Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 2); November 28, 2021

Re-narrating Recovery

The move from the Markan composition to the Lukan history is a move from “immediately” to “now what?” While the tragedies and traumas of the late 60s did not result in the automatic End of the Age, as some might have expected, the Markan composition did not propose a long delay before the Final Consummation. The urgent task was to get the Word out to as many as possible before that last act took place.

With the passing of a generation, the task had changed. The End of the Age would surely come in God’s good time. But that time was apparently further in the future than anyone could have imagined twenty-five years earlier. Life in the Empire had continued uninterrupted. A new stability had been achieved for the Empire, while the small movement of Jesus followers remained in a precarious and sometimes persecuted position.

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The story of the End of the World as We Know It was not a temporary discomfort but rather a long-term reality. The necessity to deal with the trauma was becoming more pressing, I suspect, not less, for the Lukan communities. Someone had to try to draw the narrative, historical, and theological threads into one garment. Someone had to tell the story in such a way that the mission could continue.

At the same time, the Jesus movement was entering a third generation of followers. This generation no longer had the first-person testimonies of original witnesses. This generation was losing the voices of those who could tell the stories from memory as they had heard them from those witnesses. The movement was growing in numbers and continuing to deepen its presence in the Imperial system.

It is, therefore, not surprising that this point in the historical process produced two efforts to put the story in order for the new audiences and readers. The writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used material from the common store of early Christian memory – some form of the Markan transcript, early sayings material that scholars sometimes refer to as “Q” (from the German word for “source”), and materials specific to each of their own communities and traditions.

The writer of Luke’s gospel was the most intentional in this task of re-telling. One of the functions of these Advent messages in the three-year lectionary tradition is to give opportunities to reintroduce our listeners to the purposes and themes of the Lukan account which will occupy us during the next year. One of those purposes is the giving of an “orderly account” of the Gospel to those who might be interested.

It’s always good to return to the preface of Luke’s gospel in Luke 1:1-4 to understand and appreciate what we have before us this year. The writer of Luke’s gospel acknowledges that others have tried to write down an ordered account “of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” This is certainly a nod to the Markan account, Q, and other such records.

The writer also acknowledges a debt to the tradition that has been “handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” We have here a description of the first two generations of storytellers. The writer has decided to take another whack at pulling things together, this time for “most excellent Theophilus,” one who has received instruction in following Jesus and now is ready for the full story.

The contrast between this leisurely and diplomatic Lukan introduction and the prologue to the Markan composition could not be much more pronounced. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – ready, set, go!” The Lukan account is a careful compilation and consideration, designed for people with the luxury of time and an eye toward following Jesus for the long haul.

The move from Mark to Luke is also the move from an oral/aural transcript created to be heard (and perhaps created by hearing) to a written history drafted and crafted in order to be read (probably aloud, but still read). “Though contemporary scholarship has become aware of the deep significance of the origin of the gospels as oral stories,” Richard Swanson writes, “interpreters have noted that Luke feels and reads more like a ‘page text’ than an oral text” (page 22).

As I noted, the written account arises from a need to pull things together. “Luke’s story also comes out of a painful history, a time of disaster, a time when religious tradition gave desperate birth to hopes for the consolation of an abused people,” Swanson continues (page 23). “To see signs in the sun, moon, and stars would indicate that somehow the terrible chaos on earth had shaken all stability out of place. These are children at worship,” Swanson notes, “who have seen these signs, who have learned, painfully, that comfortable stability is an illusion” (page 53).

And as I noted in the previous post, Luke’s readers are learning about, remembering, and dealing with trauma now three decades old. Clearly that trauma, however, has not been tamed. A traumatic experience is not merely remembered. It is relived and repeated until the sufferer can accept the memory as a companion rather than an enemy. But how does that happen?

“At the heart of the clinical material on recovery,” Serene Jones writes, “are three insights about this process, insights useful for the theological-imaginative task” (page 32). First, Jones notes, those who have experienced trauma need to tell their story. Second, those who have experienced trauma need accepting, safe, and reliable witnesses to hear their story. Third, she continues, the testifier and the witness must launch into “the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain” (page 32).

Human memory is a complex reality. We are not audio and video recording devices. We are story-tellers. Each time we remember and re-narrate an event, we grow the story in some particular way. We are not simply re-tracing the neural connections laid down to preserve our memories. We are strengthening the existing connections and creating new ones.

In the case of trauma, this telling of a new, different story “does not mean forgetting the past,” Jones writes, “rather it means re-narrating the events in such a way that agency is returned, and hope (a future) is possible” (page 32). Jones summarizes what this means for the Church:

“To translate these three insights about recovery and healing into the language of theology, as the church, we are called to be those who testify, who try to tell the story of what happened in its fullness; those who witness, who receive the story of violence and create a safe space for its healing; those who reimage the future by telling yet again—without denying the event of violence now woven into it—the story of our faith” (page 33).

This conversation about the nature of the telling the new and different story reminds me of the insights I have learned from work on the psychology of hope by C. Richard Snyder and his colleagues. They describe the psychology of hope as having three components: “willpower” (the capacity to choose a course of action), “waypower” (the existence of one or more potential courses of action), and “why power” (the goal, purpose, or end to be achieved by the potential course or courses of action). The new and different story assists, perhaps, in expressing these elements to people who have lost their sense of will, way, and/or why.

Jones notes that the Lukan account has a paradigmatic story about Jesus followers who thought they had lost their sense of will, way, and why. It’s the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24. As we live with the Lukan story this year, it’s important always to keep in the backs of our minds the plaintive resignation of the two disciples: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21, NRSV).

We learn, of course, that Jesus is precisely the one who is to redeem Israel and to be the source of repentance and forgiveness for all the Gentiles. But it doesn’t happen in the expected ways. Nor does it happen according to the expected time frame.

This is going to take longer than we thought.

It’s obvious that I am grieving the necessity to put the Markan composition aside for another three years. But it is clear that this Lukan account has much to offer for this time of the life of the Church. In North America, we certainly live in a “now what?” and “what’s next?” moment for congregations, denominations, and the Jesus follower movement as a whole. The voices that declare the end of the church world as we know it are swelling to a chorus, while the voices discussing how the new world will appear rise barely above a whisper.

This is going to take longer than we thought.

We can begin to see the outlines of “life after” (perhaps) – life after The Pandemic, life after The Insurrection, life after…Well, we’re not really in the “after” stage of very much yet. We’re still in the stage of longing to return to things as they were. But going back will only multiply the trauma and hinder the process of recovering. The same story leaves us in the same spot. It is only the new and different story that can take us forward.

Perhaps part of the Lukan account, especially in the Apocalyptic Discourse, is to urge us to resist distractions. The bangs and booms, the lighting and thunder, the disruptions and persecutions – these certainly might seem to us like the most important features of the story. But they are not. They are signposts, not the road. “Now when these things begin to take place,” the Lukan author encourages us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” Luke 21:28, NRSV). That’s the good news of this text. But…

This is going to take longer than we thought.

References and Resources

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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