What do we learn from this narrative approach to the scriptures? Well, I don’t think the Story answers all the questions, but it answers more questions than any other one principle of hermeneutics. We could go another quarter working through the implications in countless areas of Bible study.
But I want to make sure that we don’t miss some conclusions. This is from Michael F. Bird, “Re-Thinking a Sacramental View of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper for the Post-Christendom Baptist Church,” in Baptist Sacramentalism 2 [Paternoster Studies in Baptist History and Thought], which I reviewed earlier.
I suggest that we conceive of the church as a missional and displaced community that does not really fit into contemporary society rather than comprising the religious wing of modernity. … [W]e should see ourselves as heralding the good news that God was in Christ reconcliing the world to himself. The church must become a menace to our pluralistic society and threaten to undermine the philosophical premises that the pax postmoderna is built on. The scandalous message and perplexing praxis of Christians should invoke umbrage and curiousity. Why don’t you abort foetuses? Why don’t you approve of gay marriages? Why do you believe that only your religion is true? The answer is not a programme, not four spiritual laws, and not seeker sensitive services; rather, the answer is a story and community. … Let me show you what renewed and redeemed humanity really looks like: justified and Spirit-led new creations, abounding in love for one another, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus. And what tools do we have that tell the story and display the community: baptism and eucharist. That is where the postmodern pagans may come and hear, see, taste, and experience the good of God in word, symbol and presence among his people.
This says is so well, I want to unpack it and explain how narrative hermeneutics leads to these conclusions.
I suggest that we conceive of the church as a missional and displaced community that does not really fit into contemporary society rather than comprising the religious wing of modernity.
The church is designed by God to be —
- a community
Each word is packed with meaning.
We are a “community” — which translates koinonia, just as does “fellowship.” The Story tells us that God intended man to live in community just as the Trinity has always done. Sin destroyed our relationships with each other, and the Kingdom is supposed to be a place where our relationships with one another are restored.
It’s not just that we don’t sin against each other. We “do unto others” — actively seeking the good of our brothers and doing more for our neighbor then he even asks. We live the Sermon on the Mount, not as people bound by a law but as people privileged to live in a special society where we can truly enjoy one another.
We are “missional,” meaning that we’re on a mission from God. That mission is to restore our marriages to the Edenic ideal, to restore our relationships to true community, to serve the hurting and needy in the world because we love them too much not to, and to share the good news of the Kingdom, because we so enjoy being God’s people that we can’t not share.
We are “displaced” because we are citizens of heaven. Our loyalties aren’t to a worldly government, political party, or a people. Our loyalty is to God. And we know that God wants us to work with him in blessing all nations through Jesus. It’s about mission work, but it’s about much, much more. When we make converts, they shake off old loyalties.
One of my sons went on a mission trip to Kenya, a nation torn up by ethnic and tribal loyalties. And the young men and women he met who’d been converted to Christ had all adopted Christian names — because in that culture, your name tells everyone what tribe you’re loyal to — and they saw Christianity as changing them from their birth tribe to Jesus’ tribe. We should do the same.
This sense of displacement, of having loyalities to Jesus to the exclusion of all others, is explicit in his claim to have “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). And this takes us back to the Garden, where Adam and Eve walked with God. In Eden — and in the New Heavens and New Earth — there will be but one king. As we anticipate the End in this life, we are to call everyone to proclaim Jesus as Lord, because there’s no other way for our community to cross the borders of ethnicity, nationality, and race. We can’t be a single community unless we have a single Lord. Two-kingdom theology is false. Jesus is Lord of all.
The book to read is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, a short paperback packed with wisdom built on this theme.
[W]e should see ourselves as heralding the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
When an emperor ascended to the Roman throne, “heralds” were sent around the Empire to announce the “good news” of a new “savior” and “lord.” The real good news is that there is but one king, and his name is Jesus. Everyone else is a pretender. If we serve an earthly king, it’s solely because and to the extent that Jesus told us to — but our allegiance is to Jesus.
The fact that God is reconciling the world to himself through Jesus tells us —
- The world needs reconciliation
- Reconciliation is through Jesus
- God initiated reconciliation because he wants to be in relationship with his people just as he was in Eden
The church must become a menace to our pluralistic society and threaten to undermine the philosophical premises that the pax postmoderna is built on.
The “pax postmoderna” is, of course, a reference to the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome that was built on the uncontested power of Caesar. The early church threatened Caesar by calling Jesus “Lord” and “Savior,” rather than Caesar, and therefore refusing to offer sacrifices to Caesar as to a god. And they paid dearly for their umbrage. It’s no surprise that Paul spent much of his ministry in prison!
