Over the past week or so I’ve been reading a book called In His Image by Andy Matheson. The book reflects a theological foundation for Christian ministry amongst the poor and marginalised. It comes out of Andy’s years of ministry in India and then in many different parts of the world. In it he argues that the starting point should be original goodness rather than original sin. As I’ve read this book I have struggled to ask the question of how these principles apply to the rich as well as than the poor.
We have lived for the past eight years in an area of greater affluence than we have experienced before and one of my struggles is ministry amongst the rich rather than the poor. I sometimes look back and think how much easier ministry would be in Leigh Park where the needs of the community and of individuals was so clearer to see!
But Andy has touched a thread that has been running though my mind for the past few months and that I now have the time to examine in more detail. It can be summarised by this question:
What Is The Gospel?
Does the understanding of the Gospel that I was brought up with actually reflect the Gospel in the scriptures? Have I missed something, and if so how important is it? Have I shortchanged God and those amongst whom I have ministered by not proclaiming the whole Gospel?
These are big questions and ones that I intend to grapple with in the coming weeks.
So how does Andy’s book fit in with those questions? Andy proposes a starting point for understanding humanity and our relationship with God that is different to the one I was brought up with. “Many Christians have traditionally taken sin as their starting point … The crucial thing for people to understand (they have reasoned) is our alienation from God, who is perfect, and our need to confess and receive God’s forgiveness … I propose we begin by affirming their capacity for goodness, compassion, perseverance and love … Genesis 1 comes before Genesis 3. People are made in the image of God before sin comes into the world … Original goodness existed before original sin … Regardless of what we do or what others do God’s image remains in us.” Andy is not in any way denying the existence or effects of sin, or the need for repentance and forgiveness. Rather he is suggesting this is not the starting point for our ministry amongst others, and especially amongst the poor.
The Gospel I was brought up with is the one Andy is talking about. Traditionally, at least in the Evangelical tradition, the starting point is the fallenness and sinfulness of mankind and our need for a saviour. God is holy, we are sinful, we need a saviour, Jesus is the saviour, through repentance we receive forgiveness by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and have our sins forgiven, our relationship with God restored and we receive eternal salvation.
Whilst this is true (and I don’t want in any way to deny the truth of mankind’s fallenness and need for salvation), I would now ask is this the whole truth or are there important, even vital, facets of the Gospel that are missing? What difference does it make if we recognise that we are made in God’s image and that God’s creation was good, before we recognise sin and the fall?
Alongside this I wonder if we have created an environment in the Christian church where the focus has been on our ticket to eternity and we have missed, almost entirely at times, the focus on discipleship, the restoration of God’s image in us now and God’s Kingdom coming today as well as after we die.
This is for me a work in progress and I will post more reflections in the coming days and weeks. On a practical basis I’ve started to slow down and let go, which is easier said than done! One of the goals for this time is to get physically fitter and find a rhythm of life that will help me sustain that when I return to parish ministry. So I’ve joined a gym and will be going regularly (my body is already complaining!). I’ll post again in a week or so.