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)