Usually, my Sunday “meditations” (and we use the word loosely) are prompted by conversations during the week, but this is something I’ve thought about this week as a result of my daily recovery work – a lot of which has revolved around God’s dealings with me as an individual.
I was raised in a relatively small Baptist denomination, which was more Arminian and a hair more fundamentalist than evangelicalism at large tends to be these days, but the main pulse was similar. The main story was that everyone was going to Hell, and the main task was to keep people from going to Hell, and the main way to do this was to get as many people as possible to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it. Church, then, was a group of people who had done this and were now focused on trying to get as many other people to do it as possible, all while avoiding a list of various practices designated as immoral.
At the core of this operation was the “gospel message” that went something like this:
You, as an individual, have sinned and, as a result, you are destined for Hell. But God loves you as an individual such that He sent Jesus to die a death that appeased His wrath toward you as an individual, and if you will accept this on faith and pray a prayer to ask Jesus into your heart, you as an individual will go to Heaven, instead.
You may have noticed this story is heavily centered around you as an individual, mostly because I said “you as an individual” about a dozen times. You have broken God’s laws. God will send you to Hell. God loves you. Jesus died for you. You can invite Jesus into your heart. You will go to heaven. You, you, you, you, you. Everything is about you. The whole story of the Bible ultimately spins around you as an individual and this all-important individual decision.
This plays very well in America, where individualism and self-determination are our highest virtues, and if we isolate certain passages (say, for instance, the Romans Road), and temporarily suspend the notion that these were written to a group of people and not to us as individuals, the Bible can be read this way.
But is this really what the Bible is? Is this where the center of gravity of the story is, if we take the Bible as a whole?
Because the Bible, to me, seems to be telling the story of a people.
These people begin in Abraham, whom God chooses (as an individual, sure, but you’ve gotta start somewhere) to be the father of a nation that will grow immensely numerous. God will be the faithful God of this nation, and they will be His faithful people. The growth, prosperity, and the faithfulness of these people will bless all the other nations, and they, too, will turn to the true God.
And so the process begins. Abraham’s sons become families that become tribes that become Israel. She has her first big crisis when she is imprisoned by another nation, and God – keeping His promise to Abraham – sets her free to bring her out of Egypt into her own land. She is able to fight off nations much larger than herself because God is with her, and she gains her own land and, eventually, is ruled by a series of kings.
This is not an unbroken line upward, however. Israel is seen to be sort of flighty. Sometimes, she is faithful to her God and all is well. Other times, her national sins and disobedience end her up in very precarious situations while her prophets call her to repentance and to return to the Lord who will restore her. Some kings are righteous and faithful and lead the nation in that direction; others are corrupt and breed faithlessness and injustice in the nation, and she suffers as a result.
As we move further in the story, Israel’s unfaithfulness as a nation finally provokes the curse of her covenant, and she is exiled from her land and brought into captivity to another nation. Even in this situation, though, the story isn’t over. Prophets continue to call Israel to repentance. Sometimes, ground is gained. Israel ends up being able to send people back to her land and rebuild her Temple. But overall, the nation slides into a desperate sort of dissipation and dissolution.
But God will not let this be the end of the story.
He sends Jesus to Israel – His own Son – to call them to repentance and faithfulness and restoration. Jesus begins to undo the curse and re-form the people into what God had always intended for them. Israel’s leaders do not care for this development and, in conjunction with Roman authorities, have Jesus executed. But this does not stop God, either, who raises Jesus from the dead and apocalyptically pours out His Spirit into this new Israel Jesus had been building around Himself, and the apostles carry on the mission.
But there is still so much rejection and opposition at work that God makes a drastic move to ensure the growth and restoration of His people – He grafts in Gentiles who believe, and they come in droves. This phenomenon occupies the bulk of the New Testament until we get to John’s Apocalypse, which shows us in very graphic terms an end to persecution, vindication of these faithful people, and the overthrow of the Roman Empire itself – a huge explosion whose echoes resonate against the far-flung picture of a renewed creation.
It seems to me, and obviously I could be way off, here, that the overwhelming bulk of the biblical story is about God’s relationship to a people in history – specifically the history of the people who are the children of the promise made to Abraham. It is God’s creation of this people, love for this people, the sins of this people, the salvation and restoration of this people, and the survival and growth of these people into the future that dictates the things that end up in the Bible.
Now, obviously, you can’t have a people without the individuals who compose it. You can’t have national sins without individual sins. You can’t have corporate repentance without individual repentance. You can’t have a faithful people without having a faithful person.
But the individual experience with God has context, definition, meaning, and expression inside the story of the corporate people of God, not the other way around.
We can’t have the Army without individuals who have decided to join the Army. However, when America deploys troops, the whole reason you get sent somewhere is because you’re in the Army. It’s not like someone made an announcement, “Hey, everyone with a gun and a desire to pursue American interests in other nations, get on this plane and we’ll take you to Afghanistan so you can do your thing.” You as an individual sign up to become part of a people, and it is this entity that is trained, equipped, and sent into the world to accomplish the mission. Your life becomes defined by a larger, corporate context.
When the Kansas City Royals play, it isn’t a game played by whatever individuals show up to Kauffman Stadium that night wanting to play baseball (although, I admit, it does look that way some games). No, you try out for the Royals and train with the Royals. The Royals get scheduled to play games against other teams, and you go with the Royals to play these other teams because that’s what the Royals do. If you were not a member of the Kansas City Royals, you would not take the field against Tampa Bay. If you are, then you will. If you retire from the Royals or get traded to another team, you no longer get on the bus with the Royals and play the baseball games the Royals are supposed to play. Your corporate identity defines your experience. It is your participation (or lack thereof) in that group of people that dictates what happens to you.
So, certainly, the Bible does not leave out individuals or their experiences, but individuals and their experiences derive from and are defined by their relationship to the group. God makes a covenant with, pursues, redeems, protects, and glorifies a people. If you belong to this group, you experience their highs and lows and historical relationship with God along with everyone else in that group. If you don’t, you don’t. Obviously, this experience affects us as individuals in our individual, daily lives (or it ought to) just as it did for Joe Israelite in the Old Testament, but the movie isn’t “God and I,” it’s “God and His People,” and this has some very practical ramifications for our priorities and mission and daily practice.
It affects how we understand and present the gospel. It affects what we do as the church and what we do as individual believers and how we make coherent sense of that two thousand years after Jesus.