As everybody knows by now, gospel means "good news." Ironically, it is some of the gospel's most ardent fans who try to turn it into bad news. For instance:
"It all boils down to the Golden Rule. Just love thy neighbor, and that's all you have to worry about." What makes this bad news is that loving our neighbor is exactly what none of us is very good at. Most of the time, we have a hard time loving even our family and friends very effectively.
"Jesus was a great teacher and the best example we have of how we ought to live." As a teacher, Jesus is at least matched by, for instance, Siddhartha Gautama. As an example, we can only look at Jesus and despair.
"The resurrection is a poetic way of saying that the spirit of Jesus lives on as a constant inspiration to us all." If all the resurrection means is that Jesus' spirit lives on like Abraham Lincoln's or Adolf Hitler's but that otherwise he is just as dead as anybody else who cashed in two thousand years ago, then, as Saint Paul puts it, "our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (I Corinthians 15:14). If the enemies of Jesus succeeded for all practical purposes in killing him permanently around A.D. 30, then like Socrates, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on, he is simply another saintly victim of the wickedness and folly of humankind, and the cross is a symbol of ultimate defeat.
What is both good and new about the good news is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love God too, but that if we will allow it to happen, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.
What is both good and new about the good news is the mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments, but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.
Thus the gospel is not only good and new but, if you take it seriously, a holy terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday school picnic. On the contrary. Childbirth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth, never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery.
~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words