What Does Hearing the Gospel Entail?
The earliest Christians, in the Acts of the Apostles, referred to their mode of living, demanded by the Gospel, as “The Way.” Soon, however, the name “Christian” was adopted, rather than merely “follower of “the Way” (Acts 11:26). Christians in Antioch described themselves in such a manner that attention was focused on Jesus Christ, not on a philosophy or even on a method of living, and this description stuck. However, when we put “first things” first—knowing Jesus is primary—then the other things entailed by the Gospel naturally follow, including worldview and manner of living.
We see this principle playing out when we notice a little phrase that runs through the letters that we call “the pastorals”—1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. “The saying is sure, and worthy of full acceptance” is a motto that is attached not only to the Gospel in those letters, but to teaching about the life of the church, and the nitty-gritty of Christian living. This formal assurance is found attached not only to central Christian doctrine such as the atonement (1 Tim 1:15), the utter faithfulness of God (2 Tim 2:11–13) and justification (Titus 3:8), but also to the office of bishop (1 Tim 3:1), and the value of godliness over bodily training (1 Tim 4:8). Practical and ethical matters, then, are interconnected with the Gospel, and are solemnly passed on and carefully received in the living Tradition of the Church. Perhaps the one clear indication of the presence of the living Tradition is its integral connection with the Christian story, or with revelation about the Triune God, as passed down to us by the apostles: would a change to this custom do damage to the Gospel, or to our understanding of God? The discernment of whether a particular practice has this integral link to the deposit of faith is sometimes immediately apparent. More often, however, this is a discernment not to be made quickly or solo by theologian, scholar, liturgist, or even a single community: patience and attention to the entire witness of the Church are indicated. Such characteristics do not come easily to the Church in our restless and quickly-paced age. The gradual coming-to-age of the doctrine of the Trinity and overt worship given to the Holy Spirit should be a sign to us against arrogance or impatience when we think about everything that the Gospel entails.
So, then, though the Gospel is focused on Jesus –who He is, what He has done, is doing, and will do— it also embraces us, and our personal and corporate lives and thinking. Indeed, the written gospels speak about “the gospel of the kingdom”—and this kingdom, or rule of Christ, is something in which we are involved, both as “subjects” of the King, and as ambassadors for him. This may sound grand, but our participation in the kingdom or rule of Christ can also be seen in humble acts. Consider the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet prior to his death, of whom it was said that she would be remembered for this, “wherever the gospel is proclaimed”! (Matt 26:13)
The Gospel, then, leads organically to our transformation. The priest, just before the Gospel is read, prays this on our behalf:
Shine in our hearts, O Master Who loves mankind, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind that we may comprehend the proclamations of Your Gospels. Instill in us also reverence for Your blessed commandments so that, having trampled down all carnal desires, we may lead a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the illumination of our souls and bodies, and to You we offer up glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Our repentance is demanded by the good news about Jesus, and our transformation is the consequence of God’s historical work. St. Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 4:3 about the “gospel of the glory of Christ” and Ephesians says that we are to be “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). So, then, if the Gospel is good news because it allows for repentance, it is even better news because we may share in God’s glory. St. John Chrysostom speaks of this “greater” news when he refers to 2 Corinthians 5:21, a verse that sums up the Gospel of Jesus “becoming sin” for our sake. He marvels,
Had He achieved nothing else but only done this, think what great a thing it would have been to give His Son . . . But [the apostle] mentioned that which is far greater than this . . . Reflect therefore how great the things are that He bestowed on you . . . ‘For the righteous,’ he says, ‘He made a sinner; that He might make the sinners righteous.’ But he doesn’t say it that way. Indeed he says something far greater . . . He does not say ‘made [Him] a sinner,’ but ‘sin;’ and not only ‘He who had not sinned,’ but ‘He who had not even known sin,’ that we also ‘might become’ (he does not say ‘righteous,’ but) ‘righteousness,’ and ‘the righteousness of God.’1
We see a similar rhythm, in which God first repairs and then promises to glorify, in John’s Gospel. Jesus, on the night He was to be betrayed, seeks to wash his disciples’ feet, leading them beyond acceptance of him, to teach them to embrace his way of living.
When He comes to Peter, we remember how Peter seeks to dissuade him, and then says, “wash all of me!” Jesus responds to Peter that the disciples have already been made clean by the word that Jesus has spoken. The starting point of the Gospel is to make us clean. But that is not all. For we know that the Gospel, once received, lodges in the heart, and prepares us for true communion with the living God.
If the Gospel, an announcement of who Jesus is and what He did for Israel and the whole world, is for our cleansing and transformation then the appointed epistle reading deepens our understanding with more in-depth Christian teaching. One cannot say that “Jesus is Lord” in a sensible manner without knowing something of the Holy Trinity, for example. Nor can we call him “Lord” and not live our lives accordingly. This reading unpacks some of the latent truths of the Gospel reading, whether that reading concerns the beginning of Jesus’ earthly sojourn with us, his teachings, his mighty deeds, his controversies with those who did not and do not accept him, or the sequence of his death, resurrection, and ascension. Those who paired the epistle reading with the Gospel reading for each Liturgy did not do so in a haphazard way. (This pairing of holy readings is actually a continuation of the ancient Jewish tradition of pairing the Torah with a reading from the Prophets— what was called the Haftorah. Like the ancient people of God, we know that scripture helps to interpret scripture). We should listen, then, for how the epistle interprets, explains, or applies the Gospel. Thus, the homily will explore the implications of the Gospel, mingling it with the nitty-gritty of the epistle’s instruction, our concerns about the world and our lives, and our hope for God’s transformation of the cosmos in order to draw us into closer communion with our Lord and Savior.
St. John Chrysostom, Homily on 2 Corinthians 11.5. Author’s translation. ↩