Tuesday, December 20, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Eleven

1. The car is the New Testament. The owner is the “ordinary Christian,” whether in the pulpit or the pew. The mechanics are a certain breed of New Testament scholar. And the sad little story represents the perception of many “ordinary Christians” about the effect of scholarship on their wonderful old text. Some scholars have said it’s unreliable. Some have said people have added bits that shouldn’t be there. Some have said you won’t be able to drive it much longer. But many others have just taken it apart, analyzed it word by word, drawn cunning parallels with other ancient literature, demonstrated its rhetorical skill— and left it in bits all over the floor. To be admired, no doubt. But not to be driven. I and many others have done our best to study the New Testament with a different aim. Without skimping on historical and verbal analysis, we have done our best to put the whole thing back together again, even though the owners may have to get used to driving slightly differently in the future.

- How does this analogy compare with your experience of reading and interpreting the Bible?  What are the virtues/limitations of this analogy?

2. Let me show what I mean by offering two readings of the Apostles’ Creed. The first is the implicit reading of much modern Christianity. It maintains its hold on the great doctrines that are there in the creed, but, as we have seen already, it distorts the narrative as a whole and those great truths with it. The second is the implicit reading to which I believe the canon of scripture, particularly the four gospels, compels us.

(Read & discuss each creedal statement applying both methods.)

- I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

- And in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord…

- Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.

- He descended into hell.

- The third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

- From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

- I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins…

- …the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

3. This whole book has been about new reality, the new reality of Jesus and his launching of God’s kingdom. The new reality of a story so explosive (unlike the muddled, murky, “self-help” world of the noncanonical gospels!) that the church in many generations has found it too much to take and so has watered it down, cut it up into little pieces, turned it into small-scale lessons rather than allowing its full impact to be felt. Part of the tragedy of the modern church, I have been arguing, is that the “orthodox” have preferred creed to kingdom, and the “unorthodox” have tried to get a kingdom without a creed. It’s time to put back together what should never have been separated. In Jesus, the living God has become king of the whole world. These books not only tell the story of how that happened. They are the central means by which those who read and pray them can help to make that kingdom a reality in tomorrow’s world. We have misunderstood the gospels for too long. It’s time, in the power and joy of the Spirit, to get back on track.

-  How has N.T. Wright provided the means to “get back on track” with integrating the central messages of Scripture and Creed?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Nine

1. If, then, the gospel writers are, as we suggested earlier, offering the story of Jesus as the completion of the story of Israel, in what sense is it now complete? How has it been fulfilled? The answer seems to lie, for the gospel writers themselves, in the dark strand that emerges at various stages of the tradition of ancient Israel. As the psalms and prophets sharpen up their vision of how God’s kingdom is to come to the world, there emerges a strange and initially perplexing theme: Israel itself will have to enter that darkness. The songs and oracles focus, from time to time and often mysteriously, on the idea that Israel’s own suffering will not simply be a dark passage through which the people have to pass, but actually part of the means whereby they will – perhaps despite themselves – fulfill the original divine vocation.

- How does Israel’s suffering provide a context & purpose for your faith?

2. God is the creator and redeemer of the world, and Jesus’s launch of the kingdom— God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as in heaven— is the central aim of his mission, the thing for which he lived and died and rose again. How can we even begin to understand this? Perhaps we should say that, with the hindsight the evangelists offer us, God called Israel to be the means of rescuing the world, so that he might himself alone rescue the world by becoming Israel in the person of its representative Messiah. This explains the place of David in the story. He is, in some respects at least, the man after God’s own heart, the man whose Temple-building son would be God’s own son, as God says to David through the prophet Nathan: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” (2 Sam. 7: 12– 14)

- As Israel’s representative Messiah, Jesus is called to fulfill the work of God the Father.  How do you understand this unique, dynamic relationship, especially as it fulfills God’s covenant with David?

3. Here, the suffering and death of Jesus’s people is not simply the dark path they must tread because of the world’s continuing hostility toward Jesus and his message. It somehow has the more positive effect of carrying forward the redemptive effect of Jesus’s own death, not by adding to it, but by sharing in it. When we speak of the “finished work of the Messiah,” as the evangelists intend us to (as far as they were concerned, the story of Jesus was the unique turning point of all history), we are not ruling out, but rather laying the groundwork for, a missiology of kingdom and cross. Jesus has constituted his followers as those who share his work of kingdom inauguration; that is the point of his sending out of the Twelve, and then others again, even during his lifetime and far more so after his death and resurrection. But if they are to bring his kingdom in his way, they will be people who share his suffering.

- What are the burdens, risks, and joys of sharing in Jesus’ suffering?  Please consider all three outcomes.

