This is important. Jesus of Nazareth was a specific human being born on a specific date in human history and lived in Palestine during a particular time in Israel’s history, the period of second Temple Judaism. He was Jewish in ethnicity and culture, in language and custom. He probably spoke Aramaic and Hebrew and was acquainted with the Greek and Latin languages. He walked on specific dirt roads and, in Decapolis, on impressive marble stone streets, ate good bread and fish and drank water and wine. He lived under a particular governing system, was aware of and alert to Rome’s oppressive military presence in his country. He paid taxes. He knew his religion very well and the factions that comprised it. He had a specific eye color, facial features and smile. He had his own familiar accent growing up as he did in Galilee.
Jesus was poor. According to Black theologian Howard Thurman, Jesus was a Jew and a poor Jew and a Jew from the “boonies” (marginalized). See Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. These were the social realities shaping Jesus’ life and ministry.
Western evangelicalism has made Jesus “the God-Man of all cultures.” In the incessant gnostic way, Jesus is lifted from the dust of Palestine and dusted off with fine theological brushes and made antiseptically general, a person who fits everywhere and so fits nowhere. We don’t dwell a whole lot on Jesus spitting or sitting or sleeping or digesting food and sweating and burping. He speaks and prays and dies and lives again in “the holy land.” We don’t really care that much about what language he spoke and what were the thought-forms that shaped his worldview. Lifted out of the particulars of his earthly life and culture, Jesus floats in heavenly suspension above the fray of life spewing moral directives here and there and finally dying on an old rugged cross so “people can go to heaven when they die.”
So we lift him from the historical particulars of his life and culture and create the easy to enjoy McGospel. We get a kick out of marketing our slick and convenient heavenly happy meal around the planet for the price of assent to his suspended and reduced life–”He died, he rose again. Do you believe it?”
Sad news, folks.
There is no McGospel. The only gospel available is wrapped in Jewish flesh, who speaks in Jewish language, lives according to Jewish customs in a very Jewish land. The gospel is more bagel-shaped than sesame seed bun-shaped. You won’t see a clown named Ronald; you’ll see a cross created by Rome. Jesus’ specific gospel does not guarantee to make us happy; it will ruthlessly work to make us holy.
There is no McGospel. Isn’t it apparent to grade schoolers that Jesus never said the same thing to the individuals he met? Did he say to Nicodemas and to the Samaritan woman at the well, “If you died tonight and stand before God and he asks you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’, what would you say?” Did he say to the rich young ruler and to Zacchaeus, “Just as there physical laws that govern the physical world, so there are spiritual laws that govern our lives. Did you know that God loves you and wants to be in a personal relationship with you?” I can’t find such redundancy, such assembly-line thinking in the Gospels. Can you? Jesus tailor-made the gift of the kingdom of God to each person he met. One kingdom, many expressions of offering that good news. Paul exhibited the same flexibility and creativity in his writings. There is no standardized, paint-by-numbers gospel in Jesus’ life. No “one size fits all.”
When we make Jesus timeless we make him useless. When we liberate him from his particular space and time Jewish culture, we make him irrelevant to any culture. When we don’t take the time to get a feel for his language (no, I don’t mean learn Hebrew and Aramaic) and culture and customs and intense religious environment, we make him a cardboard, flannel-graph kind of guy…sweet and kind and all that.
If we don’t meet him as poor, we do him a great injustice. He could have come as “Augustus Yeshua, Lord of All.” He didn’t choose that entrance. Why?
The “tree of life” in the End is a tree bearing 12 kinds of fruit. One tree, twelve fruit for the healing of the nations.
Jesus is the life of the tree; the gospel is the fruit. Not McGospel. Variety gospel—a gospel tailor-made for each nation. Not the Coca-Cola gospel. It’s Hawaiian punch-, Indian tea-, Brazilian coffee-, Russian chai-, Turkish delight-, Eskimo pie-, Swedish kringle-gospel. You name it.
In Ukraine I saw a young pastor using the illustration of an American baseball diamond to describe church ministry. I had not seen one baseball diamond in Ukraine. Lots of soccer fields. Yet, here’s this young pastor importing McChurch. Ukraine is a country with an intriguing and sometimes tragic 1000 year history. Out of the rich soil of Ukrainian culture there must be an analogy that communicates “church” better than a baseball diamond.
What Ford did to the Model T and Kroc did to the hamburger, the Western Church has done to the gospel. Maybe that’s why the world thinks that it’s so tasteless.
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