A Big Enough Gospel

Rev. Donnell T. Wyche — January 10, 2021

Today we are launching a sermon series on the Gospel. I want to start in John 3, one of my favorite passages and exchanges in scripture. It starts in verse 2,

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:2-3)


Jesus replies with a challenge to Nicodemus. On the surface, it seems like Jesus is just being Jesus. He’s talking in riddles. He’s not making any sense. What does it mean to be born again? As American Christians, we have picked up on this phrase and use it as we try to present the Gospel. We tell people that they need to be born again, and honestly, I don’t think we really know what we are talking about. Nicodemus certainly didn’t. He certainly had no idea what Jesus was talking about.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” (John 3:10)

Jesus  is inviting Nicodemus to enter into a new world. A new reality. Everything you think you know about God, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more below the surface. There’s a new world down there. In order for you to understand it, to live within it, you have to start over. You have to become like an infant and learn to live life in this context, this new world. You can’t bring anything from the old world into the new world. Anything not of the new world will hold you in bondage, it will prevent you from allowing the reality of this God-bathed universe to be experienced, felt, lived. This, Nicodemus, is why you have to be born again.

The only way into eternal life is with my help, Jesus says. That’s why I’m here. I am here to show you life. Life everlasting. Life that isn’t concerned with what happens when you die, but life that is concerned about how you live, right now, today. Life that is full, overflowing. Life that is being infused by the very presence of the living God in your midst. This God at work restoring creation, healing brokenness, repairing families, hearts, and minds. “Don’t miss out on the God-bathed reality all around, Nicodemus, surrender everything so that you may enter into life, real life.” This is good news.

The exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus continues:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.

From here we go onto verse 16, one of the most quoted verses in all of scripture:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Eternal life starts today

Many of us have believed that when Jesus references eternal life in John 3:16, he talking about the future. Not just the future, but the future after our death.Yet, Jesus wasn’t dead when we invited Nicodemus to be born again. His death as it were, hadn’t yet paid for Nicodemus’ sins, yet Jesus is still inviting Nicodemus to surrender, to be born again. Is it possible that the Gospel covers more than our sins? Is it possible that when Jesus is speaking about eternal life he isn’t just talking about the afterlife. I would argue, “Yes.” He is talking about life right now. He is inviting us, just like he invited Nicodemus, to surrender, to come to him to learn how to live.

Like Nicodemus, since we really didn’t understand what Jesus was inviting us into, we decided to simplify it. We have reduce the Gospel from its announcement of Good News and turned it into a Gospel of Sin Management. While we have correctly identified the problem, our rebellion, our solution doesn’t fix the problem. In our efforts to make sense of what Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to do, be born again, we have mistakenly robbed the Gospel of its fullness and its goodness.

Beyond the Gospel of Sin Management

We created something that Jesus wouldn’t recognize, we created what theologians call the Soterian Gospel.

And it goes a little like this:

Let me retell this story using Pat. Let’s imagine, I’m about to present the Gospel to Pat. First, affirm that the person, the potential convert is loved by God. “For God so loved the world…” The question is asked, “Pat, are you part of ‘the world’?” The response is usually, “Well, yeah, I guess I am.” The focus is narrowed. “So, we could read, ‘For God so loved Pat, that he gave…,’ isn’t that right? Pat if you were the only human being ever to live, Jesus would have died for you.” Pat smiles and agrees. Pat now believes the biblical Gospel is all about Pat. Already immersed in an egocentric culture, Pat is pleased that the “Gospel” fits so nicely into Pat’s worldview.

The challenge of the Soterian Gospel is that is largely us-centered, instead of God-centered. God’s work for redemption with Jesus is just to save us. In this picture of the Good News, Jesus only became human because humans sinned and needed redemption. Forgiveness of our sins are end goal of Jesus and God’s redemptive work. Human destiny is spiritual, and heavenly. Finally, the earth is not a part of God’s redemptive plan.

The only good news in this Gospel is when you die, you don’t go to hell. This presentation of the Gospel has nothing to say about our lives right now, at this moment. This Gospel also is inept at transformation because once we accept it, there’s nothing to transform. It’s now just a waiting game. This Gospel doesn’t invite us into a God-bathed reality. It just gives us a bar code to get into heaven. In the midst of our confusion about Jesus and his invitation, we may have overreached in our desire to define and share the the Gospel.

This is why Jesus died on a Roman cross? It doesn’t really make that much sense, especially the part where we are told that if we were “the only human being ever to live” that Jesus would have still died for us. Huh? If we are the only human being alive that means we have to kill Jesus for our sins. (Including us murdering him) Jesus seems smart, so I’m going to out on a limb here and suggest that if it were just you and Jesus you could come up with another plan, maybe even a better plan.

We would be forgiven for thinking that the Gospel was exclusively about us and our sins, yes, that’s in the Gospel, but it’s not the Gospel.

Let me tell you a story:

In the beginning God. In the beginning God created everything we see and can’t yet see. God made two image bearers, Adam and Eve, and gave them one simple task: govern this world on God’s behalf.

