I’ve been listening to and thinking through some ideas by N.T. Wright in regards to mission. He’s got a great quote regarding mission, “What Jesus was for Israel, the Church is to be for the world.” The Church is implementing the phenomenal reality of humanity’s return from exile, accomplished uniquely in Christ. We are calling people back to be the image of God as he originally intended, to embrace their vocation of bearing God’s creative stewardship into the world.
One of the implications that Wright unpacks from his quote is the power of symbol and story. He says that Jesus’ parables were answers to questions evoked by his actions as he redefined the symbols and story of God’s people.
Therefore, as part of the contemporary Church’s mission, we should not spend so much time trying to make Jesus’ parables relevant for our generation. Rather, God’s people should be living in such a way that we draw questions from those who live, work and play with us. And as these questions are asked, we must answer with fresh parables that retell the ongoing story of humanity’s return from exile.
Wright also cautions Christians from underestimating the power of symbol. We have been so immersed in modern Enlightenment thinking that we buy into grandiose ideas of transforming our world with sweeping and momentous projects. We might feel that symbolic living isn’t worth our effort unless it affects widespread change. But there is power in symbol and story. We should be living our lives in symbolic ways, or as Wright puts it, planting flags in hostile soil. These symbols – little ways in which we incarnate God’s Story and bring his creative stewardship and redemptive love to the world – are as powerful today as in Jesus’ day. They raise questions. People want to know why we have chosen to live by an alternate way. And these questions provide the opportunities to tell stories and parables that point to the reality that is in Christ.
As these opportunities occur, we cannot throw doctrine, principles or “spiritual laws” at people. Those are foreign to the gospel. We must offer story, safety, community and a new praxis of life. This can only flow from a Spirit-driven missional life of creative goodness. It can’t be found in structure or lack of structure. It can’t be found in program or lack of program. It’s found in the creative and missional heart of God, intentionally sought after and implemented through an incarnational lifestyle.
Tonight we looked at the wedding at Cana in John 2. This is a perfect example of Jesus’ ability to plant those symbolic flags – wine from purification jugs, a Podunk town in Galilee rather than the temple in Jerusalem, a wedding rather than religious ceremony.
Jesus’ symbols are transformative in that they are completely redefining God’s Story. Everything the 1st century Jews have known is correct, but now taking a completely different direction than they expected. They are hearing a very familiar in a very unfamiliar way.
Jesus’ symbols are subversive in that they require faith to see. Jesus never gives any kind of sermon or explanation for the sign. But it is pivotal moment for his students in that they put their faith and loyalty in him. I heard one person refer to Jesus’ signs as “manhole covers.” They are very subtle, revealing something deep and subterranean and easily missed if not looked for.
Jesus’ symbols are winsome in that they touch real life. Who could look negatively at the generous and overflowing heart of God toward a young newlywed couple?
Jesus’ symbols are scandalous. Why purification jars? Why not use some other vessels to hold the wine? I mean, what would the neighbors say when they found wine in those purification jars? It was risky, yet part of the renewed Story Jesus was telling.
So here are some questions I’m asking myself: What are relevant symbols that I can plant in my normal daily life that will evoke the proper questions from those around me? How can I intentionally live so that I embody, demonstrate and announce God’s Story of humanity’s return from exile? How can my time, my money, my family, my home, my work, my play, my interests, my neighborhood and all the other facets of life be used symbolically? Can it be done in a way that is winsome and not “weird?” And am I willing to take the risk of being completely misunderstood, even by those who should understand?