Wednesday, October 27, 2010

After You Believe, by N. T. Wright

Question 1:  Wright begins this section with Paul’s depiction of love as a virtue.  As such, love is transcendent…that which transforms us into complete humans and allows us to bear the divine image.  The early church latched upon the word, “agape,” in an attempt to convey this unique activity. 
  • Why is “love” such a peculiar and difficult word to define, much less implement? 
  • What is your current understanding and application of love, as you think God intends of us?
Question 2:  Section two continues to explore the vast implications of agape, especially as set forth in 1 Corinthians 13.  Apparently, love moves both forward and backward…from the future into the present, and the present into the future.  Love represents the great transition and transformation.  Wright further characterizes love as “the language they speak in God’s world, and we are summoned to learn it…”  In fact, love goes beyond duty… “it is our destiny.” 
  • If love is indeed the divine language we are called to learn, a language that bridges the present to the future and back again,  how does 1 Corinthians 13 provide the grammatical structure to comprehend and express this language? 
  • How then do we allow this language to promote deeper intimacy with one another and with God?
Question 3:  Wright insists that “Paul is not discussing the question of rules versus spontaneity.  He is talking about the great change that has come over the people of God with the death and resurrection of the Messiah and the gift of the Spirit.”  This change is marked by the “fruits of the Spirit”…nine in all.  However, these fruits do not grow automatically.  They must be tended to, as with a garden.  Such pruning, etc., is the result of deliberate choice. 

Christian virtue, then, is “both the gift of God and the result of the person of faith making conscious decisions to cultivate this way of life and these habits of heart and mind.”  Thus, we partner with the Holy Spirit to acquire and practice virtue.  To go it alone is to leave the garden untended. 
  • So, what does your “garden” look like these days? 
  • Where have you and the Holy Spirit partnered, and what are the results? 
  • Why do we attempt to go it alone at times?
  • What characteristics “of the flesh” do we find difficult to prune on our own?
Question 4:  This section is a bit challenging to get one’s arms around.  Wright discusses the interplay of virtues and moral values as they relate to individual and communal applications.  In addition to love, faith and hope also have “lasting” qualities in God’s new world.  Imagine how your faith and your hope not only carry over, but are transformed and more deeply realized in the eschaton (the arrival of the new heaven and new earth). 
  • What confidence can you derive and apply from this continuity of virtues in your life?
Question 5:  Living the Christian faith within the Christian community requires sustained effort and work.  Any hope of unity here necessitates “love-in-action.”  The language of virtue must be learned and practiced in order to be realized.  These become habits of mind and heart…“it’s a matter of learning to think and act in accordance with the Spirit of Jesus Christ in such a way that the things which harm unity are spotted early on and rooted out.” 
  • What specific “habits” have you learned and acquired that sustain you today? 
  • How do they intersect with your involvement in the church and in the community?
Question 6:  Wright notes that “virtue is always the result of work and cost.  Paul’s appeal for unity…is nothing if not an appeal for virtue.”  Corporate virtue with the church becomes a significant challenge and opportunity to more fully express love, hope, and faith. 
  • What are the current “challenges and opportunities” we face today as the church? 
  • What sustains us in our efforts to be a part of something much greater than ourselves?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

After You Believe, by N. T. Wright

Chapter Five Discussion Questions

Question 1:  Wright characterizes Paul as a morning person.  That’s me, too…though not by choice.  How about you?  Hey, you’re here at Panera early in the day, so you get bonus points either way!  (Do I detect a rhyme?)  “Paul’s vision of Christian virtue, centered here as elsewhere on faith, hope, and love, is all about developing the habits of the daytime heart in a world still full of darkness.”  What are some of those “daytime habits” for you, and how do they operate “in the dark?” 

Wright connects all such efforts as Christian virtue…reflecting the divine image fully to the world and to God.  This is our work as “rulers and priests.”  Take a moment in class now and pair up with one person.  Take turns describing one characteristic of your partner that reflects the “divine image” to others.  Don’t be shy…it’s good for you to see it in others and to have it seen in you!

Question 2:  Wright says that Paul is instructing the Colossians “to develop, in the present age, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age.”  This involves doing what does not come naturally.  Therefore, certain behaviors must be “put to death” in order to make way for our new “habits of life.”  He goes on to describe this renewal in terms of team sports, where we benefit from the virtues of community.  From there, the analogy shifts to the “putting on of new clothes.”  Together, they point toward the difficult reality of change… deliberate change.  Take a moment with this last metaphor and consider the variety of “clothing” you’ve cast off and put on lately.  Did this change of clothes take 5 minutes or 5 years?  Give some examples.

Question 3:  The focus of this section is the transformation of the mind.  This, he claims, is the “antidote to the power of the present age.”  He then notes that “the failure to worship the one true God leads to a failure to think, and thence to a failure to act as a fully human being ought.”  How has your life of worship over these many years both equipped and taught you to think in this way?  Wright goes on to draw major distinctions between modernity’s misappropriations of feeling over thinking.  Page 156 provided a delightful, if not stinging, portrayal of the problem before us.  “The more genuinely spiritual you are…the more clearly and accurately and carefully you will think”…p. 158.  What do you think (not feel) are appropriate ways to balance thoughts & feeling?

