The Gospel as an Impossible Possibility
In the gospel reading appointed for this Sunday, Jesus is accused of being demon-possessed. In an article I wrote on that passage, I wondered whether the gospel always sounds a little crazy to those who first hear it…or maybe just to those who take it seriously. That is, the more seriously you take the gospel, the more crazy, or outlandish, or impossible, or even possessed, it sounds. And I kind of think that’s the way it has to be simply because what’s sane, normal, everyday, and expected doesn’t, I think, have the power to transform us, let alone save us.
By way of illustration: near the beginning of his lengthy Christmas poem, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden has the shepherds marching toward Bethlehem make the following confession: “We who are about to die demand a miracle…. [for] Nothing can save us that is possible.”
And there it is: when you are on the brink of death – from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or calamity or oppression or depression or whatever – when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of the miraculous, of salvation, for that which is merely possible cannot save.
And that’s what the gospel offers – what Karl Barth described as the “impossible possibility,” a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true, a story that stretches beyond and encompasses all our stories so as to give them meaning, integrity, and purpose.
Now some, I know, would call this an escape, a flight from reality and the specter of death. And, indeed, this is the great risk, the significant gamble of the Christian life. For the truth the gospel proclaims is not some mere datum or fact that we can verify but rather is a claim, a confession, even a wager, that there is a Reality and Truth beyond the confines of our mortal, meager existence that we will not fully experience until the world as we know it passes away and then and only then will we see through the glass clearly and understand fully, even as we are fully understood.
But make no mistake, it is a risk, one that we cannot calculate or estimate ahead of time but which we throw ourselves into mind, body, and spirit simply because we cannot help it; because, that is, we have been taken captive to the Word of God through our encounter with Scripture, drawn into this world of faith like Lucy was drawn through the wardrobe into Narnia and, having tasted the promises of God, cannot return. And so there it is: the gospel is true, and it is fantastic, otherworldly, beyond our experience.
My friend Anna Carter Florence gets at this in a brief conversation we had several years ago when she was visiting Luther to teach in our Doctor of Ministry program. I asked Anna what she thought was the heart of the gospel preachers are called to proclaim, and she said it was the unbelievable word that always sounds more than a little crazy when you take it seriously. Watch Anna’s comments, if you have time (they’re just 5 minutes long), and then let me know what you think? Is the gospel crazy, the impossible possibility, and what implications does that have for our lives of faith?