The Herb Of Grace

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Raking The Coals, Pt. 4: The Story of God January 30, 2008

Filed under: peace and justice,public theology,sermons,storying — Joel @ 10:29 pm

The notes below are from the talk I gave at the vineyard here in St. Stephen last sunday.  It didn’t record so I’m posting the notes I wrote in preparation; they are reasonably thorough.  I’d love to hear what you think?   Implications?  Practical changes towards a response? 

The Church – more than you thought it was!


 The Church doesnot have an alternative, it is the alternative


We Tell The Story and We Are The Story



I’d like to acknowledge Stanely Hauerwas as a major source for me regarding the thoughts that are to follow. 

             We’ve talked in the past about how we each have a unique song to sing as creations of a good God, and that this freedom to sing that song comes ultimately from the coming of Jesus, the great liberator, into the world.

            I also want to look at the unique song given to the Church, which is us.  We, as the people of God, have a song to sing.  We’ve known this for quite a while and have tried since that time to figure out both what exactly it is and how to sing it.  This is what I want to focus on:  that in our communal imitation of Jesus, we provide in ourselves the alternative to a world of violence.

I’m going to talk about the Church today and always as God’s alternative community to the rest of the world; it is different.  It doesn’t have the best idea, it is the best idea. To do that I wanted to start by telling you a bit of how I recently got to be thinking about the Church in a way that excites, at least, me. 

One Disclaimer – In this talk, when I refer to the culture of the world around us, I am referring to the negative aspects of that culture.  I am assuming that there are many beautiful and God-given things that emerge out of culture.

 a lesson in history in my recent past.  not my usual passion.

these experiences that I’m about to share showed me how I longed for a history of my own that was strong and applicable to my present life.

            – The Chosen by Chaim Potok– Jewish history and community

            – going through airports on Christmas day, Somali muslims working many of the food stands – strong sense of identity and belonging, not abstract but wedded to their religion and culture

            – matt wiebe’s blog “why are they so content”  my answer: because of their strong community, built together and inseparable with their religion.

            – my jealousy of both party’s strong community.

But we all know that strong cultures can also be places where oppression reigns, those who are what the culture expects of them fit in and are happy but those who do not (fill in the blank) are ostracized.  The reason why I became so hopeful in looking at these strong cultural communities is because, though we can see glimpses of God in every culture in different ways, I think the Church is God’s transcendent answer to questions of culture, identity, and community. 

            I realized that we live in a society which does not cherish its elders, nor its old stories.  what is beautiful is new, shiny, or plastic.  What is treasured is the latest release, the latest news.  Even the social workers, though giving their lives to help others, are too isolated by a system which burns out its workers; we were not meant to be compassionate alone.  I thought, “I would love to be part of a community which ran counter to this strong societal current, while still being intimately connected to it, which lived as a different and better culture than that of the world in which I live.

             I do not want to be, by myself, the change I want to see in the world, but I want to band together with my brothers and sisters in Christ and be what we are supposed to be, a community, a group, the Church, which has a different prime minister, a different president:  the Christ.  A community that does not go to war for oil, nor put its old people into sterilized death camps nor close our eyes to the many needless abortions.  But instead we should be the Church which imitates Jesus in his life of compassion, powerful love, righteous anger, generous hospitality, forgiveness of enemies, a Church which imitates Jesus in his death of self-giving love, in willingness to die for the truth of God, in the unwillingness to fight back through violence but instead to fight back by waiting for God to save, and finally a Church which imitates Jesus in his resurrection, not an emotional or spiritual resurrection but trust that God would not let his little ones fail forever, it is trust that God, not us, will redeem all things, we can lay back and die like everyone else and wait for God to raise us up again.

I am coming to believe that the Church I describe above is not a matter of personal preference but a matter of being “who we are” really.  We draw this from the story of Jesus, which we have believed and decided to follow his way.  This way of Jesus has been written down in a book which has become very important to us, in many ways, it is our book.  At times, as the Church, we’ve strayed into bible worship instead of Jesus worship.  But that mistake doesn’t disqualify the scriptures, we still need the stories of Jesus this book tells, we still need the record of his life, death and resurrection so that we do not forget that, as his people, we are to be like him, we tell the story of God and we are the story of God.

– Scripture: 

So today, we’re going to look at how the Church, as God’s alternative to the world, is the thing that tells the story of God and is the story of God.  The Church does this by imitating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in its public and private life together in community.

