What’s the Good News?
I found, when I was teaching religious studies, that it often came as a shock to young people to discover that the word gospel means ‘good news’. ‘What’s good about it?’ some would ask. ‘It didn’t do St. Peter any good. He was crucified upside down; and St. Paul had his head chopped off; and all the other apostles seem to have met a similar, grisly fate.’ As the discussion developed, they would really start to list what they considered to be the negative aspects of the Christian enterprise. (Children, even children of pious parents, can be very irreverent!). After reciting the litany of problems endured – and caused – by Christians throughout the world, they would look at the impact of Christianity on their own lives. Far from it being ‘good news’, they saw it as little more than an arbitrary collection of rules designed to stop them having a good time. William Blake had made much the same point centuries ago:
And priests in black gowns
Were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars
My joys and desires.
I can remember developing similar attitudes when I reached adolescence and began to question received wisdom a little. Our priests told us that Jesus died for us because he loved us, and this seemed like a decent thing for someone to do, but when we were told that the sacrifice was necessary because God the Father demanded it in payment for human sin it began to appear grotesque. And sin seemed to be everywhere; we had to be constantly on our guard against the temptations of the devil because just one slip up at the wrong time could put our souls in jeopardy. There were sins of omission and sins of commission; venial sins and mortal sins; sins crying out to heaven for vengeance; sins of thought, word, and deed. There may only have been seven ‘deadly’ sins but there were thousands of others which could wound grievously. They were all deliciously appealing, of course, but were also capable of putting that black mark on the soul that would mean eternal hell for the really unfortunate, and aeons in purgatory for the rest. In school we talked about the categories of sin and the degrees of sinfulness and culpability. For example, when was stealing a mortal sin and when was it a venial sin? (In the fifties, £5 seemed to be the significant sum. Below £5 and it was venial; above £5 and it was mortal. What about four pounds nineteen shillings and eleven pence? Or five pounds and a penny? And what about inflation? Generally we were told to shut up at this point.) And then, of course, there were inappropriate thoughts, ‘dirty’ thoughts. Were they sinful? Could I go to hell for entertaining those thoughts that were more entertaining than any others, and which seemed to my adolescent mind to be constantly present? Yes, was the disappointing answer. And, we were told, God was looking all the time; maybe you could fool your mother or the police, but you couldn’t fool God. He had a little book and he was noting it all down. We prayed for the grace of final repentance, that death wouldn’t take us by surprise with unconfessed sins on our soul. The really scrupulous people – and I’ve known plenty over the years – could find themselves living in a perpetual state of anxiety. How good was that news? The Protestants didn’t fare much better. They didn’t have to go to church every week, or eat fish on Fridays, or go to confession to tell the priest the intimate details of their life, but they seemed to have equally onerous tasks to perform – reading the Bible, for example, which we Catholics didn’t seem to bother about – and some mysterious things called ‘being born again’, and ‘entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ’, all of which seemed to leave them with that dutiful joylessness, which had inspired the 19th century British poet Algernon Swinburne to write of Jesus,
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean
And the world has grown grey from thy breath.
So, the Protestants with their grey world didn’t seem to be the recipients of good news either. I often envied my father. He was not a churchgoer but it never seemed to bother him. He didn’t have to worry about all the details concerning sin and God and judgement, nor did he seem to regret their absence from his life. I asked the teacher about my dad, and about my friends, who were similarly unconcerned by religious scruples. ‘Would they go to heaven?’ The reply was instructive. ‘Catholics have the best chance of heaven, but if a person lives a good life, according to the dictates of their conscience, and according to the extent of their knowledge of the laws of God, then it might be possible that they could be saved.’
It was a reasonably humane reply, but it got me thinking. If sins were only sins if you knew they were sins, then surely it would be better not to know? I’m actually at a disadvantage, I began to think. The unchurched majority in our own society, and the billions of people who had never heard about God and Jesus and the ‘good news’ were really better off than I was! I was going to church every week just to hear stuff that was doing little more than increasing my chances of going to hell! And missionaries, far from being benefactors of the human race, as I’d been told, were actually its enemies. Leaving the pagans in ignorance would mean that they could enjoy their present life to the full and escape punishment after death. The good news was actually bad news! My adolescent mind savoured the paradox.
