leaves us where we are.

I said that and then the Christmas season came and my wife set up the manger scene in my study and I was looking at it one night.

And the force of it hit me all over again. Word. Flesh. Us. Grace. Truth.

Who is this Creator that knows all of us, hears all of us, holds all life in his hands, continues all life by the force of his being and the breath of his mouth, who—while continuing to do all that—actually inhabited our limited space for a time—just exactly the way we inhabit it?

If he went to such extravagant lengths to reach us, why do we hold anything back from him?

A bill recently passed in the Kansas House would allow any individual, business or religious group with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to refuse services, facilities, goods, employment or employment benefits related to any same-sex marriage or domestic partnership.

It’s called “The Religious Freedom Protection Act” and I have friends who are on both sides of this bill. But I want to think about this complicated issue from a particular perspective. How should Christ-followers in the marketplace deal with others with whom they have significant moral disagreements?

Followers of Jesus have to ask hard questions of ideas and movements that come along using religious language. While the language may seem to promote religion, does it truly reflect Christian faith and practice?

Jesus’ most famous message is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In it he sketches for us his alternative way of living in this world.

Jesus teaches that we can trust our Father in heaven to take care of us, one way or another, and that this is the very best way to live. There are no magic promises and not everything will unfold according to our liking. But because God’s nature is loving and generous, we are to be loving and generous with others, too, even when it costs us.

So he uses language like turning the other cheek and giving to the one who begs from you and cautions us not to judge others—this is really important—because the measure we use in judging others will be used in our own judgment.

Then Jesus makes this significant summary: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

Kansas HB 2453 perfectly represents the old way of doing things, not the new way of Jesus.

While as of this writing the Kansas Senate has not acted on the House bill, other groups are trying to push it forward. Arizona has recently passed similar legislation (though the governor vetoed it yesterday) and seven other states are considering comparable bills. This issue is not going away soon.

So, if you are a Christian, how do you think about these “religious freedom” initiatives?  How do we follow Jesus in the marketplace as we encounter others with whom we have significant disagreements? We follow the path of loving others.

To accept society’s encouragement or the state’s protection for not practicing hospitality to all others is counter to Christian spirituality. 

When it comes to dealing with others—and especially those we might disagree with—Jesus made it clear his followers are always to take the path of love. That means if I’m a Christian and run a bed and breakfast, I’ll gladly receive a homosexual couple and genuinely pray they are blessed and refreshed while they are under my roof.

Think about it. How would Jesus treat them?

Like so many others I was deeply touched and troubled by the recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. A supremely talented actor, he displayed a fascinating ability to reach down into the darker, deeply complicated nuances of human experience and bring them to life. “He will be greatly missed” is woefully inadequate for the reverberations his death has caused.

It is deeply troubling that someone with such talent and resources should be dead of drug addiction at age 46. That he leaves friends, family and three young children who cared about him adds to the weight of what is so wrong about this story.

But Philip’s death troubles me for another reason, too. It reminds me that all of us bear within ourselves the seeds of our own destruction—our own very unnecessary loss.

I have my own set of compulsive issues—different from Philip’s but no less threatening. Philip’s death reminds me that all of us, but especially we who are addicts, are just one set of poor decisions from losing our grip on reality. We are one set of bad choices from setting in motion a sequence which will unleash our powerlessness and take us out.

It’s a naturally human response to a situation like Philip’s death to evaluate and judge. Perhaps it’s a way of understanding how the darkness enveloped his soul; or a way of convincing ourselves we’re safe. It isn’t necessarily true, of course, but we look for what helps us cope with what we don’t understand, what we fear.

For some of us there seems to be a more perverse delight in finding blame in others. It’s a malignantly misguided effort to justify the righteousness of our own small lives. It’s a gross misuse of human intelligence and energy. It robs us of mental health and psychological wellbeing as much as addiction does.

It’s inappropriate for any of us to judge how Philip lived his life and how that life came to an end. That is his journey and he alone is responsible for it. But for those of us who love life, and appreciated Phillip’s, his death makes our souls long for a different outcome.

So what is a healthy, appropriate response to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman? Grieve the loss of him. Celebrate the goodness of him. Care about those who were close to him. If we have the capability to comfort them, do that.

