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Telling the Christian Story as Event, Doctrine, Person


2 Peter 1:16-18    

    Joshua 4:1-7   John 1:1-5          1 Timothy 4:6-8


  “Tell Me the Old, Old Story”

          I am not comfortable with the current craze for storytelling in Christian circles. The “icebreaker” at a conference used to be “name-and-address-introduction”; now, however, we are often asked to introduce ourselves by “telling our story”, or at least part of it.  Not only is telling our story the “icebreaker” at so many conferences; it often seems to be the unofficial program for the conference. Regardless of what subject matter has been advertised (Christian Education for Senior Citizens or Another Look at Middle-aged Men) we end up going around the circle and telling our story to everyone else.

I have many reservations about this.  For instance, while I may think my story wonderfully interesting, I don’t think most others think it especially interesting While my story is unquestionably important to me, it doesn’t appear to be important to anyone else.  And why should it be?

In order to keep people from falling asleep as story succeeds story, someone decides to make her story a little more gripping, a little more noteworthy. Someone else decides to make his story a little “juicier”, a little more sensational than others’. Before long everyone is trying to outdo everyone else. Sooner or later the storytelling “snowballs” uncontrollably, and then someone is embarrassed at having told more than she wishes she had or ought to have. Needless to say, in the midst of the current storytelling fashion I have seen “beans” spilled that would have been better left unspilled.

Forgotten in the midst of all this is the Christian story.  The gospel is story too. It should be told. And it should be told in that God intends the Christian story to become everyone’s story. My story is unquestionably important to me, as yours is to you.  But what matters most is that our story come to be taken up into a much bigger story, a much weightier story; namely, the Christian story. The Christian story is to be the benchmark story for all of us; it’s to be the model story for all of us. It’s only as we learn the Christian story and take it to heart that we come to see what is profoundly significant about our individual stories and what isn’t. It’s only as we learn the Christian story that we come to see what is to be cherished and magnified and exalted in our individual stories and what is to be repented of and repudiated.

Then we shall have to tell the Christian story.  But how do we tell this old, old story?  We have to tell this story in its three aspects as event, doctrine and person.


I: — The foundational aspect of the Christian story is event. We can’t help noticing how concerned the apostles are to remind us that the Christian story isn’t a fairy-tale; it isn’t legend; it isn’t myth like the ancient myths about the Greek and Roman and Norse deities.  Fairy-tales and legends and myths are stories that humankind has invented out of its fertile imagination. The Christian story, on the other hand, is anchored in history.

Think of the Christmas story.  We are told that Joseph and Mary journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus wanted an up-to-date report on who was doing what throughout the Roman Empire and he wanted the report for two reasons: taxation and surveillance.  Anyone can check all of this by means of historical investigation. As the Christmas story unfolds we are told that all of this happened “when Quirinius was governor of Syria .” Already we have been told that the Christian story begins in a time that can be checked, in a place that can be checked, for a purpose that can be checked.  The Christian story isn’t fairy-tale or fable or fantasy; neither is it legend or myth; it’s an event, anchored in history.

When Jesus comes to die Pilate is named in the story.  (He’s the political power-broker in Palestine .) Anas and Caiaphas are mentioned.  (They are the religious power-brokers in Palestine .) Collusion between political powers and religious powers guarantees the execution of the Nazarene. Event.

Then we are told that the tomb is sealed, a guard is posted, but a body can’t be located even as grave clothes are found unmussed: the Nazarene has been raised, is now alive, and is loose in the world. Event.

Plainly the apostles want us to know not only that the gospel differs from all fables and fairy-tales but also from all philosophies.  People who lose sight of the historical anchor of the Christian story are forever trying to tell us that the Christian story is an anticipatory illustration of philosophy; the Christian story, for instance, is a version of “Marxism before Marx”.  After all, didn’t Jesus speak about the evils of money and the need for social justice? Or we are told that the Christian story is a version of existentialism before 20th century existentialists.  After all, didn’t Jesus speak about the cruciality of decision and the need for authenticity? But the apostles have closed the door upon all such philosophical reinterpretations, for all such reinterpretations deny the particular historical anchor to the Christian story.

