People of the Story of the Cross

I teach a class at Fuller called, “The Cross in the New Testament.” We talk a lot about atonement. But as we talk about atonement, a funny thing happens: we start to realize that the questions we tend to ask about “how the cross works to save us” are not the questions that the NT spends a lot of time answering.

And yet, this does not minimize the centrality of the cross in the NT. Instead, it tells us that our cross is much too small. Or, we’ve gotten our story wrong. Or, to put it another way, we’ve forgotten that we’re a story people and have started acting instead like we are a theology people.

Flannery O’Connor (blessed be her name) gives us a peek into the mind of the master storyteller:

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.

When we approach the story of Jesus, the story of the cross, we too often think that the story is there for the purpose of having theological data extracted from it–as though the purpose of the story is to point beyond itself to the abstract system enthroned with God in the heavenly places, unmarred by human contact. But that’s not how stories work.

We discover in the story that the very act of Jesus’ crucifixion is an expression of life lived in opposition to the coming reign of God. Jesus creates enemies by exerting a personal authority for overturning social mores, encroaching on the prerogatives of God, and refusing to raise up the Law as the highest measure of humanity’s good.

The story of the Kingdom is in conflict with the story of the world–even as that world is inhabited by people upon whom God has set God’s name.

To be a Jesus follower is to participate in a narrative that denies the narrative of the world: denies the narrative of scarcity in favor of a narrative of abundance; denies the narrative of socially defined holiness in favor of a narrative of Christ-defined righteousness.

It is a narrative that insists that anyone who is not against us is, in fact for us (we don’t have the right to circumscribe the people to those who are just like us).

And at the end, it is the Kingdom that insists that the power of God is the power to give life to the dead.

And here is where the Kingdom of the world begins to crumble under the weight of God’s greater power.

For the Babylons, Greeces, and Romes of the world, the ultimate power of coercion is the power of death. Oppose Rome and meet its sword. Rebel against Rome and meet its legions. Fail to hail Caesar and prepare to greet his gladiators. Exalt yourself as king and prepare to meet its cross.

And here is where Jesus comes in.

The life of Jesus is a testimony to a different kind of people and a different kind of power. Not the power of the life-taking king, but the power of self-giving love. More than this–not the power of the Romans in taking life on the cross, but the power of the One True God in giving life to the truly dead.

God’s reversal of the imperial death sentence was not merely the reversal of the verdict of the earth that Jesus was guilty. It was that. It was Jesus’ justification.

But it was also the warning that the ultimate power of the earth is weakness before God. It was also the warning that the ultimate wisdom of the earth is foolishness before God. Readily conquered. Easily befuddled.

That Jesus comes as a self-giving king, an embracing king, a king who refuses to take up the sword–this is the story of the Kingdom of God. This is the economy of the Kingdom. This is the world we are called to realize, to live, to story, in our life together.

This is why Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Because we are the cross people. And enacting the story of God is what the cross of Christ calls and enables us to do.

8 thoughts on “People of the Story of the Cross”

  1. Daniel, what, if any, is the relationship between the cross and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, in terms of the storied presentation of the Gospels? Any implications for the idea of “power”?

  2. “This is the world we are called to realize, to live, to story, in our life together.”

    Can it be done as a church, with its power structures, which, the more it becomes ‘one’, will be even more coercive? Eg N.T. Wright, a leading ‘story’ exponent, who thinks the continuation of the story is in a new people of God in this world monolithically unified.

  3. “It is a narrative that insists that no one who is not against us is, in fact for us (we don’t have the right to circumscribe the people to those who are just like us).”

    The double-negative in this sentence is really throwing me, but the best I can parse out of it is, “no is in fact for us, unless they’re against us” which is not only paradoxical, but doesn’t sound at all like what I expect you’re trying to get at.

  4. Great post. I have been in the process over the past few months of internalizing this way of thinking.

    When we try to use the bible simply to glean out spiritual truths and doctrine, we can miss out on the opportunity to place ourselves within the continuing story of God’s interaction with the world.

    By recognizing the story of the cross we can see the beauty of God’s ongoing redemption of the world, and continue to live out that story today.

    Thank you for so eloquently expressing your views here, it is an encouragement to read.

  5. “we too often think that the story is there for the purpose of having theological data extracted from it–as though the purpose of the story is to point beyond itself to the abstract system enthroned with God in the heavenly places”

    I agree in that “story” is not about extracting theological data. However, I do think that the gospel story does point beyond itself, not to an abstract system, but to the real system where God is enthroned. That seems to be the way the story works, say, in Hebrews and like Lewis’s Great Divorce.

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