The ancient narrative in which we are surprised to find ourselves

James Mercer is on the ministry team of the Benefice of St Aldhelm in Purbeck on the south coast of England. I’ve known him for some years, and we’ve had a few good conversations about the practical application of the narrative-historical method. He posted this bold, inspiring and beautifully written narrative as a comment, but I think it deserves greater prominence.


In the process of negotiating a Mission Action Plan with the seven churches in our Purbeck Benefice, this (provisonally) is the story we think we are attempting to tell.

The ancient narrative in which we are surprised to find ourselves

The heart of the Christian gospel is the resurrection of Jesus. Full bodied resurrection from execution on a Roman cross. No resurrection, no story. No resurrection, no faith, No resurrection, no hope. No resurrection, no gospel.

Purbeck is a beautiful place. The cliffs, the hills, the sea, the landscape, the timeless stone villages, lift our spirits. Purbeck is a glorious place to live, to visit, to walk through. Being here is life affirming. With imagination, insight into the creativity of God may be construed through the drama and allure of the natural world. (Romans 1:20)

Yet, we know in our heart of hearts, that all is not as we might wish it to be in our world—or indeed, within ourselves. Poverty, injustice, violence, climate change, illness, broken relationships, insecurities and political folly and personal uncertainties cast deep lingering shadows.

Jesus lived in the confused and incipiently violent society that was Israel under Roman occupation.

He revealed to his own people what it meant to be truly human; to love, to forgive, to seek justice, to embrace the poor, the sick, the marginalised and in so doing, to honour God. He eschewed the way of violence that many of his own people were hell-bent on pursuing. He called them to turn from attitudes and actions that dehumanise, demean and harm, at an individual and at societal level—attitudes and actions that denied the character of God and brought God’s name and reputation into disrepute.

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Jesus posed a subversive threat to the religious and political authorities of his time, with their self-serving ambiguous and idolatrous shadowy partnerships. They crucified him to silence him.

Yet, beyond every expectation, in Jesus’ resurrection, love won against hate; forgiveness defeated sin; life defeated death. The light of hope overwhelmed the darkness that had enveloped his own people - decisively. That was the good news.

Jesus was proclaimed as Lord, a Lordship in which the Jesus’ Jewish followers and the early Jewish/Gentile church placed their hope. In time, in the face of much suffering, derision and persecution, the witness and practice of early church eventually saw the mighty pagan Roman Empire turn from its own idols and its ‘divine’ Caesars, and acknowledge the victory of the risen Christ over the forces which demeaned and distorted humanity and marred creation.

That was then. We live in very different times, in which the assumptions of Christendom are long displaced by secularism. However, we are still invited to be embraced by this curious, yet appealing narrative and to attempt to make it our own, albeit within a very different historical and political context. What might that mean for us in Purbeck today? The invitation is to begin to recognise our complicity in casting the dark shadows. It is to begin to identify and unveil the idols which corrupt and distort our society. It is to begin to discover love, acceptance, community and forgiveness and in turn, to love and forgive and to explore, in fellowship with others, what it might mean to be authentically human, and to risk the challenge of seeking life in all its fullness (John 10:10), for ourselves and our community.

The invitation is to live as champions of justice and environmental care, offering both blessing and accountability, within our communities and indeed the world. A world that one day, we trust, will be made new, finally free of all that corrupts, (Revelation 21:1) through the ongoing love of God the Father, revealed in and through Jesus the Son and made known through the Holy Spirit. This is the world we are to announce and anticipate, as prophetic people, living in loving community—willing to take the audacious risk of faith inherent in following in the way of Jesus.

And part of the role of the church is to foster and sustain lives of beauty and aesthetic meaning at every level; from music making in the village pub to drama in the local primary school; from artists’ and photographers’ workshops to still-life painting classes; from symphony concerts to driftwood sculptures and celebratory exploration of the natural world. The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every community where new creation bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise. We pray it may be so.

Does this have integrity from a narrative-historical perspective? It is written to be read both by the church and the wider Purbeck community. Gracious critical comments gratefully received.

(BTW, last paragraph after NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, SPCK 2008)

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Submitted by Phil L. on  Fri, 03/06/2020 - 11:20

You know what, James? I love this.

Probably everyone on this site could chime in with, “I would have said something about this” or “I don’t think that was necessary” or “This line isn’t narrative-historical enough as established by the Narrative-Historical Council.”

But this represents a serious and beautiful effort to pull together the insights NH readings bring to the table and project a mission and identity for that specific community — one that is heavily oriented toward a hope in the new creation and the embodiment of it in the here and now as a prophetic testimony. I especially loved:

The invitation is to live as champions of justice and environmental care, offering both blessing and accountability, within our communities and indeed the world. A world that one day, we trust, will be made new, finally free of all that corrupts, (Revelation 21:1) through the ongoing love of God the Father, revealed in and through Jesus the Son and made known through the Holy Spirit. This is the world we are to announce and anticipate, as prophetic people, living in loving community — willing to take the audacious risk of faith inherent in following in the way of Jesus.