4. In other words, the powers that put Jesus on the cross didn’t realize that by doing so they were in fact serving God’s purposes, unveiling the “wisdom” that lies at the heart of the universe. That is to say, when Jesus died on the cross he was winning the victory over “the rulers and authorities” who have carved up this world in their own violent and destructive way. The establishment of God’s kingdom means the dethroning of the world’s kingdoms, not in order to replace them with another one of basically the same sort (one that makes its way through superior force of arms), but in order to replace it with one whose power is the power of the servant and whose strength is the strength of love.

- Where have you witnessed such power and strength?  
- How did it change the way you perceived the work & presence of God?

5. All four dimensions— all four speakers, to continue our image— thus contribute to a richly layered narrative that we find, in different ways, in all four canonical gospels.  Getting to this point requires considerable mental effort in today’s world and church. We have to reconstruct this story step-by-step, because so many elements of it have been simply forgotten or ignored in so much Christianity, not least, paradoxically, in those parts of the church that like to think of themselves as “biblical.” But for the evangelists and their first audiences, the sounds that force us to strain our ears, to readjust our sound systems, would have come through loud and clear with little effort. This dense and dramatic fusion of ancient scripture and in-your-face pagan power, this coming together of the dream of YHWH’s return and the surprising launch of a quite new people— all this was their world.

- What similar challenges & opportunities await today’s Church?
- What excites you personally as a participant in this encounter?

Monday, November 14, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Eight

1. Near the heart of my purpose in this book is to suggest that not only have we misread the gospels, but that we have made them ordinary, have cut them down to size, have allowed them only to speak about the few concerns that happened to occupy our minds already, rather than setting them free to generate an entire world of meaning in all directions, a new world in which we would discover not only new life, but new vocation.

- What factors contribute to our “making the gospels ordinary?”

2. We have lived for many years now with “kingdom Christians” and “cross Christians” in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heaven agenda. The four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts, and that is mostly what Part III is about. In fact, what we call “politics” and what we call “religion” (and for that matter what we call “culture,” “philosophy,” “theology,” and lots of other things besides) were not experienced or thought of in the first century as separable entities. This was just as true, actually, for the Greeks and the Romans as it was for the Jews.

- Looking back at Wright’s historical explanation, how did the Enlightenment contribute to the formation of kingdom/cross Christians?

3. So what has been the Christian reaction to all this? How have those who habitually read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John responded to the challenge of modernity? In very mixed fashion.

- Review and discuss Wright’s appraisal of the churches’ four reactions.

4. So, to sum up this very long but necessary introduction. Judaism always assumed that the creator God wanted the world to be ordered and ruled by his image-bearing humans. The world, heaven and earth, was created as God’s temple, and his image-bearers were the key elements in that temple. But the world was out of joint through the failure of humans in general and Israel in particular, so God the creator would have to act in judgment and justice to hold them to account. And the sign of that coming judgment was that at the heart of the world God had placed his covenant people, gathered around the Temple, which was the microcosm of creation, to celebrate his true order and to pray for it to come on earth as in heaven.

- How does this context provide a fuller comprehension of the purpose of the four gospels?  What do we have in common with this context?

5. And it was, of course, to those first-century Jews that the evangelists saw Jesus coming with his message of God’s kingdom. As we turn now,
none too soon, to consider the themes of kingdom and cross, we note that for all the evangelists, as for Paul, there is no sense of the kingdom not after all having appeared. Yes, it has been redefined. Yes, there is still more to do, as long as evil continues to stalk the earth. But the early Christians all believed that with Jesus’s death and resurrection the kingdom had indeed come in power, even if it didn’t look at all like they imagined it would. The hope had been realized, even though it had been quite drastically redefined in the process. A new theocracy had indeed been inaugurated, because the Temple where God lived among his people had been radically redefined. A new empire had been launched that would trump Caesar’s empire and all those like it, not by superior force but by a completely different sort of power altogether. And the place where this vision is set out is, to the great surprise of many who at one level know these documents well, the collection of the four gospels we find in the New Testament.

-  How does this portrayal of the arrival of God’s kingdom in the four gospels give you hope in the midst of contemporary chaos and upheaval?

- Where do you encounter that kingdom and how does it sustain you?

Monday, November 7, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Seven

1. Come back, for more detail, to the first of our four speakers. The entire story of Israel, on one level at least, is the story of how Israel’s God is taking on the arrogant tyrants of the world, overthrowing their power, and rescuing his people from under its cruel weight. Think back quickly through the great stories. (These include the stories of Babel in Genesis; of Pharaoh in Exodus; of Isaiah and Daniel; Psalms 2 & 89.)

- Specifically, what do ancient & contemporary tyrants have in common?

2. But the hope persists, and psalm after psalm brings it to expression. The gods of the nations are but idols, but Israel’s God made the heavens. God reigns over the nations, God sits on his holy seat; the princes of the people gather as the people of the God of Abraham, who has subdued peoples and nations. God has established his city, and the powers of wicked pagans will not prevail against it. Again and again it comes, shaping the hearts and imaginations of God’s people even in the many centuries when these songs of praise and triumph bore no relation to the sociopolitical reality in which they were living. This is the world in which we are to hear what the gospels are trying to tell us about the story of Jesus seen as the focal point of the story of God and Caesar.

