Narrative and Metanarrative: John 3:16, your story, and your place in the cosmos

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We experience life as story.

This seems hardwired; the way we assemble our discrete experiences as plot devices in a coherent narrative. And we continue to do this even when our stories ultimately leave us wondering, “Is this all there is to life?”

And it isn’t just story on a micro level, we look for story on the macro as well: interpreting the world through metanarratives; grand, overarching, shared stories. Our current metanarrative is postmodernism. Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our previous shared story was modernity – the belief in human progress. Lyotard pointed out that the shared belief in human progress failed. We did not “make the world safe for democracy.” Dr. King’s, “arc of the universe” did not bend towards justice.” Progress did not solve the world’s problems. We may have “boldly gone where no man has gone before,” but we have a sense we were going the wrong way. Modernism just didn’t pan out. In response, postmodernism posits the death of the metanarrative.

And yet…we cannot stop seeking meaning personally, and we cannot stop seeking context to our place and role in this massive world. Whether it works or not, we continue to instinctively assemble narratives for ourselves and search for metanarrative to explain our place in the cosmos. We are convinced we are both part of something larger and also, paradoxically, free to write our own story…even in light of the evidence that neither is working.

John 3, Nicodemus, and the Narrative and Metanarrative of God

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus did the same thing. Nicodemus came to Jesus attempting to figure out how Jesus fit in his culture’s metanarrative and to understand Jesus’ place in his personal story. Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the religious festival. Perhaps they were camped in their favorite olive garden enjoying the spring breezes along the ridges of the Kidron valley. Nicodemus, a respected teacher with a lot to lose if he were found to be talking to a rabbi disrupting the status quo worldview, came at night.

Nicodemus greeted Jesus with pleasantries: “Teacher, we know anyone doing the things you do must be from God.” Jesus swept the compliments aside. Sympathetic interest was a waste; “A new birth is what you need.” Nicodemus approached Jesus as a teacher. Jesus teaches: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The expression has two meanings. Born “from above” and “again.” Both are implied. Jesus is offering Nicodemus’ a new master narrative – the Kingdom of God. Assume for a moment this metanarrative actually does come from the creator and redeemer of the cosmos. If that is true, by definition, it is different from every other worldview in its’ objective truth. And like hunger points to the existence of food, our human desire to understand the big picture points to a true metanarrative. (Have you ever wondered about how unhelpful it is on an evolutionary level for humans to sit around contemplating our place in the universe while saber tooth tigers awoke from hibernation looking for lunch?)

But although our hearts point us to a true metanarrative, Jesus says that neither Nicodemus, nor you and I, are free to find the metanarrative of the Kingdom on our own. It comes from above. We cannot accomplish it ourselves. In fact, Jesus says (John 3:3) we can’t even “see” it on our own.

Nicodemus, cannot make heads or tails of this. (John 3:4) “Can you return to your mother’s womb?” 

Now that Jesus has broached the topic of seeing new birth, he pushes past seeing, (John 3:5) “I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is not meant to be viewed from a safe distance. It is to be entered personally. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” One can imagine the evening wind rustling the olive branches. “Spirit” in both original biblical languages, suggests breath or wind. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus said. Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, commenting on this passage, said, “Don’t wait until you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you. Or wait until you know its destination before you spread sail to it…Trust yourself to it.”

Jesus places his coming in the context of the scriptural metanarrative (3:13-14). He refers to the last of the prophets, Daniel, with his vision of the messiah as the “Son of Man,” then connects his story even further back, to God’s ancient Law. In Numbers 21 Israel was in the wilderness, grumbling and snake-bit. The children of Israel were told to look upon a bronze serpent lifted up to live. Jesus, who elsewhere said the entire Old Testament referred to him, gives this as a small taste, “so must the son of man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” With a single reference Jesus points both backwards and forwards in history by equating this with his impending passion.

Now comes the central declaration of the Christian faith: John 3:16. The heart of God’s metanarrative, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “God is love” is a precious truth, but God being loving necessitates no divine participation. “God so loved that he gave,” declares God is active, invested…getting his hand’s dirty for his creation.

And what object is sufficiently large for God’s self-giving love? Christianity is more than another world religions offering individual salvation. Oh, it contains that, but Jesus tells us, God’s scope is much more expansive. God’s object is the world itself. God himself redeemed the entire cosmos as Jesus was lifted up. The salvation offered by Jesus Christ has a vast, grand sweep. John 3:16 tells us that God’s love is:

  • Active: “God so loved…he gave.”
  • Personal: “his only begotten son”
  • Available: to “whoever believes”
  • Specific: Centered “in him
  • Purposeful: giving “eternal life.

In Jesus Christ, we see and enter God’s grand Kingdom metanarrative. We discover our narrative as well – that our purpose is bound up in God’s purposes.

St. Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord; And our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.”

The stories we believe matter.

Only one metanarrative explains human history. Only one fulfills scriptural prophecy. Only one makes sense of our universal experience of destiny. It is the story of God; who, in Jesus Christ, is activepersonalavailable… specific…and gives purpose to our lives.

What Jesus was effectively saying to Nicodemus is this: “What you think about me is only as helpful as it is accurate. You think I’m from God. That’s nice – but nice won’t get you new birth. Release yourself to the moving of God’s Spirit. Allow yourself to be refreshed by, to spread your sail to, God’s Spirit. Allow yourself reborn by the explainer of history, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the one who makes sense of our stories. Don’t entrust your life to narratives that don’t satisfy. Don’t surrender your life to a metanarrative that will end up on the dustbin of history…

God has told us his overarching story. He designed you and I for a place in that story as we are born from above and anew. He can do this because of who He is and what he has done, defeating death on Calvary. More than “a teacher sent from God”, Jesus is God himself, offering a new birth from above to all who believe, rewriting our stories in his, and allowing us to see, and enter the grand story of eternity.

