The Amazon Prime series Good Omens is arguably the most overtly theological, if decidedly unorthodox, mainstream television show in decades. The premise is an unlikely friendship between an angel, originally one of the guardians of the Garden of Eden, and a demon, originally the serpent who tempted Eve.

The larger narrative of the first season of the show is a sort of unexpected thriller in which these unlikely allies conspire to avert the coming of Armageddon. But there’s a remarkable scene in just the third episode of the show. It is nothing less than thousands of years of the story of both humanity and Scripture told in a series of short scenes in which the two characters find themselves reuniting at key moments, such as the Garden of Eden, or Noah building his Ark, or Jesus being crucified.

In the case of the crucifixion, we see a startlingly realistic depiction of Jesus suffering the horrors of what crucifixion entails while the two look on as part of the crowd watching the execution. As they watch, even the demon is disturbed by the extent of its cruelty to both the human body and spirit being visited upon Jesus, and if a demon feels like you’ve crossed a line when it comes to torment, that’s obviously saying something. Standing next to the angel, the demon finally asks, “what has he said that made everyone so upset?” Without taking his eyes off of the suffering Jesus, the angel says simply, “be kind to each other.” “Oh yeah,” the demon nods in sudden understanding; “that’ll do it.”

As we begin this sermon series on the Six Great Ends of the Church, a sort of 6-part mission statement developed over a century ago by the Presbyterian Church to summarize what any faithful church should exist to do, there are already some stumbling blocks we need to address in the first Great End: “The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humanity.”

All three of those stumbling blocks show up in that exchange between the angel and demon in Good Omens as they stand before the cross: what, exactly, do we mean by proclamation, the Gospel, or Salvation? Now, I’m going to be honest and say up front that I’d really like to spend a sermon apiece on each of those three things, but they do interlink in important ways, so that’s what we’re going to focus on today. And I think we need to start with what we mean by the gospel.

The angel’s answer to the demon’s question is a fairly common version of what we often say was the essence of Jesus’ proclamation. And “Be kind to each other” is much more disruptive of an ethic than it often gets credit for, if you actually mean it. The problem there is that many people confuse being kind with being nice. I’ve heard people from elsewhere in the country complain about people in the Northeast not being nice. And if you’ve spent any time in New York City, Boston, or Philadelphia, you probably know that “nice” is not the first adjective that generally comes to mind to describe the typical residents.

But being nice is much less important than being kind. New Yorkers will literally have a shouting match with one another on the subway over the best way to get to your destination if you ask for help, and one of my favorite stories ever about Philadelphia was a friend who was distraught when she found herself double-parked into her on-street parking place and unable to find the owner when she needed to drive her mother to the doctor, and random passersby noticed her distress and literally recruited others to physically lift the double-parked car out of the way so she could pull out. THAT is kindness; niceness would have been to simply say, “oh, I’m sorry, I hope they come soon and move their car” without breaking stride.

Kindness often involves some kind of disruption for the person being kind, and sometimes even more so for the person creating a situation that is requiring kindness, like the driver of the double-parked car for my friend. Jesus, of course, said it slightly differently, telling his disciples and the crowd that if you were going to sum up all the Law and the Prophets, it would be in two basic commandments: Love God with your whole heart and mind and spirit and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

That Summary of the Law is a crucial part of what it means to be Christian as both an individual and a congregation; it is how we live the gospel out in concrete action. But while it points to the gospel, we still haven’t explained what the message itself is; what, exactly, is the good news that is so important? Well, it’s what Peter is trying to proclaim in this sermon on Pentecost once the Spirit has gotten a hold of him. This comes as people are trying to make sense of the chaotic and miraculous scene they’re experiencing.

From the perspective of the person on the street, they were just walking down the road, their mind having been on celebrating the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, when the door to a house bursts open and a small, boisterous crowd of people spill out and start shouting in different languages. Pentecost was a mandated pilgrimage festival, which is why Jewish people from so many regions and languages have gathered in Jerusalem as this scene unfolds, and the miracle here is that the disciples are suddenly able to speak in the different languages represented in the crowd, so that everyone can understand what is being said.

Or, at least, they can understand the words. The text doesn’t tell us what they’re saying, nor do the people indicate the content of what they’re hearing, other than it’s about “God’s deeds of power.” And so they start asking what this all means. Some seem genuinely curious; others are dismissive: “they are filled with new wine,” they sneer, meaning the cheap stuff that isn’t good for anything except getting drunk quickly and thoroughly. At that, Peter steps in, and things get off to a a bit of a bumpy start: “These are not drunk, as you suppose,” he insists, “for it is only nine o’clock in the morning!”

