The Basic Gospel Message

[The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has sponsored a series of Resource Days under the title Crossing the Threshold, exploring ways of helping non-Churchgoing Catholics re-connect with Catholic practice. As part of the Cardiff Resource Day on 23 June 2012, I was asked to lead the workshop on What is the Basic Gospel Message?]

Possibly the most famous verse in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible, is John 3:16 – God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.

These words formed the basis of the theme song for the 1995 World Youth Day; they are deemed so significant by many Christians that the Bible reference is displayed at many sporting events in the hope that viewers will look them up; and for some the reference is so iconic that the numbers alone might be deemed sufficient!

A sign reading "John 3:16" held up in a crowd

Yet I would hesitate to say that John 3:16 is the Basic Gospel Message. It is, in fact, a very rich Gospel message. It speaks of God – a God whom many of today’s generation are unsure about. It speaks of God’s love, which many doubt. It claims that believing in this God is the means to eternal life. And, taken on its own, it seems to speak about a Father who sacrifices the life of his son.

In today’s climate, hypersensitive to child abuse (and our Church has its own share of blame to shoulder for this) such a message about a Father could be misunderstood. Indeed, there has been a vigorous debate among evangelical Christians in recent years about whether the Cross constituted an act of “cosmic child abuse”. The truth, of course, is that Father, Son and Holy Spirit conspired together to bring about an act of love by which the Son took human flesh and freely surrendered himself to death upon the Cross in order to take upon himself all the sins of the world. But all of this needs a great deal of unpacking. Gospel Message? Absolutely! Basic? No – John 3:16 represents the fruits of years of meditation on the deeper meaning of the death of Christ by the fourth evangelist and by the community gathered around him.

If we seek to present a more basic Gospel message, it could be this: JESUS IS NOT DEAD. True, he was put to death on a Cross, but he is not dead now; He is very much alive. And the message “JESUS IS NOT DEAD” can be followed by a second line, tailored to the needs of the one who is being offered the Good News.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and everlasting life is real!

For those mourning the death of a loved one, the Good News about Jesus is that he overcame death. His rising is a sign that this earthly life is not the only existence which there is. Jesus taught that there was an eternal life with God, and the Church affirms this in the first Preface for funeral Masses with the beautiful declaration that in death, life is “changed, not ended”.

This angle on the Good News will touch many who have been bereaved, but may not be effective for those who blame God for “taking away” their loved one in an untimely fashion.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and forgives sin!

In the pages of the Gospels, Jesus pronounces the forgiveness of sin on many occasions. To a woman caught in an act of adultery, he says: “Go and sin no more.” If the same Jesus who lived in the Gospels is alive today, his power to forgive sin is no less real than it ever was.

This angle on the Good News will touch many who are struggling with guilt. Older citizens with a strong sense of moral duty will be attracted by a message which touches those times they haven’t lived up to their principles. But today’s younger generation have been formed not by Christian morals but the permissive principle that we should be free to do whatever we wish as long as we do not harm others. A message of free forgiveness will not appeal strongly to a generation with little sense of sin.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and we are loved by Him!

Jesus assures us that we are worth more than many sparrows; He came to communicate that we are loved by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Indeed, from the very beginning of creation, when human beings enter the scene, God declares creation to be “very good”.

This angle on the Good News will touch many who feel worthless, but may not be effective for those who blame God for some specific misfortune. The attitude that “if God really loved me, He would do so-and-so for me” can block appreciaton of what God has actually done by creating and redeeming us.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and faith assures our passage to Heaven!

For those concerned about their own mortality, the words of the Gospel provides much assurance. John 3:16 indicates that faith in Christ guarantees eternal life. The exact question of what a person has to do to reach heaven is less straightforward: Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats) and James 2:14-24 (on faith without works) suggest that what matters most is our works of charity; the earlier verses of John 3 suggest the importance of being baptised, and John 6 indicates that eternal life depends on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. For those who have not received the message of Jesus, St Paul suggests (in Romans 2:12-16) that they will enter heaven if they follow their instincts about what is truly moral. One thing is unambiguous: any Catholic who drinks deeply of the sacramental life of the Church and practices love of neighbour and of enemy will surely not be lacking on the Day of Judgment!

This angle on the Good News will be important for those who already believe in the Catholic message, but have become alienated from practice of the faith through some incident such as a marital breakdown, or an offensive comment from a church leader or member. It may, however, be a stumbling block for those with intellectual questions who are not ready to sort through the complex web of relevant scriptures. 

We must also ask: Have non-Churchgoing Catholics REJECTED Jesus, or did they never really know Him? Those who know in their heart that God has spoken and invited them to a life centred on the Eucharist are in genuine danger of eternal damnation if they reject this invitation, but those whose Catholic roots provided only a network of rituals without adequate understanding or a genuine relationship with Christ might be in a situation closer to St Paul’s gentiles.

For us who do know the Catholic message, we know that the Lord has certain expectations of us. We are to be nourished by Holy Communion at the Lord’s table each Sunday and holy day. If we commit serious sin, it is God’s idea (not merely the Church’s) that we receive forgiveness through confession to a priest. We should receive the sacrament of Confirmation to strengthen us to do God’s work in the world, and foster prayer as an integral part of our life in relationship with God.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and his power to heal is available to us today!

Healing was an integral part of the mission of Jesus. He healed many people himself, and sent his 12 apostles and 72 disciples to “proclaim the Kingdom of God is close at hand, and heal the sick”. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St Bernadette at Lourdes, she specifically asked that sick people should come there on pilgrimage. When the church canonizes any saint, or beatifies a saint who was not martyred, evidence is needed that the candidate-saint has obtained a miracle from God in response to the prayers of the faithful: recognised miracles are almost always healings. The Catholic Church recognises God’s power to heal.

For those who are seriously ill, the Church offers the Sacrament of the Sick through the ministry of priests. But there are also ordinary members of the Church who take seriously the Lord’s commission that his followers should pray for healing with those in need. The Surrey-based Cor et Lumen Christi Community pray for healing as a central part of their calling, and make available video testimonies of those who have experienced remission of symptoms following prayer.

This angle on the Good News will be important for those who suffer from illness and are open to receiving healing from God. There is a fine line between making unwarranted promises that particular individuals will be made well, and raising a general sense of expectation that God will heal – which itself creates a climate more receptive to God’s gifts. It will not be fruitful with those disappointed by unanswered prayer, or with those who have strong intellectual doubts about God’s capacity to intervene in the material world.

Any discussion of healing will lead to the difficult question of why not everyone gets healed. We can be certain that if we don’t ask God, we won’t receive, and if we don’t believe, we limit our capacity to receive (see Mark 6:5). If we do pray for healing, we should expect to see results at least sometimes: Scripture promises as much.

THE BASIC GOSPEL MESSAGE

The basic Gospel message is that Jesus Christ is alive and wants to establish a life-giving and fruitful relationship with each and every member of his Church.

For Catholics who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, the most basic thing anyone can do is to help them connect, or re-connect, with Jesus Christ.

Each non-churchgoing Catholic will have their own personal reasons for not attending Mass. Those reasons will prevent such Catholics being receptive to some aspects of the Good News. But with so many dimensions to the message of Jesus – it is true, gives life, it restores hope, and may be accompanied by healing – there will surely be some aspect with the potential to touch any Catholic not currently living their faith.