What's Your Story?

Proclaim Sermons
May 26, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: We all have a story. The apostle Paul took up the gauntlet and challenged Rome's story that Caesar was the son of a god, the prince of peace and the savior of the world - at least for the elites - with the story of Jesus, the true Son of God, Prince of Peace, and Savior of the World for all - rich or poor, male or female, slave or free. Which story do you claim?

Around two hundred years before Jesus was born, a Jew named Ezekiel lived in Alexandria, Egypt, a center of biblical learning and culture. Ezekiel, living in Alexandria, evidently loved going to the theater to see the work of the late, great Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. One day he must have had a great idea: "Wouldn't it be cool if someone wrote a Greek tragedy about Moses and Pharaoh, and how God freed the slaves from Egypt?"

Okay, he probably didn't say "cool," but still, it was a wowzer of an idea. After all, there are some great things in Exodus that would make for fantastic drama, like God speaking out of a burning bush, and the Ten Plagues. And what about the slaves girding their loins and eating hurriedly and with great anxiety while the Angel of Death passed over their homes during Passover?

And then there was the greatest scene of all - the Egyptian army in their magnificent chariots bearing down on the escaped slaves, their backs against, well, not against the wall, but against the Red Sea, with no escape before Moses parted the sea at the command of God. The people passed through to safety, and the water closed in on Pharaoh's chariots, destroying them totally.

Now some scenes might call for special effects beyond the capabilities of second century BC artisans. No problem. In Greek tragedy, the most action-packed and goriest scenes always took place offstage, while someone onstage described what had just happened. The audience pictured these things in their imagination, which can often be the most effective special effect of all.

And the best part of all was, if Ezekiel could tweak the story just a little bit, the largely non-Jewish Egyptian audience would see themselves in the story! Considering that the Egyptians had been the oppressors all those centuries ago, that's pretty ironic. What changed? The Seleucids were oppressing the Egyptians (just as they tried to eradicate Jewish identity, until the Maccabees defeated them in open combat). This led to an alliance with Rome which ultimately resulted in outright Roman rule. You can see how Egyptians would begin to identify with the liberated Hebrew slaves. God's story would become their story, and a shared story with the Jews.

That play, the Exagoge, was indeed written, and although like many works of literature, it did not survive into the modern era, fragments comprising around a fifth of it were quoted by Christian authors like the historian Eusebius and the theologian Clement of Alexandria, enough to give us a good idea of what the drama was like. It became well-known enough to be quoted, so perhaps it had its desired effect: to transform the biblical story into the larger culture's story.

Paul's story

What's your story? Where do you and your family come from? How did they (you) get here? This is not meant as a challenge, but an invitation! All of us on this North American continent came from somewhere. Some of us came from Europe. Some of us came, forcibly and sadly, from Africa. Many migrated from south of the border, and a lot of us share ancestry with people who came across the Bering Strait land bridge ten or fifteen thousand years ago. As a matter of fact, DNA tests reveal our ancestry is far more mixed than many of us imagine. It's quite likely that your story incorporates a variety of stories.

In addition, we likely share an American identity, and there's a story to tell there as well!

In today's short passage from Romans, the apostle Paul, like Ezekiel and his Exagoge, sought to convince people in the Roman Empire that they shared a common biblical story, whether they knew it or not.

Paul deliberately called upon the Exodus narrative. The children of God were led by the Spirit just as the Israelites were led by the pillars of cloud and fire. When he states, "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear ..."1 we are meant to call to mind God's people responding with fear when they thought they were trapped between Pharaoh's army and the Red Sea. God's promises will not lead us astray. Nor did we receive a spirit of slavery, one laced with grumbling, doubt and arguing that could lead us back to Egypt instead of going forward into freedom.2

And how do we become a part of the Israel of freedom, the people who have sloughed off the chains of slavery? By the example of Jesus, for when we receive the spirit of adoption we can cry "Abba! Father!"3 as Jesus did in both the Lord's Prayer and in the Garden of Gethsemane.4 We are privileged to become "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ," because our suffering leads to a share of glory.5

This is at the heart of Paul's message - that all the people of the world can become the Israel of God, the joint heirs with Christ, crucified and raised with Jesus.

The Roman story

But Paul was also aware of something we forget, or never knew - that the Romans already had a newly prefabricated story that established their national and religious identity, written only a few decades before by the poet Virgil. For over 800 years, Homer's epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey - about the Trojan War and the voyage home by Odysseus - served as scriptures for the ancient world, stories that told how the universe and the gods worked. By the time of Paul these epic poems were over eight-centuries old, written in Greek so ancient that even in the Roman Empire, where Greek was everybody's second language, vocabularies were created to explain the words. Everybody learned Homer's great poems. Their story became the Western World's story.

In the last century before Christ, the Roman Republic convulsed into a Civil War that resulted in the Roman Empire, ruled by an Emperor. The first Emperor, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) styled himself the son of a god (he claimed descent from Aeneus, whose mother was the goddess Athena), the prince of peace (because the brutal hand of Rome's might squelched the multitude of wars between rival small kingdoms subsumed into the empire) and the savior of the world.

After having made himself famous through his poem on farming, The Georgics, Virgil decided to immortalize Augustus Caesar by creating a scripture that would make Rome's story the world's story. The Aeneid follows the divinely ordained journey of Aeneus from the ruins of Troy across the Mediterranean world, down into the underworld and back up to the land of the living, where he would found Rome. The poem ended with a so-called prophecy, written after Augustus made himself emperor, that "predicted" the Golden Age of Augustus.

Rome's story benefited the elite. When Aeneas descended into the underworld, he beheld the Elysian Fields, the bright heavenly part of the afterlife where only the elite royals would take pleasure in the Eden-like experience. Everyone else was consigned to the gray half-life of the underworld.

Paul challenged the "scripture" of the Aeneid and championed the story of Jesus, the true Son of God, Prince of Peace and Savior of the World, who died, descended into the underworld, and returned, through whom all, poor and rich, male and female, Greek speaker and Hebrew literate, could become children of God and heirs of the promise. And instead of favoring the pampered life of royalty, all of us, slaves and free, through suffering could come to glory eternal.

So, what is your story?

So, what's your story? We all have one. Perhaps we take pride in our ancestral backgrounds, enjoy retelling how our ancestors came here, what they did for others and how their lives influenced ours. Or perhaps you have had to forget your own story and identity, because yours seems problematic, causing you to reject it.

C.S. Lewis was not against people taking pride in their ancestry, but he compared that glory to the paper crowns that popped out of what are known in the UK as Christmas Crackers - novelties with just a smidgeon of gunpowder that gave a delightful pop when pulled apart by two revelers, revealing a little toy and a paper crown to be worn during Christmas Eve festivities. Enjoy your story crown, but don't take it too seriously. Our true glorious family connection is with Jesus!

As for those of us who are not so happy with our story and prefer to claim instead the story of our church and our faith, remember that all of us ultimately are claimed as part of the Christ Story, the redeeming story meant for all.

This is Trinity Sunday, and I like the way these verses tell us the Spirit makes it clear that we are with the Son of God, we are the children of God, and are therefore entitled to cry aloud "Abba, Father!" to the Creator. It's a story we all can share, and Lord willing, we shall.