By Samuel Keyes
I’ve heard many versions of the gospel over the years. Sometimes, when I ask my eighth- or ninth-grade students what they think the gospel is (and by this point they should know that the word means good news), I hear a set of answers familiar to me from my evangelical childhood, usually summed up with the affirmation that Jesus died for our sins.
I often then challenge those same students — as N.T. Wright’s work challenged me more than a decade ago — to think a little more carefully about what Jesus meant in, say, the first chapter or two of Mark, when he traveled around preaching the gospel. And it’s not that hard to move from that question to the basic summary of the good news as we find it in the Gospels: The kingdom of God is here, and its presence is directly related to Jesus’ ministry.
Surely that proclamation is at the heart of any kind of evangelism. But the part about Jesus dying for our sins isn’t far behind. After all, it seems pretty crucial to Paul’s proclamation in the first century. And, though his sermon lacks a fleshed-out theology of atonement, Peter’s Pentecost message urges the people,
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. (Acts 2:38-40, KJV)
Save yourselves. That is, not as an act of self-righteousness, but avail yourselves of the salvation offered in the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
Salvation is a central part of the biblical story, the story of Jesus. I know that piously liberal Episcopalians sometimes find the word distasteful, having suffered here and there (perhaps via the occasional episode of This American Life, if not actually in person) the idea of the uneducated, viviparous masses going around asking one another whether they have been saved — or, as my sixth-grade math teacher often asked us, “Do you know that you know that you know that if you died today you would go to heaven?” But there it is, from the moment that God saved his people out of Egypt (Exod. 15:2).
Oddly enough, salvation shows up even in canon law. Take the famous example from the Roman Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, in which the oft-quoted Canon 1752 states that “the salvation of souls … must always be the supreme law of the Church.” And the central doctrinal texts of the Episcopal Church seem pretty convinced that salvation matters. Even Rite III and the various more experimental forms of Enriching our Worship insist in their open forms that the celebrant should praise God “for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ our Lord” (1979 BCP, p. 403 and here). We could go on and on with references to redemption in the Catechism, with references to salvation during the Holy Week liturgies, with solemn oaths in ordination rites affirming that the Old and New Testaments contain “all things necessary to salvation.”
I have never yet heard a sermon in an Episcopal parish mentioning the salvation of souls. If anything, what I hear more often is the striking absence of such language, given its prominence both in the biblical tradition and our prayer book. I hear a lot about justice. I hear a lot about equality. I hear a lot about making the world a better place, about caring for the oppressed and marginalized.
These are all good things, in their proper place. But I do find myself wondering if William Stringfellow was right when he asked in his classic My People is the Enemy whether the Church is really proclaiming the gospel when it has nothing to say to the poor and oppressed where they are. That is, if our gospel is focused so much on the good news of fixing social problems, lobbying for change, or, even in the best case, performing the corporal works of mercy, is it really the good news of Jesus?
The reason the message of Christ spread so rapidly among the poor and outcast of the first century (and every century) is not that it promised to fix all injustice or “speak truth to power,” but that it offered the hope of salvation. Even if this life involves unjust suffering, even if we cannot make your life better, we have confidence in a God who raises the dead, forgives sin, and transforms evil into good.
And, at the end of the day, it’s not just the poor and the marginalized who need saving. I need saving. We all do. Eternal communion with God in new-earth bliss isn’t the default. Hell is, because we made it the default. And we need saving from it, whether we’re super-privileged or super-marginalized. We need saving from the prison of our lies and our corruption and our collusion with the powers of darkness. And this is fundamentally the purpose of the Church.
The Church doesn’t cease to be the Church when she fails to influence presidential elections, or when she fails to satisfy the emotional needs of every ecclesiastical lobby group, or when she dares not sue somebody who wronged her institutional apparatus. But if the Church cannot actually say anything about salvation — if her leaders, lay and ordained, cannot seem to care about whether I go to heaven or hell (however we might conceive of those things) — I wonder not just whether we are really Catholic in any meaningful sense, but whether we have any claim to Church at all.
There are signs of hope that the Episcopal Church is at last moving beyond its cultural fear of evangelism. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has appointed staff members for evangelism and has led a series of revival meetings. These are good things. But when you look at the official documents on evangelism coming out of General Convention (e.g., this, this, or this), the picture is less clear:
Here is a practical definition collectively crafted by members of the Presiding Bishop’s Evangelism Initiatives Team, the Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, and many more partners: We seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people — then invite everyone to MORE. #EpiscopalEvangelism
That comes from “A Practical Theology of Episcopal Evangelism,” produced last year and commended by General Convention this summer. There’s a lot of good in this document. It’s positive, it’s hopeful, it’s not afraid to use the name Jesus. At the same time, I’m not sure from its definition of evangelism what exactly the church offers that’s different from a yoga retreat, a PBS membership, or a support group. So we look for nice things in folks’ lives and call them Jesus. Great. What’s to stop us from looking at those good things and calling them the universe? Nowhere is any idea of people getting saved. I guess we assume that they are already saved, or that such old-fashioned language doesn’t matter.
If I can put it this way, and make it very personal: It seemed clearer to me than ever during this summer’s General Convention that the mainstream governing authority of the Episcopal Church would rather I feel sexually fulfilled than be saved (not that they ought to be opposed in principle). What came across to me, in other words, is that General Convention deputations do not give a damn about the salvation of souls. Maybe that’s because they just don’t believe in damnation. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe in souls. I don’t know. But it feels personal. It’s not a question of theological principles but a question of pastoral care.
Is evangelism just sharing a message that makes us feel good — like the discounted avocados this week at Walmart — or is there something eternal at stake, something like “eternal life in our enjoyment of God” vs. “eternal death in our rejection of God,” as our Catechism puts it (p. 862)?
Perhaps one reason we want to revise the prayer book is that we no longer want to pray or be concerned for those who, in the words of the Solemn Collects, “have never heard the word of salvation” (p. 279).
Contrary to General Convention’s idea that it will evangelize by aping the Zeitgeist (or at least the progressive slice of it),such salvation is, for very many of us, why we are in the Church in the first place. If we don’t need saving — in a way that only makes sense in the Church and can only be accomplished within the Body of Christ — what is the point?