We have two scriptures to look at today about imitating Jesus in his life, death and resurrection.  One is a letter named 1 John, and the other is from the gospel of Mark.  By reading them to each other, we remember the events, the historical-ness of these stories upon which we have founded our beliefs.  So we are not following a simple philosophy with only ideas but a tradition and a way which was first acted out by Jesus and his followers and then passed down through the generations.  Now we are seeking to be his followers still, thousands of years later, his way is passed down by church after church, sometimes well, sometimes horribly, but we still seek to follow the one about whom John the Baptist said, “look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

1 John 2:3-6

“Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.  Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection.  By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.”

“ought to walk just as he walked.”

also let us consider Mark 8:31

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on things divine but on human things.”

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.  And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

So if I’m going to talk about the capital “C” Church as imparting and embodying some kind of story, it begs the question: what so important about a story?

why ideas of “community” “love” “spirituality” are insufficient without being concretized in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazereth, a place!, a town! like St. Stephen!

The reason why you can’t have Christianity without story, either telling or being, is that without the historical enfleshing of Jesus and our imitation of him, without us walking as he walked, our communal faith becomes too quickly a smettering of philosophical ideas that one could find in many different communities. But Christianity is a way of life which is about God’s concretization in the lives of humans.  Hence, talk of ‘love’ can mean many different things.  a good example of which is that one person says “I love you” and means one thing and another person says “I love you” and means something very different. 

            So the story of Jesus concretizes what love means and we concretize it further by enacting the story of Jesus in our community.  An example of this would be Jesus healing the sick, in those stories we have an idea, “healing,” that is made concrete by Jesus doing it.  In addition to this, because of the existence of the Church, we make healing even more concrete to us by imitating Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, by healing in his name.  and so the story goes on.

The Church as God’s alternative community tells and is the story of God

We tell the story –

implications of this…

Remembering:  first we tell the story to ourselves, it is our great remembering.  It is an amazing thing to have a history, thousands of years of richness.  It is also very painful as there have been many times when the Church has not been “itself.”  Both the joyful and the painful parts of the story are important to remember because they are ours.  If we forget our stories, we will cease being ourselves and become like the culture around us, which is indeed what has happened.

Accounting:  we also tell ourselves the story so the other may keep us accountable.  I say I am a Christ follower not because I follow Christ very nearly or well.  I say to you that I am a Christ follower because I often fail and yet I hope to follow, and I hope that by telling you, you will remind me of my desire when I am tempted to follow other gods.

– within these stories are wisdom

– we speak the words of the historic events of our faith 

Sharing:  relating back to walt’s message last week, “confidently proclaiming that which we have come to believe…without being an ass.”  We tell the story of God even by not knowing answers to question, by being a conversationalist.  This is so because part of knowing God and being in God’s community is living in and with mystery.

– Proclaiming:  We are the witness to the coming age that has already come in part.  We are the witness to the peaceable kingdom of Jesus, where we love each other

– The story of Jesus, though intensely connected to the old testament and to the new testament letters that came after it, is more important than either of these.  That is to say, our reading of the bible should be done through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

We are the story

Imitation of Christ in…

– Life:  (1 John 2:3-6) As Jesus lived, his actions, inactions, loyalties, mercy, anger gave signposts for the us as the community of Jesus to follow in his wake.  He healed the sick, so must we.  He forgave his enemies, so must we.  He nurtured his personal friendship with God, so must we.  He fought for the poor and was harsh with those who enabled oppression of the people, so must we.  The life of the Church is in it’s obedience to the kind of life Jesus lived.  In this imitation, we continue the story of Jesus and of God in our world

– Suffering: (Mark 8:31) as Jesus suffered death for bringing love to the world, so the Church, if it is being faithful to Jesus, will suffer at the hands of those who would kill love, for the Church, when it is most rightly being itself, is the community of love.  In this, the Church enacts the story of God in the world, it becomes, as Jesus was, the suffering servant of God.  It is there on the cross that we see the clearest picture of God’s non-violent love, choosing rather to die than to fight back with violence; he refused to win that way.

  When imitating the life of Jesus puts us at odds with those who would hurt us if we do not give in, we must not give in but instead, fight back with love and suffering.  By this, we continue the story of God in our world, who gave himself over to be killed so that the whole world, even his murderers, might truly live.

(One thought i’d love to develop is the truth that to die is not an option.  The very sense that perhaps we don’t really know this is a clue as to why dying, whether its for love or some other reason, hits a chord within us that inspires revolt.

             So really the choice is to die or to die, but what will our lives look like before that time?  Like the life of Jesus?  Or like the useless life of self-centered materialism which has proven its only use:  to convince us of its indispensability.

            we have the chance to, before we die, live lives that speak of the crucified and risen Lord, in our Church community and in our world, local and global.  Shall we take this chance?)