And look to the care of our own lives. What are our disabilities? Where are our blind spots? Who knows us well? With whom do we share our selves, our thoughts, our fears and our choices?

And if we’re addicts, be vigilant. We carry the well-developed seeds of our own destruction. Rigorous attention and cultivated support are what keep us alive and well.

May God have mercy and rest Philip’s soul. May God comfort Philip’s family and his friends. And may God guide and hold us all.

Can you remember Christmas Eve? It was only a few weeks ago. But for most of us life Christmas zooms into our lives and then silently disappears in the rear-view mirror as we rocket on. And we hardly think about it.

But I’m still thinking about Christmas Eve because I know how difficult and despairing a night it can be. It is a grim reality for a lot of us that this night, and the season around it, sharply contrasts beauty and distortion, delight and despair, hope and emptiness.

As someone who led a congregation for two decades, I experienced Christmas Eve as the most poignant and sentimental night of the church year. A sweet night, rich with meaning and feeling.

Yet I know that for many of my colleagues, this last Christmas Eve was also a night of inner turmoil, of soulful mourning. For all the love and joy they sought to convey to others as they engaged in sincere and thoughtful ministry, for them it was a night of dispiriting hopelessness.

Because a lot of ministry leaders are struggling with hidden compulsive sexual behaviors and they’re stuck. I know, because for a long time, I was stuck, too.

How are they stuck? They’ve stumbled into patterns they can’t break without real help from others. And they can’t tell others what their struggles are without risking judgment, scorn and unemployment. They feel genuine remorse and guilt. They’re awash with shame. They want to live a different life. But they are just so badly stuck.

For them it’s been this way all year. But now Advent comes on and then Christmas. In the northern hemisphere darker days, too. Chill and excitement. Anticipation and celebration.

And dread. Such dread. Because of the disparity.

Most of my colleagues who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors are really good people. They’re sincere about their calling and their service. They want to help others and honor the one who’s called them.

And they feel so badly about some of their choices, thinking they ought to be able to harness that bad feeling for life-change, but finding the exact opposite is true. The more they hate how they live, the more stuck they are.

So on Christmas Eve they lead the carols and tell the story and light the candles and love the ones God came for. And inwardly they writhe with self-loathing or shut off feeling. Because who can long tolerate this inner turmoil?

But that very turmoil is ultimately what this night is actually about, isn’t it?  One who loves us so much—not because we’ve got it together, not because we perform well—but because of his heart of love, comes to be with us in our brokenness, in our mess. And not just to be with us in it but to help us through it.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John tells us (1:14) and he was full of grace and truth.  And there it is. The hope. The promise. The reason for keeping on.

But something has to change. He brings truth, yes, and grace, but he does it “among us” meaning we receive these gifts together. Dropping judgment, ditching shame, helping each other open the gifts. We have to change how we do life together.

Think again about Christmas, and the radical love that brings it about. If we’re so loved, how should we love each other?

I wrote Ashamed No More (InterVarsity Press, 2012) to help all of us learn how to deal with sexual brokenness in our culture. Read it, give it to others, and contact me to come share with your group.



I was a student at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California when Leadership Journal came on the scene in 1980. I’ve been a fan ever since. So when they asked to excerpt some of my story from my book, Ashamed No More, for the Fall 2013 issue ( you can imagine it was a bittersweet opportunity. On the one hand, to have something I’ve written published in a journal I so respect and that circulates among so many of my peers is an exciting thing. On the other, the story is about my brokenness and struggles and is terrifically humbling.

Yes, I see the irony. I want to be a success, to have my peers value my contributions to the church.  But the Gospel isn’t about me and my accomplishments. Genuine service in Christ always comes out of humility. Like anyone else I’d like to be admired and honored. But to be healthy and growing I have to face reality. The Gospel of Jesus ceaselessly brings us back to these twin truths:  we are not really as good as we’d like to think we are; and we are more wildly and extravagantly loved than we have any idea we are.

So my story, really, isn’t much about me. It’s about God and others. That’s the spirit in which it is offered, and the spirit in which it will best be used. We grow most steadily when we regularly are checking our motives.

