Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 13:44-48
Today we start our new theme for the year which I’ve called ‘Living in the Story’.
A couple of things by way of explanation before I start.
- This series will gather up a lot of what I’ve been saying over the last 2-3 years, so you may get the feeling you’ve heard some of it before.
- Some of it will be more like a lecture than a sermon.
- This is still a work in progress for me because there are still aspects I’m trying to get my head around. That means that to some extent you’re going to be guinea pigs as I work out my own thinking as the story unfolds. I’ve put together a plan, but I’m not at all confident I’ll end up sticking to it!
- There might be occasions where you’d really like to tell me to get over it! That’s OK, as long as you only do that after having given serious thought to what I’m trying to get across.
Today is simply an introduction to the theme and I want to start with something I read a couple of years ago from Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People. Obviously Wright’s main focus is mission, which is something that stands out particularly loud and strong in the whole of the New Testament. Wright asks this question:
What made the first followers of Jesus so passionately, courageously and unstoppably committed to telling the world about him? The Mission of God's People, p. 35
One of the standard answers to that question is: ‘Obedience to the Great Commission.’
Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV) 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
If that is the primary motivation for mission, then Wright suggests it begs a question: it’s a little surprising that it doesn’t appear as a package elsewhere in the NT as a motivation for people to be on mission. Nowhere do we find Paul or other writers of the NT urging followers of Jesus to be on mission out of obedience to what he said before ascending to heaven.
So what was their motivation?
Wright says their motivation was that
‘They knew the story they were in.’The Mission of God's People p.36
- They were Jews and as such would have been very familiar with their scriptures—what we call the Old Testament.
- They knew about God creating the world, about his calling of Abraham and his covenant with him.
- They would have known that God called the people of Israel to be a blessing to all the nations of the world.
- They knew about Israel’s failures and God’s constantly calling them back to faithfulness to him, and of his sending them into exile as judgement.
- They knew that something significant and decisive had happened in the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
- They knew what the rest of the story demanded.
We see that in Paul’s interaction with the Jews in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13. One Sabbath, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue in Antioch, a Gentile city. There he told the Jews the good news of Jesus (16ff) and, at the urging of the people (42), did the same again the following Sabbath (44). However, he didn’t quite get the same reception the second time because the Jews got jealous at the crowds he was pulling and so took him to task and contradicted what he said (45). At that point Paul (and Barnabas) turned to the Jews and said this:
Acts 13:46-48 (NRSV) 46 Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.
Paul could quite easily have referred to the ‘Great Commission’ and said something like: ‘One of the last things Jesus commanded was to go and preach to everyone, including the Gentiles—so that’s what we’re going to do.’ But instead he quoted Isaiah 49:6 about the Jews being a light to the Gentiles and bringing salvation to the ends of the earth. In other words, he pointed to the story the OT scripture itself told and the implications that had for the continuation of the story. They knew the story they were in, and acted in accord with the story.
The Importance of Knowing the Story
(The following is adapted from Michael Goheen, The Urgency of Reading the Bible as One Story, at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/004057360806400405)
What do I mean by story? Many of us would be familiar with Bible stories, having heard them over decades in some instances. I’m not talking about story in that sense, but I mean the overarching story that gives those individual stories meaning. For instance, what part did Joseph play in the overall plot and movement in the story of God’s interaction with the world? What about Elijah, Psalms, David, Isaiah? What’s the plot of the whole story of God’s interaction with the world and where do we fit into that? They are all stories in themselves, but they are also part of something much bigger.
Here’s a current example of what I mean. You may have heard the recent story of Donald Trump ordering a commando team into Yemen to attack an Al Qaeda cell. That was a story in and of itself with its rights and wrongs and what actually happened. But the critics of the raid argued that it was playing into a much larger, overarching story—Al Qaeda’s story that they need to stand against the great Satan America who is trying to wipe out Islam. Their argument was that such action simply added fuel to the flame of that story.
Knowing the Context
That example hints at a further aspect of stories: knowing and understanding the context. I found the following paragraph (from http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2012/october/3102912.html):
A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Birds seldom get too close. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won’t get another chance.
All the sentences make sense as sentences, but as a paragraph it seems to be disjointed and difficult to follow. Part of the reason for that is that the paragraph doesn’t have a context; we don’t know the story into which it fits, and so it doesn’t make sense. Read the paragraph again with this one word context: kite. Suddenly adding that one word as the context gave meaning to the story told in the paragraph.
Shaping Our Own Stories
Why is it important to know the story we’re in? The very simple reason is because whether we realise it or not,
‘all of human life is shaped by one story or another.’Goheen, 470.
We will be shaped by a story which in turn is shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. The direct implication is the singular importance of knowing our own story and context.
Whether we realise it or not, our individual stories are shaped by the context of the western worldview. That view includes things like:
- to be is to consume
- the supremacy of the individual
- there is no big story, just a whole bunch of little ones
- human reason is able to give all the necessary answers
- science deals with facts whereas things like religion are totally subjective
- religion and faith are private and have no place in the public realm
- technology and human ingenuity will save us
- everyone is basically good and there’s not really any such thing as sin
- God, if he does exist, is not involved in this world.
While there are elements of that story which may be quite OK, equally there are elements that conflict quite strongly with a biblical worldview and story. The question for us then as followers of Jesus is: What story gets to shape our lives? Is it the story the western worldview would have us believe (or any others we might come across), or is it the story we find in the Scriptures? As followers of Jesus we believe that there is only one true story, and so it’s important it’s that which shapes us and not the stories the world tells. Hence the importance of knowing the story we’re in, because how else we will be able to see others stories for what they really are and critique them? That’s why we’re doing this series.