There are a number of words in the Bible that were not religious words when they were first used, but, over time, they have become the sole intelectual property of the religious. A couple examples....
"Church" - This was a word taken straight out of the culture with no religious significance whatsoever. It was a word representative of a gathering of people who had some kind of official business to attend to, like a city council.
"Deacon" - This is a transliteration (giving english letters to the greek letters). If we were to have translated the word, we would have just said "servant." In many churches the word "deacon" is treated like an office of power and influence, when it was not a religious or an official-office-holding term. It just meant servant.
These two words have been subsumed into the religious lexicon. You rarely hear them in social, secular ways. When that happens we can begin to fill the words with meanings that they did not have.
Another word, and the one I most want us to consider here, that was not at all religious in content but is only used religiously today is the word "Gospel."
It is common knowledge that this word is a combination of two words that mean "good news." What is not common knowledge is what this word meant when Jesus and the early Christians borrowed it to talk about what they were proclaiming. Since the word has come to be a strictly religious term, we have assigned a different meaning to it. This meaning is not necessarily false, but it is severely truncated.
The proof of this point is how we "believe" the "Gospel" of Jesus while we are actually living out the Gospel of Gaga, Caesar, or Sheen. Let's come back to that in a moment.
An interesting little inscription has been found that refers to the birthday of Caesar Augustus (ruling when Jesus was born) as a day in which mankind had received "good news." In this inscription he is referred to as a god and that the "gospel" about him was the best that had ever been or would ever be.
One thing this does for us is make us realize that "gospel" was not plucked out as a phrase that just pointed to a personally beneficial happenstance - like your team winning, the weather clearing up for your picnic, or finding an extra $20 in your jacket pocket.
The "good news" was not about a fortunate occurrence in your life. It was not just personal. And it was not just situational. Here "good news" refers to something more comprehensive, something infused with hope, something that spoke to our whole lives not just a specific need/want.
When Caesar was announced as the "good news" for mankind, it was a statement that what he offered was the hope for humanity. That under his rule people could discover the life they wanted, they could have what they desired, they could experience the fulfillment they longed for. Other rulers and other kingdoms did not have enough power and wealth to bring the "good life" to their people, but this ruler does. His birth was "Gospel" because it inaugurated a way of life that answered humanity's greatest needs and ambitions. His military was powerful enough to protect them and secure them from all threats. This power also meant peace and safety for them. The power also meant access to wealth for them. The Gospel of Caesar Augustus is that power and wealth will bring security, peace, fulfillment, and affluence - the good life. (Sound familiar?)
Caesar is not the only one announcing a Gospel.
If a "Gospel" is the message one believes as what gives hope and fulfillment, as that which will bring happiness and meaning, as that which allows one to live as one was made to live, then there are countless "Gospels" out there.
There is the Gospel of Lady Gaga, or the Gospel of Pop Culture. They aren't just selling music, they are selling an image, a lifestyle, a way to live in this world that will bring happiness and fulfillment. Fame, wealth, doing as one pleases, acceptance, parties, living how one was "born" to live. Each song, each video declaring a Gospel of how life is meant to be lived, how one can find the answer to the longings inside.
There is the Gospel of Charlie Sheen, or the Gospel of Pleasure. His TV character on Two and A Half Men is about a person who has no rules to live by - just the following of whatever pleasure, usually women, stands before him. He is cool, happy, carefree. He lives the good life, while his dorky brother is missing out on how great life could be. If we could be with whoever we wanted, if we could do whatever we wanted, if we answered to no one but our own appetites, then we would be truly free.
These are but three Gospels, admittedly caricatured to make a point, that exist in a pantheon of gods and their gospels.
Earlier I said that many "believe" the "Gospel" of Jesus while live out one of these three. Here is what I mean:
We have defined the "Gospel of Jesus" as this - Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I can have a home in heaven one day.
Now, that is true... partially. And it is fortunate for us, but it is not the Gospel.
Jesus did die. This death does reconcile us with God and purify us from sin. Jesus does invite us to live forever with Him. But the "Gospel of Jesus" is so much more expansive than this. We are glad to accept the gift of the cross while the Gospel we believe (the path to fulfillment and the good life) is rooted more in Caesar, Sheen, or Gaga. We want God's forgiveness, but we do not want the (full) Gospel of Jesus.
The Gospel of Jesus is the good news that a new Kingdom, a new way of life, a new hope has entered into our world and we are invited to participate within it. This Gospel has just as much to do with learning how to love our enemies, how to be content in the loss of wealth rather than in acquisition, how to live without anger or lust, etc. than it does with a postmortem reward.
According to Jesus, the Good News is the Gospel of the Kingdom (Mark 1:14, Matthew 4:17, 23). A new hope for mankind has broken forth into our world. That hope includes but is not limited to Jesus' atoning sacrifice and my eternal fate. That hope is for a whole new way of being human, a whole new way of being community. That hope is that I can learn to live - here and now - just like this Jesus, this Son of God, this Eternal One, lived when He was among us. A Kingdom has been founded, not just a gift offered or a command given. A Kingdom has been established in Jesus that calls for new allegiances, new identities, new purposes, and a whole new way of discovering what it means to be fulfilled and happy.
Too many accept the Gospel of Power and Wealth while claiming faith in Jesus' good news. If we were honest, we think Jesus is actually offering bad news. Sure he offers a path to eternal bliss, but if we are honest about actually trying to live like Him.... we'd prefer Caesar's, Gaga's, or Sheen's lifestyle.
I mean, can you imagine loving enemies, refusing retaliation, abandoning wealth, spending every day with the refuse of society, and denying self as an actual way of trying to live in this world?!
Jesus, I will gladly take your offer of eternal bliss, but the Gospel for me is Caesar's. I appreciate the death you died, but I don't care much for the life you lived. It may have worked for you, but in my world the power of the empire and the wealth of the world appear to be much more stable, suitable, sustainable, sane, and secure paths toward fulfillment and happiness.