Leadership Journal allowed me to add a “sidebar” to the excerpt from the book, one which addresses ministry leaders and clergy specifically. For space it had to be edited down. Here is the full sidebar I wrote. If you care for a healthy leadership of Christian ministry in all it’s forms, campus leaders, youth leaders, pastors, church and missions and ministry organizations staff, please read this and forward it to everyone you know. We have an enormous challenge in front of us to help all our servant leaders.

The Struggle Clergy Have

That we have enormous numbers of faithful, called and good people in Christian leadership today who are struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors is beyond dispute. In most cases, they are struggling alone, ashamed of the affliction they have unintentionally developed, frightened of the consequences should their thoughts and actions become known. 

Throughout the history of the people of God, a number of us have stumbled into compulsive sex as a lifestyle (think of Samson) or have made serious errors of sexual judgment (think of David). That is the reality of human nature, and those who haven’t struggled with their sexuality have struggled with something else.  We are all broken people and we all need mercy.

However, one of the consequences of the Internet is that the very human and very natural vulnerability we all have around our sexuality is being exploited by a seemingly endless supply of anonymous and highly addictive sexual images, material and avenues of sexual connection.

Ministry leaders are not immune. In fact, what I’ve learned as I’ve pursued my own recovery and become available to help others is that clergy are particularly vulnerable. Because of the link between spirituality and sexuality, personal wiring, previous wounds, burnout and boredom, I believe ministry leaders are especially susceptible to stumbling into a compulsive misuse of their sexuality.

Once a leader’s sexual thinking and behavior has become compulsive, alarming messages, moralizing and threats will not be effective in helping them change.  These tactics only make the addiction worse. What is effective is honesty and love, specific tools and healthy community.  These are non-negotiable.

Fortunately, help is emerging from different sources, and ironically clergy searching for help can find some on the Internet. A few of the sites that offer hope and help are:  Samson Society; Operation Integrity; Seven Places Ministries; Faithful and True; XXXChurch; ASI247; and Covenant Eye’s Breaking Free blog.  These sites are all easy to find with simple web searches.

But why can’t the church become the place of truth and grace, of safety and invitation, of nurture and healing that Jesus calls it to be?  It’s time to train and equip all of our leaders at every level how to understand compulsive sexual behavior and how to help people work through it to healing and health. 

And especially we must help our leaders.  Tenderly and carefully freeing and restoring all of our servant leaders is a genuine way to honor the heart of the One we serve.  Remember it was said of him, “a bruised reed he will not break and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” 

 –T. C. Ryan


This is the fifth of five blog posts exploring the question “what is the Gospel?”  Not meant to be an exhaustive study, just a relevant one, we’ve looked at a number of New Testament passages. 

It might be useful, in thinking about the Gospel, to ask what is it for, or what it is the Gospel is meant to achieve amidst humanity.  Is the purpose of the Gospel to save people from judgment and separation from their Creator?  Or is the function of the Gospel to affect people as they live, changing them into the beings they were originally designed to be?  While both are true, the Gospel entails much more than these two pillars.

In the first post of this series, we looked at a passage St. Paul wrote to the churches of Asia Minor (Galatians) in which he recounted a discussion he’d had with the Jerusalem leaders of the church over the very nature of the Gospel.  As he argued with the Galatian followers about the absolute sufficiency of the Gospel, and of the dangers of diluting or distorting it, the crescendo of his Gospel theology climbed until he reached this ringing climax of ultimate personal identification with the Gospel of Jesus:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

In discovering Christ, in coming to spiritual life in Christ, Paul has discovered this eternal truth:  none of us is truly alive until we are in Christ.  It is in Christ, the eternal Word, the physical embodiment of the Breath of God, it is in this Christ that for us life itself exists.

Some of us might look at this take on the Gospel as quite exclusive (unless one is in Christ, they’re not really able to have the life their Creator intended them to have).   Others, like myself, see it as highly invitational (given the cruel limitations of our human tendencies towards ignorance and stubbornness, God has not left us to our own devices; rather God in his mercy seeks to free each of us from a sentence of half-living in the shadows, for a far better life of abundantly rich living in the light). 

However we see it, there are several common errors many of us make in how we treat the Gospel.  The first two we’ve touched on before.

Some of us are glad to find the rich spiritual truths of the Gospel of Jesus, but see it primarily as a mission of opening our spiritual eyes to the truth of who God is and forgiving our sins. 