Honestly, it’s one of the funniest lines in Scripture. Clearly, Peter has not spent any time in the Judean equivalents of New Orleans or spring break in Florida, because while it’s generally unusual to be drunk already at 9 am, it’s certainly possible if you have enough access, motivation, and/or shamelessness, which is obviously what the detractors are implying in the first place. But after that rough start, he finds his stride, arguing that what they’re seeing is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy from the book of Joel, and then tells them that the prophecy itself is pointing to Jesus, who was killed and resurrected by God to demonstrate that not even death itself could hold him captive to its power.”

And when the crowd hears this and is compelled by it, asking what they should do in response, Peter tells them to repent and be baptized in Christ’s name and they, too, will receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.” The word “gospel” simply means “good news,” and that is the good news in Jesus Christ: that God loves us, each and every one of us, so much that God came to us as one of us, taking on human existence and experiencing everything there is about being human, teaching us what it means to truly live in the fullness of humanity that God intends for us, and promising us in both word and action, through Jesus’ conquest of death in his death and resurrection, that the gift of new and abundant and eternal life is for everyone, no matter who we are, where we are, what we have or haven’t done.

The good news is that Jesus died and was raised for the salvation of humankind, in other words. But this is the part where we really start getting into trouble, because it’s amazing how effective the Church has been through the centuries at making the good news bad: turning the promise and gift of salvation into something that has to be earned or deserved or offered by the Church itself instead of God; something that is transactional rather than gracious.

The Church has made the good news bad by saying things that Jesus himself never even came close to saying anywhere in Scripture: that if we don’t belong to the right branch of Christ’s Church, we are rejected; that if we don’t subscribe to the right doctrinal statements, we are rejected; that if we don’t accept him verbally “into our hearts” as our personal Lord and Savior, we are rejected. But the Biblical notion of salvation is not fire insurance; we don’t acquire it to protect us as individuals against the flames of judgement.

The problem is that we tend to hear salvation exclusively in terms of rescue from danger, and parts of the Christian Church have tried to make sure that’s exactly what we hear, believing that fear and guilt are the most powerful motivators for human behavior. But not only is that a false strategy, it creates a false gospel, one that views both Christ and the gospel as being about rescuing us from everlasting torment, which by the way we richly deserve and God would otherwise be perfectly content to visit upon us. But the Biblical verb, “to save,” doesn’t simply mean to rescue.

It has layers of meanings that are all equally valid depending on the context: it can mean to rescue from danger, but it also means to protect, to restore, to preserve, to make whole. And by definition, we do not rescue or restore or preserve things that are worthless to us, which is why it’s not only baffling, but almost blasphemous, that the Christian Church has spent so much time throughout the centuries trying to convince us that we are worthless without God’s grace.

In our Inquirers Seminars here, I usually tell the story of how my grandfather, a farmer who came of age during the Great Depression, would save every nail, screw, nut, and bolt on his farm. If he disassembled a fence, he would pull the nails out, one by one, straighten them out, and put them safely in jars in his workshop, every single time. He did this for two reasons: because they are valuable, and they are useful; he could always find a new purpose to which to put them. You and I are inestimably valuable and useful to God.

That’s why anybody saves anything, including God: because what they save has value to them, and what they save has a purpose. If we were worthless, why would God bother in the first place? You and I and all of humanity are not saved from sin and death in order to be worth something; it is because we are worth so much in God’s eyes and heart that we are saved, for something, not just from something, saved for life in the presence of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of sharing God’s love in the world, here and now, through our lives of faithful service.  

Which gets us to the question of proclamation. Far too often, “the proclamation of the gospel,” gets equated with an ordained pastor standing in front of a Christian congregation in Sunday worship giving a sermon. And that is certainly one way of doing it. But it is certainly not the only way, and as important as I think it is, I think it is also clearly not the most important way, especially not in our current cultural context. There’s a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that goes, “proclaim the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

Words are sometimes necessary. But Christianity is a faith centered on incarnation, on Jesus embodying the good news of God’s gracious love, on us embodying Christ’s love in our own lives of faith. This story, which contains a lot of words and no small amount of preaching, concludes with creating a community that behaves radically different from the surrounding world: they are characterized by their devotion to one another and to serving those in need at least as much as they are by their prayers and praise. That is why they had “the goodwill of the people,” as Acts says.

You see, it is in enacting, incarnating, the good news of the gospel that we can most effectively proclaim it, especially in this age of both suspicion of institutions and justified critique that the Church has far too often prioritized its power and prestige over truly embodying the gospel in its own life and its treatment of others, which has ironically led to the significant loss of what power and prestige it had. Because if we don’t believe the gospel enough to actually live it out, we can hardly expect anybody else to do so.

Now, we will always do so imperfectly, through errors and omissions, through shortcomings and trepidations. Which is why some of the best of the good news is even for those who proclaim it: that it is never too late to turn in a new direction, to devote ourselves once again to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and to trust in the promise that, in God’s hands, nothing and no one is lost or wasted, and that God will not rest until we are all fully and finally welcomed home.