What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
On the 29th Anniversary of My Ordination — October 6, 2014
Several weeks ago, I offered a science-fiction-like thought experiment in the sermon: what if my 18 year-old self (1974) found itself transported forward forty years in time to listen to my preaching? Would that former self ‘hear God’s good news proclaimed’? My honest answer is, “I’m not sure. The Gospel I hear today when I read Scripture has changed so drastically from the one I was trained to hear as a youth.”
Here is the bottom line for me: one of the basic ways I hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ revolves around violence. In fact, a one sentence summary of the Gospel for me would be: Jesus came to save us from our violence, empowering us for God’s way of compassion, or the future of humankind would most likely be self-annihilation.
But let me unpack that a bit, beginning with an anthropological glimpse of what Christians have called “original sin.”
I believe that the most significant development that sets our species apart involves what neurologists have been learning to recently identify as “mirror neurons.” In our larger brains, we have more of these specialized neurons integrated throughout a larger portion of our brains. They enable us to learn from each other through imitation in a way that tremendously shortens our evolutionary adaptability for survival. Example: if you are a bear, and suddenly the environment turns cold, you need a few million years to develop polar bear type layers of fat and fur. By Natural Selection, it takes many, many, many bear generations to select for furrier bears. But, if you’re a human, you watch your father slaying a bear, skinning it, and putting on a fur coat. You watch it and learn it instantly. Your mirror neurons start firing away in your brain, and you’ve performed the same complicated sequence. Instead of going through millions of years of evolution, you’ve done it in one generation. Mirror neurons give homo sapiens a tremendous advantage for creativity and learning.
But there are also two further tendencies enabled by mirror neurons which can make us or break us:
1. Empathy/Compassion, a more divine-like love. We are able through our mirror neurons to more completely place ourselves into another person’s situation — to ‘put ourselves in their shoes.’ When we come across a person who is suffering, like the man half-dead in the road in Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, our mirror neurons give us a natural ability to empathize with the suffering.
2. Envy, rivalry for objects of desire, resentment, and conflict that lead in downward spirals of vengeance (which are escalations of imitating each other’s violence). Because we also learn or catch our desire from each other we become rivals for the same objects of desire. Covet is the biblical word for this.
The Ten Commandments give us a sketch of our sin from these two possibilities: either we honor and worship God, catching God’s perfect compassion and love, or we fall into the covetous loop of behaviors in the other commandments: slandering our neighbor, stealing, adultery, and murder.
How bad are the results of our sin? Anthropology has shown us that there were many other human species that didn’t survive. Why? Was it because they always fell into a species-annihilating violence? And what saved Homo Sapiens from falling into that fate? So far, that is, since we now possess weapons of self-annihilation?
The final piece of an anthropology, that it took the cross and resurrection of Jesus to reveal, is this: homo sapiens evolved with a capacity for culture, passed on from generation to generation because of our mirror neurons, that sanctions certain kinds of violence to contain the more random violence that results from our spirals of envy and rivalry. Human cultures, which have always been centered in religion until recently, are always structured dualistically in an us-them manner, so that we can attempt turning our capacity for compassion toward us and the capacity for violence against them. This is a huge piece that can’t be elaborated here in a short overview. But it is why I believe Jesus had to die on the cross, duly executed according to violence sanctioned by both the Jewish and Roman cultures.
But the revelation alone isn’t the whole picture of salvation. Jesus’ Passion establishes God’s Way of doing culture that is based on compassionately suffering violence rather than ever inflicting it. Gandhi was the first person to ever lead a brief movement of this Way such that a human empire was actually defeated. And Jesus’ Incarnation of God’s compassion in this world brings a Holy Spirit of our mirror neurons now being able to daily live increasingly towards compassion instead of envy. Life in the Spirit!
The bottom line is that, especially now that we’ve created weapons with the potential of self-annihilation, God sent Jesus to rescue our species from it’s own way of survival based on cultures of sanctioned violence. The latter is not enough to save us in the long run. In Jesus Christ, the Good News is that God has unleashed a new power, a new Spirit, that gives us an alternative to the original sin of our species. In Jesus Christ, the “Son of Man,” God is empowering us to choose a do-over, a remake, a Homo Sapiens 2.0.
And, oh yes, the Gospel also includes the defeat of death itself, not to go to heaven as a final destination, but going to heaven as an intermediary step to Resurrection Day, the day when God’s love-powered salvation of Creation from violence will be complete.