Texts: Philippians 3 4-14 (press on towards the goal); John 12 1-8 (anointed for burial)
What does the phrase "the gospel" mean? What is "the good news" that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, proclaim in our worship, our service and our lives?
I thought of this question this week as I watched news coverage of the election of Pope Francis in Rome. On Monday, CBC's The National reported on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America's biggest country, Brazil.
Like many others in the media, the CBC was rightly guessing that for the first time, a cardinal from the Americas might be chosen as the new Pope, although like many others, it wrongly guessed he might come from the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, Portuguese-speaking Brazil. The eventual winner, Pope Francis, is from Spanish-speaking Argentina just south of Brazil, a country of about 40 million people.
The CBC report noted that as late as 1980, 90% of Brazil's nearly 200 million people called themselves Roman Catholic. Today, it is only 60%. Many of Brazil's former Catholics have joined Pentecostal churches while others now profess no religion.
The report stated that many of the new Protestant churches in Brazil preach a different gospel from that of the Roman Catholic Church. Called The Prosperity Gospel, it says that individuals who profess faith in Jesus, lead moral lives, and make donations to the church will become wealthy. In a country like Brazil with a youthful and growing middle class, the reporter suggested that The Prosperity Gospel has greater appeal than the supposedly more difficult gospel of Catholicism, which is seen as one of suffering and sacrifice. But is either one the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Suffering and sacrifice are central in today's reading from St. Paul. He writes: "Whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead."
That doesn't sound like a prosperity gospel to me. Nor does today's reading from John. In that passage, Mary anoints Jesus with perfume on the eve of his entry into Jerusalem. While such an anointing is associated with the crowning of kings and is very costly, Jesus states that the perfume is for his burial, which he knows will come later in the week. As such, this reading seems to also aligns more with a gospel of suffering and sacrifice than it does with a prosperity gospel.
But how can suffering and sacrifice be considered good news?
Traditional church teachings about suffering and sacrifice have often fall short of the mark, in my opinion. Sometimes, the church has preached that the poor and oppressed should accept their poverty and oppression rather than organize for justice. It has sometimes preached that accepting the established order is how we can follow Jesus.
Argentina, the home country of Pope Francis, provides an example from the 1970s. In the first part of that decade, vigorous movements for social change and justice developed among students, trade unionists, and women. When some of these activists adopted violent tactics, the Argentine military staged a coup and began a seven year-long dictatorship marked by torture and mass murder.
Some in the Argentine Church criticized the social movements that had organized for justice in Argentina because they didn't show proper respect for authority. Some in the church supported the military regime, even though the dictatorship eventually murdered 30,000 people.
If a so-called gospel teaches that women should submit to men, that workers should accept exploitation by their bosses, and that authoritarian governments should be respected even when they abuse their own citizens, I could understand why we would reject it.
I can also understand the appeal of The Prosperity Gospel given how central money is to our lives and how it figures in our hopes and fears. I do believe, though, that it mistakes the Idol of money for the God who is Love.
I wondered about spirit and money on Wednesday as I spent time with the financial manager of Western Hyundai in Moose Jaw while she worked out the financing for my new car. She mentioned that the conversations she has with customers are sometimes difficult. In the context of a large purchase, they talk about taboo topics such as credit ratings and income. They also talk about death and disability benefits, which can really make people anxious. And so, I suggested to her that her role was a spiritual one and that her office might feel like a crucible for many of us.
I declined the insurance that would have covered my car payments if I were disabled and unable to work. I mentioned that I had death and disability benefits with my employer, the United Church of Canada. I also noted that there are a large number of ministers on long-term disability in the church at present. For some, this is because of physical sickness. But many others of us are on disability because of psychological distress.
Ministry can feel stressful, perhaps because of the life and death issues we often deal with. On the other hand, I told her that I hoped ministry could be its own cure. Much of the distress felt by ministers takes the form of a crisis of faith. I hope that if I ever feel burnt out or depressed, I might be able to preach my way out of it.
The good news that I try to preach involves an awareness of mortality and suffering. This awareness can free us from idols such as consumerism and allow us to work for our most sacred values of faith, hope and love. At the same time, an awareness of mortality and suffering need have nothing to do with accepting injustice.
Life on the road to the cross can be joyful. On the road to the cross, we have accepted God's help to face our fears and move beyond them. We accept that death is inevitable, and so we are freed to find new life in Christ. This new life is not about material success or power. It is about relying upon God. It is about learning that our individuality is an illusion; that we are dependent on God's Spirit in family and community; that we are dependent on God's Love, which is the ground of life; and that we are dependent on God in Christ, which is an undying flame within each one of us.
We often experience joy on the road to the cross, even if it is different from the happiness preached in The Prosperity Gospel. It is a joy that arises from putting aside our egos and their desires. But it is not a joy that bows down to arbitrary authority. It is a joy we feel in the collective struggle to love one another and to work for abundant life for all. It is a joy that comes when we rise, even if only for a moment, above the idols of authority and of personal wealth.
Government and church authority are human and always prone to corruption. Personal wealth and power are fleeting and don't give us the spiritual food that fuels the deep joy of life in Christ.
This is the good news that I try to preach to myself and to others. Of course, a person can only proclaim what has grasped him or her. Personally, I reject a gospel that preaches obedience to oppressive authority just as I reject one that tries to substitute wealth or pleasure for the God who is Love.
I try to find good news in the midst of lives of pain or fear. I look for moments in worship or everyday life in which we rise above fear and touch God's eternal life that is available to us on the road to the cross and beyond. I also try not to condemn too strongly those who know a different gospel than the one I have so far found.
I am glad that Pope Francis has a gospel that focuses on the poor. On Friday, he said his wants the Catholic Church be "a poor church for the world's poor." I am pleased that for the first time the Roman Catholic Church is led by a person born in the Americas. I am cheered that the former Cardinal Bergoglio has named himself after the humble Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi. St. Francis lived a simple life of poverty in the Middle Ages and worked for church reform and for the poor.
My first impression of Pope Francis is also favourable. So, despite his conservative views on issues like birth control and women and despite the controversies about his role as a church leader during the terrible years of military dictatorship in Argentina after 1976, I feel hopeful about the leadership of Pope Francis.
In the poverty of St. Francis; in the poverty of Jesus and his friends as they enter Jerusalem, and in the poverty of our own lives -- touched as they are by sickness, injustice and mental anguish -- may we all live into the good news of abundant life. This good news says that the death of both Jesus and of our own ambitions lead to Easter hope for a new life that is beyond the reach of injustice and personal ambition. It is a communal life of deep joy within the eternal Love of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.