Monday, July 23, 2007

Notes for the Simply Christian Sunday School Class on Justice & Spirituality, God, and Israel

In case anyone was interested, I decided to post my notes on two recent adult Sunday School classes I led at FBC. We are going through the 10 week Sunday School course based on N. T. Wright's book Simply Christian (a great book, and a great course - highly recommended!). I actually did three sessions - one on Justice & Spirituality two weeks ago for one class and two (on God and Israel respectively) which were squeezed into a single morning yesterday. So here you are (hopefully it's understandable - they're just notes after all, though lightly edited to take time schedules and such off of them):

Simply Christian Session 2: Justice & Spirituality

* Discussion 1: What does Jesus have to do with justice, injustice, and “setting the world to rights”? Is a passion for justice integral to the Christian life? Why or why not? How, if at all, does it relate to the biblical commandment to forgive even one’s enemies?

* Discussion 2: Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love one’s neighbor. In the Old Testament God’s heart for the latter is revealed in his passion for mercy and justice. This passion for justice is revealed especially in God’s heart for the poor, minorities, the weak, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, widows, orphans, aliens and indeed all who are vulnerable or not so well off. How well has today’s evangelical church reflected God’s passion and priorities in its own? Why? How could we do better?

Puzzle: Why is there this universal recognition of and thirst for justice even when we can’t get it, either in society or in ourselves?
Christian answer: God acts justly and is passionate for justice, and we were made in his image.

Micah 6:8

Christianity teaches that this passion for justice, and God’s plan to achieve it, finds its embodiment in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the focal point of God’s call for justice within us, his passion for it and plan to achieve it. Jesus is God’s ultimate answer to injustice by taking all the injustice of the world on himself and therefore all the justice of God against that injustice. And when he completes God’s plan, all will be set aright and injustice will be done away with forever.
How does this affect a Christian’s life? Heroes of the faith passionate for justice precisely because they were Christian. Because Christ is at the center of God’s passion for justice and his solution to injustice and we are in Christ, we too find ourselves called to be agents of justice and conduits for God’s passion for it. When we pursue justice, we are more fully implementing the image of God in which we are made and more fully being conformed to the likeness of God’s Son.

Proverbs 29:7, Amos 5:21-24

What’s the scope of this concern for justice? When we are passionate for justice, we no longer care only for ourselves, our family, our nation, people like us, or even the church. Justice calls us not to be insular: not ‘just us’. This is something the evangelical church is still in the process of trying to get things right. Zechariah 7:9-10. We are to seek justice and mercy for non-Christians, the disadvantaged, and all who are not like us or who do not like us or who we ourselves do not like.

What can we do? Look up IJM, get involved in petitioning leaders about cases of injustice around the world, get involved with World Vision or other similar groups, be a foster parent, environment, above all pray.

* Discussion 3: Look at the list below of the top sellers in Spirituality on Amazon. Considering this list and the success of books like The Da Vinci Code, other “alternative” pictures of Jesus and his message, and stuff like the Gospel of Judas, what can you conclude about our culture’s relationship with spirituality?

The Secret
God Is Not Great
The God Delusion
The Freedom Writers Diary
Left to Tell
The Secret (CD Set)
Law of Attraction: The Secret of Attracting More of What You Want and Less of What You Don’t
Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
The Four Agreements (A Toltec Wisdom Book)

Right People, Right Place, Right Plan
Blue Like Jazz
Ask and It is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Dreams
The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thought to Change Your Life and the World
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

The Success Principle
Your Best Life Now

The Law of Attraction: Teachings of Abraham
Battle of the Mind

The Law of Attraction

The Laws of Thinking: 10 Secrets to Using the Divine Power of Your Mind to Manifest Prosperity
El Secreto (The Secret in Spanish)
~ Other notable best-sellers from the Religion & Spirituality section: Witness to Roswell: The 60-Year Cover-Up; Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace, and More; Atheist Universe

* Discussion 4: How would a religion that truly fulfills our needs for spirituality differ from one that was designed to make a maximum amount of money, converts, and popularity? Are what people want in a religion and what they need the same thing?

Spirituality: that awareness that all humans have that they are made for a relationship with someone or something much bigger, much greater, than anything we humans can know by our own will.

Puzzle: Why is there this universal hunger for spirituality?
Christian answer: We are made by God for a relationship with him, both individually and together.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

Spirituality is very popular now, but people don’t like authority or organized religion and want to, individualistically, create their own spiritual religion without the supposed constraints of Christianity or other such traditions. They want it to meet their wants and needs and to do so now. They are so thirsty for spirituality and so hardened against Christianity that they are willing to drink from polluted spiritual waters.

Chesterton: When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.