How many times has someone tried to tell us that the religion of Jesus is merely a primitive, pictorial way of saying that there are victorious forces of good in the world?  Once we’ve grasped this abstract truth about the victorious forces of good we can forget Jesus and his primitive pictures.  Later in the sermon we shall see precisely why the Christian story can never forget Jesus. (And besides, apart from the event of Jesus and his resurrection, what reason do we have for thinking that whatever forces of good there might be are going to be victorious?)

The Christian story doesn’t arise from fables or fairy tales, legends or myths. Neither does it arise from philosophies or primitive pictures.  The Christian story is anchored in history; it’s anchored in an event that can be fixed in space and time and turbulence.


II: — Yet there’s more to the Christian story than historically-anchored event; there is also doctrine. Doctrine speaks of the meaning of the event, the divine purpose of the event, the human consequences arising from the event.

Take the event of the cross.  There was nothing unique about our Lord’s crucifixion as such.  The Roman government was always nervous about suspected upstart-revolutionaries, and for this reason government policy was “Crucify first and ask questions later.”  To no one’s surprise, then, the Roman government crucified thousands. Jesus was one more, with two revolutionaries strung up on either side of him.  To a casual passer-by all three crosses would have been identical — and not worth a second glance.

But not everyone beholding the cross was casual; some — namely, followers of Jesus — were distraught.  The cross of Jesus was the negation of everything that had enthralled them for months. And then in the light of the resurrection they were made to know that this one cross was different; this one cross was God descending and God condescending and God absorbing into his own heart the judgement and penalty and burden of the entire creation’s sin as surely as his Son — now known to be Son in the light of the resurrection — absorbed as much himself. In the light of the resurrection followers of Jesus were given to know that this one cross created unimpeded access to God; it declared the Father’s welcome; it called the wayward home.  So far from being the negation of everything that the Master had been about for months, it was the inner meaning and fulfilment of all he had done throughout his public ministry.

The event is the cross; the doctrine is the meaning of the cross, God’s purpose in the cross, and the human consequences of the cross.


Plainly doctrine is important. Doctrine is a statement concerning truth. Where people are indifferent to doctrine they are manifestly indifferent to truth. If they don’t care about doctrine they are saying either “There’s no such thing as truth” or “There may be truth but we can’t be sure” or “There is truth but we can’t be sure whether we can know it”.         When Christians hold up doctrine, however, we are saying “There is truth; it is of God; it can be known because God himself has acquainted us with it.”

Plainly doctrine is important.  Doctrine pertains to truth. If the truth of Christ’s cross were that he was a martyr, a martyr only, then the death of Jesus would have no more significance than the death of John the Baptist (or the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer).  But the apostles never say this.  They know that the death of Jesus (that is, the life of Jesus offered up) is precisely that which brings eternal life to all who cling to him in faith.

Plainly doctrine is important.  Doctrine pertains to truth. Truth must be distinguished from mistakenness and ignorance and out-and-out falsification. These three are not the same. People can be mistaken sincerely; still, the sincerest mistake can leave people endangered. (We need think only of the pharmacist’s sincere mistake in filling a prescription.)  People can be ignorant sincerely; but ignorance of the properties of carbon monoxide is nonetheless lethal.  In addition people can perversely suppress the truth, deny the truth, hide the truth — i.e., perversely falsify.

That part of the Christian story which is doctrine has to be held up in the face of mistakenness about God and ignorance of God and falsification concerning God and our ultimate good in him.  Plainly doctrine is important.


