Today, you get to hear from my friend Rachel. I first met Rachel Held Evans on the interwebs back around 2010, when only my grandma read my first blog. We then got the chance to hang out at a conference in SD the following year and have followed along with each other’s journeys ever since. I’m always impressed with her ability to write with such depth and vulnerability.
Well, today, Rachel Held Evans offered up a reflection that comes straight out of her brand new book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. I’m not paid to say this… not even one bit… but, seriously, order this book! If you want to gain some helpful insights on what in the heck we can do with this book we call the Bible as we seek to know and follow Jesus: Inspired will be a great catalyst for conversations with others. Also, I interviewed Rachel about the book for The Paulcast (and yes, we talked about Paul and some other stuff too): it will be available here when it goes live.
The following is an excerpt from Inspired, written by Rachel Held Evans:
I met Jesus at the dinner table. A vast, shaker-style oak, the three-leafed centerpiece of our modest family home had been handmade and special ordered to match a set of eight chairs my mother scored in a bargain at the legendary Woody’s Chair Shop in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. “Woody” chairs are, to this day, constructed using a lathe and mortise machine from the 1800s and are held together without any nails or glue, just the shrinking and expanding of the wood. John F. Kennedy owned a Woody; there’s one on display at the Smithsonian, another at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. For two career educators, that dining set represented quite the splurge—eighty bucks a chair in 1984, according to my mother—so my parents gathered people around it every chance they got, fill- ing their Woodys with hungry college students and friends from church, trimming the table with mismatched flatware and second- hand place mats.
It was at that table, over a steaming plate of spaghetti or pork chops or some other weekday meal, that I learned to pray, “Jesus, thank you for Mommy and Daddy and Rachel and Amanda, and thank you for this food. Amen.” The first thing I knew about Jesus was that he was responsible for the existence of my parents, my sister, me, and my food. That seemed like good enough news to me.
It’s funny that many of us who identify as “born-again Christians” can hardly remember our born-again experience, if at all. When my youth leader asked me, at age sixteen, to share my testimony at a Wednesday night youth gathering, I strained to conjure a single memory in which I “came to Jesus.” From my first prayers at bedtime, to the picture books and songs that formed my early conceptions of the world, Jesus had always come to me, his presence as certain as dinner on the table and Mr. Rogers at noon.
Oh, I could tell of the sermon on hell that frightened me into my parents’ bed at night, or of the day I asked my father to help me invite Jesus into my heart, or of my awkward plunge into the lukewarm water of the Faith Chapel baptistery—but none of those moments would tell the whole story. Had I looked beyond my immediate experience, I might also tell of those great-aunts and uncles who poured their liquor into the grass at Appalachian tent revivals, or my Lithuanian grandmother, who wrote a feisty letter to the pope explaining exactly why she converted to Protestantism. I could tell of Bible colleges and missionaries and reformations and abuses. I could tell of an African saint named Augustine who shaped a civilization’s view of salvation, of a historic meal between a first-century Jew and a Gentile centurion, of a woman running breathlessly from an empty tomb. I’m sure I must have begun that high school testimony by saying I was “raised in a Christian home,” without fully grasping the epic nature of this story to which I belonged.
That’s what’s so striking about the gospel, or “good news,” of Jesus. It’s a story at once grand and particular, sweeping and intimate. News that started as local gossip in a few sleepy fishing villages in ancient Palestine reverberated so profoundly through the centuries and across the world that it reached the ears of a pigtailed kindergartner in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1984. It reached Africa and India, the Andes and the Maldives, influencing ancient Roman soldiers, Irish farmers, Haitian fishermen, and Chinese school kids.
So what is this good news?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
For the apostle John, the gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14 esv), or more literally, God “became flesh and tabernacled—pitched a tent— among us.” After all those years without a temple, and amid all the disputes about how and where to worship, God had taken up residence among the people by becoming one of us, Jesus himself serving as priest and sacrifice, holy festival and divine presence. “To those who believed in his name,” John wrote, “he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12–13).
For the woman at the well, the good news is she doesn’t have to find the right temple after all, for God has started a new family of faith, beginning with despised Samaritans and the kind of women who do not belong at wells.
For Matthew and Mark, the good news is that Jesus is the long- awaited Messiah sent to establish God’s reign on earth, not through conquest, power, and revenge, but through faithfulness, sacrifice, and unconditional love. The kingdom of heaven is not some far-off, future dream; it is here, among us, made real by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is what it looks like when God is king, when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
To the Galilean children who annoyed the disciples by asking Jesus for a blessing, the good news is that Jesus is the kind of king who laughs at their jokes and tousles their hair.
To the physician Luke, the gospel is especially good news for the poor and oppressed, the disinherited and the sick. Defying nearly every culture’s understanding of blessing, Jesus declared, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:20–21). Luke, more than any other gospel writer, shows that these promises of liberation are meant to be taken literally, that this is a God who rescues and heals and sets things right.
For the bleeding woman who spent her life’s saving on doctors, the good news is Jesus touches those the law deems unclean in order to make them well.
The apostle Paul describes the gospel as the good news that, in Jesus, the story of Israel has reached its climax, and through him, the chosen people of God will finally fulfill their purpose of blessing the entire world with salvation. This means Gentiles have been “grafted in” to Israel’s story, so any law or ritual that might keep them from full inclusion into God’s family must be set aside for the sake of unity.
For the blind beggar, whom Jesus healed with a little dirt and water, the good news is pretty simple. “One thing I do know,” he told the skeptical religious leaders, “I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).
The good news is as epic as it gets, with universal theological implications, and yet the Bible tells it from the perspective of fishermen and farmers, pregnant ladies and squirmy kids. This story about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity smells like mud and manger hay and tastes like salt and wine. It is concerned, not simply with questions of eternity, but with paying taxes and filling bellies and addressing a woman’s chronic menstrual complications. It is the biggest story and the smallest story all at once—the great quest for the One Ring and the quiet friendship of Frodo and Sam.
Much has been made in recent years about the value of rendering the gospel into a single, digestible aphorism. D. L. Moody claimed he could fit the gospel on a coin; I was once challenged to sum it up in a tweet. But it strikes me as fruitless to try and turn the gospel into a statement when God so clearly gave us a story—or, more precisely, a person.
Indeed, in Scripture, no two people encounter Jesus in exactly the same way. Not once does anyone pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” or ask Jesus into their heart. The good news is good for the whole world, certainly, but what makes it good varies from person to person and community to community. Liberation from sin looks different for the rich young ruler than it does for the woman caught in adultery. The good news that Jesus is the Messiah has a different impact on John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet, than it does the Ethiopian eunuch, a Gentile and outsider. Salvation means one thing for Mary Magdalene, first to witness the resurrection, and another to the thief who died next to Jesus on a cross. The gospel is like a mosaic of stories, each one part of a larger story, yet beautiful and truthful on its own. There’s no formula, no blueprint.
Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story.”
So when someone asks, “What is the gospel?” the best response is, “Let me tell you a story.”
You might start with Abraham, Isaiah, or Luke. You might start with the Samaritan woman at the well. You might start with a story about your grandmother or a rural church camp or a dining room table surrounded by Woody’s chairs. At some point, you will get to Jesus, and Jesus will change everything.
(KURT): I hope this inspired you… it sure ‘Inspired’ me (OK, dumb joke). But seriously, such an important insight about the nature of the good news!
Have a great rest of the day–and remember–Rachel’s latest book, Inspired, is on sale today!
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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