A Monumental Story

Reading Time: 9 mins

The world’s history and Jewish history was like a story in search of an ending; and when Jesus rose from the dead the ending was now revealed.

In October 1993, celebrated Lutheran scholar Robert W. Jenson wrote a seminal article in First Things titled, “How the World Lost Its Story.”[1] Throughout the piece, Jenson describes how the modern world, the world instrumental and critical reason built, is failing us. It has become evident, he says, that Modernity, “...has been all along eroding its own foundations; its projects and comforts have depended on an inheritance to which it has itself been inimical.” That inheritance or borrowed capital, of course, which modernity or secularism plunders and yet disdains is Christianity. Christian ethics, Christian values, Christian meaning — all borrowed and yet at the same time repudiated in substance by modernity. Walter Lippmann spoke of the “acids of modernity.” As it turns out, the foundations attacked by this acid have been those on which the modern world was itself erected. The “Übermensch” proved not to be the future of a liberated humanity but a narcissistic instigated international conflagration. In rejecting its inherited story, moderns lost their narrative. In the denial of the narrative, they deny its Narrator. In a storyless world, postmodern people have rightly noted there is no point, no direction, no enduring meanings, no goal, and certainly no hero. Consequently, there would not be any good news in the story of humanity. In fact, postmodern critics have ceded that the only future is a posthuman one. The world of mankind has indeed lost its story.

What abides as a systemic problem for society and nations (once bound to a Christian heritage) is now an existential problem for the individual. Without a governing narrative giving semblance to human existence, there is nothing left but autobiography, self-story and, as a result, the death of community.

And it only gets worse. Jenson’s article is really about how the Church has lost its story, too. Adaptive to the prevailing Zeitgeist, the Church champions a consumeristic or therapeutic message poised toward personal fulfillment or it adopts Humanitarianism’s agenda asserting human rights — a social gospel platform yielding self-justification through neighborly works. So, with the Church’s message catering to the individual, we have the death of communion.

It is no wonder the world, for the most part, continues in a storyless existence.

But, Jenson writes, “It is the mission of the Church to speak the Gospel ...It is the Church’s constitutive task to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative, that is, as a promise claimed from God and proclaimed to the world.”[2] He concludes his lament by pointing out the obvious:

“If we are in our time rightly to apprehend the [fulfilled and manifest] realities of the Gospel promise, we have to hear it with Christ the risen Lord visibly looming over our heads and with His living and dead saints visible gathered around us. Above all, the Church needs to celebrate the Eucharist as the dramatic depiction, and [continued graphic manifestation], that it intrinsically is. How can we point our lives to the Kingdom’s great Banquet if its foretaste is spread before us with all the beauty of a McDonald’s counter?”[3]

How can we point our lives to the Kingdom’s great Banquet if its foretaste is spread before us with all the beauty of a McDonald’s counter?-Robert Jenson

We have heard Jenson, now hear Saint Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15, we see how Jenson has done the same thing as Paul. Namely, Paul calls the Church back to her fundamental story so the world can hear anew and with startling power and certainty its own story and where that story, the great narrative of human reality, is taking them. Paul is monumentalizing the story by telling it within the overarching narrative of God’s work in human history climaxing in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Jenson is also monumentalizing it by once again extolling the monuments of the Christian faith: The Word and the Sacraments in the midst of God’s people but also witnessed by outsiders as monumental.

As the world tears down its once-glorious monuments, the Church needs to restore the grandeur of hers. The world’s iconoclasm of narrative and monuments must be countermanded by the Church’s proclamation and monumentalizing of the Gospel.

