How big is your gospel?

In 2013 I wrote about an encounter in Thailand with a sex worker while I was at a conference for pioneer missionaries. It went like this:

Last night I went with some friends for a meal in the centre of town. We were in the tourist area and I was browsing the market for some gifts to take home.

As I walked by one of the many massage parlours, a young woman called out to me, ‘You want a massage?’ Her clothes, body language and expression made it clear that she was selling more than a massage.

I smiled with perfect English embarrassment, shook my head and walked on by. But God does not walk on by.

It reminded me of a time about six years ago in the same city when I was walking with a friend down a similar street not far from the one I was in last night. A girl I later discovered to be 14 walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to have sex. Her opening price was £7. I shudder to think what I could have bartered her down to.

I declined politely and kept walking. She could not walk away because her ‘owner’ kept her working that street. But God does not walk on by.

The girl at the massage parlour has haunted me today. She was in her late teens or early twenties. How did she get to be sitting in a street offering sex to older men for money? What is her story? Her hopes, fears, dreams? What has the gospel got to say to her?

And hers is the face that I will have in mind as I teach this conference of pioneer missionaries. Because we have made the gospel too small.

The pressure to make the gospel too small is all around us. We limit God to the arena of personal redemption and healing while we walk through a world crying out with pain.

I was shocked at how many Christian voices endorsed military action in Syria without wondering how we could be peacemakers. I am dismayed that in a time of austerity, welfare reform and ever-increasing inequality, there is so little Christian imagination for what the kingdom of God might look like. I get angry at the sermons and articles on workplace discipleship that ignore the injustices in supply chains while concentrating on personal morality and individual fulfilment, destiny and calling. What about the ones left behind?

I am constantly amazed by and utterly dependent on God's grace and love in my life. I am desperately in need of forgiveness and love from the One who loved me to death. But God has more to talk about than simply our personal salvation. We have made our gospel too small.

Reinhold Niebuhr expresses how a small gospel cannot speak redemption to a complex world:

A Christian pessimism which becomes a temptation to irresponsibility toward all those social tasks which constantly confront the life of men and nations – tasks of ordering the productive labor of men, of adjudicating their conflicts, of arbitrating their divergent desires, of raising the level of their social imagination and increasing the range of their social sympathies – such a pessimism cannot speak redemptively to a world constantly threatened by anarchy and suffering from injustice.

The Christian gospel which transcends all particular and contemporary social situations can be preached with power only by a Church which bears its share of the burdens of [...] establishing peace, of achieving justice, and of perfecting justice in the spirit of love.

Thus is the Kingdom of God which is not of this world made relevant to every problem of the world.

Reinhold Niebuhr

And yet I am encouraged by all the Christians I know who are making themselves bigger. Who do not turn away from the complexities of all ‘those social tasks’. Who refuse the lie that our only hope is an escape to a disembodied eternity, and instead embrace the tough places and tough people. These are the Christians who work hard, think hard, pray hard and suffer hard. They are collaborators with God’s purpose to ‘perfect justice in the spirit of love’.

I still think of the girl at the massage parlour in Thailand. She still haunts me. So what has the gospel got to say to her?

Yes, she needs to hear that Christ died for her and accepts her and washes her clean and gives her a fresh start.

Yes, she needs to hear that he can heal the pain and the wounds that she has suffered.

And yes, she needs to hear that Jesus can deliver her from the choices that she has made or that have been made for her.

But that is not enough.

Christ came to set the captives free, not to see them continue in slavery. What does the good news look like for her?

Yes, it is all the things that I have just said – but it is more.

It has got to include safety from the men and women who control her.

It must mean different opportunities for earning a living.

And it needs to include a welcoming community of grace and acceptance, where she can know that she belongs and is intrinsically valued – that she is more than a pimp’s commodity or a church’s project.

In Matthew 11, John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was the real thing. Jesus did not answer him directly but told John’s friends to report to John what they saw Jesus doing: the lame, blind and poor were being blessed. Their physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs were being met.

In recording this encounter, Matthew shows us how we can recognise authentic Christian mission. When the gospel is being proclaimed, the last, the least and the lost are blessed. We can be confident that real Christian mission is taking place when the poor receive good news. This is how we know what is orthodox, what is authentic, what is Christ’s work.

Good news for the hungry has got to include food. Good news for the lonely has got to include community. And good news for a young woman in a massage parlour has got to include more than the four spiritual laws and a prayer of commitment. The good news of Jesus applies all the reality of God to the entire reality of our experience.

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David Westlake
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