Like, one could ask, “Is that following in the way of Jesus?” But on the other hand, the context seems to dictate that this is how you envision acting out the reality of Jesus being Lord in your context, so why pick at it?

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m so impressed with how great this is that I’m physically incapable of being critical.

Submitted by Andrew on  Fri, 03/06/2020 - 16:54

James, I think this is marvellous. It hangs together well as a comprehensive storyline, and it’s very nicely written. I love the Purbeck backdrop—must get down there and do the coastal walk this summer. I like the way the piece hinges around the invitation “to be embraced by this curious, yet appealing narrative and to attempt to make it our own, albeit within a very different historical and political context.”

The Jewish narrative slips beneath the waves of the modernised and globalised retelling of the story somewhat, but it doesn’t disappear completely from view. I don’t really think that the Gospel writers present Jesus as the revelation of “what it meant to be truly human”. In the Synoptic Gospels he is portrayed as being truly Jewish—obedient Israel, the anointed and faithful servant under extreme historical conditions; and for John, of course, he reveals not authentic humanity but the Father. But even so, the sharp edges of the original narrative remain visible: the threat of violence to Israel, the value of God’s reputation, the emphasis on lordship, and the witness against Rome. Exemplary!

I wonder about the phrase “authentically human”, though. It might sound presumptuous, in the first place; but also we can only ever be human under specific historical conditions. Jesus’ behaviour was prescribed and limited by the narrow narrative of his mission first century Israel.

Perhaps there are enough similarities between the eschatological renewal of first century Israel and the reformation of the church that is under way in our own time to characterise our task as Jesus-like. Finding hope in marginalisation certainly fits.

But I would be more inclined to say that the challenge for us is less to be authentically human than to be—like Jesus—authentic servants of the missional task, which means developing the same level of historical consciousness, the same sense of pressing social-political context, as Jesus and his followers had. I suspect that’s also there in your narrative, just beneath the surface, but the celebration of “new creation” may be overtaken by events. Jesus sent his followers out to bear witness through to the violent end of the age of second temple Judaism. We may find ourselves facing comparable disruption and chaos in the coming decades.

Thank you Andrew for your generous critique. ‘Authentically human’ was possibly an overworking of John 10.10 and ‘life in all its fullness’. In retrospect it does read as being somewhat arrogant. To ‘be like Jesus — authentic servants of the missional task’ is much more convincing. I will amend the narrative.

Submitted by Shuggy on  Tue, 03/10/2020 - 16:39

Andrew, can you state your core christian beliefs or your own “creed”? Clearly you diverge on the meaning of the parousia, but what about other traditional statements of the mainstream churches?

Do you believe Jesus Christ is God Incarnate?

Do you believe He died to take away our sins and bring us back to God?

Do you believe Satan is a real and living person?

Thanks.

Hey Shuggy,

I don’t know if this helps or not, but there’s an older post where Andrew took a shot at writing a narrative-historical version of a creed:

https://www.postost.net/2011/10/narrative-historical-creed-first-draft

Both it and the comments that follow are good reading.

Since creeds tend to be more packaging of theology rather than an explication of the meaning of events, there’s a bit of a struggle to fit them, I think.

I’m a little curious as to your observation that Andrew “diverges” on his view of the parousia? There are many Christians both past and present that have at least very similar views. Likewise, with the other questions you asked, there has certainly been a lot of historical diversity on all of those issues, although less so on Jesus’ divinity post-Nicea.

So, when you talk about Andrew having “divergent” views, who are you thinking of?

Also out of curiosity, why do you want Andrew to produce that creed / answer those questions?

Have a look at the link that Phil shared. I feel the point is not so much whether I hold the same beliefs but how the beliefs are oriented or organised. I think that the “beliefs” need to be plotted against the uneven landscape of first century Jewish history, not organised systematically according to the perspective of the later church.

1. To make “Jesus Christ is God incarnate” a core belief risks missing the whole point of the New Testament, which is almost entirely concerned with the apocalyptic argument about kingdom. The “core belief” about Jesus is that he was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God to judged rule over Israel and the nations at some point in the future. The Greek church inevitably lost sight of that and was bound to re-formulate the relationship between Jesus and God in philosophical terms. The peripheral ( not “core”) idea that Jesus, in his recreative ministry, was the word or wisdom of God become flesh provided a stepping stone to the new theological regime.

2. I would rather state it historically: Jesus died for the sins of Israel, to reconcile disobedient Israel to God, which became a death for the Gentiles inasmuch as it removed the dividing wall of the Law. I don’t have a problem with abridging the historical narrative and saying that Jesus died for my sins, but I think that his death has to be understood, first, in Jewish-political, not universal-personal, terms. We are forgiven and become members of a community for whose sins Jesus died.

3. I believe that Satan was a powerful, and I guess “personal”, reality in the period envisaged by the New Testament, especially as the driving force by the political opposition to the establishment of the kingdom of God. The close association between Satan and imperial aggression is especially evident from the fact that immediately after judgment on corrupt and idolatrous Rome, Satan is thrown bound into the abyss for a thousand years—that is, for the rest of world history (Rev. 20:1-3). That suggests to me that Satan is not now an active presence in the world.