The Importance of Story
D – Dialogue about the gospel
This morning we are continuing the BREAD series on mission. Continuing with the letter D, we are looking at the importance of story.
The purpose of John 1:1-18
John 1:1-18, is the prologue or introduction to John’s gospel. It is sometimes described as being like a porch into the gospel. It is built into the gospel, contains many of its themes, and yet is in some ways set apart from it and different.
Often prologues to books are written after the main body of the book has been completed. The author can reflect on the book and provide the reader with the perfect introduction to the book to prepare them for what is to come; and to help them understand it. Some scholars think that John 1:1-18 was written in much the same way as contemporary book prologues: That it, despite it running straight into the gospel smoothly, without a break, it was likely written subsequent to the main portion of the gospel. And like other prologues it was written by the same author, but after much reflection on the gospel, and written to prepare the reader for what is to come. It’s similarities to the letter of 1st John also imply that John wrote the prologue himself, but possibly at a slightly later date than the main gospel.
And I think John took quite a bit of time over this prologue – getting it just right. The careful poetic structure that runs through much of it implies that. And I believe that John intended the reader of the prologue to use it to give greater depth into their understanding of the gospel.
As I was thinking about poetic prologues it was the Fresh Prince of Bel air came to my mind. The Fresh Prince of Bel air was a TV show that ran through the early 90’s featuring Will Smith as the main character. For those who don’t know, the theme tune is pretty awesome. It’s a rap, and it is sung by Will Smith in the character he plays on the show as the fresh prince of Bel Air. The rap tells the story of how the character, Will, moved from West Philadelphia to LA to move in long term with his auntie and Uncle and cousins. You could watch the TV show without its theme tune; but without it it would be much harder to make sense of the show, and of why Will is the character that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Bel Air family.
V18: made known
Kind of like the theme for the Fresh Prince, John 1:1-18 is important if we want to understand the stories in John’s gospel well. As the prologue comes to a close it says this in v18. ‘No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.’ The Greek word used here for make known is ἐξηγέομαι. Whenever it is used in the New Testament it means to draw out in narrative, to tell the story in full. Other than in John 1:18 it only appears in Luke’s books of Luke and Acts, and each time Luke uses it he is talking about someone telling others stories about what they have experienced. For that reason, a scholar called Andreas Kostenberger writes in his commentary on John, that in the final words of his introduction John makes the important point that the entire gospel to follow should be read as an account of Jesus telling the whole story of God the Father.
Who is Jesus?
If the prologue tells us that we should read this gospel as Jesus telling the whole story of God with his life and ministry, it also tells us the story of who Jesus is and why he is the one to tell this story, a bit like how the theme to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air is an introduction to who Will is and why he is telling the stories that follow in the TV series.
Pre-Creation vv1-3 (v18)
So, lets go back to the beginning of the prologue and find out who Jesus is and why he is telling the story of God: The words ‘in the beginning’ that open the prologue take us all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis 1, before the world was made. It was ‘in the beginning’ that God created everything. John says that the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word is different in person, yet everything that can be said about God can be said about the Word.
In the beginning God speaks, and his words create. The first thing the Word creates is light, because without light there cannot be life. Light and life are closely connected both in Genesis and in John’s gospel.
In-between creation and Incarnation vv4-5 (vv16-17)
The light communicates life and gives mankind spiritual insight. Spiritual insight brings with it the responsibility to act on God’s Word. But whilst still in the opening chapters of Genesis the light and life that came by God’s Word wasn’t taken seriously enough and death entered the world. Death and darkness in John’s gospel represent spiritual blindness and separation from God.
Even though death and darkness came into the world in Genesis the light kept shining in the darkness. God loves his world and so the darkness couldn’t fully take hold of the light of life to snuff it out. The light keeps evading the grasp of darkness, maybe because the darkness can’t understand it. That is the hope we have. There will always be the light of life, and connection to God, no matter how much Spiritual darkness we think we see.
Life and light are in God’s words, and after creation God continued speaking. God spoke and worked through the likes of Abraham, Jacob, and others. Later God spoke through Moses, specifically in the giving of the law. But an even greater kindness was still to come. The Word that brings light and life was about to come in a very personal way bringing renewed and richer grace and truth in the form of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
Incarnation vv9-11 &14
The centre part of the prologue, verses 9-14 are all about how the Word of God became a human being. He became flesh. He was not something heavenly and spiritual that just took on human appearance, he was in every way human. He was born a baby, and grew up as any child does, trying to make sense of who he was and his place in the world. The story Luke tells of Jesus aged 12 in the temple shows part of Jesus trying to make sense of his world.
