When I was 15, I was called out by a travelling preacher, who declared to those gathered for revival in the simple conference room of the only motel in Lancaster, NH, “There’s an evangelist!” It was an unexpected moment, to say the least, but something within me clicked in agreement – I had received my vocation.
An evangelist is one who shares the good news, or “gospel” of Jesus Christ. Since that life-changing moment, I have not stopped seeking to understand the story I am called to tell. I have come to see that most disciples, preachers, and churches tell a version that is not the full story.
I have been part of communities that emphasize the personal dimensions of the story. They focus on personal conversion - the need to be “born again" - or emphasize personal holiness or piety, striving for a life of devotion and pure living. I have also been part of communities that emphasize the social dimensions of the story. They organize their lives around loving their neighbors in ministries of compassion and mercy, or seek to expose the systems that perpetuate poverty or oppression through the pursuit of social justice.
While they have their various emphases, most of these communities do include aspects of the other parts of the story. My faith has benefited from the diversity of these perspectives, and I continue to learn from them all. I have come to see, however, that all of them share one important distinction: they are completely human-centric. The stories they tell all confine the gospel to the relationships between God and humans, and humans to each other.
The gospel is certainly good news for human beings, but it doesn’t stop there. The longer I follow Jesus, the bigger the story gets. In addition to the personal and social dimensions, there are ecological and cosmic dimensions as well.
It is this grander story that is told by the Bible, although we have not been trained to see it.
The Big Story of the Bible, in Brief
The Bible begins by describing a cosmos created by God, within which the earth is formed to mature and flourish, like a child setting off toward adulthood. Unfortunately, the very creatures brought forth to help care for this process, human beings, derail everything – an ecological undoing - by trying to “become like God” rather than to grow into their full humanity. Their choice throws creation off course, negatively impacting relationships between God, humans, and the earth.
As the consequences mount, God begins the healing process by calling Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants to show the world what true humanity looks like – a blessing to the nations and the earth. This continues in the people of Israel, whose stories of inspiring success and catastrophic failure take up most of the Old Testament.
Eventually, God joins the story in a new way, becoming human in Jesus. The four Gospels tell the story of his life, death, and resurrection, through which Jesus begins God’s work of new creation and succeeds where Adam, Eve, and Israel did not. He shows us what humanity is meant to be, and makes it possible for us to move toward maturity – to become, as we were created to be, the loving servants of God, each other, and creation.
The rest of the New Testament unpacks what it means to follow Jesus as lord of all creation (see Colossians 1), and to be part of a community called to show people what it means to be citizens of this new creation, living in right relationship with God, each other, and the earth. It concludes in the symbolic story of Revelation, which gives us images of a future in which God brings all things to full maturity in the unification of heaven and earth – a new cosmos.
For most readers, this summary of Scripture is different from the story that is typically taught. Biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton notes,
If this is troubling or confusing to you, that’s ok – it's a big shift. But it is a shift we have to make, because it is more faithful to what the Bible actually says, and it is far more helpful to us as we discern what discipleship looks like in an age where ecological knowledge and damage are both growing quickly. The good news is that more and more people, and churches, are making the shift. (I will write more extensively about this reading of Scripture after we work our way through the seven shifts.)
A Story for Every Creature
These are the concentric rings of the gospel which, at its most fundamental, is a story of God’s work in Christ to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”(Col. 1:20). This is the good news that I (and you) have been called to share, “the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23).
It is a good story, in every sense of the word. Let’s tell it well, and live it even better.
With you on the Way,
Reflection Questions: What gospel story has been central to your faith? Personal stories of conversion and piety? Social stories of helping, healing, and justice? Ecological stories of earthcare and stewardship? Cosmic stories of a new heavens and a new earth? What would it mean to expand your story?
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