Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom

*This is a short paper I recently wrote for my ‘Bible in Ministry’ class. It’s a reflection on a chapter in Stanley Hauerwas’ book A Community of Character. Enjoy.

“Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom” was assigned for the section of the course entitled ‘The Bible and Practical Theology’. The purpose of this short paper is to summarize and reflect upon the key points made by Stanley Hauerwas – that the story of Jesus demands obedient and active participation – and to comment on the connection between this text and the work of Christian ministry.

Within the first lines of this article, Stanley Hauerwas tells the reader “that what it means for Jesus to be worthy of our worship is explicable only in terms of his social significance” (p. 37). The story of Jesus is in and of itself a social ethic, and this story must also be that of the church. He argues that there exists a false assumption “that one can know who Jesus is or ‘what’ he was … without the necessity of some way knowing Jesus himself – without, that is, being his disciple” (p. 41). If the story of Jesus does indeed entail transformative social significance, then it is not enough to know about Him without taking tangible steps towards embodying that story in the here and now. As Hauerwas later goes on to say, “(Jesus’) identity is grasped … by learning to follow him, which is the necessary condition for citizenship in his kingdom” (p. 43). Thus, what is most important is our obedient and active participation within the story, not finding a meaning of or explanation for it. The story is fundamentally who Jesus was and is – he cannot be separated from it, and it demands faithful participation on the part of all those who wish to follow him.

On that point, Hauerwas goes as far as to say that “Jesus’ universality is manifested only by a people who are willing to take his cross as their story, as a necessary condition for living truthfully in this life” (p. 44). This body of people becomes the continuation of that story of the present world, leading to the claim that “the only way we learn of Jesus is through his story as we find it in the Gospel and as we see it lived in the lives of others” (p. 44) This runs counter to popular modern readings of the Gospels wherein they are pillaged for individual sayings and guidelines in regards to the nature of what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God, a strategy that “is doomed to failure because such norms fail to do justice to the eschatological character of the Kingdom” (p. 44). In other words, the nature of the story of Jesus and his Kingdom come is both a present and future reality, and “there is no way to know the Kingdom except by learning the story of this man Jesus”, a story that “defines the nature of how God rules and how such a rule creates a corresponding ‘world’ and ‘society’” (p. 45). It is through active participation in that story that the people of God “demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order” (p. 49)

The primary task of the church, then, “is to be the kind of community that tells and tells rightly the story of Jesus” (p. 52). The task is to gain an understanding of Jesus’ story – by reading the text first as a story apart from any intentions of extracting guidelines of principles for right living – and seeing it as inseparable from learning how to live in the present. It is a story that demands faithful participation and embodiment, lest it be drowned out by one of many competing stories.

There seems to be great value in reading scripture, particularly the Gospel accounts of Jesus, first as narrative in nature. The teachings and actions of Jesus simply cannot be separated from who he was and is; any attempt to do so would be a form of Docetism, a separation of Jesus the human from his divine vocation. Rather than making the search for extractable guidelines and sayings that must be adhered to as the beginning point or focus of Christian ministry, it is imperative that Jesus is understood as both fully human and fully divine. As a human acting in the way that he did, the social ethic of the Kingdom is therefore fully attainable and able to be embodied by the community of followers that would come after him. For example, Jesus did not say that one should turn the other cheek simply because he thought it was the right thing to do and it would be pleasing to God to act in this way. Instead, it was a matter of him literally seeing no other option; to act in this way was simply to be who he was. Jesus cannot be known, therefore, apart from following him, and we come to understand what that means by becoming more and more familiar with his story.

At the same time, Hauerwas himself outlines a potential weakness in this line of thought by stating “Jesus’ story is a many-sided tale. We do not have just one story of Jesus, but four” (p. 52.) This raises various hermeneutical challenges in regards to pinning down the essential elements of the story and how the story is to be read and embodied in communities made up of individuals, who may or may not read and interpret the story in different ways. If, as Hauerwas maintains, Jesus’ universality is manifested only by a people who are willing to pick up where Jesus’ story left off, then this hermeneutical problem can be potentially crippling in terms of embodied action. In a world of post-modern subjectivity, to be able to agree on the nature of the story, let alone how to proceed with that in mind can be an exceptionally challenging task. It is one thing to tell the story of Jesus, but discerning how to tell it “rightly” is not necessarily an easy endeavor, especially within the context of community. The task of reading and interpreting the story is, therefore, something that Hauerwas leaves somewhat vague. One further weakness is that Hauerwas fails to make mention of the church’s role as a worshipping body, which begs the question as to whether the church is a gathering of worshipping followers of Jesus, a manifestation of his social ethic, or both. There is a sense that Hauerwas would go with option three, but the scale seems to be heavily weighted towards social ethic over worship. The latter, in my estimation, must never be overlooked.

As has already been mentioned, the relevance of Hauerwas’ position for the work of Christian ministry is that there is here a clear mandate in terms of what kind of people we are to be, namely a community that reads the story of Jesus and goes about bringing that story into the present. Jesus’ story is one that declares to the world that he is Lord, and that the world desperately needs him and his followers in order set things to rights. The church, as did Jesus, is meant to resist the pull of the stories that promote privilege, possessions and power so that a different way of living can be seen as possible. Just as Jesus, in his humanity, could not be separated from his divine vocation, so too the church is means to embody alternative modes of living.

This article also raises the question as to whether obedience or understanding comes first in terms of following Jesus; we want to know what to do, but sometimes we only know by doing. One can’t understand the true nature and content of Jesus’ story without taking the necessary steps of obedience. One can know Jesus’ teachings and understand his social ethic, but there is a distinct difference between knowledge and embodiment. It is in the latter that the church is to dwell. In other words, rather than getting stuck in the trap of asking questions in regards to what Jesus really said and did, his story must be read with a view to the present, constantly asking what Jesus is presently doing and how we as his people can continue to tell that story.

Hauerwas, therefore, presents an argument for reading the Gospels as story with a view to shaping our faith communities into a body of active participants intent on embodying that ongoing narrative. The four accounts of that which Jesus said and did are to be read with an understanding of both his human and divine natures, understanding that he was acting according to who he was and not as one introducing a set of fixed guidelines for Christian living. In that, however, certain hermeneutical issues can hinder the embodiment of story in that it can be difficult to agree upon its exact nature and content. Rather than getting entangled in this web, Christian communities ought to place right action over right interpretation with a view to becoming an answer to the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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