Others of us find a Gospel that addresses the injustices of this fallen world, so we focus on the social aspects of the Gospel, such as feeding the poor and alleviating the burdens of those who suffer injustice and other deprivations.  Thankfully, these are elements of the Gospel, but still insufficient to a fair treatment of it.

Many more of us, though, make a third and really significant error in our approach to the Gospel.  We think of it as exclusively Christ’s mission and not ours.  We are grateful recipients rather than fully engaged participants.  But the reality is that the Gospel makes no distinction between believers and disciples.  We’ve stumbled into a false dichotomy, one of “accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior” and then deciding—if we ever decide—how serious we want to be about becoming an earnest disciple. 

In the NT understanding of the Gospel, believing in Jesus, embracing the Gospel, incrementally growing as a disciple, experiencing life-change, being sanctified (made more and more like Jesus) are all one continuum.  Disciples are students who learn the teachings and lifestyle of their teacher.  They are mastered by their master. 

We’ve tolerated an egregious compartmentalization of the Gospel of Jesus in American Christianity.  We’ve put a separation between belief and behavior where the spirit of the Gospel never intended one.

So what is the Gospel for?  Think about what St. Paul said in Galatians 2:20.  It’s to bring us into full life, that life begins now and continues on and on and on.  Consider two things Jesus said, that we must be born again—life starts in a new way (John 3:3), and that he came to bring us life, abundant life (John 10:10).

The purpose of the Gospel is to re-connect us with our Creator, with our fellow creatures and with the creation in which we find ourselves.  The definition of religion is to connect torn ligatures, to “re-ligature.”  The Gospel re-establishes our relationship with God and with others. 

Jesus teaches that because of his Gospel we may now live in an ongoing, conscious relationship with him and his Father.  “Abide in me, and I in you.”  (John 15:4)  James speaks to our reconnection with others as a part of our faith.  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  (James 2:27)

We began this exploration of what is the Gospel with the Apostle Paul’s word to the Corinthian Christians that they should examine themselves to see if they were in the faith.  We looked at the strong stand he took in the first Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) during which St. Paul fought for the truth of the Gospel, that it might be preserved. 

                                                                                                                                                                                      To Timothy, one of his own disciples and colleagues in ministry, Paul wrote, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”  (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

So each of us needs to ask ourselves if we are continuing to pay close attention to the “sound words” of the Gospel, living in the faith and love of Jesus, and with the help of his Spirit, keeping conscious appreciation of the “good deposit”—that is the treasure of the Gospel.

Not exhaustively, but thoughtfully, we’ve identified these as some of the elements of the Gospel of Jesus:

  • Christ—the Jewish Messiah, the promised deliverer, the prophet of whom Moses spoke—died
  • His death was for the sins of those who believe in him
  • His death was according to what had been prophesied
  • He was buried
  • He was raised on the third day
  • He appeared to his chosen followers
  • The effect of his death for those who believe in him is that they are justified in the eyes of God
  • This justification is a gift
  • He accomplishes this justification by purchasing our freedom-redeeming those who believe in him
  • He reconciles us to God-removing the enmity that exists between sinful humans and the Holy God
  • The Gospel gives us power to have spiritual sight instead of being spiritually blind
  • The Gospel empowers us to turn from darkness to light
  • The Gospel gives us the ability to turn from the power of Satan to God
  • The Gospel gives us a place among those who belong to God
  • The Gospel changes us-sanctifies us, makes us “other” than we have been, makes us holy
  • Christ shares our flesh and blood, so that through his death he destroys the one who has the power of death, Satan
  • We are delivered from the fear of death
  • As he lives forever, Christ is able to save fully those who come to God through him
  • In the mystery of how the Trinity functions within Itself, Jesus’ ministry as our high priest means he continually makes intercession for those who are his
  • Christ offered his sacrifice of blood through the Holy Spirit
  • His sacrifice purifies us of a conscience of guilt and uselessness so that we can serve the true God
  • Jesus will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to save those eagerly waiting for him
  • As Jesus shares our human nature, he is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters
  • Jesus modeled for us how to handle opposition and suffering, and how to trust the Father in heaven with our well-being
  • Christ has healed us with his own wounds, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness
  • The Gospel is good news for all who are poor, that is, economically depressed, broken-hearted, spiritually distressed, empty, deprived
  • The effect of the Gospel in this disordered realm is to bring real freedom to all who are captive to the will of others, so that they may be free to live as their Creator desires they live
  • The Gospel sometimes brings miraculous effects, healings such as recovery of sight to blind people, to demonstrate the power and intent of God to restore all of his children with the power to see things as they truly are and make wise life choices accordingly
  • The Gospel causes those who are downcast, inwardly bruised and imposed with burdens in this life to find healing and freedom
  • The Gospel of Jesus is the beginning fulfillment of God’s promise to establish an age of favor, deliverance and blessing for all his children 

