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The danger of a single story…

March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday
Luke 22:14-62

Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of a single story (show clip from 3:03-5:11)

Today we turn the corner into Holy Week when we will remember once again the story of Christ’s passion. Is there a danger in telling the story of Christ’s passion as a single story? The whole of scripture, in fact, is sometimes reduced to one six-line narrative which centers on God’s saving work on the cross. It goes like this… God creates the earth (Eden). Adam and Eve eat the apple (Fall). Humanity is separated from God (Condemnation). God so loves the world that he sends Jesus to die on the cross (Salvation). We confess sins, pray the “sinner’s prayer,” believe in Jesus and we can be saved (Heaven), or we reject Jesus and we are damned to eternal punishment (Hell).

We are steeped in this six-line story. It is in the songs we sing.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Beautiful song…bad theology. The question is this:  How does this Single story version of the Gospel shape how we see our participation in the ongoing work of salvation?

Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Philippi includes these words: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (3:10) Here the single story of passion becomes many stories of passion. We come to know Christ not merely by praying a prayer and being assured of going to heaven when we die. We come to know Christ and the power of the resurrection as we share in his sufferings and death.

“When the hour came….”  The reading today from Luke’s gospel reminds us that God’s time breaks into our time in particular ways…in particular places.   God’s time breaks in around tables, in gardens, around charcoal fires, and in fiercely contested political battles in the public square.

God’s time is always breaking in to our ordinary moments and days…into ordinary buildings on particular pieces of earth where we walk.  “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place, the new light is shining; now is the kingdom, now is the day.” (HWB 6)

The great southern novelist, William Faulkner writes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even in the past.” And so it is with God’s time. God’s time brings together past, present and future here in this place.

At the beginning of our lesson, here in this place was a room somewhere in Jerusalem. It is the time of Passover, so Jesus gathers his disciples at table to share a simple meal that is rooted in the past—God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity. It is a meal rooted in the unfolding present—Jesus’ Kingdom way of Love confronting the powers of religion in collusion with empire (which is always violent). It is a meal rooted in eschatological HOPE. A meal that calls us to see the world through God’s preferred future not just as an evacuation project…but as a redemption project.

The tableau of this meal is etched in our mind’s eye through the brush strokes of DaVinci and through our own participation month after month here at SMC. It is a simple meal.  A loaf of bread. A cup of wine. The stuff of earth. It is a holy meal. The body of Jesus broken for the life of the world. Poured out blood of a new covenant. The stuff of heaven.

It is a meal that nourishes our relationship with Christ and each other as the body of Christ. It is a meal which unites us with the past, present and future of God’s story. It is the meal by which we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

It is a meal of vulnerable hospitality. For among those at table is one who will betray Jesus for a few coins (Judas)….and one who will deny him three times later that night (Simon). Both are welcomed by Jesus at table.

This table gathering is no different from our own families and churches—there is conflict. A dispute breaks out over who is the greatest. They want to know who is right. They look to Jesus to settle this once and for all.  Jesus does not arbitrate.  Rather, he teaches once again about servant leadership, about letting go of the need to be in control, the need to defend our rights and our position, the need to be justified. Greatness in the kingdom is not about seniority or tenure. Whether you can trace the roots of your personal and tribal faith story 300 years or 2,000 years, greatness is not determined by place at the table, but by willingness to serve (especially those who have not had a place at the table).  

Duly chastened, the disciples let these words and their meal settle. Perhaps they sit and ponder how they will apply this teaching in their new roles as a part of Jesus’ administration.  Amidst these visions of thrones and glory, Jesus turns the page and begins to turn the arc of the Story in a way that the disciples have yet to imagine or comprehend.

Jesus turns to Peter and sees something that Peter does not yet see in himself—the possibility of failure. He sees pride, fear, weakness. Peter is shocked. Surely if anyone falls away, it will not be me Lord. I am the one who named your true identity—the Messiah of God.  I confessed it with my mouth and believed it in my heart.  I am not about religion, I am about relationship.  Jesus, I got this.  If anyone denies you it will be those others—those lukewarm, ritualistic, peacenik heathen.

