The Exquisite Simplicity Of The Gospel
You may have heard the story…
A little boy, six years old, walked into the neighborhood grocery store and said to the grocer: “I would like to buy the smallest box of Tide you have.” The grocer said: “Why do you want the smallest box?” The little boy said: “I only want enough to wash my dog.” The grocer responded: “Tide is not the kind of soap you use to wash your dog.” The boy was insistent: “My mother told me that Tide is the best soap of all so that is what I want.” The grocer gave in. “All right,” he said, “if that is what you want, that is what you shall have.” About two weeks later, the grocer saw the little boy again. He said: “How is your dog?” The boy said: “He died.” The grocer said: “I told you that was not the right soap.” The boy said: “No, I don’t think it was the soap—I think it was the rinse cycle that got him!”
Sometimes we get caught up in cycles that get us. One of the cycles that has been getting me recently is “the complication cycle.” It seems to me that we try to make everything more complicated than it needs to be. You know what I mean. For example, you tune in to the weather on television so that you can find out what it is going to be like tomorrow. The weatherman proceeds to spin out this remarkably complex body of information about cold fronts and stationary fronts and warm air columns and jet streams and isobars and barometric pressure corrected to sea level (whatever that means) and radar scans and satellite pictures and on and on. Finally, after he has deluged you with a tidal wave of complexity, he says: “So it will be a nice day tomorrow with temperature in the 70’s.” That is our modern day curse of the complicated.
Perhaps it is because I am simple-minded, but I have a hard time with our tendency to complicate anything. I remember what Alfred Lord Tennyson had to say about the great Duke of Wellington: “As the greatest only are, he was in his simplicity sublime.” That is what I long for, the sublimity of simplicity.
That is one of the reasons I so love the Gospel story—because for all the use and abuse which the Gospel has experienced across the centuries, it remains a story of exquisite simplicity, sublime simplicity.
The Gospel is simple because Jesus was a simple man.
Jesus was divine, yes, but Jesus was also human—fully human. He talked like we talk. He went fishing in the early morning. He caught catnaps in mid-afternoon. He let kids play in His lap and swing from His arms. He had to worry about where His next meal was coming from. He could be warm with tenderness or ablaze with anger. He was not a particularly handsome man. The Scriptures specifically describe some people as being beautiful and well-formed. It says that of people like Sarah and Rachel and Tamar and Esther and Joseph and Saul and David and Absalom. But what does it say of Jesus? It says that “He had no form or comeliness that we should desire Him.” The Shroud of Turin has been much in the news as scientists have tried to determine its authenticity. But I want to tell you, if the face on the shroud is in fact the face of Jesus, then he was a rather homely man.
He also spoke very plainly, very simply. If you translate His parables into the idiom of our day, you find that they are very commonplace. He talked of finding a diamond ring that you thought you would never find. He talked about winning the Florida Lottery. He said it would be harder for a rich man to get into heaven than to drive a Mercedes through a revolving door. He said: “If your child asks for a puppy, would you give him a black widow spider? Or if she asks for a hot fudge sundae, would you slap her face? You see He spoke in very simply, earthly figures. He was a simple man.
Solomon said that He is the Rose of Sharon. Isaiah said that He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. David called Him the Messiah. Haggai labeled Him the Desire of Nations. Malachi called Him the Son of Righteousness. The Gospels refer to Him as the Dayspring from on high. Acts calls Him the Cornerstone. Hebrews declares Him to be the Great High Priest. John says that He is the Lamb of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And He is every one of these things—and more. But as much as He is any of these things, He is also a plain and simple man.
And the Gospel is simple because it is addressed to simple people.
The Gospel is not for people who have arrived in life, people who think they have all the answers, people who think they are head and shoulders superior to the rest of the world. The Gospel is not for snobs. It is for people who walk on common, ordinary, everyday pathways like we do—people who are very much aware of their own shortcomings—people who know that they have a deep need for God—people who know that that need can be met only through Jesus Christ.
Whenever I say that our access to God is only through Jesus Christ, there are always those who say: “Isn’t that rather narrow? Aren’t you ruling everybody else out?” You tell me if it is narrow—a Muslim believes that in order to get to God you must say your prayers five times a day; you must observe the month-long feast of Ramadan each year; you must make a pilgrimage to Mecca; you must give alms to Allah; and you must study the Koran. A Hindu believes that in order to reach spiritual bliss, you must observe certain social taboos; you must eat certain foods and not others; you must practice bodily deprivations, some of which are quite painful; and you must enter into mental disciplines which do nothing less than alter your personality. The Buddhist says that in order to achieve oneness with the great all, you must negate all physical desires; you must take to yourself vows of poverty; and you must punish or flagellate yourself into purity of mind and spirit. Now, over against those complicated, involved, exclusive and restricting requirements and legalisms of other faiths, I set the Gospel of the Christian faith. It says: “Whatsoever you ask in the name of Jesus will be done for you.” It could not be more simple. It could not be more broad. It could not be more winsome. It could not be more open. It could not be more uncomplicated. Jesus says: “Come and follow me.” It is as simple as that.
Then the Gospel is simple because it declares a simple message.
We see that truth in the exquisite simplicity of the sacrament. When Jesus set out to establish a perpetual memorial to Himself and to His message, He chose to do it through the simple elements of a common meal. Had we established a memorial to Him, it would have been an infinitely more spectacular ceremony, filled with lots more pomp and circumstance. But Jesus made it simple so that we would not so focus on the memorial that we would miss the message.
And the message is simple, too. “For as often as you do this, you show forth the Lord’s death until He comes.” That simple sentence tells us what we are to do. We are to show forth, we are to proclaim, we are to put into words, we are to demonstrate in our own lives not only the death of Jesus, but also His resurrection and His coming again. We are to be taking the message of His dying, His rising, and His return out into the world aggressively.
Suppose that tomorrow morning, all the salespeople in our shopping malls took their places in the stores, locked the mall doors, and spent the day selling their merchandise to each other. That is a parable of most churches. The people are shut up inside, sharing the Gospel with each other, while all the time Jesus is outside in the world and calling us to join Him there. My friends, the great Good News of the Gospel is just too good to keep to ourselves. We must take it to the world.
I sat once in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. It is just down the hill from where I was in school at New College. I was gazing at Salvador Dali’s painting “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” There’s a resurrection glory about that painting even though it is a depiction of the Crucifixion. As I looked at it, I noticed that all who passed by, when they reached that painting, stopped to look at it. It wasn’t the largest, the finest, the most prominent, or the most visibly displayed painting in the gallery, but every person who passed by, stopped to look at it. They didn’t all stop to look at any other painting there—only that one. The people stopped, you see, because when the world confronts the loving death of Jesus and the reality of His resurrection, the world stops and takes notice. Our task then is to take Him and His message out into the world so that the world will stop and notice. This table, in its exquisite simplicity, calls us to do just that.
When we go forth into the world, we go in the name of a simple Saviour, trying to reach simple people in a very simple way with a very simple message—that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That, my beloved, is our communion commission…