Question 4:  In this discussion of the conscience, Wright leans on Paul in defining it as “an inner witness, a voice within one’s self, assessing the moral worth of what has been done and, perhaps, what might yet be done.”  He also notes that a conscience needs both educating and listening to.  Moral, as well as intellectual, approval is needed.  What role has your conscience played in the shaping and utilization of your morals?  How does the Holy Spirit both inform and interact with the human conscience? 

Question 5:  On page 169, Wright asks, “How then is the mind to be renewed?”  His response: “The aim is that individual Christians might have their minds and hearts awakened and alerted to fresh visions of God’s reality, of the final hope set before them, and be able to discern in a fresh way what habits of mind and heart and body are necessary if they are to grow into the people God intends.”  Let’s work with the phrase, “awakened and alerted to fresh visions of God’s reality.”  What does this phrase mean to you?  Such visions serve to direct the development of our habits of heart, mind, & body.  How have you experienced these visions?

Question 6:  Citing the centrality of prayer in Ephesians, Wright goes on to define the classic structure of virtue: “glimpse the goal, work out the path toward it, and develop the habits which you will need to practice if you are going to tread that path.”  Transformation and renewal of the mind remains the key here.  And I would add, “imagination fueled by the Holy Spirit.”  How are you doing in this aspect of your discipleship?  How might our congregation benefit from a deeper realization and practice of this “structure of virtue?”

Question 7:  In this last section (yes, we finally made it!), Wright emphasizes “hope and character construction.”  He then asks, “But if God’s glory is the goal, what is the route toward it?”  What are the character-forming habits that allow us to reach our goal of being “complete humans?”  The first step, he says, is suffering…which then leads to endurance, character, and hope.  Why is suffering the cornerstone of this progression?  What forms of Christian suffering have you witnessed and why were they such powerful motivators in your life?  Where might we enter into new opportunities of meaningful and productive “suffering” for the sake of the gospel?  And finally, why is the transformation of the mind so critical to such obedient risk-taking?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

After You Believe, by N. T. Wright

Chapter Four Discussion Questions

Question 1:  Chapter 4 introduces the challenges and difficulties of reading and interpreting scripture.  In this instance, we’re dealing with the gospels and Jesus’ descriptions of the coming kingdom of God…the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7.  The larger truth, he states, is this: God’s future is arriving in the present, in the person and work of Jesus, and you can practice, right now, the habits of life which will find their goal in that coming future.  What exactly does this statement mean to you?  How does it assist you in shaping your attitude and actions?

Wright draws a clear distinction between happiness and blessedness (p. 104).  How do you understand each and why is this distinction so crucial to us as Christians today?  In the end, the Sermon on the Mount points to the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation and new covenant.  How have these “habits of heart” equipped you with strength and hope?

Question 2:  Wright warns against interpreting the Beatitudes as a set of rules.  They are more like virtues. Through them, Jesus invites us to adopt an “eschatological authenticity” (my new favorite expression), whereby we receive a “God-given second nature, a new way of being human.”  Such transformation cannot be imposed from the outside, but rather authentically received from within.  We experience such transformation through faith, hope, and love. 

Thus, perfection points not to specific outward actions, but our inward character…“a character formed by overflowing generous love.”  Jesus understands his vocation as both king and priest, the one who launches this new kingdom into being through his own obedient sacrifice.  In what ways is your character being shaped and “perfected” by Jesus?  Where are you being invited and challenged to grow even deeper in faith, hope, and love?

Question 3:  This section is complicated at first, yet elegant in its final explanation.  Several themes converge to offer a hopeful resolution at our personal attempts to make ourselves right with God.  These combined themes include:  epistles/gospels people; receivers/agents, kingdom/cross; Jesus/Temple; rulers/priests; Aristotle/Jesus; and Jesus as priest/king.”  All of these direct us toward the new creation…established on the cross, “where the true God defeated the false gods and established, with deep and resonating paradox, his kingdom on earth as in heaven.”  As a result, Jesus – through his resurrection – is now King and Priest.  He is the “end,” the goal.  Thus, Christian virtue says, “What you will be is what you already are in Christ.” 

In what aspects of your faith can you directly apply this claim?  How is your life changed as a result?

Question 4:  Wright enters his discussion with the premise that we (our hearts) are unclean and that a cleansing is needed (by Jesus).  Jesus understands this priestly function to be inherently central to his vocation and his work on the cross.  As the disciples discovered, to be changed of heart in this way was to become “heart-changers” themselves as followers of Jesus:  “They were to become kings and priests.”  This will no doubt seem utterly strange to you, but ask yourself, “Now that I am a king and a priest, how does that shape my conduct, my words, my interactions with others and the world?”  What specific opportunities and responsibilities accompany these remarkable vocations in each of us as Christians?

Question 5:  Wright zeroes in on Jesus’ central purpose…not as some mere moral example or religious mascot, but as one who invites us, not to copy him, but to follow him (with our crosses in tow).  In other words, Jesus provides an example not so much of how to do it, as of what to do.  Like Jesus, we are to learn obedience in the ways of virtue…a virtue transformed by the kingdom and the cross.  Where have you experienced this “obedience in virtue” in ways that have recently changed or shaped your life?  What goals do you have for yourself now where such obedience is necessary for newness to be born?