- What do these biblical stories have in common with our life stories?

3. This points forward to the larger power, Rome itself, which will close in at the end, only to be symbolically overthrown as the Roman guards at the tomb fail to prevent Jesus’s resurrection. Luke has Herod in Jerusalem at this time as well, in league at last with Pontius Pilate (23: 1– 12). The sense is the same: the powers of the world are waiting there, in the wings, mostly offstage, but ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. If this really is the story of God’s kingdom arriving on earth as in heaven, sooner or later there will be a confrontation. Again, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political psychology to know what the world’s powers will do to those who act and speak to bring about God’s kingdom. As well as all the other elements in the gospel story, we must recognize this for what it is, a telling of the story of Jesus as the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world.

- Where do you witness this clash of kingdoms today?

4. If this story of Jesus is the story of Israel reaching its climax, it is inescapably political and will raise questions the Western world has chosen not to raise, let alone face, throughout the period of so-called critical scholarship. The post-Enlightenment world was born out of a movement that split church and state apart and has arranged even its would-be historical scholarship accordingly; and that same Enlightenment insisted that Judaism was the wrong kind of religion, far too gross, too material. Rejection, from the start, of a “political” reading of the gospels and of a “Jewish” reading went together. Fortunately, genuine history— the actual study of the actual sources— can sometimes strike back and insist that what a previous generation turned off this generation can at last turn back on. It is time, and long past time, to reread the gospels as what we can only call political theology— not because they are not after all about God and spirituality and new birth and holiness and all the rest, but precisely because they are.

- How do you understand Wright’s explanation of “political theology?”

5. The point about truth, and about Jesus and his followers bearing witness to it, is that truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed. Empires can’t cope with this. They make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice.

-  Where is this tragically happening today? How are we responding?

6. The four gospel writers, each in his own way, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the new and ultimate exodus. What our present fourfold exercise has done is to draw out the various dimensions of that new exodus and to highlight their significance. The gospels all insist that it was Jesus’s own choice to make Passover the moment for his decisive action. This, they are saying, was his own chosen grid of interpretation. And all four gospels together, once we have learned to listen to their four dimensions, bequeath to Jesus’s followers the task of being the people in and through whom the achievement of Jesus is implemented in the world. That is why the story told by the gospels is not only incomplete without two millennia of backdrop (the story of ancient Israel), which they assume we will know and which we in our generation often have to supply with considerable pedagogic effort. The story is also incomplete because it points forward to a future yet to come.

- How has this chapter further shaped your understanding of the role of the four gospels?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Six

1. What has, for many generations, been passed off as “critical scholarship” has in fact regularly reflected one of two quite different prejudgments [skeptics & fundamentalists], both of which must be challenged… These prejudgments have simply falsified the entire gospel tradition. This isn’t a matter of “proving” that this or that element in the gospels is in fact historically reliable. History has, in any case, a type of “proof” different from that in many other disciplines. Science studies repeatable phenomena; an experiment can be replicated on the other side of the world. History studies unrepeatable phenomena; you cannot step twice into the same river. “Proof” in history must therefore reside in the balance of probabilities, not in the repeated experiment or the analytical mathematical truth. It’s more a matter of recognizing that the gospels were indeed intended as “biographies” in some sense or other, even though they are biographies that carry all kinds of other stories, as we are seeing in this part of the present book. And my judgment as a historian is that, once we think our way into the world of Jesus’s day, they convey the mood and flavor of the times and of its toweringly central character with remarkable precision.
- How do the mindsets of skepticism & fundamentalism preclude thinking our way into the world of Jesus’ day?  Why do biographies succeed?

2. Another distorting pressure, however, must also be named. This is the tendency, which we have already observed, for people in our generation, both inside and outside the church, to assume that the gospels are basically about “moral teaching,” that Jesus was a moral teacher and that the gospels record his wise words. Any serious readers of the gospels will see the flaw— Jesus was not less than a “moral teacher,” but he was certainly much, much more. But for many preachers and teachers this exerts an insidious pressure, helped on its way by the need to produce yet another sermon (or two or three) for yet another Sunday. How much easier to produce moral musings than present the fresh challenge of the kingdom! Hence, once more, this speaker gets turned up far too loud.

- How have religious authors and publishers colluded to produce and market an endless stream of morality under the guise of Christianity?

3. One good way to get this third speaker adjusted to its proper volume is to think of the four gospels as deliberately composed foundational documents for the new movement. They are, in this quite proper sense, “myths”— not in the sense of “stories that didn’t happen,” but in the sense of “stories communities tell to explain and give direction to their own lives.” The question is whether the “myth” corresponds to reality. Well, the question of the gospels is whether the “myth” that they convey corresponds to reality. Early Christians would have said that the test of this was the reality not simply of their historical memories, but of their community life. When they told the stories in the gospels, they told them not simply as a way of reminding one another of things that had happened, however interesting. They were reminding one another of things that had happened through which the new movement of which they were a part had come into being and through which it had gained its sense of direction. Their whole raison d’ĂȘtre depended on these stories.

