Community is about being part of each other’s stories. When God decided to break the 400-year silence and reestablish communication with humanity, God didn’t just bellow from heaven. God actually came to earth to share in our story, becoming one of us to relate to us on our most intimate level—relationally. John’s gospel begins with the announcement of the best news we’ve ever received: the Word became flesh and lived among us. We are relational creatures, designed to respond to the incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus. We are created to relate to each other through story, so Jesus related to the Jewish community in just that way: he told stories.
The gospel writers preserved for us in written form examples of the stories among different Christian groups about who Jesus was and what he said and did that was so life-changing. These books are not police printouts with Jesus’ specifics so that he can be recognized wherever he goes. They are stories, narratives—each written from a different perspective and with a different purpose according to the communities each author was a part of.
Mark, whose gospel is generally accepted as the earliest written record of the oral tradition about Jesus, wrote his story to Gentile believers who had little understanding of the Jewish tradition. Luke was also probably concerned with a Gentile audience, but Matthew, on the other hand, clearly geared his story toward Jewish believers who needed no such explanations. John’s gospel is probably the most obvious example of the way a story can affirm a community’s identity since most scholars agree that he wrote for a particular group of Jewish Christians who had been ostracized from the synagogue.
Stories not only help us relate to each other, but they also give an account of who we are; our stories are part of our identity. The gospel writers chose carefully what to include in their accounts of Jesus’ life in order to preserve and perpetuate the identity of each community. But this technique is not lost on us today. Think of all the memoirs written in recent years. As we get older and reflect on the wisdom of our lives, we don’t want to share a list of dos and don’ts with those who will come after us; we want to preserve our identities as a legacy, the story of our lives for those lives coming after us. We are not designed to relate to rules of behavior; we want stories, understand stories, think in stories, and relate to each other through the shared story of our lives together.
Story is universal. The desire to connect with others, the desire for community life and personal relationships, the desire for spiritual encounters that involve experience rather than knowledge—these desires are not being filled in today’s consumerist society. All around the world people are seeking relational fulfillment. If we weren’t, online networks like Facebook wouldn’t be so successful. We yearn to share ourselves with each other. Stories are the entry point into the vulnerability necessary to wipe out loneliness and the burden of shame so many people carry in secret. It is the call of the Christian community to build relationships by following the example of Jesus, by telling stories and by becoming part of the story of humanity.
The gospels invite readers to enter their world, to listen to Jesus’ words, to watch his great deeds, to appreciate their understanding of him, and to ask ourselves the same questions as the people in the text…In other words, they are portraits which invite us to respond by joining in the picture. ~ Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus?
We, as the community of God, need to learn how to tap into that vision and invite people to join in the picture. We do that by practicing telling our stories, personal and biblical, that join into God’s story—the one we are all a part of, as a community of believers. If we really want to know each other, and if we really want to know God, we have to tell our stories. Without them, we lose the power of truth discovered together. And without them, the Christian community is nothing more than a building with a bunch of chairs facing all in one direction.
Community truly is about being part of each other’s stories. Relationship requires interaction, vulnerability, and the space to share with one another in the one way we all relate to: story.