It’s a remarkable list, thirty elements, and it’s not complete.  The Gospel is a multi-faceted jewel. 

And, again, why is it so important that we know the Gospel, continually review it, come back to it, think about it, apply it and marvel over its multiple facets?  Because the Gospel offers us life—full, unparalleled life. 

Again:  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

And what is “living by faith in the Son of God” look like?  It means repeatedly, tirelessly bringing our thoughts and our minds, our hearts and our wills, our lives as we live them each bit at a time, into the spiritual presence of the risen Christ so that he can patiently help us re-form them, transform them.  Living by faith in the Son of God means incrementally learning how to think and act as he would if he were us.  It is the process of spiritual transformation. 

How well do we know the Gospel? 

How does the Gospel affect the way we live, the choices we make? 

Finally, how would our life, our outlook, our reality be different if there were no Gospel?

Inflame our hearts with love for You, O Christ our God, that loving You with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we may obey Your commandments and glorify You, the Giver of all good things.  Amen.


This is the fourth of five blog posts asking the question “what is the Gospel?”  We looked at passages from Paul, Peter and the writer of Hebrews.  But do we have any good indication what Jesus himself understood the Gospel to be?

Yes, we do.  The Gospel of Luke contains a story that gives us good insight into what Jesus thought was the thrust of his Gospel message.

In Luke 4:16-21 we read that when Jesus visited Nazareth, the town in which he grew up, he went to synagogue on the Sabbath as was his habit.  As a visiting rabbi, it was customary he be given the opportunity to read one of the scripture passages of the day and speak to the people.  He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, a very large scroll.  In our version of the book it’s divided into sixty-six chapters.  But in his day it was one long, undivided scroll.  He had to have known the text of Isaiah intimately to have turned the scroll to the passage he read.

Jesus turned to a passage in the part of Isaiah we know as chapter 61.  He read these verses:

   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
                                because he has anointed me
                                to proclaim good news to the poor.
                He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
                                and recovering of sight to the blind,
                                to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
                to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In the synagogue practice of Jesus’ day, the reader of the Scripture text stood to read.  The rabbi sat to instruct.  Luke says Jesus rolled up the scroll of Isaiah and handed it back to the synagogue attendant.  Then he sat down.  Everyone simply stared at him.  And then into their attentive silence Jesus spoke these thunderous words:  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It was an absolutely stunning declaration of both who he perceived himself to be, and the Gospel message he was sent to proclaim.

There are four elements in the passage Jesus read from Isaiah, and they give outline to his Gospel, or good news.

It was to the poor he was proclaiming good news.  What do we suppose Jesus meant by “the poor?”  Certainly the economically depressed constituted the poor for Jesus because he focused much of his ministry among and to them.  But we should also remember the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount in Mathew’s Gospel that the poor are also the “poor in spirit.”  For Jesus the poor are also those who are broken-hearted, spiritually distressed, those who are empty, or deprived.

To all these and more Jesus says his Gospel is an announcement that those who are hungry will not always be deprived.  In the economy of his Father the empty will be filled and their emptiness will be replaced by fullness.  To those who are broken-hearted they will be comforted and healed.  Those distressed spiritually will find encouragement and vision and lightness.

Jesus goes on to say that his mission is proclaiming liberty to the captives.    Some human beings are literally slaves to other humans.  One impact of the Gospel of Jesus is to free women and men so that they may live as their Creator desires, not as another person demands.  As the message of Jesus permeates this disordered realm, those who are captive will be freed.