- How do the gospels serve as “myth” in shaping our community life?
- How would you describe the current direction of our faith movement?

4. It isn’t just that the church finds itself doing a few of the things that Jesus’s first followers found themselves doing. It is that the story of the gospels, reaching its unique climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is told in such a way as to indicate that Jesus’s followers now have a mission, indeed a mission that goes way beyond anything they had had during Jesus’s lifetime. We have already seen that Matthew suggests a transition from a limited mission in Jesus’s lifetime to a worldwide one after the resurrection. Something similar is true in John’s gospel (not that the disciples have as much of a “mission” there during Jesus’s lifetime). Here is the heart of it. The more you tell the story of Jesus and pray for his Spirit, the more you discover what the church should be doing in the present time. Because the gospels are the foundational charter for the church’s life, they must be stories primarily about Jesus; otherwise the church would be rooted in itself.

- How do the stories about Jesus direct your sense of faith and mission?

5. When we ponder this, and the many other moments in all four gospels that have the same kind of effect, we realize that the scholars’ instincts were in this way right on target: the four gospels were never meant as “historical reminiscence” for its own sake. The gospels are, and were written to be, fresh tellings of the story of Jesus designed to be the charter of the community of Jesus’s first followers and those who, through their witness, then and subsequently, have joined in and have learned to hear, see, and know Jesus in word and sacrament.

- What is our responsibility as stewards of the four gospel stories?

Monday, October 17, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Five

1. In much of Western Christianity down through the years…we have been so concerned to let the gospels tell us that the story of Jesus is the story of God incarnate, that we have been unable to listen more carefully to the evangelists telling us which God they are talking about and what exactly it is that this God is now doing. We are quite happy to hear about the “God” of Western imagination, less ready to hear about the God of Israel.

- What’s the difference between the two?

2. This pattern – God intending to live among his people, being unable to because of their rebellion, but coming back in grace to do so at last – is, in a measure, the story of the whole Old Testament. Magnify that exodus story, project it onto the screen of hundreds of years of history, and you have the larger story.

- Where is the Old Testament’s pattern of sin and rebellion present and visible in today’s world?  
- Why does it continue?

3. At this point we have to be careful and once more get some critical distance from the main streams of our own recent traditions. It all depends on looking for the right thing.

- How does the gospel of Mark point us toward God’s coming to us?

4. Once we learn, from Mark, how we might read the story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God returning at last, we may find it easier to recognize the ways in which Matthew and Luke are doing something very similar. One way and another, all three synoptic gospels are clear: in telling the story of Jesus they are consciously telling the story of how Israel’s God came back to his people, in judgment and mercy.

- How do you recall Wright making the case for this?

5. “The Word was God… and the Word became flesh.” John’s cards are on the table from the beginning. For him, the story of Jesus is the story of how God became human, how the creator became part of his creation. But, as we have already seen, this astonishing claim, rooted as it is in the echoing narrative of Genesis 1 in which humans were made to bear the divine image and likeness, is woven tightly together with the story of Israel.

-  What role does the Temple play in John’s Christology?

Monday, October 10, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Four

1. The four gospels, then, are not merely “passion narratives with extended introductions”... They are not merely reflections of the faith of the later church projected onto a screen that the earliest evangelists themselves knew to be fictional. They present themselves as biographies, biographies of Jesus.

- What is the value of having four unique biographies of Jesus?

2. The first speaker of our quadraphonic sound system to be turned up is this: the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel. All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear, though many generations of Christian readers have turned down the speaker to such an extent that they have been able, in effect, to ignore it.

- What happens to our understanding of the gospels if we read them independently or removed from the O.T. story of Israel?
- Why do some people/churches engage in such biblical isolation?

3. I hope it is clear from this that, when we turn up this first speaker, the music is telling us much more than simply that all four gospels refer to the Old Testament and present Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. This is a point of fundamental importance for the whole New Testament and indeed the whole early Christian movement. The gospel writers saw the events concerning Jesus, particularly his kingdom-inaugurating life, death, and resurrection, not just as isolated events to which remote prophets might have distantly pointed. They saw those events as bringing the long story of Israel to its proper goal, even though that long story had apparently become lost, stuck, and all but forgotten.

- Where does your life-story mimic and reflect the biblical story of a people (Israel) and a humanity (us) in desperate need of redemption?

4. Understand this point, and you will understand almost everything. In Israel’s scriptures, the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world. The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam. Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy. What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world. That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders. Grasp that, and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament.

- As Christians, then, do we carry the destiny of the world upon our shoulders?  With whom do we share this shoulder-bearing?