– Resurrection:  As Jesus was raised from the dead by God, so we will be.  This trust that Jesus had in his life and his suffering is what we are called to have also.  This resurrection is not an emotional or spiritual resurrection but a physical one occurring at some point in the future.  Our hope is that God has us all in hand, our actual bodies, our spirits and our minds.  By waiting and hoping for the resurrection (in which we hope to be included), we tell and live the unfolding story of God, witnessing by our hope to a God who, in the mystery, will not leave us to death forever.

– Worship:  Stanley Hauerwas relates three ‘marks’ of the Church enacting the story of God:

            1)  Sacraments – baptism, the eucharist

            2)  Teaching

            3)  People being built up in their character – “by this they will know you, that you                                                                                                             love one another.”

– The Commonplace:  The story of the Quakers.  They were known as fair and honest tradespeople, this fairness and honesty came out of their communal devotion to Jesus and to His ways.  If it were just one, no big headlines, but a whole people, a whole part of the Church became known as people you could depend, people that were different than the other businesses in town.  So, how much does it matter if you pray at work if you also cheat at work?  What does that witness to in terms of your local Church community?  We live in our everyday common world as people who endeavor to be like God and also who God is forming to be like Him.


Does this sound like an exciting job?

does it sound like a big job?

if yes and yes, then here are some important reminders:

We don’t have to make it all turn out right:

So the Church’s job is not to make everything come out right; that is God’s job.  The Church’s job is to proclaim the story of God in Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection and to enact the story in our lives as a church community.  This means imitation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  This is important to say once we begin to grasp the beauty and the breadth of God’s calling on our lives; once we realize this it is important to confess:  The Church is not in control, we leave that to God.

The kingdom of God is bigger than the Church:

It is important to say this because of the humility we need.  This talk is focusing on God’s work in making the Church, but it is so true and I am glad that God works independently of the Church also.  Many people have met Jesus through a myriad of strange experiences which were simply Jesus revealing himself.  What we need is to be content to trust God to work beyond us, and for us to work on who we should be.  As T. S. Eliot says, “for us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.”

Probably the most important one out of the three:      We Do Not Walk Alone.  The Holy Spirit created the Church on Pentecost and is faithful to empower the Church forward in its mission; that’s why the Holy Spirit teaches and encourages, so that we may more rightly tell and more rightly live the story of God; we do not walk alone. 


         so the effect of all this should be…what exactly?

– joy and contentment at the presence of God in our midst

– a sense of purpose that we have a cosmic job, a story to tell and a story to be

– confidence that the Holy Spirit who created the Church will keep the Church, continue to teach us, empower us, lead us to Jesus so we may imitate him and be like him.

– we should be glad that we are the Church, that God flows through us, created not just me or you but us together, in community, building a life of obedience to Jesus.

– a sense that these lives gathered here are part of a beautiful plan to bring love and life to the world town by town, church by church, community by community.

– a sense that we are in the middle of God’s story moving forward in our world

– laughter that we are so short sighted most of the time


and so we continue this tradition and this belief

that we build our lives, our communities, our actions

around one man, Jesus

and we believe as he taught us


we tell the story of Jesus

and we are the story of Jesus,

as we live, breathe, teach, reach out, build our families, worship together, all as a community.

that we are a sign of the coming

kingdom of God, which comes today for you and for me.



5 Responses to “Raking The Coals, Pt. 4: The Story of God”

  1. Matt Says:


    Thanks for the notes. And when I have coherent thoughts, I’ll post those.

  2. R.O. Flyer Says:

    I’ve been meaning to tell you this. I absolutely love it. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Roger Flyer Says:


  4. Al Says:

    The Problem with Wineskins

    Every time I visit your blog I think about how I could respond to the great thoughts and ideas I see posted here. I am both exhilarated and somewhat saddened when I start to take up the task. Exhilarated because these are such great ideas and I yearn to respond to them, and saddened because the distance is such a great one, and the realities of life necessitate this response being a posting instead of a conversation. You return to your life of working out these important ideas in the small hamlet and community of SSU and I to my “community” as it were, of corporate and business views of the world. I miss you across the miles .

    So where to begin without dragging on ad nauseam. If none of this makes any sense, don’t feel obliged to post.
    The Problem with Wineskins

    Rather than posting a bunch of ideas that have come streaming into my head, I will try and briefly lay out a few questions or concepts for consideration. Although it might be unclear from my words – the underlying question is “how do you propose to make this happen?”

    – When it comes to even approaching the implementation of these ideas, how ought we to approach the process or the concepts. Where does one get started – particularly if you don’t have a context in which to apply the principles or a “sandbox” in which to play.
    – Strategy or Spirit:
    – Heart or Theology
    – Local or Global
    – Universal or Many Applications
    – Operating from a Specific Paradigm or Trying to Break Free

    – At what level has the “critical mass” of the church become the issue – both in terms of overcoming the incredible inertia needed just to get started and in “disrupting” the relentless momentum of the existing movements within the many representations of the church?