Human captivity comes in a variety of forms, however.  The genuine spiritual seeker trying to live a good life increasingly realizes a difficult and cruel reality.  We are grossly limited by our very nature to be the people we earnestly desire to be.  So Jesus promises freedom also for those of us captive to unseen, but equally cruel, forces.

The Gospel of Jesus includes proclaiming the recovery of sight to the blind.   Miracles are recorded of Jesus restoring physical sight to blind persons, giving powerful demonstrati0n of the power of God in his Gospel.  But Jesus also made clear that a common affliction of humanity is spiritual blindness (John 9).  A physically blind person knows they cannot see and has to learn to accommodate that limitation.  But a spiritually blind person by very definition does not recognize their disability, and so lives a dangerous and precarious life.  They think they are perceiving life in all its physical and spiritual elements as it truly is and, therefore, making wise life choices accordingly.  But they are not perceiving spiritual reality accurately, because they cannot see, and so they are hopelessly in danger of making poor choices and missing the main points of this life.

Jesus continues that his Gospel sets at liberty those who are oppressed which means he will bring relief to those who struggle with the burdens this life so often imposes.  Life can be difficult and challenging, much more for some than for others, and the oppressive realities many of us endure severely limit our ability to find peace or joy.  Life in this realm often brings relentless fatigue and hopelessness.  Jesus says his Gospel will have the effect of causing those downcast and inwardly bruised to find their way to healing and freedom.

This passage concludes with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” rendered “the acceptable year of the Lord” in other translations.  The prophet Isaiah was not referring to a calendar year as we might think of it.  He was describing the future age in which God firmly and finally moves to redeem and restore his people by sending the heir of David’s dynasty, the prophet like Moses, the Anointed One, the Messiah.

When Jesus told the folks of his hometown in the synagogue at Nazareth that today this passage—including the proclamation of it being “the year of the Lord’s favor”—was being fulfilled in their hearing, he was declaring himself to be the Messiah.  They clearly understood his remarks this way because they took umbrage at them.  They’d seen him grow up, and good reputation or not, who did he think he was?

As Jesus goes on with his ministry he performs many miracles, demonstrations of the power of God to interrupt the natural process so as to emphasize the truth and power of his Gospel.  Jesus not only proclaimed good news, he physically demonstrated illustrations of the fulfillment of God’s intentions towards his people.  If the passage from Isaiah 61 is one way of describing the mission and Gospel of Jesus, his miracles underline the fact that he has both the position and the power to fulfill that mission.

Those of us who want not only to believe what the Gospel actually is but participate with Jesus in living it out in our lives need to ask ourselves some questions.  If the invitation to do life with Jesus is usually more comprehensive than we think, where are my blind spots?  What are my prejudices that block the impact of the Gospel in my life?  How am I resistant to the full effect of the Gospel in my life?

How do we see if we are spiritually blind?  How do we find our way to spiritual freedom and sight?  By following him and daily opening our selves to his Spirit, inviting him to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts—admitting our need and asking his help.

This passage in Luke begins with the words, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit” and that’s how we must live our lives if we are to follow him.

There’s wonderful invitation in this passage, but warning, too: the hearers—who knew Jesus and thought they knew him well—rejected his message, and so they rejected him and his Gospel.

He never returned to Nazareth.

(This is the third of five posts on what is the Gospel of Jesus, the first two being “Merry Christmas. And…What Is the Gospel?” and “Pay Close Attention to What Matters Most”)

What do we think the Gospel is? And what difference does it make for us?

Some of us who think of ourselves as Christians have been taught to think of the Gospel this way: Jesus came and died for us so that if we put our faith in him our sins will be forgiven and when we die we’ll go to heaven.

But others of us have been taught something more like this: the Gospel is the story of God’s redemptive love expressed in the self-emptying sacrifice of Christ, which causes believers to become agents of reconciliation in this disordered realm, bringing the peace and righteousness of the Kingdom of God to earth.

Fairly different views. One with the emphasis on sin and sacrifice, forgiveness and eternal life in heaven. The other more focused on remaking this world according to God’s values for the immediate benefit of all. One that leans to the individual appropriation of the effects of Christ’s sacrifice, the other moving us towards corporate engagement.

But is either one a sufficient summary of the Gospel?

