The Shape of Our Stories

When we become disciples of Jesus Christ, one of the most important and difficult things that happens to us is that we acknowledge God’s authority over the shape of our stories. We like to fool ourselves, of course, into believing that the shape of our story is all our own, that my story does not look like anyone else’s, that I can make my story into whatever I want, so that my life is unique. But all stories owe their shape to other stories. When people asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” they were really asking, “What shape do you want the story of your life to take?” And maybe you said, a firefighter, or an astronaut, or a teacher. The details—which subject you would teach, or where on the moon you would land, or how many people you would save from disaster—were unpredictable, but the story you wanted for your life already had a basic shape to it. I’m guessing most of us stopped thinking about the shape of our stories a long time ago, but not all childish things are meant to be put away.

It’s not just our stories that have a shape—all stories do, even the story of Jesus Christ. Christ’s story is lived in the shape of Israel’s story. All four of the gospel writers tell us Jesus’ story in ways to make sure we understand that the contours of his life align with the form of the life and history of God’s chosen people. From his election by God to be the Chosen One to his suffering, death, and vindication because he was chosen by God, Jesus’ story matches Israel’s story chapter by chapter. And it’s not just true for the big picture. Each detail, each moment of Jesus’ own life is saturated with Israel’s story, like a balloon that’s pushed out to its full form when it’s filled with water.

If you don’t know the story of Jonah, or if you don’t know it well, read it today. Seriously. After church, go home, eat your lunch, find your Bible, and read the book of Jonah before your Sunday afternoon nap. Read it. Read it twice. It will take you less than thirty minutes.

Jonah is a prophet called by God to go preach repentance to Gentiles living in Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, one of Israel’s greatest foes. Instead, Jonah hops on a boat heading the opposite direction. Once at sea, a great storm rages, tossing the boat and terrifying the sailors. It’s all hands on deck, everyone offering prayers to their gods, except Jonah—who is asleep at the back of the boat. Astonished that anyone could be sleeping in such a storm, the captain wakes Jonah up, and the crew decides the storm must somehow be Jonah’s fault. Jonah confesses that he serves the living God, the Lord who made the seas. And Jonah has the sailors throw him into the ocean. The moment his body hits the waves, the storm ceases. There’s more to the story, but that’s what your afternoon reading is for.

All this should sound very familiar to us after this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus, with his seafaring disciples, also is heading toward Gentile lands—only he’s being faithful to God’s will, not running away from it. And a terrible storm throws his disciples into a panic, even while Jesus sleeps peacefully in the stern of the boat, on a pillow, just like Jonah. And, like Jonah, Jesus holds the key to making it through the storm safely. Not by throwing himself into the swirling chaos of the sea—although that will come, when he is crucified. Jesus halts the storm with a powerful command: “Siopa, pephimoso!” “Shut up, you! Be silent!” And at once, the winds and the waves ceased their roar.

“Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” The shape of the story makes it clear. This is Jonah! Jonah the Greater, the prophet who heeds the Lord God’s will and wields the Lord God’s authority as only the Son of the Most High God can. This is the faithful prophet who is also the obedient king.

The shape of Jonah’s story forms the story of Jesus. Without Jonah’s story, we turn this morning’s gospel reading into some formless, useless proof of Jesus’ divinity, a proof that has no connection either to the shape of Israel’s story or to the shape of Christ’s story. A proof, in other words, that has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Miriam, Esther, Jonah, and Jesus.

Jesus does not still the storm because it inconveniences him, or because it’s dangerous, or because his disciples are afraid, or because he’s some superhuman freak, or because he’s the representative of a so-called god who only uses power for his own benefit. Jesus calms the raging seas because he is faithful to God’s mission to the world, a mission of healing and release from captivity, and repentance and forgiveness of sins, a mission of reconciliation for the whole world, Jew and Gentile. And nothing, no great windstorm, no terrified sailors, no faith-deprived disciples, nothing can turn him back. Jesus calms the storm because he is faithful where Jonah failed.

By the grace of God we who follow Jesus have entered into his story, and we have been grafted onto Israel’s story, too. Grace is not God’s magic potion. It is a gift, something that we are to put to use, something that demands a response. Is deep faithfulness shaping the story of our lives the way it shaped the story of Jesus’ life? Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you still no faith?” The question is not about whether they thought Jesus could take care of them in the midst of the storm. The question is about the shape of their stories. “You are with me, busy with God’s mission to this broken, fallen world,” Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Don’t you recognize the faithfulness that should form your story?” And Jesus says the same thing to us.

This past week, nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ, nine saints of the Living God, were gunned down during a Wednesday night prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Jesus was murdered again in cold blood in Charleston.

I can think of no story that is more shaped by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ than the story of the black church in this country. Whites have given African Americans every reason to hate Jesus. Even though whites had torn them from their African homelands, even though slaveowners treated their slaves worse than their farm animals, even though whites beat, raped, and murdered them, separated their families, and sold them for profit, African slaves and their descendants embraced Jesus Christ and followed him closely. And even that was not enough to sway the cruel hearts of white Christians who knew how to read the Bible but couldn’t figure out how to listen to it. Over and over again, whites have rocked the boat of the black church, but the black church has remained confident in the mission of God revealed in Christ Jesus, and the story of the black church has been the story of great faithfulness.

The Charleston Nine were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Church exists because the founding members of our church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, refused ordination and other basic membership rights to black Methodists. In 1816 Richard Allen and Daniel Coker led the first exodus; James Varick followed suit when he became the first leader of the AME Zion church in 1820. Nearly thirty years later, the Methodist Episcopal Church itself split over slavery; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, allowed its slaveholding members to be leaders, even bishops in the church. When legal slavery ended with the Civil War, the MECS continued in its obstinate racism, barring blacks from full participation, so there was another exodus, to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

Fast forward sixty years, through the formation of the KKK and the practice of lynchings, which were attended by white so-called Christians like they were great outdoor revivals, and in the 1930s, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, finally reconciled their nearly 100-year-old schism. And, of course, the black church paid the price of that reconciliation. A new, blacks-only, segregated jurisdiction, the Central Jurisdiction, was created as part of the unification process. Whites were divided by geography: northeast, southeast, northwest, southwest. Blacks were separated by race. The Central Jurisdiction would last officially until the 1960s, but its effects linger even today. And through it all, the black church has remained faithful. They did not run away from Jesus; they did not turn their backs on God. They stood up to the storms, even when the waves threatened to overwhelm them, and they rebuked the forces of racism, of hatred, of bigotry, and of violence in the name of Jesus Christ, the great and faithful Messiah, the Son of the Holy One.

Faithfulness is not an abstract ideal. It takes on flesh and bone and blood in the bodies of those who are faithful. It takes shape in the stories of Israel, Christ, and the black church. Will we recognize such faithfulness when we see it? Will we stand in solidarity with those who are and have been faithful? By the grace of God will we pattern our stories in the mold of Israel, of Jesus, and of our black brothers and sisters? Or, like the twelve disciples on that Galilean boat and like Jonah fleeing for Tarshish, do our stories still have no shape of faithfulness?

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