Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Lectionary: Year A, Proper 6
Last Sunday I brought bread pudding to a picnic we had at Blind Slough. And a few people asked for the recipe. I jokingly said that maybe I could begin the sermon today by giving it out. And then it was suggested that there could be a sermon found in bread pudding.
So first, challenge accepted. And second, it fit in quite well with the text, theme, and some of the direction I was already working with.
You are more than welcome to follow along with the recipe sheet you might have picked up on the way in, and take notes on it as we explore how bread pudding can illustrate the gospel.
Recipes are a kind of formula: by measuring the ingredients and combining them using the directions provided, they are supposed to offer a way to reproduce consistent results every time. But as anyone who has cooked knows, that might be the theory, but practice is often quite different.
And there are what seems like infinite variations on a single dish; and any of them can be quite different from another. In this day of Google searching, a recipe search can turn up hundreds of variations. Here’s a hint: the top results are often not very good, in spite of what the posted reviews might say. They appear at the top because they pay to be there. (I have suggestions for good sites the ones I use. See me later, if you're interested.)
How can you know if a recipe is good, if online reviews can’t be relied upon? Well, one option is to try each one until you find one that is good. Better is to figure out which sources can be trusted, and why, and favor them. And best would be to actually get the recipe for something you’ve tried and enjoyed.
The bread pudding recipe that I use is of the last kind: when Elise and I were in New Orleans, we attended a cooking demonstration by a well-regarded chef, who demo’ed and explained what he was doing.
Now the interesting thing is that he also has a published cookbook, and the recipe for bread pudding in the book is significantly different than the one he demo’ed. There is a much higher quantity of eggs and less bread in the cookbook version. It is much more like other bread pudding recipes I found.
So there are a few things to highlight. First, there can be multiple formulas to achieve a desired end goal. Second, some may be better than others. Third, even when the source is identical, for whatever reason, the formula might have variations.
In modern, Western Christianity, the gospel is often reduced to one formula. Jesus died, he was buried, he was resurrected. He died to pay for the sins of the world. He is now in heaven and will someday return to judge the world. To be saved from eternal damnation and instead receive eternal life, a person needs to repent and accept forgiveness and believe in Jesus Christ.
This isn’t entirely wrong and each elements is true, taken alone. The gospels do contain many words (about a third) on the final week and especially the crucifixion. But we must not forget that there is another two-thirds of the gospel accounts dealing with Jesus’ life in his world. And here is where I think the common formulations of the gospel are at best insufficient, and at worst, may even be misguided.
Relating back to what I said about recipe formulas: the source is identical — it is the gospel accounts and Jesus himself. And the intended result is the good news that leads to salvation. But what did Jesus mean by salvation? Certainly, eternal life in a future age can be a part of it, but is that all?
What Is the Gospel?
In Matthew we read earlier:
And in selecting the Twelve,
9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest."
10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness.And in sending them out,
10:7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8a Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.There are a few things to note in this selection. First, the phrase “good news” can be translated “gospel”
and comes from the Greek, euangelion, from which the English evangelism is also derived. Second, Jesus speaks of proclaiming the gospel before he is crucified and resurrected. Third, the commissioning does not include a directive to preach and teach. Fourth, what Jesus does command is to heal all manner of afflictions, diseases, and free people from oppression. Fifth, the gospel is a concrete response to compassion toward immediate needs.
A final point that I noticed is the progression in the kind of signs that accompany the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. At the top, Jesus is said to heal every disease and sickness. When the Twelve are selected, in addition they are given authority of unclean spirits. When they are actually sent out, Jesus adds that they are to raise the dead. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. In another gospel, John (14:12), Jesus says that his disciples will do do greater works than he. Perhaps Matthew’s progression is an echo of that.
I think the key point is how all of these things have a common theme. Disease, oppression, unclean spirits, and death — they are all reasons to ostracize, divide, and separate people from one another. The diseased are quarantined; social classes maintain separations and invite suspicions; unclean spirits separate those who consider themselves upright and normal from those that appear otherwise; and death is the ultimate separator, tearing apart families and friends.
What I understand the gospel to be, according to Jesus’ example found in Matthew 9 and 10, is to restore relationships and to lift up all as equally valuable and worthy in God’s eyes. Salvation is primarily about returning
to and belonging to community, and this community must precede any idea of eternity and life eternal. Salvation is about recovering what it means for each person to be fully human, fully accepted, without fear of being judged and rejected.
