Holy Week: The Greatest Story ever told

christsfaceBy Matt Sapp

There’s great power in being able to tell a great story. For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to professional storyteller Donald Davis with some of my ministry friends.  You should watch him. He’s great.

He’s helped me think about the nature of story, specifically the idea that story is much more than objective narrative; it’s more than just the facts.

Story, Davis argues, is more than simply telling what happened.  Story is interpretive.  It’s the way we choose to frame what happened. so story becomes the way we choose to remember what happened.  If past is prologue, then story becomes the way we choose to introduce our futures.

The greatest story we will ever tell is our own, and there’s great power in how we choose to tell our stories. We tell our stories to let people know who we are, so each of our stories ends with an often unspoken, “…and that’s how I got to be who I am today.”

Within each of our stories is the source material for a first-class tragedy, a hope-filled comedy, or an inspiring, wonder-filled fairy tale.

So the question is, “What kind of stories are we telling about ourselves?” How are we choosing to frame the narratives of our pasts? Do we tell our life stories so that we get to happy endings?  Are we telling a tragic story of woe? Or are we whimsical enough to tell a story that’s so full of fantastical details and child-like wonder that it must be too good to be true?

Each of our lives provides material to tell all three with candor. The choice of which story we tell is ours., and the story we choose to tell about how we got to be who we are today has tremendous power to shape who we will be tomorrow.

Here’s the thing: I am tremendously invested in how you choose to tell your story.

In part, I am invested because I care about you, and I have a selfish motive as well.  I care about how you choose to tell your story because none of our stories is entirely our own. We are connected, you and I.

The details of your story might be your own, but the narrative arc is ours. In the largest sense there is no your story and my story. At least I don’t think so.

I believe very firmly that we are all part of God’s story, which makes this week a fantastic time to talk about story because God’s story (and ours) will unfold before our very eyes next week.

The story of Holy Week is one of the greatest stories ever told.  It is a story of great celebration, of epic betrayal, of inexpressible sorrow and unspeakable joy, of brazen power struggles filled with great suspense and unexpected twists—and a surprise ending that NO ONE expected.

Yet, it is OUR story: the story of the Christian faith is a story in which each of us are invited to play our parts.

That, first, makes us characters in God’s story.  More importantly, it makes God the author and director of our stories.  Although we might be people who have the power to choose how we interpret the narrative of our pasts, God has the power to shape the way our stories end—and it’s fantastic!

Holy Week is all about story.  It is a story from our past that tells the story of our future, one in which our stories turn a corner.  My story, your story, every story hinges on the events of Holy Week.

As Frederick Buechner describes it, next week the tragedy of our lives meets the comedy—the good news—of the gospel, and they intermingle to form a fairy tale that’s too good NOT to be true!

So sometime on Easter, this Sunday afternoon, when you’re home from church and Easter dinner is fading into memory, do me a favor: Make God’s story your story by remembering the message from church that morning.  Smile, and say under your breath, “…and that’s how I got to be who I am today.”

The Truth of Epiphany and the Human Christ

394By Joe LaGuardia

Some of our Christmas carols make bold claims about Christ.  Some remind us of Jesus’ miraculous birth, while others recall the revelation of God’s Messiah to angels and sages.  Perhaps the greatest claim is made in the classic hymn, Away in a Manger, which states that when it came to baby Jesus, “No crying he made.”

Now that is a miracle.  I can only imagine  what it might be like to have a baby that never cries, whines, wets the bed, and learns the word “No.”

This baby is miraculous indeed.  He probably also knew intuitively how to share his toys, avoid back-talking his parents, and eat his vegetables. No wonder most of the artwork depicting the Christ child throughout history shows him as a miniature man in saintly repose.

Was Jesus really like that?  Did Jesus rest in a manger that heavenly and grow up without any need for training, correction, or parental guidance?

We know that Jesus had growin’ up days like the rest of us, a fact we recognize during the season of Epiphany.  Twice in Luke 2 (vs. 40 and 52), scripture tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature.”  What about the rest of Jesus’ maturation and growth?

As far as one blogger is concerned, Jesus did do all the things that babies and infants do, including cry.  But Jesus “never cried in a sinful way.”  That’s a stretch, and when I think back to when my children were infants, I don’t recall them crying in a sinful way either.  Babies cry; that’s how they communicate.

Our thoughts about baby Jesus, no matter how far-fetched they are, reveal something about our theology of Christ, which I would guess is not as developed as it should be.

Let me remind you, dear reader, that the orthodox view of Jesus’ personhood is that he is fully God and fully human.  Jesus was 100% of both.  He is, of course, without sin although even that theological premise rests on a single thread of scripture from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (5:21).

The argument surrounding Jesus’ divinity and humanity was settled long ago in the fourth century.  At that time, priests, bishops, and other church leaders debated Jesus’ Christology and the incarnation.

One priest, Arius of the Church of Bancalis in Egypt, claimed that Jesus was fully human and therefore not the same “substance” (as a bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, claimed) as God.  This became known as the Arian Controversy.

Bishops across the empire settled the disagreement in the famous Council of Nicaea in 326 CE, when nearly 300 bishops argued that Jesus was both divine and human, not just like God, but God in the flesh.

The second verse of the classic Christmas hymn, O Come, All Ye Faithful, recites some of the theological statements that came out of the Council:

“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal . . . Son of the Father, begotten, not created.”

In my own experience, I find it important to highlight both aspects of Jesus’ personhood.  He was fully divine, and Jesus, who was “one with the Father” (John 10:30) embodied God’s reign and bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  God chose to live among us in a particular place and time, a great admission of the value that God places on us humans.

Yet, Jesus is fully human and, therefore, did what most babies and children do.  At the same time, Jesus also suffered, felt the pain of grief, and faced hardship.  This is good news: When I face the same, Jesus–and, in turn, God–knows exactly how I feel.  In Jesus Christ, God has become an intimate sojourner with humanity.

I don’t think any of us like to think of Jesus as a baby who spit up, made messes, and threw his food to see if it stuck to the wall; but, he likely did.  It’s Jesus’ very humanity, however, that makes the Gospel for what it is.  If Jesus showed us the way, then we can follow in faith, hope, and love with the same confidence.

 

Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.