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?