It is in John’s gospel that we can see the most human aspects of Jesus. Out of all the gospel writers John most clearly articulates Jesus’ emotions and frailties. John 4:16 says that Jesus was tired, John:11:35 says Jesus wept; and three times in John Jesus is deeply upset and troubled inside: when he cries over Lazarus in John 11; when he starts thinking about his approaching death in John 12; and when he becomes acutely aware he is about to be betrayed in John 13. The Word became flesh puts Jesus into history and gives a starting point for a real human being. This human came into the world in a concrete way and lived as a Jew from an insignificant region called Galilee. A Galilean Jew growing up in a small town, that nobody thought very much of, called Nazareth.
He made his dwelling among us. Which in other words means he came to stay and to live. A bit like when Will turns up at his auntie and uncles house in the TV program: the Fresh Prince of Bel Air: Will went to live with his Bel Air family – his uncle, auntie, and cousins – long term. The Word came to live long term on earth.
The Word coming to us as a human being by the name of Jesus is of as much importance as creation. It was another new beginning. The Greek for made his dwelling among us can be equally translated ‘he pitched his tent among us’, or ‘he tabernacled among us’. John is purposely taking us back to the Old Testament when the Jewish people were wandering in the wilderness, but God was with them in the tabernacle. Jesus takes the place of the tabernacle or temple. But he came much more personally, walking about amongst the people. God’s Word with skin on.
God’s words becoming flesh and telling the story of God is the key to the whole gospel. Only humans can tell stories that other humans can relate to. In the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Wil stands out in his posh wider family. Although he goes to live in Bel Air he came from a rough area in West Philadelphia. He brought something different with him from West Philadelphia. In the program he impacted his family in a positive way, despite them finding it hard to relate to him. Will brought to the Bel Air family home a kind of fresh atmosphere. And Although Jesus came to move in on earth as a Galilean Jew there was something different about him. He brought a kind of fresh atmosphere with him: He brought his life with God and eternity with him. Jesus told the story of God to the 1st century Jews he came to live with them, telling the whole story of God to them whilst connecting with them as his own family.
Why Jesus can tell the story
Jesus is able to tell the whole story of God because he is the Word of God. In the beginning he was with God and was God. His relationship with God is so close that he is able to embody and personify the life-giving words of God. But he was also a human, able to relate God’s word in terms of human experience, and the stories of being human. Part of the significance of being human was that he was fully involved in the limitations of that humanity. That included the limitations of time and space, and of culture. He was only able to tell God’s story really well to one particular culture, that of 1st century Judaism in Galilee and the surrounding areas. Jesus could bring God’s story in a personal and relevant way to those around him.
Passing on the story
Although John 1vv11 & 14 tell us that Jesus became flesh and that he came to a very specific people in time and space, this poetic prologue finds its climax in the centre. It is a chiastic structure which is a fancy term for a mirror image structure, where the end and the beginning relate to each other all the way in to the centre. The central declaration, which is in vv12-13, moves the coming of the Word beyond the Jews, and out to the whole world. His story is for everyone. Many of the Jews did not receive Jesus but vv12-13 say: ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’ To all means the whole world: the light of life in Jesus is freely available to anyone in any time or any place.
John states the purpose of his gospel in chapter 20:vv30-31, it is the very last statement before his epilogue. John’s statement of purpose says this: ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ The purpose is that you, whoever you are, may have life in Jesus’ name. John could tell the story of Jesus in this gospel because he was the disciple whom Jesus loved. He was close enough to Jesus to experience him enough to tell the story of Jesus.
Pam spoke a couple of weeks ago from John 12. In John 12 Jesus is thinking about what will be accomplished when he is lifted up – in other words what will be accomplished when he dies. He says this: ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ He is the single seed that must die to produce many seeds. The context of the passage is that some Greeks want to get to know Jesus and become his followers. In that moment Jesus realises his job is done. It is time to move beyond the Jews, and reach the Greeks. But that is not his job. The stories of other people will relate better to the Greeks. The Greeks will tell others, and God’s story will go out to the ends of the earth bit by bit, across geography and time in the power of the Holy Spirit. A power that can only come fully once Jesus has died. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the light that Jesus brought into the world, now multiples into millions of lights, reflected from Jesus.
