The Way of Love is the theme of the Episcopal Church, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (of royal wedding fame) is its most compelling advocate. It resonates well with the general public, but not always in realistic ways. It may be that the phrase itself implies a naively rosy outlook in the face of obviously troubling times, or maybe a doormat meekness lacking the strength to confront evil.
It’s too bad, because The Way of Love is grounded in the practice of following where Jesus has led, and that means walking with courage straight into the valley of the shadow of death. In the Episcopal tradition it is the way of the cross, which we understand to be the way of life and peace. It requires trust that in that valley there will be a table prepared by God that nourishes and refreshes, with our enemies sitting down to eat with us.
While that paints a vivid word picture for most Christians, it’s completely opaque to the greater number who have no idea what meaning biblical metaphors such as The Way, Valley of the shadow of death, the Way of the Cross, or a table set before us might have, because they’ve never heard of them. Nor are they familiar with any of the other biblical stories through which Christianity is revealed. It’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s been true for fifty years or more, but Christians remain puzzled that their treasured stories are so utterly unknown.
Christianity once maintained a thin veneer over contemporary social values, but it’s gone. Western society is more secularized than ever. One reaction is to blame the government for allowing it to happen, and insist that (Christian) godliness be legislated back into the public arena. Proponents have a point. A vague, watery Christian gruel was once imposed on public school students, and mumbled in public assemblies. It never produced any Christians, and was blatantly unconstitutional, but it had one redeeming value: biblical stories and metaphors were known, if not understood. Now they’re not.
Another reaction is to be honest about how poorly the depth, breadth and strength of the faith was passed down within the church from one generation to the next. Some part of it can be laid at the feet of clergy, and some at the feet of parents who went to church as little more than a social obligation. That, I suspect, is the greater truth.
If we are to recover Christian momentum, we must be able to tell old stories in new ways. What makes Jesus different from other respected prophets? For that matter, what makes him different from the variety of mythological saviors that populate recorded history? Why should anyone care?
Door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons may be anathema to many, but they have an opening gambit to be considered. They ask if they can tell a story with the assumption you have never heard it before, and have no idea how to understand its meaning. They start with metaphors common in popular culture, metaphors about national loyalty, hopes and dreams for a better life, guarantees one can depend on, and use them to introduce texts and the unique metaphors that make up their story. More doors are slammed in their faces than not, but now and then their story can be told in compelling ways.
Episcopalians, and other mainliners, are never going to be door knockers, but learning to tell their stories, starting with popularly understood metaphors, is a way to become comfortable about sharing the “good news” that “the kingdom of God has come near” in Christ Jesus. But you must have a story that’s authentic and feels comfortable without being door knockingly offensive. Learning your own story has to begin with the old core metaphors of the Christian faith as recorded in the gospel records. Maybe the greater pubic doesn’t know them, but we do, or should, because they’re essential to knowing who we are.
A recent diocesan gathering worked on it by refreshing our memories about who and what we are: dry bones, lost sheep, mustard seeds, vines and branches, trees of good fruit, sickness and injuries healed, pearls of great value, and all the rest. They’re metaphors for instruction because they say something important about who we are as followers of Jesus. Participants began to discover how they helped to focus on how God has been present to them in the ordinary issues of life everyone faces. For instance, no one has ever been in the belly of a big fish, but everyone has felt what it is to be closed in, trapped, unsure of a way out. Many have experienced what it means to be forgiven, strengthened to endure, and the freedom of deliverance from captivity. Sharing their experiences of living into biblical metaphors helped illuminate how important shared congregational life and worship are as sources of support and hope. In other words, it gave sharable substance to what it means to be part of the church.
It’s one thing for each person to have an authentic individual story to tell, but what story commends the church of which they are a part? Twenty-one groups working independently discovered they had a shared metaphor: we are branches on a vine whose life comes from the root to which we are connected. In one sense we are also the fruit of the branch. In another sense, those to whom we reach out also join us as bearers of fruit. To be Christian is to be connected to God through Christ, through Christ to one another as the church, through the church to the world.
Nevertheless, it remained an insider’s story that helped explain to other insiders who and what we are, but offered little of value to outsiders who remain unfamiliar with our core metaphors, and would find little reason to value them if they did know. Why should anyone pay attention to followers of an itinerant preacher and wonder worker whose short career ended in crucifixion over two thousand years ago? There are plenty of other prophets and teachers around. Many of them lived long lives. Some started religions that have endured. Why not listen to them, or to a modern prophet, or to one’s self? What makes Jesus so special? Yes, he was a great teacher, a person of uncommon wisdom for one so young, a teller of stories, a healer. It’s even said he came back from the dead. So what? There are lots of others like him, even some who were said to have come back from the dead.
How are we to respond? It begins with recognition that most people, even many self proclaimed atheists, have a sense of the holy, a belief in a higher power of some kind, a vague idea of God, and a conviction that there is something more to life that comes after death. We are not without a place to begin. Taking a lesson from Paul’s speech to Athenians, we might say, “Friend, I see you are aware there is something more, something holy, something yet to come. What you are seeking, I boldly proclaim to you. It is the God who created everything that is, seen or unseen. In God we live and move and have our being. It is God whom we know through Jesus, not because he was a teacher or performed a single miracle, but because he is the Word of God made flesh. There is no authority higher than he. He willingly endured the humiliating death of crucifixion to demonstrate he wasn’t a myth or trickster. He rose from the dead not as a resuscitated body, but fully revealed for who he was and is, the manifestation of all that God is. Who is God? What is God? All that is true of God is revealed in Jesus because he is all of God that can be represented in human form. So pay attention. There is no other.”
Following Jesus is the way of love and life. Following Jesus is to be connected: root to vine, vine to branches, branches to fruit. Following Jesus is to become an agent of God’s redeeming love in a broken world, inviting others to join in that work.
The Athenians laughed at Paul, ridiculing him as a babbler of religious nonsense. But not all of them. For those who listen to us, the old stories can be told, and the old metaphors given new life. We know little of what the other apostles and disciples did. Peter and Paul were executed around the year 65 c.e., others died earlier from the same fate, and many others later. It wasn’t a promising start. Nevertheless, by the end of the first century, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Two thousand years of stress, trials and tribulation, including centuries of ecclesiastical corruption and theological misdirection, have not diminished the power of the Word of God made flesh to lead followers into the abundance of life for which they hunger. The deep hunger remains, and we have the holy food and drink of new and unending life that will nourish them.