Our journey through the Bible in a year has started to feel a little…well…déjà vu-ish. The books of Chronicles are thought to be a reworking of the history of Judah in particular, written a couple of hundred years after the return from Babylonian exile. It contains chapters stuffed full of genealogies, not the most exciting of reading – but it’s important to remember that this is all part of establishing a sense of cultural identity: who we are is who we were.
My thoughts this week are turned more, however, to the unseen editor working behind the scenes to retell the story in a way that tries to make clear that the whole exile experience had been part of a much bigger story of covenant (un)faithfulness. In essence, the people got what they deserved because they turned their backs on YAHWEH to embrace idolatry – as Tom Wright puts it, the greatest of sins, that which leads us to corrupt our very nature as God-image bearers and stewards of the world God has given us. The editor doesn’t pull his punches – but he does re-work his material to present David as the very model of the Messianic Priest/King that the people would once again see if they could only return to the original covenant. He turns his back on some of the messy stories that we have already heard in Samuel and Kings, choosing instead to play up David’s greatness. This would become the main focus of the theological imagination of second temple Judaism and the background to the life and ministry of Jesus.
We learn here, therefore, that it’s vital for us to revisit the stories that have shaped us, and possibly even rework or reinterpret them to help us make sense of what we’re currently experiencing. I’ve written previously about how I view the Bible, and how this has helped me to understand so much more of what it can and can’t be for us today. In a way, I guess I feel like we are still live in the Acts phase of the New Testament, and like the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, we’re still trying to make sense of what it is that the story we have inherited is telling us.
There’s a particularly powerful part of the story of the Jerusalem council that I think helps us here in this task of faithfully reinterpreting and retelling our shared story. Paul has started to spread the good news about Jesus beyond the ethnic boundaries of Judaism, reaching out beyond the diaspora into the gentile (non-Jewish) world, all the time developing a new theological understanding of what has happened – although actually, he sees it more as a fulfilment of the call for Israel to be a light to the nations. Others in the new church see this move away from its Jewish identity as utterly wrong. The ‘Judaizers’ believe that the call to follow Jesus is inherently Jewish, and that to follow means to embrace the Law – in all its circumcising glory!
The council of Jerusalem meet to discuss this, and after hearing both sides of the discussion, praying and meditating, come to a decision which is then communicated to the emerging Christian communities across the Roman Empire. The author of Acts tells it like this:
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:”. Acts 15:28 (NIVUK)
‘It seemed good..’ – what a powerful and prophetic phrase loaded with exciting potential for those who faithfully seek to understand how we might try to follow Jesus in a complicated and evolving world. Permission to be creative, to seek to embrace new ways of understanding what the story might be telling us – as long as we can remain faithful to the covenant faithfulness that has been the underlying rhythm of the whole story.
What would it look like if we were to take an approach like the editor and Chronicles and the Jerusalem council? What if we saw ourselves not as the guardians of a closed, untouchable and immutable text, but storytellers of a living, breathing, unending narrative, called to shape and rework it to help it provide a way to live today? This isn’t about a sense of constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure we haven’t gone astray, but being so deeply rooted in our story that we can look firmly before us, so attuned to how YAHWEH works that we can sense God’s work ahead of us.
It remains my firm belief that our core purpose as Jesus followers is to embrace the missio dei – the mission of God in restoring and rebuilding and renewing all of creation into its intended glory. To help fulfil this, we must remember that we are bearers of the imago dei – the image of God, which makes every single life spectacularly sacred, and which gives us the creative urge and permission to go wherever the Spirit leads us.
If we are faithful to these twin principles then life becomes full of potential and purpose. If we lose them, our religion becomes grasping hold of what has been and forget that instead we must focus on what we might become.
Think of the creative force, the permission to rethink, to reinterpret, to include, to love…
Think of all the ways in which we can be good news…
Think of a world transformed…
That’s worth living for, isn’t it?