Paul tells how the Empire of Lord Jesus began, an Empire which extends to this very day and forever. It is an everlasting kingdom, and it needs to be preached in such a way that its endurance and pervasiveness envelopes all of our individual stories. It should swallow them up and not be compartmentalized but overwhelm. George Lucas depicted the story of an “Empire” that has captivated the imaginations of three generations. Preachers of the reign of Christ need to be dislodged from perfunctory, prosaic preaching to stimulate the imagination of auditors once again, indeed, of the world itself in such a way that sermonizing monumentalizes the salvific accomplishments of the thrice-holy Trinity and the global reign of the unconquerable Christ.

In memorable and graphic language, the Apostle depicts how “the rumblings of the Kingdom rolled through the centuries,” to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, only to burst on the scene and overwhelm old categories of being human, governing, life, and death. What is more, he tells them all of this has immediate impact on their identity as the kingdom people of Christ, indeed, as the family of God. There are Global implications. There are also Individual implications. This story of God active in and through the Christ determines the cosmic narrative. Paul will even add himself at the end of a list of eyewitnesses of the transformed-through-the-resurrection existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He does so to show that this is where the story of Judaism leads, this is where the history of Israel attains its fulfillment, this is what sets the narrative horizon for all of time, including our own. A mealy-mouthed message parroting Jordan Peterson’s latest “rules for living” does not and cannot capture the drama unfolding in our midst and enveloping our personal and collective reality. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ is large enough, enduring enough, and monumental enough to convey enduring meaning and significance for our time and through it.

Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ is large enough, enduring enough, and monumental enough to convey enduring meaning and significance for our time and through it.

Consider why Paul gives the Corinthians a bracing lecture on the resurrection of the once-crucified God of Israel: They have lost their story. The Apostle is trying to get the Corinthian Christians to understand where they are, who they are in the World’s story — the story God has been steering to accomplish the recovery of His global kingdom and kingdom people and reestablish His kingdom rule through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. They have been in danger of losing their roots. This is the same problem Jenson addresses in his article to a wayward modern-day church which has compromised its Gospel agenda and sanctified identity with the world’s agenda, consumerist culture, pop entertainment, and embraced a “light and liberal” theology.

In both Jenson and Paul, the Church needs to be brought back to her story, back to her roots, the roots we have because we have been made Kingdom people, the very family of the World’s rightful King — Jesus the Messiah. And he is King. He is the King of all, whether acknowledged or not. The crucified Christ lives and reigns. It is this Jesus who has brought Israel’s history to its climax and has immediate bearing on all subsequent generations because He is the way God has always promised to address the problem of the world’s rebellion and our personal and collective treasons. The story of Israel belongs to the world, even the world of today. Jesus has to be preached not as some mere abstraction—the Son of God—but as the Messiah of Israel, the King of the Jews born of Mary and Davidic in historical and ancestral lineage, who happens to also be at the very same time the incarnation of the eternal Logos, Immanuel, “God with us.” All Christians have got to get back to their roots and learn to understand themselves “according to the Scriptures.” In fact, all the world finds its determination and identification within this story, the according-to-the-Scriptures story. It is the entire narrative or, better, metanarrative (the overarching narrative) of God’s great work of redemption in and through real human history that renders these people from Scripture as our people, their history as our history, and their identity as our identity.

Preaching, therefore, should atomize the Bible into little verses for this or that part of one’s life. It is not a handbook for successful living, much less snappy aphorisms for “your best life now” or a collection of motivational vignettes. The entire story is bearing witness to an Earth-shaking, cosmos-altering event which tilted reality in a decidedly God-ruling way: The death and resurrection of the world’s King. That story should stand as the monument in the lives of all Christians, with the monumental structures of the baptismal font, altar of the Sacrament, and pulpit of proclamation rendering concrete the reality proclaimed.