5. Mark picks up, here and throughout his gospel, a major theme from the ancient Hebrew scriptures: that when Israel’s God acts in fulfillment of his ancient promises, he will do so in dramatic and radically new ways. Here, to be sure, is a paradox we meet throughout the N.T…
God acts completely unexpectedly— as he always said he would.

- Why are we always surprised by God’s “announced” surprises?

6. That the scriptures must be fulfilled is precisely the point made by Luke at key points in his gospel. Luke is clear that the events involving Jesus are the events in which all of Israel’s previous history has been summed up and brought to its divinely appointed goal. But this is not something that casual readers can see at a glance. It is not something that Caiaphas or the Pharisees would instantly recognize when Jesus’s followers began to announce that he had been raised from the dead. People would need to “search the scriptures day by day to see if what they were hearing was indeed the case” (Acts 17: 11).

- What does it mean to search the scriptures daily to see Jesus as Lord?

7. And all the lines draw the eye up to the final scene in which Jesus announces God’s kingdom before Caesar’s representative, while Israel’s official leaders declare that “we have no king except Caesar” (19: 15). The result— the climax of the gospel, and for John the climax of Israel’s entire story— is the paradoxical “enthronement” of Jesus on the cross, the final moment of the fulfillment of the great scriptural story (19: 19, 24, 28). Jesus’s final word, tetelestai, “It’s all done!” says it clearly. The story has been completed— the story of creation, the story of God’s covenant with Israel. Now new creation can begin, as it does immediately afterwards with Jesus’s resurrection. Now the new covenant can be launched, as the disciples are sent out into the world equipped with Jesus’s own Spirit (20: 19– 23). This is how Israel’s story has reached its goal and can now bear fruit in all the world.

- In a world of constant striving, what does, “It is finished!” mean to you?  How do you recognize & celebrate that you are a new creation?

Monday, September 26, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Three

1. Wright asks congregations to identify the purpose of the four gospels.  What are they all about?  This chapter isolates six traditional church answers.  “The first inadequate answer is that Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven.”  “The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s kingdom, he means that heaven— in other words, the God of heaven— is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well.”  This summary is fully explained in Wright’s previous book, Surprised by Hope.

- How does this common misreading of the gospels misconstrue Jesus’ life and message?  Why is this so difficult to reconcile in our culture?

2. “A second popular approach to the material ‘in the middle’ of the gospels is to understand it in terms of Jesus’s teaching, particularly about what we call ‘ethics,’ or how to behave.”  “Jesus was announcing that a whole new world was being born and he was ‘teaching’ people how to live within that whole new world. To that extent, we should both embrace the idea of him as a ‘teacher’ and radically qualify or modify it. You only understand the point of the ‘teaching’ when you understand the larger picture of what Jesus was doing.”  “In the gospels, Jesus is undoubtedly a great moral teacher and exemplar. But he is much, much more. And it is that ‘much more’ that the church has found so hard to grasp and express.”

- In your view, how does Jesus both fulfill and transcend the role of teacher?  What does it mean for Jesus to be more than just a teacher?

3. “A third standard line people sometimes advance when wondering why the gospels tell their readers about what Jesus did in his public career is to suggest that he was offering an example of how to live.”  “Again and again in the gospels we find that Jesus is not, in fact, holding himself up as an example to follow or copy.”  “But it is held within a framework where Jesus is not simply ‘an example to copy,’ but the one who is doing something new that will change the way things are for everybody else. Where he is going, he tells them, they cannot come. He is to be arrested, but they must escape. His task is unique. It cannot be reduced to that of the great man showing his followers how it’s done.”

- Where is our religious culture guilty of this?  Why is it so popular?

4. “A fourth inadequate answer has tried to tie the first and the third together. The aim is still to get us to heaven, but Jesus is not just the moral exemplar— his perfect life means that he can be the perfect sacrifice. Since it is his sacrificial death that enables our sins to be forgiven, and since in the Old Testament the sacrifice must be pure and without blemish, it was necessary that Jesus’s life should be sinless, so that his sacrifice would be valid, acceptable to God. Many Christians have tried to ‘explain’ the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels in this kind of way.”  “The idea of Jesus as the sinless sacrifice is clearly present in early Christianity. But do the gospels make this link?”

- Why does Wright struggle to accept this premise?

5. “A fifth inadequate answer takes quite a different tack. ‘The gospels are written,’ people have said to me, ‘so we can identify with the characters in the story and find our own way by seeing what happened to them.’ Well, there is once again quite a lot in that. Getting inside the stories in the gospels is indeed an excellent way of coming to understand Jesus better and allowing the power of his life to transform our own. But this is scarcely a sufficient explanation for why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the books they did.”  “The question we have to face about the gospels is the question of where they are coming from and where they are going, not simply the various things we can use them for along the way.”

- What are the limitations and risks of such self-application?

