Update: There’s an interesting comment thread, which isn’t usually the case. Don’t miss them.
This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.
Chapter 10 of Forming Intentional Disciples is about the kerygma, which is to say the gospel, which is to say the whole reason why the Church exists in the first place. If we want to make disciples, they need to be disciples of Christ. And to be disciples of Christ, they have to know Christ, and to get to know Christ they have to find Christ interesting and intriguing, and for that they have to know the story.
And that means we have to tell the story.
There are many ways to tell the story, and many pieces to it. One most of us have probably heard at one time or another is that God created the world, and then Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the Garden, and lots of trouble happened after that, but then Jesus came and died and rose again to save us from our sins, and if we’ll only accept him as our personal lord and savior we can spend eternity with him in heaven. If you’re patient, you’ve probably heard this on your doorstep any number of times.
Now, this is certainly true, so far as it goes. It leaves out some important details (who is this Jesus person anyway? And why did he have to die? And how did rising again help?) but it’s true so far as it goes.
The trouble is, as Sherry Weddell points out, is that lots of people in our culture have much of a sense of personal sin. They are accustomed to thinking about institutional sin (those evil corporations!) or systemic sin (evils that are due to how our society is set up) but not about personal sin. And if you begin by trying to persuade them how sinful they are, and how they fall short, well, you know. Flies. Honey. Vinegar. ’nuff said. So you have to go after them a different way.
The book lists some of the essential points of the story, with suggestions for how to talk about them to “post-modern” listeners like the Millenial generation. I’ve read this chapter a couple of times over the months since it was first published (and most recently yesterday), and I have to say that Sherry’s outline doesn’t stick with me. I can think of a couple of reasons for that; one is that I very rarely tell the story to others in person, and so I don’t have the experience for Sherry’s suggestions to truly hit home. But second, I think the gospel story is one that you have to assimilate over time. As you try to live in Christ, the gospel story takes up residence in you. You have your own way of experiencing it and understanding it, and I think you need to go with that.
Never fear—I’m not speaking of some personal, idiosyncratic, possibly quite peculiar and unorthodox version of me-and-Jesus. I’m speaking of the story as it is told in scripture and understood in Catholic theology. But if I’m going to tell it convincingly, I have to tell it from my heart. It has to be rooted in my relationship with Christ.
I’d like to give my version in a nutshell, but I’m not sure that I can. Let me try.
I start by thinking about oak trees. An oak tree grows from an acorn; it’s the nature of an acorn to sprout and grow, and given time and good conditions, to grow into a mature and mighty oak tree. All living things do this: grow into their mature forms over the course of time. And they don’t have any choice about it. An oak sapling will become an oak tree, unless external conditions prevent it. It can’t be a pine tree or a goldfish or an insurance salesman. A puppy will grow up to be a dog, but not a cat.
We humans are somewhat different. We are animals, like dogs and cats, and we do in fact grow up to be physically mature whether we like it or not. But we are also spiritual, and unlike everything else in the natural world, we have a choice. We can choose to grow to spiritual maturity, or not. All too often, we don’t.
The problem is, we mostly don’t know what spiritual maturity looks like. But it turns out that God created us for Himself. He, the infinite Godhead, the source and summit of all that is, is quite frankly the most fascinating and exciting thing there could ever possibly be. He created us to spend eternity receiving His love and to rejoice and delight in Him. And since everything good in creation is simply a pale reflection of the Glory of God, there’s a lot to rejoice and delight in there, an eternity’s worth of it.
But we have a choice, and the consequences of our choices are remarkably opaque to us. It’s very hard for us to choose to love God. And He won’t force us. He wants us to come to Him for love of Him. So He sent his son to teach us what love looks like.
And what does love look like? Then we get to the Cross, for greater love hath no man than this.