We began this exploration by considering how strenuously Paul contested with those who tried to alter the Gospel that Paul, Peter, James, John and the other early Church leaders preached.

In the texts we’ve looked at so far, we’ve identified the following elements of the Gospel:

• Christ—the Jewish Messiah, the promised deliverer, the prophet of whom Moses spoke—died
• His death was for the sins of those who believed in him
• His death was according to what had been prophesied
• He was buried
• He was raised on the third day
• He appeared to his chosen followers
• The effect of his death for those who believe in him is that they are justified in the eyes of God
• This justification is a gift
• He accomplishes this justification by purchasing our freedom-redeeming those who believe in him
• He reconciles us to God-removing the enmity that exists between sinful humans and the Holy God
• The Gospel gives us power to have spiritual sight instead of being spiritually blind
• The Gospel empowers us to turn from darkness to light
• The Gospel gives us the ability to turn from the power of Satan to God
• The Gospel gives us a place among those who belong to God
• The Gospel changes us-sanctifies us, makes us “other” than we have been, makes us holy

But there is more.

Let’s look again at the Letter to the Hebrews and there we will see more elements of the Gospel.

In Hebrews 2:14-15, the author (writing to encourage Jewish Christians who were under enormous pressure to renounce Jesus as their Messiah and return to Judaism) writes that Christ came to earth sharing in our same flesh and blood so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death; that is in his death he destroyed Satan, so that all who were in lifelong slavery to the fear of death might be delivered. Sharing in our “same flesh and blood” he is totally human. Being the Son of God he came with power from God. He used his power and his death to destroy the enemy of God. By destroying death and Satan, he also destroyed the fear each of us naturally have about facing our own death.

Again, in Hebrews 7:23-25, the writer says that Jesus is the ultimate and greatest high priest because death cannot prevent him from continuing in his office as high priest; so because he continues forever, is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him and he always lives to make intercession for them.

And in Hebrews 9:14, the writer says that Christ offered his blood through the eternal Spirit, so his blood is able to purify our consciences of dead works and therefore we can serve the living God.

Then, in Hebrews 9:27-28, the writer says that Christ came the first time as an offering to bear the sins of many—think of a scapegoat—and will come a second time, not to deal with sins but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

And, in Hebrews 2:11, the writer says that Jesus makes his followers holy, and since his followers are of the same origin as he, he is not ashamed to call them his brothers and his sisters.

Two more texts.

Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:21-25 that Christ was an example for us, so that we might follow in his steps. He modeled for us how to handle opposition and suffering, and how to trust the Father in heaven with our well being. He says that Christ bore our sins in his body so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. He says by the wounds of Christ we are healed. And he says all of us were straying, but by following Christ we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

Mark writes in his Gospel (1:14-15) that Jesus came “…proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”

Salvation gospel? Social gospel? We’re given to reductions—necessary, I know, because we forget, we get distracted. We dumb down so easily. Anything we have a chance of remembering has to be 140 characters—or less—and sing-songy, catchy, imaginative, impactful, memorable.

And then we still will probably forget, moving on to the next thing, the next impulse, the next distraction, to whatever next catches our attention.

But the Gospel, people, the Gospel is…life. It’s the one thing—The One Thing—that makes a difference, temporal and eternal, individual and collective, physically and spiritually, now and forever.

And like any fantastic, extraordinary jewel, we need to treasure it, keep coming back to it, admiring it, peering at it, altered by our very possession of it.

First century Jews who became Christians in the first years of the Church experienced enormous pressure to renounce Christ and return to Judaism.  A letter was written to encourage them by clarifying the nature of Christ, his ministry and what it meant for them.  We know that work as the Letter to the Hebrews.  The author painstakingly compared Jesus to the notable figures in the history of the Hebrew people, making the case that Jesus was better than every other source of information, provision and deliverance.  The letter later helped the Church clarify the true nature of Jesus Christ so much so that today the second chapter of Hebrews is often read in churches and by many Christians at Christmas time.

That second chapter begins with these words:  “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”  (Hebrews 2:1)  Please note carefully both the exhortation to “pay much closer attention” to the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done (the Gospel), and the warning “lest we drift away from it.”