Many years ago, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore performed a sketch about this particular problem. It ends with the pair musing about a group of ‘Ephiscans’ settling down to breakfast before going off for a day at the seaside. They are full of anticipation and excitement when a knock comes at the door. It’s the postman. He’s brought a letter from St. Paul. ‘Oh no!’ they say. ‘Trust Paul to spoil everything!’ And, sure enough, on opening the letter they find Paul’s simple instruction: ‘Dear Ephiscans, Stop enjoying yourselves. God’s about. Signed, Paul.
Not terribly good news for the Ephiscans, either!
The problem is that Christianity has not really convinced us that the kingdom of God – which is what the good news is supposed to be about – is really all that appealing. Some say that the kingdom is to be built on earth as a kind of economic and political utopia, others that it is a state of blessedness with God after death; but, either way, there is always the implication that it is a kind of colourless existence, under the watchful all-seeing eye of a celestial Gillian McKeith, who will bully us into joyless conformity.
But this was never the original message of Jesus. His message, his ‘good news’, was very simple: the longed for kingdom of God is here already (Mark 1:15). Of course, if Jesus was promising an economic or political utopia, he was completely mistaken; if anything, things were to get worse for the Jews, and, two thousand years later, a just and equitable political system still eludes us. But the kingdom of God, as Jesus understood it, is a state of being, not a social arrangement. Entry into the kingdom requires a complete change of mind, a willingness to re-orientate our perceptions. This is the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, which is generally translated as ‘repentance’, but which involves much more than regret for past actions, and it certainly doesn’t mean ‘confessing our sins’. It implies a resolution to begin again from the beginning, to make a fundamental alteration to the way one looks at the world, which St. Paul calls ‘transformation by the renewing of the mind’. Luke’s Gospel tells us that ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is”, because the kingdom of God is within you’. From the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas we learn, ‘The kingdom of the Father is already spread out on the earth, and people aren’t aware of it’, which means that the kingdom of God is not something that we can create with political action and economic redistribution (important though these may be), nor is it something that will be imposed upon us by divine intervention; it is, instead, something we can discover by correcting our eyesight.
The Sufis, Islam’s mystics, tell the story of how Nasrudin, the ‘holy fool’, would take his donkey across a frontier every day, its panniers loaded with straw. The customs inspector suspected the increasingly prosperous Nasrudin of smuggling, but despite regular and extensive searches, he could never find any contraband. Years later, when both were retired, they met in the marketplace. ‘I know you were smuggling something,’ said the customs officer. ‘What was it? You can tell me now.’
‘Donkeys,’ replied Nasrudin.
The story illustrates the Sufi contention – shared by Jesus – that the mystical goal, the kingdom of God, is nearer than is generally realised. In fact, it is here, ‘at hand’, but we are so busy looking for something else that we never find it. The mystic poet and painter William Blake, who stands in a similar esoteric tradition, writes:
To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the sun, and a bag worn with use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers…..
‘When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?’
‘O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”……………….
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern…. For everything that lives is holy.
To see the world as Blake saw it is to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and the good news is not that the kingdom is something to build, or something to ‘get into’ when we die, it is something to discover while we are still alive. And, what’s more, it is possible to discover it, to open up those narrow chinks in the caverns of our minds, to cleanse the doors of perception, in the words of Blake, or to discover, as Thoreau discovered, that ‘reality is fabulous’! And when we do, our individual and communal lives will be immeasurably enriched.
This is the real promise of the gospel. This is the real ‘good news’, and the gospels themselves are guidebooks to the journey of transformation. They are not history for us to believe or to become sentimental about. It is my belief that the original gospel message gave us a map of the road towards transformation based on the metaphor of the sun’s passage through the signs of the zodiac. The document that we call the Gospel of Mark preserves this original sequence. It begins in the spring, and throughout the coming year I will be giving sermons which point out the various spiritual lessons that the Gospel of Mark teaches us. The first of these sermons will be on 25th March, and will concern the first three chapters of Mark, which, I believe, are related to the zodiac sign of Aries, the sign of the springtime.