Believing Vs. Being
Christians emphasize faith as a key to salvation. Here again, it is important to ask what is meant by “faith.” For many, faith equates to belief and believing — belief that Jesus is the Christ and Savior, and believing that this confession leads to a person’s salvation from hell and into heaven.
Faith is a transaction between a person and God, wherein God offers benefits in exchange for allegiance. But this again, is a limited understanding at best, and I dare say even misguided. This transactional approach to faith emphasizes the individual and diminishes or even dismisses community.
If the gospel is about restoration to and building of community, as I discussed a few minutes ago, then faith cannot be just a transaction. It must be something more that involves the entire community.
It is no accident that churches are sometimes referred to as “communities of faith.” Faith is not just a one-time transaction between an individual and God, but a life that actively trusts in the love of God to help the kingdom of heaven break into this present world.
Faith must go beyond mere belief and must become being.
I could read and study all the bread pudding recipes I can find. I can figure out, through theories of chemistry and physics, which ones will likely produce the best results and why. Understanding all that can be helpful and satisfying. But only to a degree. It ultimately doesn’t do me much good beyond being able to talk about it, and it certainly won’t do any good at a church potlucks. Can you imagine me arriving with a stack of papers to a potluck and explaining why I didn’t bring an actual dish, but I did bring explanations and theories about how you could bake a better bread pudding?
Unfortunately, I think the gospel has too often been presented in this way. Christians explain, often in the general and abstract, how bad sin is and how Jesus came to solve that problem. But what the people around want is for their diseases, oppressions, hurts, and brokenness to be healed. They want someone to listen, and someone to offer concrete, helping hands. They aren’t looking for someone to merely tell them about Jesus. They want someone to be Jesus to them.
Jesus saw the great needs of the people around him. He was moved to compassion. He didn’t then offer them a metaphysical, theological, theoretical idea that God would someday vindicate them and restore all things. No, Jesus asked his disciples to pray that workers would be found, and then they became those workers. Jesus commissioned them to do the things he did, and even more. He sent them out
to make an immediate difference in the world, to begin the formation of a new kind of society.
Context and Adjustments
Bread pudding was originally developed as a way to reuse old, stale bread. In many ways, the traditional presentation of the gospel could be said to be old and stale. The bread is still bread, and Jesus is still Jesus. But maybe there are new ways to present the old story, and to become part of its ongoing story, today.
There are some parts of the bread pudding recipe that I think cannot be altered without damaging the result; for example, the ratio of bread to liquid. Likewise, there are elements of the gospel that cannot be altered — Jesus’ love and compassion, and how that moved him to action.
But there are many ways in which the recipe can be adapted and altered to fit the intended context. In summer, you might use peaches or pineapples and a piña colada mix instead of milk. In the fall you might go with more warm spices. In winter you might use cranberries. Some people like nuts; others detest them, and so you might adjust depending on your audience.
A savory bread pudding is another matter entirely, yet still shares key frameworks. The sugar and vanilla would be omitted, you'd definitely add salt, and you might add broth or substitute some of the milk. But you would still have the basic components in their proper ratios to achieve the same consistency prior to baking.
Likewise the gospel-in-action can appear different from one context to another. Once you are clear on the essential framework, you have great freedom to experiment with many of the details. You might emphasize some things over some others. The key is community and relationships. What needs are specific to your interactions within this community? How will you adapt the gospel to meet those needs?
And just because an element is quite traditional and has always been there as far as you can recall doesn’t always mean it is always necessary. For those of you who were at the picnic last Sunday, you may have heard me realize that I had totally forgotten to include butter. Every bread pudding recipe that I looked at includes butter. But for those that had some without butter, did you notice that it was absent? Even I didn’t realize it was missing until I started going over the ingredients in my mind.
The point here is that we should not make the gospel more complicated than it needs to be. We should be willing to ask hard questions about reasons and priorities of all aspects of our faith, to determine if they are in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how they contribute to the goal of building a gospel community.
As I bring this time to a close, one of my hopes is that the gospel will forever be tied in your minds with bread pudding.
But more importantly, the following points:
- The gospel is more than just a formula on how to go about getting saved.
- The gospel is about restoring and healing all manner of brokenness, disease, oppression, and even death; to bring people into community where they can be fully themselves.
- The gospel must make a difference in the present world. It is a breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven into this world.
- The gospel framework — Jesus, his love and compassion — remains consistent through all time, but how the gospel works must be specific to meet the unique needs and challenges of each time and place.