6. “The sixth standard line has been to say that the gospels were written to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus. This, I suspect, is what many Christians regard as the gospels’ principal purpose. Some would add too the equal purpose of demonstrating his humanity.”  “Sometimes people will say, making a more personal or pastoral point, that the gospels, in telling the story of Jesus, show us who God really is. That’s a bit more like it. That, in fact, is precisely what John says at the end of his prologue: nobody has ever seen God, but the only son, who is intimately close to the Father, has brought him to light. Look at Jesus, and you’ll see the human face of God. But even that doesn’t get us far enough, because John at once goes on, as do all four gospels, to tell us what this embodied God is now up to. It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is in some sense “divine.”

- Wright asks: Which God are we talking about, what is he now doing, and why? What does it mean?”  Why are these question so critical?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How God Became King, by N. T. Wright

Chapter Two

1. The idea that Jesus came to teach a new, simple, clear ethic of being nice to people, without any “dogmatic” claims or “supernatural” elements, is so deeply embedded in Western culture that one sometimes despairs, like a gardener faced with ground ivy, of ever uprooting it. To this day there seems a ready market right across the Western world for books that say that Jesus was just a good Jewish boy who would have been horrified to see a “church” set up in his name, who didn’t think of himself as “God” or even the “Son of God,” and who had no intention of dying for anyone’s sins— the church has gotten it all wrong. The authors of such books routinely proclaim themselves “neutral,” “unbiased,” “impartial,” or “independent.” As if.
- Describe some of current Western depictions of “Jesus.”

2. Faced with these challenges, would-be “orthodox” Christian scholars and teachers have had one of two reactions. First, many— including the present writer— have accepted the historical challenge and sought to answer it. When we really study all the evidence for all it’s worth, it is possible to offer a historically rooted picture of Jesus that is much fuller and more positive than the one classic liberal reductionism has constructed. Engaging in this work does not mean, as some have supposed, that one must first accept the reductionist worldview of the Enlightenment. Plenty of people were doing history before the eighteenth century; the word “history” does not simply mean “what a good eighteenth-century skeptic would allow.” In the second reaction, many devout Christians, including many learned scholars and theologians, have held aloof from the “quest” and from any imperative toward actual historical inquiry concerning Jesus. Surely, they say, we simply have to go with what our great tradition has handed down to us, rather than play around with historical reconstructions offered by skeptics; we mustn’t try to go behind our God-given gospels and invent something different of our own. I still believe that the first of these positions is justifiable, though it is no part of the present book to argue the case for it. My problem with the second position is that it takes us back once again to the problem of creed and canon, or indeed “gospel” and “gospels.”
- Wright asks, “How can we escape this trap?”

3. The Achilles heel of the “social gospel” movement, however, was that many of its enthusiasts were, like the critical scholars of the time, focusing on the center rather than the edges, and so misreading the center itself. In trying to have a Jesus who cared for the poor without needing to be the incarnate son of God or to die for the sins of the world and be raised bodily thereafter, they falsified (so we could argue) even the bits they were highlighting. The problem with all this, however, is not merely at the level of theory (“How come you’ve taken some bits of the gospel story, but left out other bits?”). The problem is that, a century after the “social gospel” was at its high-water mark, the world, including the Western world, still seems to be a place of great wickedness. Greed and corruption, oppression of the poor, violence and degradation, war and genocide continue unchecked. It isn’t only the Jesus of popular imagination, then, who expected something dramatic to happen and was disappointed. The “social gospel” may have helped to clean up some slums, to reduce working hours for women and children in factories, and so on. Wonderful. But homelessness and virtual slave labor are still realities in the modern Western world, never mind elsewhere. Has anything really changed?
- Wright inquires, “Faced with this puzzle, it is fair to ask: What difference might it make if the ‘middle’ of the gospels was integrated with the ‘outer’ bits? What would it be like if the cloak was no longer empty?”

4. One might even state it as an axiom: when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, heretics will pick them up, turn them into something new, and use them to spread doubt and unbelief. But the proper reaction to this, whether it’s in the second century or the twenty-first, ought never to be simply to dismiss the heretical teaching outright and continue as before. The proper reaction is to look carefully to see which flank has been left unguarded, which bit of core teaching has been left out, where the canonical balance has not been maintained. Only then might one set about reincorporating that within a fresh statement of full-blown Christian faith.
- Where do you witness the church leaving out bits of its core teaching?

5. My case throughout this book, then, is that all four canonical gospels suppose themselves to be telling the story that Paul, in some of his most central and characteristic passages, tells as well: that the story of Jesus is the story of how Israel’s God became king. This is how, in the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the God of Israel has become king of the whole world. This is the forgotten story of the gospels. We have not even noticed that this was what they were trying to tell us. As a result, we have all misread them.
- Why does Wright feel we have all misread the four gospels?
- How might we address this?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How God Became King, by N. T. Wright

Chapter One

1.  Wright introduces his book with a recollection of a project from his days in high school involving a small Christian studies group.  “I was assigned the task of preparing and leading the second of these: Why did Jesus live?”  “I had stumbled, without realizing it, on a weak spot in the general structure of Christian faith as it has come to be expressed in today’s world— and, I suspect, for a lot longer than we might imagine. Here is all this material in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Why? What are we supposed to make of it all?”

