Resurrecting the life story of Jesus

This will be the 2nd of 3 blogs relating to the question of personal stories. If it’s true that each person has a story to tell, then who should do the telling? Should the world around us define us, tell our story, narrate who we are? Or should we have a voice in our own narrative?

Last time I suggested that if others get it wrong, we really can get our own story straight and make it right for a change. If you have ever experienced having others misunderstand you before, hopefully you will respect the notion that our own voice of correction should be heard with AUTHORity when it comes to our own story.

Are you following me here?

So what, then, do we do with the story of Jesus? You know, the old, old story that you probably heard in Sunday School or elsewhere in Church growing up? Or maybe even recently in some worship songs or sermons? As this story goes, Jesus came to earth to die for our sins so we will not go to hell when we die. Oh, and P.S., we will go to heaven when we die if we confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. But then P.P.S., we have to believe all the above and have “faith” that this will all happen only by God’s grace and not by our own works. Yes, but, isn’t it true that Jesus can only save us if we are born again and say publicly that we have accepted him as our personal savior?  And don’t we at minimum have to first say the sinner’s prayer?

Is that the story of Jesus????????

Well, it is if the world around us tells the story. Especially that part of the world we call the evangelical protestant church in the United States of America and through its foreign missionaries in the last 150 or so years.

But what if Jesus is telling his own story? Should he at least have the right to do that? Should his own voice as repeated during the first century until finally placed on paper carry any weight when it comes to getting his story straight? Should it matter what he said about himself?

The Bible’s New Covenant or New Testament is a very complex document despite all arguments to the contrary by those who claim to have exclusive rights of interpretation. Where Jesus is concerned in the New Testament Gospels, he spoke mostly in metaphors, allegories, parables with much symbolism. Apparently this frustrated his own followers who asked him why he did this instead of coming right to the point and spelling everything out in simple black and white. Even then, as we read in Matthew 13, Jesus gives a rather vague answer referring to an obscure verse, Isaiah 6:10, implying most likely that he has come to fulfill prophecy: “‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’”

Jesus further spoke of his story as prophetic fulfillment when, in his hometown synagogue, he then quoted Isaiah 61:1-2, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners; 2To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn,…”     Notice the strike through there in verse 2?  That was his, not mine.  Jesus left out the second part of v. 2 and stopped after “proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” — Luke 4:18-19

In John’s Gospel, we have Jesus using multiple different metaphors to define himself in relation to Yahweh, I AM, as we understand him in the Old Testament. One of these was “I AM the Good Shepherd” and another “I AM the Gate” as each noted in John 10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” — John 10:10. Here the issue is not fulfillment of prophesy but rather embodiment of God, the Father. Which then carries forward in John 13 where we read of Jesus saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” — John 13:15-17

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted in still other contexts we don’t read about elsewhere, such as the time he tells the tax collector named Zacchaeus, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” — Luke 19:10

So what do you think? This seems to me a reliable sampling of the Jesus Story as he spoke of it himself to those who were then passing the story on to the writers of the four New Testament Gospels. Yet, none of these points about himself referenced dying for sinners who ask for forgiveness by his blood so they could go to heaven when they die instead of going to hell, which is the default position into which we are born according to the church from the time of Augustine’s own theory or theology. Go ahead and throw in John 3:3, John 3:16, etc etc etc. Still no story when it comes to our being saved by his blood. Nothing about heaven and hell in his own story.

Mostly Jesus came, if I understand him correctly, to teach by example how we are to love God and neighbor as self. Where the cross is concerned, I don’t read where Jesus died there and then to save us from our sins. Only that we are saved when we take up our own crosses here and now, follow him, and willingly surrender to God’s will for our lives instead of our own. Using all four Gospels, we note Jesus saying “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” in Matthew 16:24-25, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” in Mark 8:34-35, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” in Luke 9:23-24, and “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there my servant will be also” in John 12:25-26.

So what’s the story here? Whose story do we believe? The one the churches have mostly been telling these last 150 years or so? Or the one the Biblical Gospels themselves tell? For my part, I’ll go with the old, old, old and in fact oldest story of all going back to the voice of Jesus himself. And I’ll hope I have his own story straight before I try to pass it on to others. Because in so doing I’ll have done unto Jesus what I would want others to do unto me.

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Resurrecting our own life story

Have you ever felt misunderstood before? Has it ever happened to you that others have told a story about you that wasn’t true and that you felt compelled to correct?

Consider, then, what it must have been like for the Swedish chemical engineer, inventor, entrepreneur named Alfred Bernhard Nobel back in the 19th century. Alfred made a fortune from the design, manufacture, and sale of military hardware including dynamite, blasting caps, and gun powder among other items used in the warfare of his time. Deserving or not, this became his life’s story up until the year 1888.

Then a rather strange thing occurred.

