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Thomas O’Loughlin: One lord, one gospel, one lectionary.

One Lord, one gospel, one lectionary

Thomas O’Loughlin

The opening lines of Luke’s account of the central events of Christian faith do not strike one as being of great interest – certainly it would get a low score page 2 Tom O'Loughlinif submitted in a modern class in creative writing as neither grabbing the reader’s attention nor conveying the kernel of the message in a sound-bite!  But if we look closely at it, it may give us a key to understanding how we are to use his text, as well as those of Mark, Matthew, and John. Here it is:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us  … it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you … (Lk 1:1-3).

There are two points to note in this. First, Luke does not use the word ‘gospel’ to describe his work – he calls it ‘an orderly account.’ Second, he takes it for granted that many have compiled such accounts. Now we know that Luke saw Mark’s book, but had never seen Matthew’s nor John’s account (it was either written later or it circulated in a different network to those Luke knew). Therefore, the accounts he mentions must include many works in addition to those which have survived in our bibles. Why is this important?

Jesus’s followers looked on him as ‘the anointed of the Father;’ he showed them a new way of discipleship and gave them the promise of the Father’s love and forgiveness. Moreover, they had to come to terms with his death, and saw it as a sacrifice that established a new covenant – his followers were a new People of God – and offered them the promise of resurrection. In, with, and through Jesus his disciples had access to the Father, liberation, and new life. So decades before Luke wrote, Paul’s people could produce this slogan expressing what made them distinctive:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-6).

So there was one Lord – and that message was the good news, the gospel. This is ‘the announcement’ – and note it is in the singular – it is all that we proclaim from Jesus and about Jesus.

This is ‘the gospel of God’, for which Paul was set apart (Rom 1:1), and ‘the gospel’ he was eager to preach (Rom 1:15).  We must serve this ‘gospel of God’ (Rom 15:16), it is the gospel we have received and in which we stand (1 Cor 15:1), and there is only one gospel – that of the Christ (Gal 1:7). Jesus is the gospel of God and he preached the gospel of God (Mk 1:14), it is for the sake of the gospel that many have left all (Mk 10:29) and ‘the gospel’ must be ‘preached to all nations’ (Mk 13:10). The gospel is not a book but the whole message of God to humanity: we must hear it, rejoice in it, and proclaim it.

Just as there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, so there is one gospel! So how did we end up with four in our bibles?  The answer lies in lazy reading and slovenly use of language! If we pay careful attention we notice that it is ‘the gospel according to Mark’ or one of the others. We do not read ‘the gospel’ – that is the whole revelation and it could not be contained in a book – but various preachers’ attempts to put that revelation before us in an orderly way.

So we have to imagine the early communities being those who accepted that Jesus was the gospel, and who viewed them-selves as the people of the gospel revealed in his words, deeds, life, death, and his risen presence among them!  How were they to get a grasp on this gospel? Through listening to those teachers who made it their special task to try to capture it in an orderly way. These got the name of ‘gospellers’ (in Greek form: ‘evangelists’). Since this was a special skill, not every church (a group of around 100 people) would have such a teacher: so they travelled from community to community giving performances of their accounts and leaving ‘recordings’ on papyrus such that they could be heard again later or (in the case of the most famous evangelists) in places they could not visit in person. Several of these ‘recordings’ have survived: Mark, Thomas (discovered in 1946), Matthew, ‘Q’, Peter (discovered in 1886), John, Luke, but most have perished – and only four remained in constant and universal use in the churches.

Because these ‘orderly accounts’ of ‘the gospel’ were performed by ‘gospellers’ we let our language play us false and called the accounts ‘gospels’ without realising that such a plural is theological nonsense! Just as there is one Lord, so there can be only one gospel – but we need many accounts to help us grasp it! Having succumbed to the error of having four ‘gospels,’ we not only forgot the others that were in circulation, but we then tried to recombine the four into a single story! We even had special systems to help us ignore the differences between them. Thereby we lost the richness that only a variety of perspectives can bring – recalling that the one gospel will always be a mystery greater than any number of accounts (much less one ‘smoothed out’ version which boiled down four accounts into one).

To redress well over 1600 years of such laziness, the Catholic Church created a new lectionary in 1969 with each evangelist’s perspective heard distinctly. Matthew was to be read one year, then Mark, then Luke, with John read at special times. They are laid out so that over three years we get different perspectives on Jesus and hear three distinct accounts of the one gospel. So, imagine this, in 1973 for the first time anywhere since the second century there were large portions of Mark’s account read and used as the basis for preaching! The idea was so good that it was soon being studied by other western churches (sadly the eastern churches are not yet alive to the problem), and experiments were being made that resulted in many Protestant churches adopting a similar arrangement (now called the Revised Common Lectionary) – or even adopting a lectionary for the first time. And, year by year, this plan is being taken up by others: the Church of England, for example, adopted it in 1998. Not only is this lectionary a magnificent remedy to allow us to hear these orderly accounts more effectively, but it is a great ecumenical event drawing us all closer to ‘the gospel.’ Amazingly, most worshippers, even preachers, are virtually unaware of these developments.

Further Reading

The Reims Statement: Praying with one voice

Thomas O’Loughlin, Making the Most of the Lectionary: A User’s Guide (London 2012) – see review on page 14.  f


The Reverend Professor Tom O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology in the University of Nottingham. He has taken part in various Franciscan formation events over