Romans 1:21-23

Christian spirituality is very different.
It is rooted in spontaneity, yes, but tradition as well. A personal, individually crafted thing but one that also answers to and is involved with both a community and a history. One that involves solitary contemplation and prayer but also a life of service to the Church and the world. It is intensely practical pursuit, not an idle practice of staring at your navel and thinking good thoughts while you hum a hymn or two. Christian spirituality involves relationship both with God and the community of saints throughout history – today’s private spiritual practices without authority or constraint miss out on all of these dimensions of spiritual richness.

The heart of Christian spirituality is in the foundation of our relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. One text that I think captures the dynamic at the heart of this spirituality is Romans 8.

Simply Christian
Sessions 4&5: God, Israel

* Discussion: What do you think of when you hear the word “heaven”? How is it the same or different from the three options mentioned? What might be some of the practical implications of these differences?

Heaven and Earth: Three Options
Option One: Heaven = Earth (and so God = Creation)
Option Two: Heaven and Earth fully distinct and completely separate (and so God is distant)
Option Three: Heaven and Earth distinct but overlapping and interlocking

Though Option One has become popular in some churches, Option Two is the most influential of the non-biblical options on people today who call themselves Christians. Option Two unfortunately has had a profound influence on Western Christianity and its influence can be seen in many evangelical churches and sermons.

Salvation for Option Two is escape to another realm, heaven, where one’s immaterial soul goes to after death and where it will dwell away from the material creation and in communion with God forever. Sound familiar? This is a close relative to the old Gnostic heresy, which involved a denial of the basic goodness of creation and views God’s original creation as something that God has or will ultimately abandon as unredeemed or unredeemable. The motto: "The earth is not our home".

In Option Three, God is not a distant God who abandons his creation. Heaven is not a wholly separate realm but one which overlaps with earth. And in the biblical story, these two will be joined together permanently when Christ returns. So salvation ultimately doesn’t mean to live in a disembodied existence away from the earth, but in the end means to be resurrected and live with God forever on the earth. In option three, we will literally and completely have heaven on earth and with Christ this inbreaking of heaven onto earth has already begun – Christ himself is the ultimate overlap and interlocking between heaven and earth and so now we too can be places where heaven and earth meet and where God is present in a living and active way in his Creation. Ephesians 1:3 Ephesians 2:6 “Being in heaven” or “going to heaven” isn’t something exclusively for those who die, but in a very real and important sense on the biblical picture we are already in heaven, though not yet completely or fully – our heavenly, eternal life and communion with God has already begun. What our job is is to live and think this important truth and to constantly remind ourselves of it – salvation is future but it’s importantly present as well.

Salvation on the biblical option involves renewal of and in creation and enjoyment of heaven on earth, not the abandonment of creation and enjoyment of heaven away from the earth. Salvation is about redemption, not escape!


* Discussion: Consider the following two pictures of Jesus:
1) Jesus came with a message about love and timeless moral truths. The Jewish trappings of what he said are secondary and not necessary to consider for interpreting his universal message.
2) Jesus came with a message directed to the very specific situation of first century Jews and their place in God’s timeline. The Jewish trappings of what he said are essential to it and necessary to consider for interpreting his particular message.
Which picture best captures the Jesus of the Bible? Why? How do these two pictures relate to the three options about God and heaven from the previous session on God?

The biblical story is one of fall/slavery/exile/curse and creation/exodus/return/restoration. These are interwoven throughout Scripture and each member of one of the two categories is spoken of using imagery and terms drawn from others in that same category.
For example, Exodus = Beginning of New Creation,
Return = New Exodus = New Creation,
Restoration = Full Return = New Exodus = New Creation

The Fall and the reign of sin which accompanied it represents for the world the ultimate exile or slavery. The call of Abraham and God’s election of Israel represents the beginning of God’s great rescue plan. Israel was to be God’s means for putting things right. Genesis 12:2-3
But Israel itself was sinful, so they repeated the Fall over and over again and suffered from exile and slavery over and over again.

The king was supposed to be Israel’s representative and take Israel’s job on himself and to be responsible to see that Israel completed God’s job given to them. But the kings were themselves sinful and suffered from the same fate as their people. Messiah was to be the one king to change this – to go through exile and the consequences of sin and then to experience a return from that condition on Israel’s behalf so that Israel might have a full return from ultimate exile and thus have their job fulfilled by this promised king. Restoration of Israel in the person of Messiah meant fulfillment of Israel’s job and thus the setting of things to rights for the whole world – healed relationships and justice, true spirituality, and the full beauty of creation as God intended it. Heaven on earth. We as Christians, of course, believe that this Messiah was none other than Jesus.

Isaiah 49:1-7

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