If someone asked you what Christianity is all about, what would you say?
Most of us probably have a number of complicated responses, but the real answer is simple: Christianity — specifically the Gospel — is the announcement of what God has done in the person of Jesus.
It’s an announcement about events — events that happened in history and that were witnessed not by people long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away but in fact not that long ago, historically speaking, and at the crossroads of the largest empire in the world at the time, the Roman Empire. It is important to stress that there are reasons to believe these witnesses are credible. The testimony of these witnesses eventually became part of our sacred Scripture.
At the heart of this testimony is what is called the kerygma. Kerygma is a Greek word that means “proclamation.” In his apostolic letter Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron writes, “The ‘kerygma’ is the New Testament word for the simple, radical, countercultural and joyful message of the Gospel — that ‘initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith.’” Let’s pause for a moment. Have we been “overwhelmed” by the proclamation of the Gospel? Or did we learn the faith as a set of rules when we were growing up?
The archbishop continues, quoting Pope Francis, “The kerygma … needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. … On the lips of the catechist, the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you.’ … This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways. …”
Finally, the archbishop reminds us, “The kerygma is often described in terms of four essential elements: (1) the loving plan of God for human beings; (2) sin and its devastating consequences, especially separation from God; (3) God’s answer to our predicament in the sending of his Son for our salvation; and (4) the response this gift calls for from every person: to repent of our sins, believe in Jesus and be baptized, so we can be filled with his Holy Spirit and live a new life in his family, the Church. It is essential for all preachers and catechists to learn the art of proclaiming the kerygma and to reflect on how to make all their preaching and teaching more kerygmatic.”
I have found it personally helpful to further simplify the kerygma to four words: Created, Captured, Rescued, Response. But it’s crucial to remember in all of this that the goal isn’t simply to memorize these; the goal is to reflect on them and, more importantly, to pray with them, so we will be overwhelmed by what God has done in Jesus and respond by surrendering our lives to him in faith.
The Gospel is not just news; it’s extraordinary news — it’s the kind of news that changes your life forever. An analogy that I find most helpful is D-Day. Imagine you’re living in France in 1944. For several years now, your homeland has been occupied by a demonic tyrant, who has destroyed your country, deported many of your friends and neighbors and killed some of your family. Then, on June 7, you wake up to this headline in the papers: “Allies Land at Normandy!”How would you react? Would you simply turn the page to check out the weather and wonder what’s for breakfast? Of course not!
That headline would give you hope, because something has happened. And what’s happened is the kind of event that changes everything. Someone has come to fight for you, to rescue you, to liberate you. This is the kind of news the Gospel is, except infinitely better.
When we see pictures of the Allies landing at Normandy, it’s obvious what they have come to do: They have come to fight and to rescue those who were oppressed. Unfortunately, when we look at paintings of Jesus lying in the manger, it’s not so clear why he’s there. But he’s there for the same reason: to fight, to invade a kingdom by his stronger kingdom and to set his people free from a tyrant. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free,” many of us pray every morning in the Benedictus.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What happened that God would need to liberate his people? Who is this tyrant who holds humanity captive? Where did he come from? Where, in fact, did everything come from?
For each part of the kerygma, there is a question that can help us better dive in:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why is everything so obviously messed up?
What, if anything, has God done to fix the mess? (And if he’s fixed it, why are things still so messed up?)
And how should we reasonably respond to what God has done for us in Jesus?
Each of these could take many pages to fully answer, but let’s look very briefly right now at the first question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
A radical worldview
The first few chapters of Genesis often cause people a lot of confusion! The best explanation I’ve ever heard is that chapters 1-11 of Genesis are inspired poetry. They communicate truth to us, but in a poetic, not a literal, way. The authors are less concerned with communicating howGod created the world than with whyGod created the world. Oftentimes people want to pit science against the Bible and turn these chapters into a fierce debate. But there is no debate between evolutionand creation; the debate is between chaosand creation.
God revealed to the sacred authors a radically different worldview than the one that governed the mindset of Israel’s neighbors. The people of the Ancient Near East saw the world more or less in this way: There were many gods, none of whom was really and truly good. They were, instead, more or less like us: angry, greedy, lustful and spiteful. At a certain moment in time, these godscreated man to be their slaves. As such, there was no ultimate point to life. Life was truly meaningless. With a worldview like that, what could be the goal except to maximize pleasure and minimize pain? In a world like that, despair was rampant — how could it not be?
Into that world, God revealed that reality was something very different. There was but one God, and he was good. Everything that is, he made — freely, without effort and out of love. And the highlight of everything he made is the human person, male and female, in his own image and likeness:“Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. … God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
In the biblical vision of reality, then, the human person is not created to be a slave but has extraordinary dignity.
Being made in God’s image means far more than we can address here, but among the things that are important to highlight are these: the capacity for reason, freedom and being made for friendship and love. Now, freedom is a word that is often terribly misunderstood. We tend to think of freedom in our culture as the ability to do whatever we want, but that’s not freedom, that’s lawlessness. The true purpose of freedom is to be able to love and to be loved. Only a free person can choose to love. And only love can satisfy the human heart, because you and I are created in God’s image and likeness and God islove.
Created to love
Before we close, let’s reflect for a moment on one other thing. God is quite simply incomprehensible. Whatever picture you and I have of God, it’s wrong. He’s powerful beyond all imagining! The universe is roughly 46 billion light years across. It’s made up of roughly 100 billion galaxies, each with roughly 100 billion stars in them. And he created this with one sentence: “Let there be light!” But in the midst of this massive, immeasurable universe, the creature God most loves, the one who catches his eye, so to speak, is you, and me, personally and by name, for God never sees crowds.
Grasping the biblical answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” gives us further answers to some of life’s most critical questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? How do I get there?
The answer, biblically, to all three of these questions is one word: love. Why am I here? Because the creator of this massive universe, who simply said, “Let there be light,” chose to create me. He willed me into being. I don’t just happen to be here; you don’t just happen to be here. You’re herebecause in God’s mind, it’s good that you exist!
Where am I going? What’s the end for which I was made? What’s the purpose of my life? Love. You and I were created to be divinized! To share forever in God’s own abundant life, joy, happiness and love forever.
And how do we get there? We get there by his love, which was poured out for us on the cross. In other words, we get there by God loving us. But we also get there by loving God and each other in return; this, after all, is the first and greatest commandment, as Jesus teaches us.
As we reflect on this first part of the kerygma — Created — let us realize with wonder and awe that the God who is infinitely good and powerful beyond all telling not only willed me into existence but is right now, at this very moment, holding me and you and everyone we love and care about firmly in his hands. He says to us right now, “You are my son, my daughter. Your life is firmly in my hands. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious. I have a plan for your life. I have created you to be infinitely happy. And it is my good pleasure that you would know me and my love and all I have done for you, and to give joyful witness to this extraordinary news.”