“A Story Unleashed”: Jesus Couldn’t Keep a Lid on the Gospel, and Neither Can We

Grappling with a Gospel that Stubbornly Defies Reduction

Last week I was asked to articulate my personal “statement of faith” and share it with a group of ten other recent college graduates. This “statement” could be a paragraph, a poem, a song — whatever I wished. This exercise inevitably forced me to consider what I think is most important and meaningful about the gospel, about what my faith compels me to do and to believe.

In some sense, my “faith statement” is really an abbreviated form of “the gospel according to Sarah Woodard.” Mine took the form of a free verse poem with a heavy dose of alliteration:

Walk with the world,
and weep with its wounded.

Offer a hand to hold and a hand to heal,
an empathetic ear to listen,
a body—Broken and Beloved—to embrace.

Tell Truth tenderly,
Give Grace continually.

Dare to believe that in my darkest hour,
still the Son is.

Hold my head high,
look up to the Heavens,
and hear my Holy Father call me:
“Daughter, in whom I Dwell and Delight.”

Everything about my “faith statement” — the form it takes, the flow, the word choice, the stories I make reference to — reflect the mentors, authors, and friends that have influenced me, the way I grew up, and the way the particularity of my 22-year-old story interacts with the grandeur of the people of God for millennia. I can trace the language I use to specific people and experiences: “Beloved” has been the most significant descriptor of my identity in Christ ever since I read Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, “still the Son is” is a play on a phrase “still the sun is” from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Grace is, according to my dad and my church, the core theological tenet and truth of the gospel. I point out my hands, my ears — my body — to express how I believe the mystery of the Incarnation, the inextricable connection between body and spirit, may manifest in my everyday life.

I could go on about the origins of my word choice and the reasoning behind it, but I won’t because that isn’t the point. The point is not about what I believe or what my faith statement in particular says, but that I — and you — have a particular take on the gospel. Ever been asked to share your testimony? If you’ve done that, you’ve told your personal “gospel according to.” 

In her best-selling book Inspired, the late author Rachel Held Evans argues that the gospel is more like “a mosaic of stories, each one part of a larger story” than a “formula” or “blueprint.” So, she says, “When someone asks, ‘What is the gospel?’ the best response is ‘Let me tell you a story.’” Wherever you start that story — whether you start with Abraham and the Israelites or your church or a struggle that brought you closer to God — “at some point, you will get to Jesus, and Jesus will change everything.” She continues:

The gospel itself, in its eternal scope and scandalous particularity, defies reduction. Like it or not, the gospel is a story unleashed. Even Jesus had trouble keeping a lid on it. According to Matthew and Mark’s accounts, Jesus often asked those he healed not to tell anyone about his miracles, but to no avail. Sure enough, the crowds got so big, Jesus had to flee to get some privacy. Jesus predicted the gospel would reach people from the east and west, the north and south; John described them coming from every tribe, every language, and every nation. There’s just no way you can give this many people a story and expect them to stay ‘on message.’ The gospel fails rather epically at brand management. 

And that makes some people nervous. That makes me nervous. Because it means every Christian gets a testimony, every Christian gets a ‘gospel according to…’ whether you’re Desmond Tutu or Tim Tebow.

Because the gospel has forever been the most powerful, life-changing story in the world, it cannot possibly be contained or limited to a single telling. It is the story that encompasses all of our individual stories, tying them together with Jesus at the center. Let me be clear that the core of the gospel — that Jesus, the Son of God, lived among us, died on the cross to save us, and rose again — is unshakably true and where every “gospel according to…” must lead. But, alongside the singularity of that gospel message, is a diverse chorus of experiences. 

We all have a “gospel according to…” that goes a little differently. Ask my mom about the gospel and she will tell you about growing up with a handicapped sister and then watching her handicapped son grow up in turn. My grandfather would tell you about flying as a navigator on a B-24 Liberator over Europe at just eighteen, then fighting on the ground in Korea, then in Vietnam. Other of my friends will tell you about growing up with an alcoholic parent, battling depression, or being raised by a white father and a black mother. They will tell you that Jesus loves them deeply. And all of them will be right. 

It is not a bad thing — in fact, it is a beautiful thing — that we all get a testimony, a “gospel according to…”, but it can be an uncomfortable thing. That is not bad either. It seems to me that, perhaps more than ever, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and get better at listening to others’ stories.

My gospel story may step on your toes. Yours may force me to confront my blind-spots and privilege. Someone else’s may convince me that I try too hard to put the Holy Spirit in a box, that actually the Spirit is a reckless, mysterious force my rational mind cannot always comprehend.

So, back to my opening story. As I listened to the others’ faith statements, I noticed a lot of common themes — mercy, justice, love, humility, serving our neighbors — but there was also quite a diversity of thoughts. Some people placed a heavier emphasis on social justice, others on learning to accept and love the person God made them to be. We had a lot of the same beliefs, and we also had different beliefs.

In the words of Evans, “the church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.” 

God did not make us to have identical faith statements and testimonies. Or for our own to remain stagnant. If I were to re-write my faith statement even a year from now, it would likely look quite different. I am not here to question, change, or judge your — or anyone else’s — “gospel according to…” And I don’t need to feel threatened by it. Because I trust that God is working to bring together our individual stories into the larger, sweeping story of Jesus Christ, I can stop trying to put a lid on it, to contain it or define its contours. I get to listen and learn from others’ gospel stories instead.

Maybe the best way to understand the gospel is to return to story and metaphor: think of the gospel as a clear light that is refracted in the hearts of believers to create a kaleidoscope of color. Or, think of the gospel as a beautiful, chaotic, messy quilt of all God’s people’s stories (past and present). They intertwine, tangle, and fray at the seams. Ultimately, our stories are all sewn together with the same thread: Jesus Christ. 

Different as they are, our stories all come back to Jesus — and Jesus changes everything.

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One response to ““A Story Unleashed”: Jesus Couldn’t Keep a Lid on the Gospel, and Neither Can We”

  1. CJ Green says:

    “the Spirit is a reckless, mysterious force my rational mind cannot always comprehend.” very well put, Sarah, thank you! The unruly aspect here is humbling

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