Gospel

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation . . . .
—Isaiah 52:7

This year in chapel, we will tweak the year’s Religious Life theme. Rather than concentrating solely on the concept of “one,” we are adding the notion of how the gospel relates to this oneness. Playing with the multiple meanings assigned to our word “one,” the theme for chapel worship services is “the gospel according to . . . one.” And, by “one,” we are drawing upon two of the meanings of “one,” both as a reference to an individual and as a reference to a unity of many parts that is a solidarity.

Each week, we will examine how the gospel is understood by a single individual or expressed in a single place. For example, we will consider how the idea of the gospel is portrayed in Ephesians, in Revelation, in John, and other books of the Bible. We will, also, look at how the gospel is lived and understood by well-known figures across the centuries, examining the life and works of folks like John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. In considering all these individual interpretations of the gospel, we will ponder how these diverse interpretations simultaneously speak to the unity of the narrative of the faith despite the reality of the complexity and discrepancies of our faith. In this way, we are reiterating what was covered in last week’s iChapel by re-centering our understanding of “oneness” on the spatial analogy proffered in Ephesians and the communal analogy that text suggests is present between God’s multiplicity and singularity as witnessed in the Trinity and that same multiplicity and singularity evidenced amongst us.

Having last week considered the idea of “one,” here, I want to turn address the idea of “gospel.” If we are to spend an entire year centering on a theme that, in large part, is reliant upon the concept of the gospel, then we need to make sure we have a solid understanding of what we mean when we say “gospel.”

The word “gospel” is what linguists call a calque or a word-for-word translation of a word from one language into another language. That word-for-word translation originates in Greek. Yet, we are getting ahead of ourselves. We will return to that original Greek word momentarily. More directly, our word “gospel” comes from an Old English word “god-spell,” meaning “good tidings or good story.” We retain both roots for our word “gospel” in our words “good” (something preferred or beneficial) and “spell” (a story or speech, e.g., someone who is good storyteller might leave you “spellbound”).

The original Greek word from which our word “gospel” derives is “euangelion,” which is itself a compound word. The two words composing “euangelion” are “eu” and “angelion.” The word “eu” means “good.” And, it remains a prefix we use often. Consider our word “euphoria.” It combines “eu” + “pherein,” meaning “to carry” creating a word that means “to carry a good feeling.” The word “angelion” means “message.” Together, we now have a word that means “good message.” However, the root words that form “euangelion” are only half of the intriguing story behind this word. The reason for its initial construction as a word supplies a greater depth of meaning to this term.

Originally used to mean the gift given to a person who delivered news about a military victory, the word morphed into a reference about that message of victory itself. Eventually, once the church had almost exclusively commandeered the word, the term shifted, again, to refer to a kind of literature that describes the life of Jesus, e.g., the four gospels of the New Testament. Although, that reference to a kind of literature is much later and is not as interesting for our purposes.

Rather, what I am interested in exploring over this coming year is not how we have come to use the term but to understand better how the early church used the term in its formative years when the church decided it wanted to apply this particular term to describe the message it was delivering to the world. It is that term’s association with victory that the church co-opted (from both Hebrew and Greek contexts) to convey something about the person and message of Jesus, e.g., consider the text from Isaiah quoted at the beginning of this reflection. It is that term of victory that lies behind early church speakers, hearers, and writers use of the word. And, it is that notion of victory that shapes their theological imaginations and practical behaviors.

So, each week, our task is to identify the particular “good news” conveyed by the various writers and enhabitors of the gospel, to establish what they meant by it, to consider what sort of victory they imagined, and to wrestle with how that victory has any practical bearing on our lives and work, today. Or, in other words, to try to answer the question: “Victory over what?” Their answers might surprise you.

This should be fun!

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