In a sentence
God’s story for us is wider and richer than the ones we tell ourselves
Some 15 years ago there appeared a film, ‘Stranger than Fiction’, which told the story of one Harold Crick. Harold is an ordinary kind of chap who, in the course of going about his daily routine, suddenly begins to hear a voice narrating events in his life. The voice describes the way he brushes his teeth or what he is thinking as he walks down the street. As the tale unfolds, Harold begins to suspect that he is, in fact, a character in someone’s novel.
This realisation doesn’t concern him too much until a day when, standing at the curb waiting for the bus, his watch stops. Asking a bystander for the time, he resets his watch and, at that moment, hears once more the novelist’s narration: ‘little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.’ You can imagine what effect such news has on poor Harold and the efforts he goes to, to change the course of his story.
Now, the point of introducing Harold here is just this: we are, all of us, all of the time, hearing a narration of our life story; we are just much less conscious of it. We are constantly being told what to eat, what to buy, how green to be, how much exercise we need, what we can and can’t expect from our relationships, how much we should work, what we need to earn, that we need a new phone or computer or car, where the best place to live is, how to bring up our children, who we should vote for, who the good guys are and who are the baddies, and so on. All of these things have, in a sense, already been worked out for us, and are presented to us as our story. We largely do and are according the background plot which is ours by virtue of when and where and to whom we were born: this is who you are, and what you must do, and what you can expect. Harold had been living the life of the immortal and is reminded that it is not his true life.
Yet, our mortality is not the point of invoking his story today. The point is that it is quite possible to live a life of apparent freedom but be entirely oblivious to the fact that we are caught in the flow of some grand narrator’s telling of a story. This is the case even in our particular culture, with its heightened consciousness of the ‘binding’ nature of tradition. We are suspicious of received ‘story‑ings’ of who we are. We consider ourselves ‘enlightened’ people who have outgrown tradition and now live and move freely, according to our true story as human beings. Yet even modern enlightened thinking on the past is constantly being revealed to be inadequate. Much of the thrust of modern identity politics (‘critical theory’) is oriented towards a radical destabilising of all story that might confine us. In its most extreme versions, the postmodern principle presses towards the revelation that our story is that we have no story, no narrative curve which causes us to move or by which we can expect others to move.
This is surely a counsel of despair but an understandable one. For stories don’t merely entertain or sustain. They also crush. I rain bombs rain down on you because you don’t fit into my story; you simply shouldn’t be there, says the Jew to the Palestinian, democracy to dictatorship, murderer to victim. Asylum seekers languish because they don’t fit into a nation’s story. The claims of indigenous peoples don’t register with the broader body politic because that story has already been told, and those peoples should reconcile to having been crushed. The story my mum or dad or teachers told me was my story can cripple me.
All of this is to say that there are stories that give life and stories that take it. Each tells me what to do, what to love, what to fear. The question is, which story is the best one?
The work of the letter to the Ephesians – indeed the work of every proclamation of the gospel – is to tell yet another story. In these opening verses of the letter, Paul tells a story of the world. He tells it as the story of all stories. As such, it both must be told and cannot be told. It must be told because it is the key to all stories, all histories. It cannot be told – properly – because it can only be heard as yet ‘another’ story among other stories.
And so, Paul’s language is pressed to its limit. This is a story which begins – nonsensically – ‘before the foundation of the world’, in time before time, in ‘time beyond our dreaming’. Yet the point is not nonsense; it is the sheer excess and abundance of the story Paul wants to tell. The ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ (3.18) of God’s approach to us reveals a love which ‘surpasses knowledge’, so that we ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (3.19) – which is to say, that we may be filled with what could not possibly fit. This excess is Paul overflowing with the gospel story.
The only way to assess the story Paul tells, over against the one I am already living, is to uncover which gives a better account of me and my world, a more desirable account for us all. Or, to put it more succinctly: which story makes us better and freer people? Which reveals to us who we are, the bad and the good? Which shows us the best ethic for that life of peace we considered last week, peace‑full not only for ourselves but for others also?
These questions are not usually to the fore in our day-to-day thinking. Instead, we nestle into the story we have been given, and its flow takes us from day to day, conversation to conversation, joy to joy, sadness to sadness. This is the life ordinary.
This was the story of Harold Crick until he was jolted into lived awareness of a deeper story. But our point here today is not that we know our mortality. The gospel’s word to Harold and to us is unexpectedly different. We are all standing at the curb wondering what time it is as we hear Paul narrate our story: ‘Little did they know that the crucifixion of Jesus would result in their imminent life’.
This is also a life which knows its mortality but does not fear it, even if it should suddenly become apparent how imminent death can be.
This is the life of those who know themselves to be adopted children of God. It is, then, the life of those who are clothed with a new self – a new story – in the likeness of God (4.24), and who are learning to imitate God in humility and gentleness, patience and love, in the unity of the Spirit of the bond of peace (4.1-3).
Paul overflows with the gospel because this new life is a miracle.
Let us, then, not simply acquiesce into the old self – the familiar story which merely tips us into the next thing. Let us not be weary, resigned, or predictable within those stories which drain life away to nothing.
Let us become God’s miracle, for the fuller, richer humanity of us all, and for God’s greater glory.