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.



Augustine: Big Man Meets Bigger God. 354-430 C.E.

Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, Great Doctor of the Western church. Long considered the greatest ancient mind in the Western world, Augustine is out of favor right now in Christian circles.

Being asked to sum up Augustine’s life, teaching, theology and ministry in 5 minutes is a bit like being told that I need to drive a semi through my cat door…it won’t fit and the attempt is liable to make a mess of things.

I will start the way Mark starts his Gospel-by skipping the first 30 years. We pick up Augustine’s story mid-stream: Augustine is 30 years of age and already has the most prestigious academic job in the Roman world: Professor of rhetoric for the imperial court in Milan. It was a position that brought with it a sure career of prominence in Roman politics.

Being a prominent up-and-comer has never been good for one’s sense of spiritual need, and as such, Augustine came resistantly to faith. He was having too much fame and fortune and enjoying all of the “fun” that comes with. However, he had a praying mother and a friend of faith, Ambrose, who was a challenge to his intellect. They were God’s tools to break his defenses. Who is God using to break yours?

So eventually the Big man met He-who-will-not-be-avoided.

Augustine had his familiar conversion experience alone in his backyard at 33, after much influence by St. Ambrose (another rhetorician and Archbishop of Milan). At 37 Augustine was ordained to the priesthood. At 41 he was made bishop of Hippo, an African backwater and a diocese considered far beneath a person of his aptitude and potential. Far from being buried in obscurity, however, over the next 29 years Augustine would become the most towering Latin writer, extraordinary in both scope and depth. Brilliant preachers and teachers are always asked to write their stuff down. He did. We have 350 of his authentic sermons and around 100 books/booklets. They include apologetic works to debunk various heresies, commentaries on books of the Bible, texts on Christian doctrine, one of which was called “On Christian Doctrine.” His work, “On the Trinity,” is considered by many theologians to be the masterpiece that forever defined “Great theological writing.” Augustine is best known for his (Confessions), the personal account of his early life and conversion, and the City of God which he wrote to explain to Christians, badly shaken by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 that “our citizenship is not on earth.” The Confession, addressed to God as prayers is the first autobiography. Augustine introduced the concept of the “self” in the Confessions and of “history” in the City of God. He was held in such high regard that years after his death, when Hippo was sacked by the Vandals, who held to the Arian heresy that Augustine had so powerfully written against, they burned every building in Hippo except his cathedral and library.

And yet, he is held in wide contempt in the church today. Augustine is blamed for “oppressive doctrines” such as original sin, the sovereignty of God, just war, and abortion as a sin. The current movement in the Episcopal Church to “restore” the heretic Pelagius is a direct repudiation of Augustine. And yet…

Several weeks ago I was taking summer courses at our seminary in Berkeley. The seminary president hosted a dialogue, in the fancy historic mansion on the grounds. This dialogue was between former presiding bishop Frank Griswold and Mark Jordan, a professor who has left Harvard for the Danforth Center on Politics. I didn’t know Jordan, but quickly came to realize that this guy, in a room full of super-bright people, was super, super-bright. Jordan was the Reinhold Niebuhr Divinity professor and a professor of women, gender and sexuality. He was originally an expert on medieval philosophy…especially Aquinas and is published dozens and dozens of times-mostly on Aquinas and human sexuality issues. By the middle of the conversation everyone in the room  was waiting to hear how Jordan would respond to whatever question was being fielded. In a room full of heavyweights, he was the weightiest. At one point he made a comment about St. Augustine, and added the throw away line, “I cannot get enough of Augustine. I have spent 30 years immersed in him. To this day I can not come to his writings without feeling like the proverbial man drinking from the fire hose.”

A good place to start with Augustine is The Confessions: they are Augustine on Augustine…or more accurately, Augustine on the experience of being chased by God. What comes out when reading the words of this “greatest intellect of the western world” is his humility-his sense of gratitude toward God…his sense that God pursued and chased and wooed and won his heart when he was in love with the pursuits of his own flesh- as Paul says, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for you.” While the early fathers focused on the mind and the body as the seat of God’s saving action, Augustine was the first writer to articulate the heart as the seat of God’s saving work the human soul. Here is how Augustine describes God’s pursuit of him, while he was lost in hedonistic pursuits:

“Thou didst cast away (my sins), and in their place thou didst enter in thyself–sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood; brighter than all light, but more veiled than all mystery; more exalted than all honor, though not to them that are exalted in their own eyes. Now was my soul free from the gnawing cares of seeking and getting, of wallowing in the mire and scratching the itch of lust. And I prattled like a child to thee, O Lord my God–my light, my riches, and my salvation…

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold, you were within and I without, and there I sought you. 
You were with me when I was not with Thee. 
You did call, and cry, and burst my deafness. 
You did gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness. 
You did touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. 
You have formed us for yourself, 
and our hearts are restless until in they find their rest in you. 
Late have I loved Thee, Your Beauty ever old and ever new. 
You have burst my bonds asunder; 
unto Thee will I offer up an offering of praise.

Hear the wisdom of this wise man: “O Lord, You have formed us for yourself, 
and our hearts are restless until in they find their rest in Thee.”