 

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Scales and Playgrounds: Why you need the Creed (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 2)

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Creeds over Confessions

Last week one more friend, one with a graduate degree in theology proudly said, “I don’t say creeds. I’m non-creedal.” This friend is both orthodox and devout in his Christian faith, yet he says, “I don’t want to be bound by statements that limit the faith.” Like so many, he is confusing “creedal” with “confessional.”

A Big, Big Playground

Creeds are not about limiting the faith, but rather about pushing the faith’s boundaries out to their widest possible limit. A creed is about how little one can believe and still be recognizably “Christian.” Creeds give the edges of what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” Confessions, which came later, do exactly the opposite. Confessions attempt to narrow the conversation from “how little can one believe” to “how much should one believe.” If beliefs are a dartboard, a creed is the outermost circle. “You hit the target, way to go!” A confession is the bull’s eye.

Belief as a bull’s eye is, of course, my friend’s real issue: Whose bull’s eye, whose confession are we to use? Augsburg? Belgic? Heldelberg? Helvetic? Thirty-nine Articles? Baptist? Westminster? …And those are just the ones written between 1430 and 1630! A creed is a fenced playground, but a creed represents the largest playground possible. A confession is the kindergarten play ground – very small and safe. The Nicene Creed is the high school ballfields – a square half mile. If you can’t find room to play at the high school, you really just don’t want to be there.

We Fear Creeds

Creeds have been ignored by evangelicals and progressives alike. Evangelicals busily moved past the creeds in a desire to be culturally relevant and a fear of the world creeping into the church – so evangelicals tightened the reigns with detailed, specific, narrow confessional boundaries. “Are you a Reformed, dispensational, pre-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist?” “No! I am a Reformed, dispensational, mid-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist.” “Oh. Sorry, we can’t be friends.” This resulted in “many protestants” – a now collapsing array of denominations.

At the same time liberals were also busy jettisoning historic creeds. For liberals though it was a desire to be theologically relevant and a fear that the world was creeping out of the church.

Scales Before Jazz

photocredit: ehow.com

photocredit: ehow.com

When my children suggested to their piano teacher that they learn popular songs, their piano teacher would patronizingly reply, “We learn scales before Jazz.” The reference was lost on my kids who had never heard Jazz. What they wanted to play was the theme to the after school cartoon, “Arthur.” But the teacher was right, if you know your scales you can play any musical. Creeds are the substance of the faith – The “scales” to teach to every child and newcomer. By definition, creeds are catholic (universal), confessions are sectarian genres. Everyone has a genre preference. But if one doesn’t know the basics, regardless of the genre, what we end up with is bad music.

Creeds unite us around the basic Christian story (the “who” and “why”) rather than the symbols of our tradition (the “how” and “what”). The symbols of our tradition are rich and powerful, but our traditional actions and symbols never stand alone. Their power is that they point to greater truths-the truths specifically expressed in the creeds. Confirmation programs, for example, lose power specifically when our teachers have forgotten to keep the main thing (salvation in Christ Jesus) the main thing. And one cannot master Jazz who has not first mastered their scales.

So Christian, don’t give up your creeds!

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Ring: The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Whatever Happened to Sin? The Message in Today’s Youth Ministry.

There is a lot of conversation floating around the youth ministry world these days around the topic, “What is our message?” More particularly, “What do we say about sin?”

Is our Gospel a negative message? “You are a dirty wicked sinner and better get saved from the hell you deserve!” Or a more positive Good News? “You really are a nice person. God loves you and all the other nice people-who would be even nicer if they only knew the niceness of God.”

Actually, in most circles we don’t much hear the clichéd negative message anymore. If there is a motto in youth ministry today it might be, “Lower the bar.” Make it simpler, more approachable, less scary, less commitment…less message. “Less is more”, seems to be in the water of youth ministry.

What do I think the message ought to be?

Having done rural, suburban and urban youth ministry, with rich, poor and middle class kids of virtually every ethnicity, it is obvious that context matters as to what needs to be emphasized in our message. Urban kids involved in the underbelly of our culture know that they are sinners. As a group they tend not to believe that God could possibly love them, given the things they have done. On the other hand, suburban kids, who have been told that everyone deserves a participant medal and are steeped in the philosophy that God is really lucky to have them on His team, those kids could use a good message of “you aren’t really all that.” Don’t we in youth ministry tend to give students the message they most expect but least need to hear?

Youth pastors tend to fall into two camps: those feeling the compulsive need to convert people, and those apathetically giving up on Jesus’ call to invite those outside the faith into discipleship. How can we be faithful without being compulsive? Overall, I like it when we proclaim a message of positive realism.

Positive realism really is the Christian story. There is a reality to brokenness that is undeniable. But there is a positiveness to what God wants to do in the world in us and through us. One can be patient with people if we actually believe the Christian narrative: God made us for himself, and, although we have wandering hearts, God is wooing us back and taking possession of that which was always his. Jesus died for our beauty not just our brokenness, and God is now calling us to a role in his transforming work and, in the end, it will all turn out for Good.

That is a message to take to the streets, my peeps!