Even in an age in which folks were not bombarded by multi-media messages and over-stimulated by distractions and entertainment, it was possible to lose one’s grasp on even the most important teachings.  That is one of the fundamental traits we all have in common:  the tendency to forget what is important, to get distracted and revert to old patterns and concepts, to drift.  Therefore, when we discover truth, things that truly matter in life and in death, we must exert and discipline ourselves to pay close and continued attention to them.  Only with sustained attention does truth become established in our thinking and therefore our lives.

In the previous post we looked at the Apostle Paul’s summary statement of the Gospel in his first letter to the church at Corinth.

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

As we said before, it appears that in this summary Paul was highlighting six elements to the Gospel.  They are:

  • Christ—the Jewish Messiah, the promised deliverer, the prophet of whom Moses spoke—died
  • His death was for the sins of those who believed in him
  • His death was according to what had been prophesied
  • He was buried
  • He was raised on the third day
  • He appeared to his chosen followers.

A lot of us might readily resonate with the phrase “Christ died for our sins.”  In fact, among many of us who regard ourselves as conservative Christians, or Bible-believing Christians, we have tended to summarize the Gospel in this way:  “Jesus died for us so that if we put our faith in him our sins will be forgiven and when we die we’ll go to heaven.”

So let me ask you:  how does that sound to you?  Is that how you understand the Gospel?

The real nature of the Gospel is that it is a beautiful and multi-faceted jewel.  There is a richness and complexity to the Gospel and so we must be wary of over-reducing it.

Let’s look at a few other passages in which Paul and some of the other writers of the New Testament consider the Gospel.  And as we look at these, consider the importance of paying “much closer attention” to what the New Testament has to say about the Gospel.

In Romans 3:23-24 Paul writes that through the gospel we are justified by God’s grace, and it is a gift and then he goes on to say that this is done through the redemption that is in Christ.  “Redemption” would make anyone familiar with Greco-Roman society—so all the first century hearers and readers of Romans—it would make them think about the buying and selling of slaves, the transfer of a human being from slavery to freedom.  That’s a much different nuance than justification and forgiveness (“Christ died for our sins”), isn’t it?

In Romans 5:10 Paul writes that before the gospel took effect we were God’s enemies, but now, through the death of Christ we are reconciled to God, and so we are saved by his life.  Reconciliation might make us think of justification and forgiveness, but it’s a little different, isn’t it?  It’s two parties who are at enmity or who have significant differences finding a way through those differences to a restored relationship.

In Acts 26:15-18, Luke tells us that when Paul was sharing his story and the Gospel he preached with King Agrippa and the Roman Governor Festus, Paul described how he had seen the Lord Jesus in his risen glory on the road to Damascus.  Paul then quoted Jesus as saying to him:

“…I am sending you [to the Gentiles] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

As Paul is quoting Jesus instructing him regarding the Gospel he is to teach, we ought to pay close attention to what he says.  Opening our eyes distinctly implies that when it comes to spiritual reality, we are naturally blind.  We live in a spiritually darkened realm but the Gospel of Jesus brings light.  We are captive to a spiritual power which is in opposition to God.  Forgiveness is mentioned, but now forgiveness is linked to being part of a community and experiencing life-change.

Just in these few passages from Paul we see a great deal more to the Gospel than simply “Jesus died for us so that if we put our faith in him our sins will be forgiven and when we die we’ll go to heaven.”   In the next post we’ll look at what some of the other New Testament sources tell us about the Gospel.

In the years following the departure of the Risen Christ, the new community he established sought to live in grateful response and useful partnership to His continued ministry.  So they developed various practices which would help them discipline their lives to be obedient to His Spirit and faithful to His Gospel.  At some point they began annually to mark the birth of Jesus, not primarily as an excuse to entertain others or fete themselves, but as an instrument of spiritual training.  In some parts of the Church the Christmas season was assigned twelve days.  Twelve days to ponder the Scriptures, to meet for worship, to reflect on the Nativity, to celebrate with others the wondrous effects of the coming of Christ.

Twelve days, and they didn’t have television or the Internet or mp3s or rapid transportation or Skype.  They had simpler lifestyles, silence and time.  And they still took Twelve Days.  How much more, then, do we need to work hard at paying “much closer attention to what we have heard” about Jesus, who he is, what he has done?