III: — Yet there’s more to the Christian story than doctrine; there’s a person.  There is the person whose truth doctrine describes. The word “truth” describes a statement about Jesus Christ; the word “reality”, on the other hand, denotes the living immediacy and inviolability of the person himself.  When we speak, then, of the truth and reality of Jesus Christ we are saying that his presence is superior to and the measure of whatever else is present. When we say that the Christian story is more than event, more than doctrine; it’s Jesus Christ himself — we are saying that he isn’t merely one person among others, one reality among others.  He is the effectual presence of God amidst the entire creation.

What besides him is present in the creation?

– Sin is present, but Jesus the Saviour saves us from both its guilt and its grip.

– Evil is present, but Jesus the Victor has defeated it and one day will destroy it.

– Deception and betrayal are present, but Jesus the Wisdom of God acquaints us with the
nature of principalities and powers even as he fortifies us in their assault upon us.

– Death is present, but Jesus the Risen One has denatured it, rendering the coming death of
his people no more than momentary inconvenience on their way to a blessedness that
nothing will diminish.

Jesus Christ is ultimate reality; he is the effectual presence of God amidst the entire creation. Our Lord’s ultimate effectiveness in the face of everything that contradicts him and threatens us is the crown and climax of the Christian story.

Many times throughout my ministry I have referred to the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the crown jewel of the shorter Reformation writings. Question #1 asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  Answer #1 replies, “My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but I belong, body and soul, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” I belong to him; I am inseparably bound to him.  My comfort isn’t finally in the event of his appearance; my comfort isn’t finally in any or all of the doctrinal truths about him that will be true forever; my comfort finally is that he who is real and whose truth is eternal — this one person has fused himself to me and nothing can sunder us.

Centuries ago the apostle John wrote several short letters to Christians whose certainty of all this was about to be eclipsed by the fierce assaults raining down upon them.  They could no more have denied the actuality of these assaults than they could have denied their pain.  John wrote these people, “Remember: he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)  We too must always remember that Jesus Christ — the person — is greater than everything that opposes him; he always will be greater.


IV: — I want to come back to the matter of storytelling.  When we launch out into telling our story — whether we’ve been asked to tell it or not — we sally forth assuming that we know our own story best. No one else knows our story as well as we know it.  Therefore we know what we should say and what “spin” we should put on it. Who, after all, knows my own story better than I?

The truth is, we don’t know our own story.  Think for a minute of the story of Mary Magdalene.  What would her story include?  It would include a lot of details about this and that.  The most important aspect of Mary’s story, however, isn’t hers at all; or at least it isn’t hers in the first instance. The most important aspect of Mary’s story is this: the risen Jesus Christ appeared to her. She is a “product” of the resurrection of our Lord; she is a “product” of something in his story.

Unquestionably the resurrection of Jesus is his story.  But then he appeared to Peter and Thomas, Paul and Mary.         Now it’s plain that his story isn’t his only.  The resurrection event included them; the story of Jesus included theirs. The profoundest, most life-changing aspect of their story wasn’t theirs primarily; it was their Lord’s. His story became their story as his resurrection made them forever different.

Obviously, then, the profoundest aspect of my story, the most wonderful aspect of your story, isn’t anything about my story or yours; the profoundest aspect of our story is our Lord’s story in its entirety.

My dear wife says I talk too much about myself.  My daughters say I talk too much about myself.  Perhaps many you think I talk too much about myself.  I happen to think my wife and my daughters and all of you are wrong. The problem isn’t that I talk too much about myself.  The problem, rather, is that I bore people with the drivel I spout; I embarrass my daughters with the exaggerated dramatization of my self-importance; I drone on endlessly posturing my suffering as extraordinary. But if I were to speak about Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t bore people with my drivel; and if I were to speak about him I wouldn’t embarrass my daughters with my over-dramatized self-importance.  On the other hand if I were to speak about the master I would end up speaking about myself in any case, since his story has become my story. In speaking about him I would inevitably speak about myself in any case, but this time far more profoundly, far more persuasively, far more helpfully to others.

Then the only thing to do is to resolve to tell the old, old story of Jesus, for then my story will get to be heard as well.         Only this time my story will be worth hearing.

Victor Shepherd                                           

October 2006