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The Story God is Telling
We intuitively sense that we are meant to be characters in a compelling story with meaning, a story that has important outcomes, a story in which our lives count for good.
What am I supposed to do?
Ads tell me I am supposed to buy stuff—that I’ll be complete or cool if I drive a certain car. Politicians tell me I am on the wrong side, that I need to switch sides to become a good person. TV tells me I will be relevant if I stream the newest shows. My boss tells me that giving my life to the company is the right thing to do. But my family wants me home more. They are fed up with me being grumpy. They don’t want me to miss any more ball games and school activities. I feel torn to pieces. I can never please anyone—and in trying, I am losing myself.
Though the contrary often seems to be the case, we hold deep within us the intuition that human life is not ultimately random. The pieces of life make a puzzle. Our moments fit a story. We sense that we are meant to be characters in a compelling story with meaning, a story that has important outcomes, a story in which our lives count for good.
The only story adequate to the full range of human problems and potential is the story of God unfolding in its final phase in and through Jesus. In Jesus, the time has come—the narrative of God, from Abraham to John the Baptist—is coming to its fulfillment. What is the characteristic mark or the quality of the good news of that coming? The rule and reign of God is at hand. In Jesus, God’s work and hand are now closer to human beings than they have been since humankind was banished from the garden.
What are those who choose to follow Jesus to do in response? Repent: we are to spend our lives taking Jesus seriously, rethinking every aspect of our lives by apprenticing ourselves to him as his students in kingdom living. And believe: we are invited to place our total confidence in him, his words and works and manner of being in the world, not the religious and political alternatives on offer (Mark 1:14, 15).
Jesus is the Main Character
Narrative, a story into which I am called and given capacity by the Spirit to act, is what makes biblical verses, historical precedents and theological notions livable. Doctrinal ideas are fine, but when it comes to knowing and living in the story of God, the best place to start is with a person—Jesus—and the story he consciously inhabited, the story which gave rise to, produced and aimed his intentions.
Christian spirituality and mission are best construed as a life-long, joyful, childlike effort at taking Jesus seriously: his person and work, his manner of being in the world, his teaching and deeds of power. It was that whole package that explicated the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, the full and final flourishing of God’s story in and through Jesus.
This was the basis of his invitation, “Come follow me.” Jesus’ invitation meant something like this: Come be a participant in my kingdom-movement. You will be forgiven, delivered, and healed. And in so doing, you will become an agent for the good, the righteous, the just. You will be a Spirit-empowered, Spirit-gifted, Spirit-transformed ambassador of the kingdom of God.
A good way to follow Jesus is to spend the rest of our days thinking with others about this: How does taking Jesus seriously about what he thought the Father was doing in and through him inform spirituality, church and mission in our day?
The grounding narrative for the Church revolves around being the called and sent people of God. The church is sign, foretaste and instrument of the rule and reign of God. Individual Christians are members, parts of the body of Christ, the Church. What gives meaning to participation in the living body of Christ is that to which Jesus was conscious, that which constituted his aims. The imaginative and evocative words of Eugene Peterson ring in my ears, shaping my thinking and living: Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.
Jesus, the Kingdom and the Church
Given what I have said so far, I have a few proposals. They form the way in which I seek to follow Jesus and lead others:
Through stirring the affections and providing an imagination, theology must be actionable, livable, or it cannot lead to being the kinds of people God intended to create in and through Jesus.
The kingdom (the personal rule and reign of God) creates the Church. The kingdom is a this-world reality, always in healing solidarity with his broken creation. The Church is to mimic the attitude and action of God, being connected to the world without compromise.
The call of the Church is to make disciples, followers of Jesus who apprentice themselves to him in kingdom living for the sake of being agents of redemption, healing, deliverance, justice and peace.
We do that work from the mission field—from named persons—backward, not from the abstract theories of tradition out. We are not trying to inflict our denominational distinctives on people. Making something—like a denomination—penultimate is not the same thing as disrespecting or rejecting it. It is simply common sense once one makes Jesus and the kingdom ultimate. After that move, to be consistent, everything is penultimate. I am a faithful member of a denomination after first trying to follow the path marked by Jesus’ words and works.
An Imagination for Being the Church
Thus, among the best ideas for shaping an imagination for what it means to be a Christian, to be the Church, are these:
The Church is created by the Spirit, the result of the Spirit’s implementation of God’s reign in human history.
The Church is a people shaped by the redemptive reign of God. The Church is not an end in itself.
The Church does not own the kingdom; it is owned by the kingdom. It is custodian and agent. The kingdom of God anticipates and calls the Church into existence, and it is shaped by the reality of God’s redemptive reign.
“The spiritual life does not divide the workplace into sacred and secular…the secular workplace is a kingdom realm.”
“…Jesus was a secular figure. He lived in the world and freely associated with all, unconstrained by the purity prescriptions [of his day].”
The Church is called to a Jesus-shaped engagement with our current world, within the opportunities and threats of our era. An obvious truism inferred from the life of Jesus is that God has not abandoned culture or the world—even our current warped versions.
If these are new ideas, please use your Bible to follow along with me. God, loving the world (John 3:16), has done precisely the opposite of abandoning it. He came to the world in Christ. Coming to the world, Jesus was its true light (John 1:9; 12:46). Jesus came to the world from the Father (John 16:28) to bear witness to the truth in the world (John 18:37). It was precisely what the Messiah had to do in order to be Messiah (John 11:27). Jesus sent the Church into the world to continue his kingdom movement (Mt. 28:16-20; John 20:21).
Christian spirituality finds its focus in Jesus, the final and full revelation of our Trinitarian God, the exact representation of the Father. In his own consciousness, Jesus did not come to do his own will, but the will of the Father, to do and speak as he was led by his Father.
Jesus’ obedient and abundant life is an example worthy of our heartfelt imitation. But the Church often finds it hard to consistently live into that beautiful story. We have mindsets that block us, that contain loud static that makes the message hard to hear. These blocks are imaginative, and largely, they are nothing new. When Jesus spoke to crowds, he knew that many religious people within the crowd did not have ears to hear him, to receive his message about the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. They had ears to filter and manage him according to preconceived religious/political views they brought with them into the crowd.
Stay tuned for next week’s post, where I will name and explore a modern example of how Americans filter and manage Jesus.
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 I am grateful to Lesslie Newbigin and the Gospel in our Culture Network for this language.
 Working from the historical ideas of respected scholars Ben Meyer and Tom Wright, I am currently working on a book-length treatment of “the aims of Jesus in his own words” with IVP. It should be out in 2023.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005. p. 103.
 Van Gelder, Essence; p. 126.
 Van Gelder; Essence; p. 89.
 Van Gelder; Essence; p. 85.
 Ray Anderson, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, p. 103 – 105.
 The Aims of Jesus, B. F. Meyer, 148.