Jesus grew up in a quite random, not well known, and kind of looked down on, little town called Nazareth in the region of Galilee. He came to the Jews because he was born a Jew. We live in a quite random region of Scotland called Fife. Our church is in a fairly insignificant wee town in West Fife called Rosyth. It is kind of connected to the larger and more well-known town of Dunfermline. Our little corner of the world is West Fife in Scotland. We can relate best to other folks from this area, and across Scotland in general because our stories relate to them. The best people to tell the story of Jesus to the people of West Fife are the people who know and understand West Fife because they have come to live there too.
The power of story
Jesus told the whole story of God, John has given us his story of Jesus in his gospel, and now it is our turn to tell just a little something of that story. We pass on the story of Jesus, as we begin to grow in our knowledge of him and then live our lives as folks who live in West Fife who know and love Jesus. As well as living our lives we can pass on something of the story of the gospel by telling stories about our lives.
As human beings the most powerful way that we can relate to one another is by telling stories. Have you ever noticed how much of what we do is story? When you are remembering something, you remember it in story format. When you dream or daydream you are imagining stories. Everything we are and do is narrative. Stories are how we think and make meaning in life.
I actually really enjoy reading non-fiction books. I enjoy learning concepts. But if I put down a book about God or about church that is not written in story and pick up something that is written in story my brain goes ‘ah now that is much easier.’
I can read for longer, I can read quicker, and I can read with greater enjoyment when I am reading something that is written as a story. Sometimes books that teach concepts use aspects of story within them and the sections that are written in story tend to be much easier to read and be much more enjoyable than the sections that aren’t.
My absolute favourite kind of non-fiction is stories about people’s lives. I like to learn about people and what it is that makes them who they are. At the moment I am reading an autobiography by one of my favourite TV personalities, the documentary maker Louis Theroux. Reading about his early life has actually really surprised me, and I am enjoying reading a little bit before going to sleep at night. I struggle to read books that are mainly abstract concepts and non-story right before sleeping as my brain is tired, but I can read story no problem, and I believe it calms my mind and helps me sleep.
Stories talk about real human experiences, they engage our imaginations, our intellect, and our emotions. There is something comforting and familiar about stories; and we can picture ourselves in the story as well, almost feeling like active participants; feeling the emotions of the story.
When we tell others stories about ourselves and our lives we are able to share with other people both our sadness and joy; and we can share something of the meaning in our lives. And if our lives are impacted by and for Jesus then that should naturally come out in our stories. For those listening story helps them connect with is. If we were to tell a friend about Jesus in a teaching kind of way, they might put up defences and not really listen; but if we tell stories that they can relate to all the defences come down and differences are overcome. Stories are the best way to persuade people because they engage the listener with both information and emotions.
Actually, stories help us understand ourselves better, as well as creating connections with others. So, when we tell stories about ourselves it might even help us to see better what God is doing in our lives as well as helping others see God at work in the world. The best way to tell stories is simply to tell them with no further explanation, and let the story impact the other person wherever they are, and in whatever way works for them. We can tell the stories, but how the stories affect the other person is out of our hands and in God’s hands.
I am part of a very small group of people that meet once a week to do a bit of fun exercise together. During that exercise stories are almost always told: we warm up, and stretch whilst discussing life and telling stories. I am a quiet person and mostly listen to the stories of others, but I need to get better at telling my own stories. I sometimes go along to this group feeling tired, and maybe even a bit down. However, I can guarantee that by the time I go home an hour or so later I will be feeling so much better than when I arrived. The human connection through both the exercise and the story telling can be really quite healing. Others in the group have commented things like ‘coming here is better than therapy.’ I’m not the only one that usually leaves feeling better and happier.
So, when we are with our friends, whether Christian or not, telling stories about our lives, and listening to the stories of others, can be an amazing way to connect with ourselves, others, and God. We have our story of how we became Christians. I often tell that story slightly differently depending on who I am talking to and why. But I also have a life filled with stories. 41 years’ worth of stories in fact, and about 24 years’ worth as a Christian. God is at work in my life and he is therefore in some small way in every story. Not just the good and happy stories, but he is there in the difficult times too. The most important thing about story telling is to be authentic, and not just pick out the happy things. And God might just use the stories I tell to bring someone else just a little bit closer to him, without me even realising it. And he might use the stories that you tell, to bring someone else just a little bit closer to him too.