The gospel in story form

A wonderful paragraph from the sermons of St. John Chrysostom that I happened to read the other day. It is actually from the first sermon in the series of 90 sermons on the Gospel of Matthew that Chrysostom preached around the year 390. It is quite extraordinary; no wonder Chrysostom is the “Golden-Mouthed”.

Photo of Chrysostom’s paragraph in the original Greek; translation below:

He (Jesus) called His work ‘gospel’ (evangelion) for good reasons: for He came announcing the removal of punishment, release from sins, righteousness, holiness, redemption, adoption, inheritance of the heavens, kinship with the Son of God – to all, to the hostile, the hard-hearted, those sitting in darkness. What, then, could ever be equal to this good news (evangelion)? God on earth, man in heaven; and everything becoming topsy-turvy (panta anamix). Angels singing with humans, humans having fellowship with angels, and with all the powers above. And we can see the lengthy war wound up, and reconciliation of God made with our nature, the devil disgraced, demons fleeing, the hold of death loosened, paradise opened, curse destroyed, sin cast aside, error driven away, truth returning, the word of piety being sown everywhere and growing, the citizenship of above planted on earth, those powers having friendly relations with us, and angels dwelling continually on earth, and there being great hope for the future.

I would say that’s as good a summary of the good news of Jesus Christ as anything you will read – and better. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been turned into a matter of blood and God’s anger – in other words, not particularly good news, except for a few who prefer to think of God and Jesus Christ in terms of blood shed to appease God’s anger. There is no blood in this paragraph, no wrath of God, no threat of eternal hell-fire. Oh, there are other places where Chrysostom spoke about hell-fire and the blood of Jesus Christ, but not here where he is telling us why Jesus called his work ‘gospel’ evangelion. Note carefully the purpose of Chrysostom. He is telling us WHY it’s good news. Many Christians give you the bad news first before the good news. Not Chrysostom, and not the four books that we call the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – in all four the good news comes first. I’m not making a mountain of a mole-hill, because the matter IS a mountain; it is momentously important. If you have to scare people with hell-fire before you can preach the good news to them, then you are manipulating them and abusing their God-given freedom to think for themselves and to return to God because of joy and love, not because of fear.

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), is the most perfect expression of the gospel. No other parable comes close to it. Other parables tell us what God expects from us, how we are to treat each other, how we are to use God’s gifts….. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect illustration of how we are to treat each other. But the parable of the prodigal son is the gospel in story form. And is it surprising that both the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are parables that we find ONLY in Luke’s book – Luke that great painter of the gospel. And what a painting he gives us today.

Why do I call this parable the gospel, the good news, in story form? Because it tells the story of human life as it unfolds from the Book of Genesis, and as we experience it in our own personal lives. We are loved by God from the beginning, but we want to do our own thing and we turn away and abuse the good things that God has provided for us. And when we hit rock bottom we go back, thinking that we deserve the worst punishment. But God has no punishment in mind for any of his children – only love and mercy and kindness and magnificent inheritance. No threats, no punishment. Even the brother who speaks against the kindness is treated with love and compassion. There are no people for whom God will not show mercy, you can never go so far from God’s grace that you become unreachable.

Listen to some of Chrysostom’s words again: He came announcing the removal of punishment, release from sins, righteousness, holiness, redemption, adoption, inheritance of the heavens, kinship – family bond, syngeneia – with the Son of God. To whom did he bring this? To all, to the hostile, the hard-hearted, those sitting in darkness. The result? God on earth, man in heaven; and everything becoming topsy-turvy….and great hope for the future. Chrysostom paints a picture of total transformation, heaven and earth united in glorious, divine harmony.

And that, dear friends, is good news. When we turn things topsy-turvy, we create disorder, we create a mess. But God’s topsy-turvy is about restoring us to our royal and divine inheritance – just as the father did to his returning son. And God’s topsy-turvy is about hope, hope for the future. The younger son in the parable makes a big mess of his life. The story could have ended when he wanted to eat the pods that the pigs were eating. A normal moralistic story would end right there and make the point not to disobey your parents to do your own thing. But Jesus doesn’t end the story there. The important part of the story is what follows. And notice there is no moral, no “I told you so” kind of message. The story continues, and it is a story. It is a story! Because our lives are stories, and none of us want our stories to be turned into “I told you so” moralistic messages. The story continues, and it is the rest of the story that brings the good news, the great hope, the topsy-turvy that only God can do. The older son does not like his moral, legalistic way to be turned upside down. He wants the moralistic message, he wants the “I told you so.” The father reaches out to him also, because he also, as much as his younger brother, was in darkness and needed the good news as much as his brother.

The father has no ear for the young son’s prepared speech. No bad news to spoil his joy to have his son back. God has no use for bad news. Yes, I know, the Bible has plenty of bad news, where God does quite a few bad news of his own. But those are not the good news, they are not the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you can understand this parable you know the good news and you have great hope for the future. 

The above was given as a sermon on Sunday, February 28th. Audio file of the sermon is included below:

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