While visiting the French city of Cannes, Alfred’s brother, Ludvig, died. The local French newspaper produced a dramatic obituary of the occurrence with only one major problem. They got the wrong person. They wrote that Alfred had died, and their obituary carried forth the headline, “The merchant of death is dead.” It went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Needless to say, Alfred took exception with two items involved. The first, of course, was his own death. It was, after all, his brother, Ludvig, who had died and not him. Secondly, they had his life story all wrong. He was, in his own estimation, a man of peace and not war. If only he could now, having seen his own obituary in advance, dedicate the rest of his life to leaving a true legacy and not the one wrongly told by that French newspaper.

Which is, of course, exactly what Dr. Nobel did. He left a fortune behind to honor and award distinguished inventors in such fields as chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and, yes, his favorite cause of all……the cause of peace. He, in effect, re-wrote his own life’s story.

I share this story today because we are now in the season typically called Lent by the Christian Church. Here we are focused around the story of Jesus leading up to his own death and resurrection. We are challenged to identify with his story and to, in effect, re-write our own story more in line with his. It’s a chance to get our story right. To make sure that upon our own death, something positive follows and not just the world’s own story of what we were really all about here on earth.

Quite a challenge, isn’t it? How would you go about re-writing your own story to clear away others’ misconceptions and misunderstandings? How would you like to be remembered after you’re gone? How would you set your own record straight?

Please consider this action on your part as Lenten preparation for Christ’s death and resurrection this year. Write two stories of your life. Don’t have to be long. In fact the first can be as short as a single paragraph. That first one is to be false; based on some popular myth or misunderstanding of what you are like. The second one is to be your true story. The one you’d like to have appear in the newspaper after you are gone. It’s your opportunity to participate anew in your own death and resurrection. And then to use this Easter as your start date for living out the story you want others to really understand about you.

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How?

Over the years I’ve noticed one of the differences between the fear and love referenced in I John 4:18 is that love often asks how while fear is too busy asking why. Whether as a therapist or a pastor, I’ve encountered people on both ends of the love – fear spectrum and this is my most frequent observation.

The culture we Americans live in today often appears to me as living in the fear end of that spectrum. In truth, we seem stuck there. As in other stuck cultures or social systems, we are having much conversation about the wrong question. We are asking why, and we are never going to agree on the answer. And when we don’t agree, we may even ask “Why not?” and perpetuate an endless and hopeless conversation. We are in a vicious cycle with an emphasis on vicious.

The less we agree about why, the more we fear for the future direction of our nation. “Why?” and “Why not?” are like traps, a societal quick sand that leave us struggling to free ourselves. The more we struggle, the more stuck we become. As we reinforce our fears, they become what some may call self-fulfilling prophecies. Lacking any consensus as to why, we persist in asking the same question instead of changing the question itself.

This can happen as well in our personal and family lives. It can happen to organizations. Institutions. The trap of asking the wrong question and spending an eternity trying to agree on an answer. It traps us in fear and limits our ability to then love, or to enjoy the opposite end of this love — fear spectrum.

Such a fate is also happening in today’s churches. We have enough fears of our own that we have lost our salt and light. We are now what marketing experts call commodities. That is to say, Christians seem little different and no better than anyone else when it comes to love. We are commodities, like kernels of wheat. To say this makes us at least better than corn or rice just doesn’t change the world’s perception of us. We’re still just commodities. We’re the “so what?” people.

To me it seems that Christians, whether acting alone or in communities that claim a critical mass, have the greatest news of all for a culture of fear such as we live in these days. The news is love, the only proven anti-dote for fear. But our news has little credibility or receptivity because we, too, live in fear. Same as others, no different than frightened pagans. Stuck asking why and finding we can’t even agree with one another. Afraid of our enemies. Afraid for the future of Christianity. Afraid for our nation’s future. Still commodities. Still “so what?” people with little love that’s new or different from anyone else’s. We’re stuck!

So what if we changed the question? What if we drop this “Why?” nonsense that divides us into as many denominations as there are answers to that question. Perhaps we can get unstuck from our decline as Christians and as churches if we change the conversation to “How?”

How can we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength? And our neighbors as ourselves? How can we love our enemies? How can we better go into the world, baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands? How can we better love one another as Christ has loved us?

Start a list. Brainstorm. Imagine all possibilities. Have a conversation. Create a new narrative of love that’s actually different from the world’s love of friends but never enemies, and that’s “good news” in relief of the world’s fear of enemies. Ask “How” instead of “Why” or “Why not” for a change.

To do otherwise is to remain stuck in the world’s narrative of “fear of enemies.” And to remain “so what Christians.”

When we Christians can get ourselves unstuck and unafraid, maybe then we can help our larger culture get past its fears, conflicts, hatred, and war. Maybe then we can be change agents for a new narrative of enemy-love instead of enemy-fear, of “How” instead of “Why,” and of God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth. For a change.

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