Adam and Eve usurped God’s plan. Instead of listening to the good word of God, they listened to the serpent and themselves and ruined their opportunity to govern with God. So God banished them from Eden and cast them into the world as we know it.

Sadly, all the descendants fashioned their lives in the same pattern. We joined the rebellion. We all want to rule, not under God, but as gods and goddesses. So, God chose another way of establishing his rule on earth. How?

God chose Abraham and Israel. God would give Israel the task of governing. God created a covenant between himself and Abraham and Israel that was to be eternal and redemptive. God promised to be with Israel and for Israel. God transferred the governing assignment given to Adam and Eve to Abraham and Israel. They were to bless the nations, which they did well at times but sometimes chose to do things their own way.

As God’s chosen people, God was with them and for them when they were slaves in Egypt, so he liberated them through the hand of Moses. God wanted them to live as a kingdom of priests, so he gave them the Torah and renewed His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. If they allowed this Torah to govern them, they would flourish and bless the nations. But they did not do well in this. This second arrangement wasn’t working either.

When Israel asked for an earthly king, God balked but eventually gave them a human king. In his mysterious grace, God chose to make one of their kings, David, the sort of king God wanted for them. He was the third form of governing on God’s behalf. But David was a descendant, so he too became a usurper. Then came Solomon who messed up even more. One king after another governed God’s people. Each of them proved to be a usurper, so God sent prophets to warn them that there was only one governor, one true King, one God — YHWH.

Sometimes God had to discipline Israel to get the people’s attention. Sometimes his discipline worked. The exile in Babylon led to a spiritual revival among those who returned to the land, but it wore off too because they were all usurpers.

After years of deafening silence, God moved into the final plan and suddenly broke into history with someone who was both descendant and non-descendant, someone who would rule rightly and not join the rebellion. God sent Jesus to Israel, through Mary and Joseph, and Jesus would someday rule on God’s behalf as Messiah.

Even though Jesus did what God told him to do, neither Israel nor the Gentiles accepted him as Messiah. Though Jesus did good everywhere, bringing people to the table who were forgiven, saved, healed, made new again, and turned from usurpers to lovers, the descendants — both Roman and Jewish — decided He should be put to death. They feared he’d deconstruct their rebellion, so they crucified him naked on a cross outside Jerusalem. Finally, the usurpers were in control.

What the usurpers didn’t know was that Jesus was actually entering into their rebellion and the death they deserved for their sins. He was dying their death. He was shouldering their sins and punishment. They didn’t know that God could reverse their rebellion and death and start all over again. They didn’t know this way of dying as a servant was the only way of living and making peace in this world. They didn’t know that the cross was the crown and that power comes only when it’s surrendered.

To start the world all over again, God raised Jesus back to life to end the dominion of death, to prove that the usurpers would not have the last word, and to show that the descendants could have a whole new (creation) linage. To make this clear, Jesus appeared to his disciples before he was taken up into the presence of God.

We finally had the King this earth needed in Jesus. He was exalted to reign over the world, over Jews as Messiah and Gentiles as Lord. He summoned all people to accept his forgiving, kindly, peaceful, gracious, transforming rule. If people surrendered, they would be forgiven and their rebellion would be forgotten forever. To create this new society, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to transform them from usurpers into servants of God’s love, peace, justice, and holiness. This was the right way to govern the world on God’s behalf: by loving others with everything we’ve got.

This is the Gospel.

Putting the Gospel into Action

When we distort the Gospel and make it all about us and our sins, we miss out on the God-bathed reality all around us, creating, restoring, renewing, and blessing. All around us we see the signs that the rebellion is still at work – the brokenness, pain, and suffering. It would be easy to let the signs of the rebellion rob us of hope, making us falsely believe that the Gospel is powerless in our lives. That the Gospel is only about life after death. We must resist this. We need to do what Paul suggests and renew our minds and follow Jesus without fear as he leads us into a new reality.

When we start to believe that the Gospel is about the whole person, that it is about our restoration as image-bearers, when we realize that we are being invited to join God as co-regents empowered by his Holy Spirit this compels us to act.

As co-regents, heirs of the kingdom, empowered by the Holy Spirit when we we encounter those who are marginalized, we know that the Gospel has the power to restore them.

As co-regents, heirs of the kingdom, empowered by the Holy Spirit when we we encounter those who are marginalized, we know that the Gospel has the power to restore them.

When we encounter those are struggling to get it right, we know that the Gospel has power to bless them right where they are.

When we encounter those who feel they are failures, when we encounter those who have been told that they don’t belong, that they have been rejected, we know that the Gospel has the power to welcome them home again. We can tell them the good news that their exile is over, that they can come home again. This is the Gospel friends.

This is good news friends. 

The power and overflow of the Gospel is at work in our midst, it just requires that we be born again to recognize it.

Our task is to announce the main message of the Gospel: the end of our exile is here, that the end of exile is here, our exile from ourselves, each other, and God and that eternal life starts today. We do this by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We do this by inviting people to meet the gentle, life-giving, peace-making King of Glory and joining him in his work restoring us and the world.

This is the Gospel.