Peter's Blog

The Three Big Stories

Written by Peter Johnston on .

On Sunday night we had the first discussion evening for our Autumn Living the Questions series. This first night was based around Restoring Relationships. It was a fascinating discussion that had deep resonances with a lot of other things I have been thinking about recently.

The DVD introduction gave us insight into the three "big stories" of the Bible: the Exodus from bondage in Egypt, the period of Exile in Babylon, and the Temple system of sacrifices.

From these three "big stories" we can see salvation in different ways:  

  1. From the Exodus story it is liberation.
  2. From the Exile story it is the sense of "coming home".
  3. From the Temple system it is the idea of sacrifice leading to salvation.

The point was made, and one with which I agree, that the third of these stories has come to dominate our understanding of salvation in Western Christianity. We talk about Jesus' sacrifice for us, about him dying for our sins, and about the sacrifice we then make as his followers. There is nothing wrong with that, it is a powerful way to understand Jesus. But, it is not the only way to understand salvation or to experience salvation, as the two other "big stories" in the Bible also tell us something of God's saving power for us.

Liberating Hope

The idea of liberation as a means of salvation has spoken to oppressed people for centuries. If you imagine living within a totalitarian regime, as many have done in Central America where liberation theology has been strongly advocated, then the idea of salvation as providing liberation from the bondage of repression speaks powerfully to people's lives, giving them hope and something in which to have faith. It perhaps gives us a deeper insight into what the Palestinian people are going through at the moment as they are literally walled in with nowhere to escape, or the Tibetan people under authoritarian Chinese rule.

Talking about sin and forgiveness in that context may not resonate as well as liberation does, indeed it may even make matters worse, "Am I living in bondage because I have sinned? Is God punishing me?"

In our service on Sunday morning we talked about bondage and slavery using the letter to Philemon,  recognising too that it was Racial Justice Sunday. We saw the underlying message of Paul to Philemon that he was to relinquish his power in order to recognise his slave, Onesimus, as a brother, an equal. Radical stuff for the day. Liberating for Onesimus if Philemon plucked up the courage to do it, but perhaps also liberating for Philemon to live out the true meaning of relationships restored that Jesus shows us. Though this would undoubtedly be at a cost for Philemon in the disrespect he would suffer from his peers for his weakness towards his unruly slave.

I heard recently at a church I was visiting a christian woman talking about someone they knew who was suffering from drug addiction: heroin and crack. The female addict said to her, "I just feel so worthless..." and she had responded, "Well, you are! We all are! In God's eyes we are all worthless sinners..." My heart broke for that drug addict hearing those words. Is that the message, the one about sin and sacrifice, that was going to help her? I had a feeling that the salvation message of liberation from what binds us would have spoken much more powerfully to give her hope to escape her addictions.

The Return to the Promised Land

The exile story is based around the trauma inflicted upon the Israelites when the Babylonian Empire expanded and mass population uprooting occurred. All that the Israelites knew was ripped from them. "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept for you Zion." It had a deep impact on the people of God who in their fear for lost heritage, started to write down the stories that had been handed down from generation to generation. 

While not usually enforced, ex-pats can feel the same way when living in a country far from home. A Scot abroad can become even more Scottish - holding on to their Scottish identity fiercely - in the face of the different culture they find themselves in. And we see the same thing in other ethnic groups that come to the UK and who naturally hold together and try to maintain some of their own identity.

This is surely totally natural. Yet, within this longing for the homeland, the longing for the place where our roots are found we find another message of salvation. It has its echoes in Jesus' story about the two sons, the one who squanders everything and then seeks to find his salvation in the return home to his family.

It is the theme that, without realising the richness of its theological implications, the Scottish Parliament has tapped into with the Homecoming Scotland 2009 initiative.

I suspect most of us have felt at some point or another in our lives a bit lost. Perhaps with the move to a different area, perhaps with family upheaval, a change of job or career, or even the loss of loved ones. What we know is ripped from us and we find we are living in a strange land, a different place, without the support around us that we once knew. 

And to people in that situation this exilic salvation from God speaks profoundly - that in God we can find our true home. a way back to the promised land. Reconciliation.

The Temple Sacrifice

With the return from exile the Temple as an institution became ever more important and the priests who ran the Temple became similarly more important. 

At the same time the system of sacrifices became ever more complicated and entwined in the understanding of the people. Sins had to be repaid, a sacrifice had to be made, and hence the Temple became the hive of activity that we find it when Jesus turns up and in horror makes his stand at the desecration of his Father's house, supposedly a place of prayer.

Was it simply the number of transactions and the profiteering that Jesus was rejecting? Or was it the whole practice of sacrifices that Jesus was rejecting as he overturned the tables in the temple court? In our discussion on Sunday night we considered that this deeper level of meaning may be behind Jesus' actions.

If this is the case, then what would it mean for the sacrificial model of Jesus' death? Would it not be a bitter irony if one of the reasons Jesus was arrested and crucified was to make a stand against the system of sacrifices, saying that this is not what God wants of us, and then he is depicted as the great sacrifice by the early church?

We are so used to the language of "Jesus died for our sins" that perhaps we don't even realise that this sacrificial way of thinking about salvation is not the only way. Did Jesus not also bring us liberation? Did he not also help us find our way back home? "I am the way..."

When It Comes Home To Roost

Most interesting to me after a discussion that moved around all the areas above (I should say in a light-hearted way that may not be adequately recorded here!) was when it came down to the nitty gritty. We had a long discussion about prisons, about reconciliation and forgiveness, of the death penalty and what society should do with people who have committed despicable acts.

This was prompted by the last speaker on the DVD, Sr. Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking and an activist against the death penalty in the USA.

Though I did not share this in the discussion, I also was thinking about a recent poll of Christians in the Southern States of America, that showed a majority supporting the use of torture.

The poll found that when these same Christians were reminded about the golden rule that Jesus spoke about, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," then they changed their mind and only a minority felt that torture was justified.

Their previous support for torture was not a decision made through the lens of their faith, it was a gut reaction particularly in response to terrorist acts. 

So, with that in my mind, it was interesting to hear others, after our discussion of salvation, of reconciliation and liberation, struggle with what to do with those who have committed crimes. Can there be space for forgiveness? How can we welcome them back into the community? How can they be liberated from acts committed years in the past?

We do find it so difficult to forgive. I count myself in that same boat. The example of Gordon Wilson was mentioned in the discussion. His example has been very important to me in my own understanding of forgiveness, having read a book about that awful time written by his wife. His forgiveness of those who planted a bomb in Enniskillen that killed his daughter Marie, still resonates.

Isn't it into these seemingly beyond hope situations that God's love reaches? Into the actions that are simply beyond our understanding - "How could someone do that?" - God can yet make a difference. And into these situations it is Christ's death because of our sins and his resurrection that show us that there is hope, that we are to look and work to make a better thing happen. We don't fall into the same trap of retribution and violence that others seek, that is what Jesus shows us on the cross. The powers of the day tried that and it didn't work in the face of God's overpowering love.

In love we too can make that stand: to help those who need liberation find it, to help those who are desperately searching for their home, and to help those wracked by sin to find forgiveness. 

Sr. Prejean ended the DVD with a profound wee quote from Ghandi that is worth remembering as we think what we can do to help restore relationships, bring healing and peace, and find liberation and reconciliation.

"Embody the change you seek."

In other words, live it out for ourselves. Don't just talk about it, do it. If there is someone we have wronged, make a reconciliation. If there is something that holds us in bondage, seek liberation from it. Jesus walks the way with us.