Preach about how Holy Communion encourages Christians to embrace this meal in the light of the longer, larger story, as the expressed means by which God fulfills His sworn promise to give Himself to His people. Proclaim how this is the means by which Christ is really with us, never to leave nor forsake us. Declare how we are bonded to Christ and He to us, continually renewing us in forgiveness, strengthening us for service, and bonding us one to another. He came, He comes, He will come again... nothing doubting. That is the story. The Eucharist, then, complements Gospel preaching as the most graphic example of how the Lord abides with us, sustaining us through self-giving in unfathomable restraint. Here we find the uncontainable contained in chalice and paten for the purpose of divine self-giving. What a story. This is the very best story. It is a story that explodes Modernity’s failed utopianism, a narrative that anchors the drift of postmodernity and negates the alienation of God by Epicureanism. God is present in Christ and He is in charge.

The Eucharist, then, complements Gospel preaching as the most graphic example of how the Lord abides with us, sustaining us through self-giving in unfathomable restraint.

That is the other point made by both Paul and Jenson: This story is rock solid. First of all, Paul mentions he passed on or delivered to the Corinthians a code of confession he himself had received. Behind these verbs are technical Jewish terms for the careful transmission of tradition. In other words, verses 1 and 3 state up front how Paul has nothing new to say about the resurrection. He received something that was already an established code of confession and handed it to them in the same creedal formula. That formula, though we hardly get it in our monochrome English translations, is glowing technicolor in Greek. It is a Creed in song form. Even in a crude English translation we catch the cadence:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that He was buried,
that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.

Compare this to the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from Heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried;
and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
and ascended into Heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father;
and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead…

How far back does this Code of Confession go? Scholars cede Paul wrote 1 Corinthians about the year 55. But he said he had already delivered it to them. That takes us back to his first trip to Corinth in the spring of AD 52, according to Acts 18:1, 5, and 12. Paul had it before then, though. He received this code of confession upon his conversion in AD 37. Now, if Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 3, in the year 33, then the Code of Confession which Paul was calling “the tradition” that converts like him immediately received as the gospel truth came before the year 37. Graham Stanton of Cambridge University said that for anything to be called the established tradition in this technical Jewish formula for the accurate preservation of momentous truth it took more than a week or two for it to become established, entrenched, and universal. Thus, Stanton dates this creedal hymn to within a year or two of the resurrection. It was and is the Gospel record eyewitness affidavit.

Our confidence levels should soar. But there is more. It was not a couple of questionable characters who claimed to see Jesus, nor was it people long after the crucifixion came and went, nor even a select group of ideological conspirators who angled this story for personal profit. It was a huge number of people, people at the trial, at the crucifixion, and at the tomb. People who knew Jesus certifiably dead and now testifying under oath and preserving it in a code of confession, a veritable creed on which they staked their lives, that this same Jesus was manifest to them, not on one occasion under hypnotic groupthink, but over a six-week period, under different circumstances, combinations of eyewitnesses sometimes to upwards of perhaps a thousand people at once, with a transformed human body — the future of humanity here and now. Jesus had passed through death and come out the other side, having undergone a process called resurrection and sporting the future embodied state of humanity in the new world. Just ask Cephas, or the Twelve, or James, or all the Apostles, or the more than five hundred men, not to mention the hundreds of women, plus Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Jesus. You want witnesses, we have witnesses galore. This did not happen in a corner, but in the capital city when it was packed with millions of visitors. The story includes not a bunch of anonymous nobodies but the Governor, King, Tetrarch, Sanhedrin, and all the biggest names and powerbrokers. There is no doubt. This is your story. This is your identity. These are your people. This is your legacy and history. This is your salvation and your God.

His death, His resurrection all happened “according to the Scriptures.” It was told to us beforehand. Now it is being told post-facto. The world’s history and Jewish history was like a story in search of an ending; and when Jesus rose from the dead the ending was now revealed. This was the ending God Himself provided, giving meaning to the whole thing and it abides in the world as an indestructible monument. This is the monument to which all preaching must be directed if the Church and, by extension, the world is to ever recover its story.

[1] Since republished March 2010 at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/how-the-world-lost-its-story. Accessed May 4, 2021.

[2] Op. cit.

[3] Ibid.