    . . . or perhaps stated less ambiguously – does it work to pour new wine into old wine skins? Perhaps it might be better to start with a new wine skin. All wine skins get old after . . . how many years?

    sometimes it doesn’t work to try and patch up old wineskins – particularly if someone has come along and poured new wine into them – or worse yet someone has absconded with your wineskins and utilized them for purposes for which you never might have dreamt,
    A few definitions of Critical Mass
    1. The smallest mass of a fissionable material that will sustain a nuclear chain reaction at a constant level.
    2. The amount of matter needed to generate sufficient gravitational force to halt the current expansion of the universe.
    3. An amount or level needed for a specific result or new action to occur.

  5. masonmusic Says:

    Thanks Dad, great thoughts; I’ll try to respond below.

    Your main question is, “How do you propose to make this happen?” This is what I have also been thinking about. For instance, how can we say that we are a witness and an enactor of the kingdom of God when we can’t even agree on things like, “is violence wrong?”
    What do we have to offer the world when we are as fractured and fraught with scandal as some other institutions. This has been driving me crazy, mainly as i contemplate the “relentless momentum of the existing movements within the many representations of the church.” It seems like a big job but, as marked by the division, a needed job.

    I’ve phrased your question in a farcical way, “should we just wait for the older generation to die?” Of course these issues can’t be divided simply along generational lines (most of the most important thinkers to me are 1 or 2 generations older than me!).

    But to your question,

    I think we should approach the job of encouraging the Church to be “what it really is” by, first of all, talking about it like we’re doing here (though as you mentioned, thousands of miles away.” What I see is not a Church which has an idea about itself that is wrong but one that has no idea at all! Granted, there are many denominations which has systematic theologies about their purpose and being as the new community of God but these do not seem to be on the lips of its people.
    “why do you go to church?” is a question which produces hilarious results; the answers would not be the fault of the person but of the Church not being “itself.” This is true in the same way that a country at war is in many ways not the fault of the country (for who is their god?) but the fault of the Church, having not adequately proclaimed the peaceable kingdom of God.

    the way forward is the narrow squeeze that will be how we communally think about the social implications of the Gospel. What I mean is that we will miss the mark if we maintain a privatized gospel which in its essence prefers the powerful and we will miss the mark if we put our hope as Christians in the various social systems expressed at the governmental level. No one can face these facts for us, the fact that we have largely failed to be a peaceable people imitating Jesus, we must face the music of our past and our present if we are to have a future which those believers in the far future would remember as a time of obedience to God. But this music-facing that I’m talking about must take place in the Church before individuals start NGOs or buy from campaign RED; there are two reasons for this: the first is that we can’t tell the U.S. or Canada to clean up their act if our house is not in order. The second is that it is the Church in all its expressions which must proclaim the story of God and be the story of God, as Walter Theissen says, “we can’t let corporations do our sinning for us” then it most certainly is true that we cannot let them do our righteousness for us either. We have a unique strategy from a unique person which is largely untapped, God’s idea: the Church.

    I also think a big part of the way forward will be what kind of Christian learning institutions come to be and which ones the various churches send their kids to, future leaders that is. So much of this thought on the Church is not complex, what is complex is the smokescreen of an accommodated gospel to the culture around us, materialism and nation worship. Because we don’t learn in a vaccum (we are always learning something from somebody) the way forward will have to include an intentional relearning of our mission as the new community of God.

    But I think my main idea, as I’ve talked with Kate and others since I began reading about the Church in these ways, is one that is more important than any of the more global or pervasive ideas cited above. Before any of the large structural changes, each community and therefore each person needs to pursue the reality of this Godly, kingly community in their everyday life. I guess what I mean is that the most effective and immediate way forward, as far as I can see, is for each individual in each community to begin to believe these things about the Church and to act accordingly. Implications of this are myriad. They include moving closer to those in your local church community, plopping down in the divine mundane, discipling and being discipled, exploring the social implications of the story of Jesus in our actions, spending, relationships. Overall I think the changes are of a paradigmatic nature.

    Moving together, hurting each other with misconceptions and preconceptions, forgiving each other, serving together. Trusting that after our best efforts, God will use our little things, in the mystery, to speak his name and his ways into his world.

    Your questions are very interesting to me, keep em coming! What do you think of these thoughts? Evading the real problem of application? Perhaps, but I hope not. I’ll think more on it.

    Also, could you extrapolate more on the church as critical mass?

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