Jesus listens to Peter’s ambitious claims and does not respond with harsh words.  He does not tell Peter off.  He is radically patient.  Jesus looks into Peter’s eyes and heart (and into ours), sees that which needs to be sifted and he prays. He prays for Peter and for us–that our faith may not fail when we go through the sifting—when we begin to see the logs in our own eyes. He prays that once we have stumbled and gotten back up, we will have a more healthy appreciation for our brokenness and for the mercy of God. He knows that it is from this place that we will be able to help our sisters and brothers.

There is no footwashing service after the meal in Luke’s gospel. Just a few more striking metaphors and parting words before leaving the table. Jesus is talking about purses and bags…about selling cloaks and buying swords. A quick inventory finds two swords. Jesus says that is enough. Surely this is the moment they have been waiting for—the day the God of Israel will make things right in Jerusalem.

They get up from table and the sifting begins. Jesus asks the disciples to watch and pray with him in the Mount of Olives.  They fall asleep. Peter’s good intentions and self-assured words cannot keep his heavy eyelids from closing when Jesus needs him most.

The sifting continues in the same garden when a crowd comes along led by Judas. There is the kiss of betrayal in the presence of the chief priests and the temple police. The Story of triumphant revolution is hanging by a thread. The moment calls for drastic action.

“Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Lord, our freedom is being assaulted. They are coming to destroy all we have worked for these last three years. They are coming with an evil agenda. We must act now. We can organize militia groups and send a clear message that we’re not going to stand for this. We need to defeat these #@$+@*~$.  Slice.

But Jesus now makes clear that this is not going to be a violent revolution. “No more of this!” He touches the ear of the slave and heals him.

The single Story of glory, thrones and cabinet positions now begins to totally unravel. Characters and scenes begin to unfold before Peter’s eyes in a blur. It is all a bit out of body. When this happens, you stand at the edge. You are angry. You want to lash out and take back control of the story. You are fearful and confused. When you open your mouth the words come out all wrong. You aren’t the person you thought you were. This isn’t the Story you thought it was. You want to run and hide.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, or maybe the next day, you reflect on the descent that is happening. The descent from miracles and feedings of multitudes. The descent from mountaintop visions of Jesus together with Moses, Elijah and you. The descent from waving palm branches and triumphant political rallies. The descent to Jesus being scourged and mocked. The descent to Jesus being framed as a religious heretic…as treacherous political figure.

In this dark place of uncertainty, you begin to remember that Jesus said a sifting would happen. You now begin to see that which Jesus saw in your life. It is not pretty. Something false has come into view. A false identity based on greatness. A false sense of your own goodness. A false sense of your own importance—that somehow you are more than a stagehand in this unfolding Story. In this dark place, you begin to let go of the false and embrace a gift of grace—your true self. Naked, weak, vulnerable. Jesus is with you in this place. Peace begins to enfold you as you let go…

In this dark place of letting go, something old is dying. Something new is being resurrected. You know that however the story turns out, you will be okay…

This is the journey we are on—a journey of death and resurrection. A journey of letting go again and again, of trusting God in the midst of the unknowns of the unfolding story of our lives—individually and as a community.

Letting go happens in particular places…at particular times.  So I have invited Dave and Dalina to share their stories of letting go.

Dave (:28-6:11)…Dalina (1:06-5:04)

I pray that you may know Christ and the power of his resurrection as you share of his sufferings—by becoming like him in his death. Christ’s passion—one Story…many stories.

Response:  Litany of God’s Faithfulness (this litany was a part of Celebration of Church Life for LMC last weekend)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Vince permalink
    March 31, 2010 4:20 pm

    Hey Brian,
    I had a couple questions …

    First, I was wondering if you could elaborate on what constitutes “bad theology” in the song “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us”? The song doesn’t contain most of the points that you mentioned in the “six-line story”. (Eden, Fall, Condemnation, Salvation, Heaven, Hell)

    Second, as Chimamanda Adichie shared about the dangers of a single story she also acknowledged the benefits of each individual story to which she was exposed (siting the benefits of Western literature on her life and imagination). Though you may not feel that Christ’s “atoning” work on the cross is the only story to consider, don’t you feel that it is a critical story in understanding the happenings of Holy Week?