- At what point in your early Christian development did it occur to you that faith was more than just the acquiring and reciting of certain beliefs and traditions? 
- What were some of your earliest questions/concerns, and what formative role did they play in your discipleship journey?

2. Wright continues his “Puzzle of a Lifetime” narrative with flashbacks to a Bible exposition to the student Christian Union at Cambridge in 1978, “The Gospel in the Gospels,” which he struggles to recall in much detail.  “The puzzle of Jesus’s lifetime - what was his life all about? - has crept up on me and become the puzzle of mine.”

“We use the gospels. We read them aloud in worship. We often preach from them. But have we even begun to hear what they are saying, the whole message, which is so much greater than the sum of the small parts with which we are, on one level, so familiar? I don’t think so. This is the lifetime puzzle. It isn’t just that we’ve all misread the gospels, though I think that’s broadly true. It is more that we haven’t really read them at all. We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources. I want in this book to allow them, as far as I can, to speak for themselves. Not everyone will like the result.”

- In your own words, how do you understand Wright’s concern?
- What is missing in our reading (or our not reading) of the gospels?

3. “My problem…is that the canonical gospels and the creeds are not in fact presenting the same picture.  The great creeds, when they refer to Jesus, pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death. The four gospels don’t. Or, to put it the other way around, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to think it’s hugely important that they tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death. In particular, they tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that; but the great creeds don’t.”

- How do you understand the origins and roles (then and now) of our Christian creeds?

4. “To this day, whenever people take it upon themselves to explore the divinity of Jesus, there is at the very least a tendency for the theme of God’s kingdom, coming on earth as in heaven, to be quietly lost from view.”  “The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God. It would be truly remarkable if one great truth of early Christian faith and life were actually to displace another, to displace it indeed so thoroughly that people forgot it even existed. But that’s what I think has happened. This book is written in the hope of correcting that distortion.”

- As Lutherans, how does the structure and implementation of our Sunday worship seek to address this potential distortion?

5. “Bultmann therefore read the gospels not as the story of why Jesus lived, not in order to find “the gospel in the gospels” in the way I have described, but in order to observe the early Christians expressing their faith by telling and retelling stories that appear to us to be “Jesus stories,” but that were, for the most part, “mythological” expressions of early Christian experience projected back onto the fictive screen of the history of Jesus. Bultmann’s whole project of form criticism, at least in the way he practiced it, was predicated on the assumption that if you could discover the “forms,” the characteristic shapes of the small anecdotes that make up much of the gospel material, you could thereby observe, as through a lens, the early church expressing its own faith. That, it was believed, was why the early gospel traditions were passed on: not to remember or celebrate something that had happened in the past (i.e., in Jesus’s public career), but to celebrate and sustain the continuing life of faith of the early community.”

- How, then, do the weekly Sunday reading and preaching of these gospels speak to and sustain our present faith community?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

I Am a Church Member, by Thom Rainer

Chapter Five

1. How does the biblical teaching of the log and the speck in Matthew 7 apply to  
church membership?

2. What is the relationship of our immediate families and the church family?  What biblical texts make this connection?

3. What is the role of a believing spouse to an unbelieving spouse?  How does that manifest itself in church membership?

4. Why is unconditional love such a challenge, especially as it applies to church membership?

5. How is Christ’s death on the cross an example for us as church members relating to one another?

   Chapter Six

1. How does the gift of salvation relate to the gift of church membership?

2. Why do many church members have a sense of entitlement?  What does the Bible say about that?

3. Explain how Christians are in both the universal church and in the local church.

4. Read the entire story of Jesus rebuking His disciples in Matthew 20: 20– 28.  How could that story relate to church membership?

5. For your last question, look at each part of the entire membership covenant you  
have reviewed to this point. As you look at the entire covenant, what areas will be  
your greatest challenge?  In what areas can you make immediate changes?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I Am a Church Member, by Thom Ranier

Chapter Three

1. Show from key Bible verses the difference between church membership and country club membership from the perspective of personal preferences and desires. Of course, the Bible doesn’t speak of country club membership, so you will need to assume the benefits of belonging to one.

2. Find and explain key passages in the Bible that talk about Christians being like servants. How would you describe a servant as it applies to being a member of a church?

3. Why do many churches have worship wars? What does that have to do with the right or wrong attitude about church membership?

4. Describe someone in your church that best fits the description of having the mind of Christ and a servant attitude. Find key New Testament passages that would fit him or her. 

