Jesus’ disciples were a complicated and fallible bunch. They bickered among themselves. They could be jealous of one another. Two of them directly betrayed Jesus, each in his own way. When Jesus was arrested, they fled. When he was crucified, they hid. When he rose from the dead, they couldn’t wrap their minds around the strange new reality of it all.
This is more than bad behavior. It’s a failure of imagination.
To their credit, they believed that Jesus was Messiah and King. But that belief was distorted by their own preconceptions. What they wanted — what all their fellow Israelites wanted — was a happy ending to their story of oppression at the hands of pagan empires. There was no room for the idea of a suffering and crucified Messiah. Their concept of God’s kingdom was also too narrow and self-serving. That’s why Jesus had to keep telling them parables about it, subversive little stories that surprised and upset them.
Are we so different? We have the benefit of Scripture, of course, and centuries of theological reflection and church tradition to help us read it rightly. But as I’ve suggested in the earlier parts of this series, I fear that our understanding of the good news has been deformed by the habits of thought that come from living in a self-centered, consumerist society.
We suffer, in other words, from our own failure of imagination.
In the previous post, I asked this question: Is God a character in your story, or are you a character in his? I’ve put the question in such a stark way in order to make a point, but the reality is that it’s not an either-or choice. We can’t help imagining ourselves as the heroes and heroines of our own life stories; indeed, as some have suggested, this is one of the things that makes us uniquely human.
Think, therefore, of how the disciples might have told the story of their “conversion”: There we were, minding our own business, and then this guy named Jesus walked up and told us to follow him… Jesus entered into their lives, their stories, in unexpected ways. Many of us would probably say the same.
But at some point, discipleship must mean that the presence of Jesus in our lives opens our stories outward from the inside. It’s not just about what God does in my life; it’s about being called to participate in a grand, cosmic story of redemption that runs from Genesis to Revelation. We may start with God as a character in our stories, but we end with us being characters in his.
It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about God.
That shift in perspective should make a difference, for example, in the way we pray. Many (if not most?) of our prayers ask God to do something to make our lives better or to put an end to suffering. Those are, of course, perfectly legitimate prayers with plenty of biblical precedent. But at some point, we need to follow the example of Jesus in Gethsemane: Not my will, but thine be done. And that, of course, requires the imagination to understand how our lives fit God’s larger plan of redemption.
It makes a difference to how we read the Bible. For example, we often look for the “point” of Jesus’ parables and when we think we have it, we throw the story away. But too often, what we take as the moral of the story only confirms what we already believe. The parable fails to unsettle us the way it did Jesus’ hearers. Jesus wanted to break open the self-serving ways the disciples had come to understand God’s kingdom. Does anything we read in the Bible surprise us in that way anymore?
And it makes a difference to how we “do church.” If God is primarily a character in our stories, then we come to church primarily as individuals. Worship confirms God’s love for me. Sermons tell me how to be a better Christian in my own life. And church is a place where people gather as they might for a sporting event: we watch, we root for our team, but come and leave as individuals.
But being characters in God’s story is a shared role. What is it about our life together that signifies the presence of God’s kingdom? How do individuals come to know themselves collectively as one body in Christ, charged with carrying on the redemptive work of Christ in the world?
It’s not easy to answer such questions. But of this I’m certain: in any given community, the answers will take a good deal of imagination.