The life of Jesus is at the center of our faith, yet often we seem to skip straight from his birth to his death when teaching discipleship. The result is that his amazing life story of healing, liberation and generosity has little impact on how we plan our lives and guide our congregations.
So what can we learn from the frequently overlooked portions of the life of Jesus? Many things, of course, but I’ve found these five lessons to be extremely important, and I’ve incorporated questions for contemplation with each of the lessons.
1. Rethinking the Biblical Story
Jesus turned the Israelite’s view of God upside down. He showed them that God is not about judgment and criticism, but love and forgiveness. Jesus helps us see that our views of God are distorted by empire builders and power grabbers who laud wealth and control over freedom and equality. It’s startling how easily we buy into their story.
At the center of human history is a God who cares deeply not just for “the chosen people,” but also for prodigals, prostitutes, refugees and gentiles. God wants to overturn injustice, dispel oppression and heal disease and is doing everything possible to restore all of creation to wholeness.
My rethinking of the Biblical story has been shaped by some radical theologians. One of them is Ched Myers, whose understanding of the Parable of the Talents rocked my boat a few years ago. Another is Mark Brett, who challenges us with his contention that God’s intent for human freedom, equality and prosperity has been twisted through faulty interpretation into a mandate for the strong to subjugate the weak.
– When was the last time you read theology that took you outside your comfort zone?
– Where does God still seek to turn your Biblical understanding upside down?
2. Don’t Just Talk
I have a hard time with armchair Christians, and Jesus’ life story constantly encourages me not to become one. Jesus didn’t just talk about all the right things to do, he did them. I meet a lot of armchair activists at church, people who know about all the right things and encourage others to do them, yet they never get involved themselves. James asks, “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?”
Passive faith does not bring wholeness to ourselves or to others. Our best theological education occurs not in the classroom, but on the streets. Christ followers do what Jesus did—heal the sick, talk to outcasts, upset the economic systems (or whatever the equivalent of knocking over the money tables in the temple is in our society). In the process we will be radically changed.
– Where have you settled for words without actions in your faith?
– How can you become more involved in the radical way of Jesus?
3. Immerse Yourself in the Gospel Story
My husband and I read the daily lectionary readings from the Book of Common prayer. This walks us through the gospels every year, immersing us in the story and encouraging us to do as Jesus did.
I love the way the readings share a story from the life of Jesus and connect it back to Old Testament origins. For example, when Jesus says the poor will always be with us, his audience would immediately have thought of the Deuteronomic Code, which states, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). They knew his words were not an excuse to ignore the poor. Rather, they were an admonition to those who were indifferent.
How often do we misunderstand what Jesus means or find excuses not to respond because we don’t know the connections? Jesus knew what the scriptures said and was therefore less vulnerable to the attacks of the devil in the desert and to the attacks of the Pharisees and Sadducees in society.
– In which areas of life do you become vulnerable to spiritual attacks and criticism because your life is not immersed in the gospel story?
4. Party the Story
N.T. Wright says everywhere Jesus went there was a party (The Challenge of Jesus). Jesus enjoyed life and brought celebration to others. He turned water into wine at a wedding, multiplied fish and loaves to feed thousands, and made breakfast on the beach for his friends. I can’t imagine that any of these were somber occasions.
When I was on the Mercy Ship Anastasis, we held a Highways and Byways Feast in each port. Drawing from the parable in Luke 14 in which the host sent out servants into the streets and country lanes, crew members went out into the neighbourhoods and invited people back for dinner. It was one of my favourite celebrations, bringing the joy of food and fellowship to many who were rarely invited into a home. Often the meal forged lasting friendships with people at the margins.
More recently I learnt about a church in Southern California that held a Pentecost Chili Cookout, an event created to invite neighbourhood people into celebration and into the gospel story in a fresh way.
Meals change people; Fellowship around the dining room table is probably the most effective form of discipleship and evangelism.
– What is one idea you have for a party that revolves around the life of Jesus?
– How might you use celebration to concretize your own faith and invite others into your faith journey?
5. Write Your Own Story
Painting rocks, planting gardens, and writing prayers draw me close to God. Experimenting with these creative expressions convinces me that the ongoing creativity of God can be lived out in our lives and faith.
Don’t get stuck in the ruts of stale spiritual practices and rituals. Jesus played with mud, drew in the dirt, talked to outcasts, and held children on his lap, all outside the Jewish understanding of spiritual practices. Such innovation helps us rethink our own practices—from how we pray or read scripture to how we record our journeys. We can reinvent the ways we reach out into our neighbourhood and world so they are appropriate for today’s context.
When Tom worked in Haiti, his Haitian friends shared their frustrations with Americans who were always anxious to get to the end of a journey, to reach the destination. For Haitians it was the journey itself that mattered most; they made new friends, learnt new skills and shared life creating new stories to share.
– Are your faith practices stuck in a rut?
– What is one creative exercise you could learn from the revolutionary practices of Jesus that could transform your faith?
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