The Over-Arching Story
In the Christian canonical Bible as we now have it we find, without much difficulty, a single over-arching narrative. It is the story which runs from creation to new creation, from Eden to the New Jerusalem. Though this is the backdrop and ultimate context, however, the great bulk of the story focuses quite narrowly on the fortunes of a single family in the Middle East, who are described as the chosen people through whom the creator God will act to rescue the whole world from its plight. The choice of the particular family does not imply that the creator has lost interest in other human beings, or in the cosmos at large; on the contrary, it is because he wishes to address them with his active and rescuing purposes that he has chosen this one family in the first place. But the Jewish story thus highlighted contains a puzzle at its heart. The chosen people are in themselves in need of rescue. (It is like Russian dolls. Inside the creation story is the Jewish story, and inside that is the Jesus story.) Even if we were to rearrange the Old Testament Canon - adopting, for instance, the normal Jewish order in which the Prophets precede the Writings, so that the Canon ends not with Malachi but with 2 Chronicles - we would still find ourselves reading a story in search of an ending, a story in which the people chosen to bring the Creator's healing to the world are themselves in need of rescue and restoration.
The early Christian writings we call the New Testament declare with one voice that the overarching story reached its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the early Christians believed was the promised Messiah of Israel. In Jesus the chosen people had found their rescue and restoration, though their self-appointed guardians and spokespersons had not seen it that way. And now the point. Israel's Messiah was always supposed to be the Lord of the whole world, so the idea that Jesus is the Lord of the world is not a funny early Christian idea wedged on to Jesus, and not really fitting; it grows right out of first century Jewish messianism itself. His followers then saw themselves as royal heralds, claiming the whole world for its new King.
Although it is often (rightly) said that the early Christians saw themselves as living in the last days, it is even more important to stress that they saw themselves as living in the first days, the beginning of the new creation that dawned when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning. They saw themselves, in other words, as living within a story in which the decisive event had already occurred and now needed to be implemented; even if we were to ignore Acts for the moment, that is the implicit narrative which informs and undergirds all the epistles. The four canonical gospels, in their very different ways, are all only comprehensible if we understand them to be telling how the story of God and Israel reached its climax in Jesus, and telling this story moreover from the perspective of those now charged with putting this into effect in and for all the world. Even if we were to rearrange the New Testament Canon, this implicit story-line would still emerge at every point.
So no matter how we arrange the Bible, it is still the story of God's love coming to a decisive conclusion and new beginning in the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
It reminds me of the not too earth-shattering conclusion of famed theologian Karl Barth. After writing a shelf full of books which were his systematic theology, when asked to give the gist of it he answered, "Jesus loves me this I know..." And when I heard famed Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu preach at my seminary, he said that he hates preaching at seminaries because the only sermon he has is "God loves you." Everything else is just a variation on the theme.
Our over-arching story is well known, not always well told and only rarely well lived, but it is still the best story I know.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor + King of Peace Episcopal Church