May 2017: Love is good news

The following is an excerpt from Love is a Verb: A one-year spiritual practice resource, written by Leo Hartshorn. The resource explores the 2017 convention theme Love is a Verb through the lens of Richard Foster’s six spiritual streams. Download the entire booklet from the Mennonite Church USA resource center.

The evangelical stream

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. … At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea. —Luke 4:16-20a; 42-44 (NRSV)

This biblical passage is set within the missionary vision of Luke and Acts. The good news begins among Jesus’ own Jewish people and spreads to the whole Gentile world. Within the Gospel of Luke this text follows the baptism of Jesus, his anointing by the Spirit and the beginning of his public ministry. It announces the central theme of Jesus’ mission — preaching good news to the poor.

In his hometown synagogue Jesus is invited to read from Isaiah 42, the assigned text for the Sabbath. He reads of good news to the poor, liberation of captives, sight for the blind, release of the oppressed (perhaps from debtors’ prison) and proclamation of the time of God’s favor. The good news is not a formula for getting to heaven or about believing in particular doctrinal statements. The good news is the hope of concrete acts of liberation for a people caught in the grips of poverty and oppression!

Sitting after the reading was the position a teacher would take to expound upon the text. Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant, sits down and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus embodies the good news of this text for his ministry.

The good news is further defined as “the good news of the kingdom of God.” Jesus has come to proclaim to his people the reign of God present and to come. The reign of God is more than a place in heaven. It is the good news of God’s will enacted “on earth as in heaven.”

The evangelical stream     

Central emphases of the evangelical stream are the Bible, Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the good news.[1] In the evangelical stream, the Bible is critical to a right understanding of the faith and being a Christian. That understanding of the Bible is shaped by a particular evangelical lens. Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian faith, with a strong focus upon his saving work on the cross. The call to evangelize, or share the good news of the saving work of Jesus Christ, is essential to practicing the Christian faith. Implied in the sharing of the good news is a sharing or recognition of the bad news: that we are all sinners under God’s judgment and in need of saving grace by faith in Jesus through which we are reconciled to God.

Representatives of the evangelical stream in church history have included the Protestant reformers, John Wycliffe, preachers of the Great Awakenings like George Whitfield and Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. The modern missionary movement, which began in the 18th century, had roots in the evangelical stream.

Strengths of the evangelical stream are:

1) It places a strong emphasis on the New Birth or “being born again.”

2) It has led in the missionary endeavor to proclaim Christ to the world.

3) It places the Bible at the center of faith.

4) It emphasizes the significance of right belief.

Pitfalls of the evangelical stream are:

1) The stress on conversion can diminish the need for faithful discipleship or living the faith.

2) Salvation and evangelizing can become narrowly focused on “getting sinners to heaven” and neglect the breadth of the meaning of salvation.

3) The Bible can become an idol or an instrument for judging others.

4) Right belief can become an end in itself, separated from right living and issues of peace and social justice.

5) Evangelicalism can take the form of rigid fundamentalism.

The evangelical stream and the Anabaptist tradition

Among early Anabaptists the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) was understood to apply to every Christian. Every follower of Christ was to follow the command of Christ and share the gospel as a missionary in his/her world. This was a unique view within the Protestant Reformation. Within Christendom, new Christians were added to the church by expanding Christian territories and baptizing infants into the church/state. The church of Christendom tried to silence the Anabaptist voices, but the Anabaptists gave verbal witness even as they were martyred and witnessed to their faith with their very lives. (The term martyr in Greek means witness.)

Anabaptists emphasized the importance of the New Birth by grace through faith and by the agency of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, they recognized that the reality of being “born again” was evidenced by the new life in following Jesus. The way one lived was as important as a verbal witness. They balked at the type of “cheap grace” that cost the believer nothing and that simply provided a saving formula of justification before God.

The evangelical stream has significantly influenced the modern Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Some would say the influence has been to the tradition’s benefit and others to its breakdown. One of the traditional weaknesses within the later Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has been its strong reliance upon a witness of life without spoken testimony. While the evangelical stream plays a significant role in our Mennonite churches today, there remain important and crucial differences to be recognized between Evangelicalism and Anabaptism.[2]

The evangelical stream and Love is a verb

At the heart of the evangelical stream is God’s love for the world (John 3:16). When rightly practiced, the tradition’s missionary zeal and proclamation of the good news spring from the wellspring of Christian love for others. When proclamation is not coupled with concrete acts of compassion and love toward others, its theme becomes “love is verbal.” Love must become embodied through concrete acts of love and not simply through words. Luke 4 reminds us that at the heart of Christ’s good news (i.e. evangel) we discover a tangible message of hope for the poor and marginalized.

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[1] Evangel is the Greek word for “good news.”

[2] See C. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, Herald Press, 1979, and Ted Grimsrud at http://bit.do/ana-evangelical