Today, most see the key to peace is through Postmodern pluralism — the relativization of truth. But Christians are called to proclaim a singular Truth. In this sense, we can’t be Postmodernists, although we share a common goal. We both disdain war and fighting and yearn for peace. But Christians know that peace is a gift of God and will only come through everyone submitting voluntarily to Jesus as Lord.
The Story tells us that God’s Truth is the only true philosophy and only true political science, because God made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
Our rejection of pluralism will be seen by many as judgmental and arrogant, but if we stick to the Story, we’ll overcome those objections by living lives of such selfless love and doing so much good — by so being salt and light –that we’ll —
(1 Pet 2:12) Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
The scandalous message and perplexing praxis of Christians should invoke umbrage and curiousity. Why don’t you abort foetuses? Why don’t you approve of gay marriages? Why do you believe that only your religion is true?
Because we know that God is in charge and working his plan out for the good of everyone, we aren’t ashamed of his commands. We may be “accuse[d] of doing wrong,” but our lives as individuals and as a community should so glorify God through good deeds that the criticism won’t stick — and those outside the Kingdom will urge us to show them how to become a part of it.
The answer is not a programme, not four spiritual laws, and not seeker sensitive services; rather, the answer is a story and community. … Let me show you what renewed and redeemed humanity really looks like: justified and Spirit-led new creations, abounding in love for one another, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.
One of great mistakes of modern theology is to see Gal 3:28 —
(Gal 3:28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
— as being all about who can be saved. It’s about that, too, but Paul is speaking of what is true in the Kingdom: “you are all one.” It’s a present reality created by God, as he restores his people to Eden. Therefore, the church should be marked by the absence of racial, social, and gender discrimination. The fact that all are welcomed in shows that all are in full fellowship. How could it be otherwise in Paradise?
This is the principle on which Paul confronted Peter over his refusal to eat with Gentile. The terms of the gospel dictate the terms of our community. “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34); “God does not judge by external appearance” (Gal 2:6).
And what tools do we have that tell the story and display the community: baptism and eucharist. That is where the postmodern pagans may come and hear, see, taste, and experience the good of God in word, symbol and presence among his people.
Which brings us to the sacraments. We in the Churches of Christ (along with Baptists) don’t like the word “sacrament” because we think it refers to the Medieval Catholic sense of the word, that the sacrament somehow conveys God’s grace without regard to the faith of the convert, but even the Catholics have rejected this meaning.
Rather, we must choose between a Zwinglian and a Biblical sense of baptism and communion — are they symbols only? Or symbols during which God chooses to act on us somehow? And the Biblical sense is sacramental, meaning that God actually acts in concert with these symbols.
We live in an age when the world around us is seeking a mystical, spiritual, and experiential relationship with God. What better way to communicate the Story than through the very symbols (but much more than symbols!) that God gave us for that very purpose?
In the Churches of Christ, we talk a good game about communion but generally do a pretty poor job of telling the Story through the meal. And just as was true of the Passover, the point of the communion meal is to tell the Story — because the community only became community because of the Story, and we need reminding.
I rather like Calvin’s approach to liturgy. You see, the modern approach of both Churches of Christ and Baptists is to point the weekly service toward the sermon, which is designed to provoke responses by having people come down the aisle to seek baptism, prayer, etc. But this is an approach to worship that’s less than 150 years old.
Calvin took the gospel as his model for worship, and thus the worship moved from sermon to communion, as the worship points us to table fellowship with Jesus, present with us in the worship. The movement is from proclamation of the word, to receipt of the word, to celebration — because, you see, communion is a feast and celebration, an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.
(Rev 3:20) Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
(Rev 19:9) Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!'” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
Baptism, of course, is a deeper mystery yet, because in baptism God restores us to right relationship with himself — and to each other. He adds us to his church — his family. It’s an adoption ceremony. It’s a new birth.
These are symbols (but much more than symbols!) that speak to a Post-modern age. We sometimes miss the point because we are too literalistic, too uncomfortable with poetry and imagery. We want to see it as a legal transaction in which our status before God is changed. It’s rather like telling your adopted son or daughter that the adoption was nothing but a change in legal status. It’s like telling your naturally born son or daughter that their birth was a change in status. True, I’m sure, but hardly an adequate explanation of what happened.
If we took baptism seriously, we’d celebrate it — not just as someone being saved, but as the convert being transformed, added to the community, put into right relationship with God and with his people.
Baptism makes us a “new creation.”
(2 Cor 5:16-17) So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Baptism is Genesis 1 all over again — God remaking us into their own image. It’s fixing what was broken and giving us a fresh start in Eden, where we can walk with God in the Garden.
The Story helps us see things that we’d otherwise miss. It helps us think as First Century Jews thought — in metaphor and story. And as we ponder this approach to reading the Bible, we find things connecting and having meanings that we’d never imagine otherwise. In fact, it changes everything.