Holiness is a Story that Jesus Likes to Tell: Joseph Cash

February’s post was written by NazToo member Joseph Cash. Joseph says of himself, “I am 35 years old and still can’t figure out what to do with myself. I am a student, a licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene, a full time IT technician, and I am happily married with three energetic kids. Those aren’t the reasons I can’t sleep at night, but they contribute. Usually I’m up because I’m binge-watching or reading until my brain forces an unexpected reboot. My heart breaks for the Church and for our world and I am currently trying to live out my passions through a reconciliation ministry in Kankakee Illinois.”

If you know me, you know that I am a nerd. I get excited about almost everything (not sports) but especially superheroes. If someone mentions a good book, I add it to my list. TV series and movies, I usually investigate faster. I love the visual so even my favorite books include comics and graphic novels and I can never watch too many movies. Thanks to Marvel, (seriously, they are killing it) I get the best of both.

I love stories. When I was young, they fueled my own creativity and compensated for the lack of self-confidence and friendships caused by early onset bullying. In other words, I was not popular. At all. I was miserable for all 8 years of Catholic school because of little Catholic bullies.

Now that I’m older, stories help me to understand and respond to the experience of others. Our relationship with the Church hasn’t changed. For some reason there are still little Christian bullies out there making people miserable. The story we hear, and that is still being told in churches everywhere (especially in America), is one of pessimism, fear, and exclusion –the opposite of the actual message of holiness. Holiness, the character of Christ and the good news of the gospel, is a message of hope and reconciliation.

Fear is no basis for a relationship. Fear corrects but hope transforms. There are so many stories around us that challenge us to understand this, despite all that has desensitized and embittered us. Stories, often those outside the church, provide an alternative unifying narrative that counterbalances the fear that many people experience in and from the Church.

Those alternative stories are like beacons signaling travelers and marking a waypoint along a personal and communal path that leads to true community. The Church is how Jesus reimagined community and he told stories to help us understand what that means. When we love the church, despite our experience, we find solidarity with Jesus. Jesus loved stories. Like a lot.

The stories that Jesus told reconciled, as all good stories do. Stories are proleptic. Jesus told stories to contrast dark and light, what was and what could be –He told stories to reveal truth. When truth is revealed things change. We change. Think of the parable of the prodigal son, my favorite story Jesus told. That story is beautifully portrayed in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 epic film “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Peter and the other disciples are arguing at the dock as Jesus makes his way into the city. “The prophet’s” decision to defile himself is deeply troubling. How could he feast with such a great sinner? They argue about “the law” and appeal to Peter repeatedly to try one last time to convince Jesus. Troubled by what he has already witnessed, Peter is drinking and angry.

I’ve told him already! What do you want from me? I resent Matthew as my blood-sucking enemy, I hate Matthew! But all Jesus would say was ‘Well, why don’t you join us as well?’ Andrew, I’m not like you. I’m not a follower of priests and prophets. I’m a fisherman, I have my family to think of. You followed the Baptist, now follow this one. Just leave me alone!

Andrew, Phillip, James, and John shuffle away to follow at some distance. Jesus approaches the house, ignoring the incredulous looks of those following and attempting to block him, and greets the servant at the door.

The holy people (the disciples, zealous followers, and religious lurkers) crowd at the entrance, careful not to set a toe across the threshold.

Peter (the drinking, swearing, angry fisherman) lays down looking poignantly in Jesus’ direction.

Matthew (the blood- sucking sinner) rushes to greet his guest of honor, bursting with delight.

Later as the fire crackles and entertainment dies down, Jesus obliges to speak. He begins to tell a story about a man and his two sons. The crowds both inside and outside the house are silent as Peter slowly draws near. Peter makes his way past the walls into the home and stands before Jesus captivated and his tear filled eyes look from Jesus to Matthew.

Matthew rises to stand face to face with Peter and the two once bitter enemies wrap their arms around each other as brothers. They weep together, asking and accepting forgiveness, as the solemn crowd and the piercing eyes of Jesus bear witness. Peter then looks at Jesus (directly into the camera) and says, “Forgive me master. I’m just a stupid man.”

This story blows my mind. I read it… and watch it… frequently. I am the prodigal. I am the elder son. We all are. This story reveals us, reveals God, and transforms everything as it does. This story pulls us in, just like that scene portrayed, it changes us as we hear it, compels us to respond. The words create.

God used words to create. Jesus uses words to reconcile. He reveals and fulfills God’s character (holiness) and mission (reconciliation) simultaneously. The stories that Jesus told, that the Church is supposed to tell aren’t only for the Church. Holiness and reconciliation aren’t only for the Church.

[God] says, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah‬ ‭49:6‬ ‭NASB‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬)

When I first joined the Church of the Nazarene, I thought all my enthusiasm for movies and pop culture would give me away. I thought, “not only do Nazarenes not watch movies, they also fear and despise anything outside the boundaries they identify around holiness.” I loved my pastor and my Church and they loved me, but their Holiness taught me to hide my passions — not to embrace them as something that brings glory to God.

Whatever you think about comic books and movies, they are just a few ways that stories cultivate hope. There are people challenging power and privilege, denouncing violence, and pursuing truth through stories. In those stories, even Batman knows that the world needs Superman, because he embodies the values he imparts to those he saves. In those stories, even a little boy can teach his family to honor his ancestors and learn from their mistakes. The people who make and celebrate those stories know that time is up for the broken narratives of patriarchy, bigotry, fear, and exclusion. Even they believe in hope.

Whatever you think about the Church, God invites us into a story of hope and reconciliation. Many of our stories in NazToo are similar. We have heard and experienced stories that create boundaries, devalue, and exclude. Some of us have even believed and participated in those stories. I think we stick around though, as Jesus did, because we know that holiness is not something that builds boundaries. Holiness transcends boundaries. We believe in holiness and that somehow we will see its fullness.

The difference between separation from something and separation for someone is the posture of our hearts. Stories can help us understand and respond to the grace that overcomes the messiness of life. Stories shape us. God is telling our story and inviting us to live into it. Nothing is more exciting.