Big story, little story (part 1)

“You just imagined it.”

“It’s just a story.”

Movies, television, novels: we enjoy flights of imagination that let us in on the lives on interesting characters and fascinating places. We happily lose ourselves in the land of fiction for a while, then return to reality. It can become a bit of a routine. In the day, we work in the real world, and at night and on weekends, we look to escape.

What we sometimes miss is that even the way we approach “reality” is shaped by story and imagination. How do I make sense of my past? How does that relate to the way I perceive and respond to what’s in front of me now? Where is my life going? What future do I hope for or fear? These are important questions, and we may not recognize the extent to which the answers involve imagination, the ability to stitch together how the past, present, and future form a continuous, ongoing narrative.

For Christians, there is an even larger question: what story does the Bible tell, and how is my life bound up in it? We sometimes approach Scripture as if it were a mere sourcebook of moral rules and principles. And make no mistake, we can learn a great deal at that level. But the biblical writers also want to shape our imaginations, to change the way we look at the world and ourselves. And they do this by helping us step out of the narrow framework of our legitimate but limited self-oriented concerns — What’s going to happen to me? — and into the larger story of what God has done, is doing, and will do.

We have spent several posts digging into the so-called Farewell Discourse in the gospel of John — Jesus’ final private words to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. To this point, as they have accompanied Jesus on his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem, their imaginations have no doubt been filled with visions of what it means for their master to be the Messiah. This man has power like we’ve never seen; he teaches like no one we’ve ever heard. And look what happened when we entered Jerusalem: the people are ready, right now, to acclaim him as king. He’s the one we’ve been waiting for! He can defeat Rome and restore Israel. And as his closest followers, we will have our own places of honor in the kingdom he will establish. Life is good!

But then Jesus drops bomb after bomb at what was to be (unbeknownst to the disciples) their last meal together. One of you is going to betray me. I’m going away and you can’t follow me. Peter, you think you’re ready to follow me all the way to death, but I’m telling you that before the evening is out, you’re going to deny you even know me, not once, but three times. 

And then Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1, NRSV). Their hearts, apparently, already are troubled.

Ya think?

Things are just not going the way they imagined.

Before we say farewell to the Farewell Discourse, then, I want to us reflect a bit on what Jesus does to open up his disciples’ imagination. More trouble is coming, more than they know. To help them survive and even thrive, Jesus will need to provoke a change in their stories. More on that in the next post.

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