    Thanks Brian,

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    March 31, 2010 4:46 pm

    Hi Vince,
    There would be a number of examples from the lyrics of this song that point to how it is influenced by a ransom theory of atonement. For example, “His wounds have paid my ransom” The ransom theory of atonement is but one dimension of the saving work of Jesus on the cross. It is possible to identify strengths and weaknesses to the various atonement theories. Perhaps it would have been better to say that the theology behind the song is weak or incomplete. One question for the Ransom theory of atonement would be this: to whom is the ransom paid?

    For reading on the various theories or “models” of atonement, I would highly recommend Rodney Clapp, “A Peculiar People”

    Here is another good resource:

    There would be other dimensions to what Jesus does on the cross that have often been minimized. Christus Victor, for example, would emphasize that through his death and resurrection, Christ defeats the Powers of sin and death.

    I used Chimamanda Adichie’s “the danger of a single story” language as a metaphor. My point was that we are called to participate in the suffering and death of Christ, so that we might share in his resurrection (Phil. 3:10). We are also called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. All our stories are an opportunity to be united with Christ.

    My point is not to diminish the significance of the Jesus story within history, but rather to broaden our appreciation for how that work invites us to participate with Christ on the journey of salvation. We see this illustrated in Peter’s life in the text. Western tradition (particularly Protestant and evangelical streams) have emphasized conversion as a single event. I think that if we pay careful attention to scripture and the teachings of historic Christianity we will appreciate that salvation is an ongoing journey of healing and transformation as we participate in the life of the church (the body of Christ).

    May you be blessed as we celebrate the Resurrection!!


  3. Vince permalink
    April 2, 2010 4:12 pm


    Thanks for the reply. About the song, it actually seems to me that the song could be interpreted as representing a couple different views of the atonement … the “ransom” view, held by early church fathers does seem to be present as evidenced by the word “ransom”. The “To whom?” question is a legitimate one but uncertainty about the answer shouldn’t preclude the use of the term. Jesus himself used the term to describe his life and subsequent death “The Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mar 10.45 That seems to give the term some credibility.

    The primary view represented by the song, however, isn’t the ransom theory (in my opinion) … it’s actually the Penal Substitutionary Theory. Which seems to also have a fairly broad list of scriptural statements and allusions from which to draw.

    So, all that to say this … while you may not be of the opinion that the Penal Substitutionay nature of the atonement was central to Christ’s work on the cross, there is a sense in which it does apply right? If so, then it doesn’t seem like bad theology, or even weak theology to have a single song focused on that aspect of the cross. Much like it wouldn’t be bad or weak theology to write a song that focuses on Christ’s moral example of obedience (Moral Example Theory). Unless you’re suggesting that every song dealing with the subject must treat all the various understandings of the cross with the same amount of verbiage. This has special interest to me as a song leader.

    About the nature of salvation … I agree with you that scriptures indicate in many different places that our salvation has a ongoing element to it. There are a large number of Christians today that seem to believe that just because they got emotional and said a prayer at some point that they are guaranteed heaven and therefore don’t really have to worry too much about what is going on here on this Earth … this is a profound mistake and one that will result in much weeping and gnashing of teeth. However, I think that we run the risk of swinging too far the other direction in denying that there is an event known as “salvation”. We must not forget that the evangelical axiom that you referenced (with a bit of tongue-in-cheek) “confess with your mouth believe in your heart” is scripture. We’ve got to embrace the complexity of our salvation in encouraging people to experience the “event” of salvation while at the same time encouraging them to continue “working out their salvation” here on the Earth. Would you agree?

    He is risen!


  1. More reflections on theories of atonement… « just an apprentice
  2. Reflections on theories of atonement (Part 3) « just an apprentice

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