Practices of Faith: Learning Jesus’ Story & Letting It Speak to You
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have taken place . . . I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
How well do you know Jesus’ life story and his teachings?
If you’re like many people who attend an Episcopal congregation (and the majority of Americans who identify as Christian), the honest answer is, “not very well.” You’ve heard a lot of the Bible read to you on Sunday mornings, and you can call to mind some of the events of Jesus’ life. Even so, you’ve never internalized the arc of his life, the body of his teachings, and the nuanced ways that the four authors of the gospel accounts interpret Jesus’s story. Without a regular practice of reading and reflecting on Jesus’ life and teachings, you’ve likely not had the experience of God speaking to you through the words of Scripture.
Of course, none of what I’ve written thus far may be true for you. Perhaps you once read the Bible and prayed regularly at an earlier stage of your life, but for any number of reasons–including the ways that some biblical passages have been used to cause harm–you stopped.
Or maybe you have years of Bible study under your belt and a regular practice of prayer and reflection on Jesus’ life and teachings. You know how every time you sit down with those famillar stories, they have the power to speak to you afresh. You also know that the life of faith is never static, that there is always a next faithful step.
What might be that next faithful step for you?
We’ve entered the season of Lent, the forty days patterned after the time Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Forty days to consider his life before we commemorate His death on the cross.
His life matters. In the words of the late Rachel Held Evans, “Jesus did not simply die to save us from our sins; Jesus lived to save us from our sins. His life and teachings show us the way to liberation.”1
Here’s my invitation to you this Lent: Pick one of the four gospel accounts–Matthew, Mark, Luke or John–and read it as you would a short story. Read it to learn the arc of Jesus’ life as told through the author’s particular lens. It won’t take long–you could read the Gospel of Mark in about ninety minutes; one of the other three would require at most another hour.
You’ll be surprised at how vivid Jesus is in each account, and how brief his life. Pay attention to what inspires or surprises you. Should you find yourself, as most of us do, confused or troubled by some of what you read, ask your priest (or bishop) for a good commentary on that particular gospel, so as to gain a better understanding of its context, worldview and what the author was trying to convey about Jesus.
Then go back and read that same gospel slowly, a section at a time each day during Lent until you finish it again. Settle in a quiet place and ask God to speak to you through the words you read. Write down your impressions or questions.
Most importantly, listen for God’s word for you through the text. You may go for days without hearing anything. Then one day, a particular passage or phrase might seem to jump off the page and into your heart, and then you’ll know what it feels like to be spoken to through the words of Scripture. Or days later, an image or word from the text may come into your mind unannounced, as a source of illumination or strength for some troubled area of your life. It may not happen, because such things are not in our control. This is not a performance, but a spiritual practice meant to open us to receive whatever might come to us in a time of quiet reflection on Jesus’ life.
Which gospel account should you read? Whichever one draws you in.
Because it’s the gospel text we’ll hear most Sundays this year (except for Lent 1), I’m going to read and pray my way through the Gospel according to John. In many ways, the Jesus portrayed in John is very different from the Jesus portrayed in the other three, in ways that I’ll write about later in Lent.
Please let me know if you accept my invitation and which gospel you’ll read. Feel free to share your impressions and ask any questions that arise for you, and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d also love to know if and how you sense God speaking to you through your prayerful reading. We can learn together and cheer each other on as we make our own journey with Jesus through Lent.
1Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018)