5. Go, verse by verse, through Philippians 2:5–11. Explain how the attitude of Christ in each verse becomes a pattern for us as church members.

   Chapter Four 

1. Using scriptural backing, explain why the pastor’s family is such an important factor in his ministry.

2. What is meant by above reproach in 1 Timothy 3:2? Is that standard even possible for the pastor?

3. Explain the implications of the devil’s trap in
1 Timothy 3:7.

4. What is the meaning of outsiders in 1 Timothy 3:7? Why should they be a concern to church members or pastors?

5. Find some key passages in the Bible where intercessory prayer takes place (someone praying for someone else). Relate those passages to praying for your pastor.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

I Am a Church Member, by Thom Rainer

Chapter One

1. Explain how country club membership and church membership are so different. Give scriptural references to support the differences in church membership.

2. Explain why church membership is a biblical concept, using 1 Corinthians 12 as your biblical foundation.

3. How is the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, related to church membership? Explain, using all 13 verses of the chapter.

4. How are the different parts of the body (ear, nose, mouth, hand, foot, eyes, etc.) related to church membership? How do the parts play out in your church?

5. In relation to church membership, why is it important for members to know and use their spiritual gifts? Relate your answer to 1 Corinthians 12.

   Chapter Two

1. What did Paul mean when he said in Colossians 3:14 that love is the perfect bond of unity? What does that mean for the local church today?

2. What is the best path to take if someone brings gossip to you in your church? What does the Bible say about gossip?

3. How is forgiveness related to unity in the local church? What does the Bible say about forgiving one another?

4. Look at Matthew 6:14-15. Relate those words to being a church member. What does it mean if one church member does not forgive another?

5. Read all of 1 Corinthians 13. Paul wrote the “love chapter” to the church at Corinth where problems with unity were pervasive. What does this chapter mean for church members today? Explain as you go through each verse.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Ten

1.  What John has to say concerns eternal truth, which is embedded and expressed in historical events. The Prologue (John 1) speaks of the union of the eternal with the temporal. For John, the incarnate Word is the true form of the divine presence with humanity.

- How do you imagine this union of the eternal with the temporal?
- What are the consequences of this union for believers?

2.  To the modern reader, John’s use of ‘Word’ (in Greek, Logos) may, at first sight, seem strange and puzzling. Its aptness for John’s purpose lies in the double reference that it makes to both Greek and Hebrew thinking.
The fusion of the ideas of enabling order and unfolding dynamic process, suggested by the double linguistic reference of John’s use of Word, is highly consonant with science’s understanding of cosmic history.

- How do you respond to Polkinghorne’s scientific explanation and integration of the Greek & Hebrew interpretations of “Word?”

3.  This extraordinary passage (Colossians 1:15-20) is claiming a cosmic significance for Jesus Christ, an assertion that is being made about a person who had been crucified perhaps thirty years before the epistle was written. As in the Prologue to John, it is stated that Christ truly makes known the divine nature as ‘the image of the invisible God’.
What interests me especially in this passage is the last verse, which says that Christ reconciles all things by ‘making peace through the blood of his cross’. Notice that it is ‘all things’, not simply all people. Redemption is proclaimed to be cosmic in scope.”

- What are the many ramifications of such cosmic redemption?

4.  Polkinghorne’s third biblical reference is Romans 8:19–23. Why should God have subjected the creation to futility? There is a resonance here, not only with modern scientific predictions of eventual cosmic futility, but also with the inescapable cost of evolutionary natural process. There has to be enough genetic mutation to produce new forms of life, but not so much mutation that these new forms do not get established as species on which the sifting effects of natural selection can act. Creative processes of this kind will necessarily generate ragged edges and blind alleys as well as extraordinary fruitfulness. In this insight there is some help for theology as it wrestles with the problems of disease and disaster in the divine creation. They are not something gratuitous, that a God who was a bit more competent or a bit less callous could easily have eliminated. They are the inescapable cost of the good of a world in which creatures are allowed to make themselves.

- In light of this explanation, what is God’s will for creation?

5.  The costliness of evolutionary process means that the creation has indeed been ‘groaning in labour pains until now’. However, the last word does not lie with death and futility, but with God. It is the Christian hope and belief that the divine faithfulness will not allow anything of good eventually to be lost, but God will give to all creatures an appropriate destiny beyond their deaths, as the old creation is ultimately transformed in Christ into the new creation.

Christians believe that this process has, in fact, already begun in the seed event of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul sets before us the hope and promise ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. Ultimate cosmic destiny and ultimate human destiny lie together in the One who redeems all things by the blood of his cross.

Romans 8 is one of the most profound and hopeful chapters in the New Testament and reading it in the light of modern scientific understanding helps us to find new levels of profundity in it. 

- How has Romans 8 given you insight to and appreciation of the grand scope of redemption and renewal in Christ for the cosmos?

- What does this divine agenda, already active since the resurrection of Jesus, give you hope beyond this life?