How we tell the Christian story matters. It matters because in every telling there will be a depiction of God. And because it is a Christian telling of the story, this is a depiction of the God who is for us, who is on our side. And because this is a depiction of what we believe God to be like, we will measure ourselves by how well we are reflecting the image of that God in our engagement with the world.
This is why the conversionist gospel story that so many of us learned, that drew so many of us to place our faith in Jesus, is bankrupt.
The story is so simple and compelling: We are the bad guys, God is the ultimate good guy, the good guy cannot leave the bad guys unpunished, Jesus steps in to bear the punishment of the bad guys, therefore we have to accept his lordship to escape punishment for ourselves.
It can feel like a story of grace because we escape the judgment ourselves. But it’s not a story of grace because the economy is one of strict justice.
And it is only those who trust in Jesus who are able to escape the punishment that’s coming to them. Everyone else is fair game.
This is what happens when we try to make sense of the end of the Jesus story without the beginning. It’s what happens when we try to make sense of the beginning of Paul’s telling without understanding its continuation and conclusion.
We make God viciously consistent in meting out judgment. We make God the punisher of all those who do not fall within the circles demarcated by ourselves. We imitate God by marking out all those on the outside as worthy of death and only ourselves as worthy of life (because of Jesus, of course).
Let’s not kid ourselves: The story by which we have so often invited people into our family plays out with perfect consistency in calls to kill our enemies. The God of that story would do no less. The story by which Christian camps show the need for salvation to our kids plays out with perfect consistency in calls to protect our borders.
For the salvation of our own souls, we need to tell a better story. For the sake of the world, we need to follow a better narrative thread.
A better story line
Advent is the perfect time to reconsider our story.
Advent is the time when we hear about “God with us.” We have the possibility to recognize the story of the God who lays aside power in order to walk among us.
We have a fresh opportunity to see that the coming Prince of Peace did not make the promised peace through destruction of his enemies but through the offering of himself to God.
We have an opportunity to imagine, for just a moment, that the cosmic transformation that needed to unfold was not so much changing God’s mind about a sinful humanity, but changing a sinful humanity’s mind about a gracious and forgiving God.
There is the real scandal of grace: not that we and people like us get to be on the inside, but that God embraces us through self-giving, self-offering love. The scandal of grace is that the boundaries established by religious and theological correctness could neither facilitate nor contain the embracing grace of the God who loved the world.
The the real scandal of grace is not that we and people like us get to be on the inside, but that God embraces us through self-giving, self-offering love.
If there is a perpetual failing in our apprehension and telling of the story–a mistaken telling that reaches all the way back to the first disciples who stumbled behind the Master–it is the notion that this story is, at its core, about how God enables me to have the life I’ve always wanted.
In truth, this is the story about how God enables me to lay down my life so that my neighbor can have the life s/he has always wanted.
This is not the story of a god who protected the life of his children by slaughtering their enemies. It is the story of a God who protected the life of his enemies by allowing his Son to be slaughtered.
The power of the gun, the power of the border, the power of leadership in the church is simultaneously too cheaply wrought and gained at too great a cost. When we embrace such power, it costs us the very soul we were thinking to save.
Assessing our telling
I have a very simple metric for assessing our (in)fidelity to the story. These are the questions I ask whether I’m thinking through challenges at home or civil engagement or managing conflict or what I long to see from the church. The questions I ask are these:
Am I playing the part of the crucified Christ or that of the crucifying soldier?
Am I pursuing the good of my neighbor (even my enemy) at the cost of my own good? Or am I pursuing my own good, even if it comes at some cost to my neighbor or enemy?
Maybe another way to look at it is something like this: Every time we act as Christians we are, in fact, replaying the story of the crucified Christ. The only question is “What role are we playing in our dramatic performance?”
J. R. Daniel Kirk is Associate Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God and Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity. This article originally appeared on Kirk’s blog, “Storied Theology,” and appears here by kind permission of the author.