On Sunday 15th of May we being a new series that will take us through until the end of July.
The series is accompanied by a book called 'The Good and Beautiful Life' by James Bryan-Smith which is available on the bookstall.
The book is strongly recommended and is suitable for use in small groups. Each chapter can be read independently and the book includes a number of practical exercises with each session.
The introduction that follows is designed to set the scene and prompt reflection by Housegroup leaders as we prepare to start the new series.
The weekly material will be posted here at the end of the day on Monday 9th May.
The Good and Beautiful Life - Introduction
At the heart of this series stands an exploration of Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus radical call to live a good and beautiful life.
The series holds one thing to be true for all – that we all desire happiness.
Now of course the good Christian will respond that happiness is transitory, a temporary condition based on our circumstances, and so what we really desire is joy – an inner disposition that is not based on external circumstances, and so not subject to change. But nonetheless, I say again – we all desire happiness.
In the context of this series happiness is used in a way that is perhaps a little different to the common usage of the word. Happiness, following in the tradition of the old devotional writers like John Wesley is the term used to describe the good and virtuous life. Wesley once said “you cannot be happy without being holy”. True happiness is found in goodness and goodness is Godliness.
The problem is of course, as a cursory glance at the world and some thoughtful self reflection will underline, that we search for happiness in all the wrong places. The kingdom message of Christ is that happiness is not found in following the principles of the world, but instead is found in living by the principles of the Kingdom of God.
So the Sermon on the mount is the guide to living the Kingdom way – it’s a relatively short discourse on how to live a godly life, both internally and externally. And the Godly life = a good and beautiful life = a happy life (in the old sense of the word)
The development of the soul:
The series also holds another thing to be true - it’s neatly summarized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering…but in the development of the soul.”
As Christians we believe in the development of the soul. We believe in the notion that our life of earth is of intrinsic value now and that it continues into eternity. We believe that as we live the earthly life we develop our soul and become more like Jesus in order to prepare to enter the eternal sort of life.
So this series is about developing our souls and transforming our actions so that we might live the Kingdom way and live good and beautiful lives.
But what is the good and beautiful life?
John Wesley was once approached by a man wracked with unbelief. The man said to Wesley: “All is dark; my thoughts are lost, but I hear that you preach to a great number of people every night and morning. Tell me, what would you do with them? Where do you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?”
Wesley answered these questions as follows:
“You ask, what would I do with them? I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves, and useful to others.” Where do I lead them? To heaven, to God the judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love. The law of kindness brought to light by the Gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves, to make them like God, lovers of all, contented in their lives, and crying out at their death, in calm assurance, ‘O grave where is your victory! Thanks be to God, who gives me victory, through my Lord Jesus Christ.”
It’s a beautiful description of the good and beautiful life.
The good and beautiful life is one in which Gods people are virtuous, happy, easy in themselves, and useful to others. It’s a contented life lived before God, in the reality of the New Covenant, in which we enjoy God, enjoy ourselves,, love others, and find assurance in the face of death.
We all want to be happy. We all want to be easy in ourselves. We all want to be useful to others. We all want to be virtuous…don’t we?
We don’t talk about virtue very much, but Wesley knew that virtue was central to developing the good and beautiful life.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about and describes the virtues of the good and beautiful life and it is these that we will look at over the coming two and half months as we train our souls and transform our actions.
For old and young alike
It’ tempting to think of this sort of series as Christian basics. It’s tempting to think of it as being more of an introduction for those who are new to faith. But that’s not the case. I respectfully suggest that all of Gods people can learn a great deal from the sermon on the mount whether we have followed Christ for a day or for 50 years. To underline my point: how many of us are rid of anger? How many of us never gossip? How many of us can honestly say that we never worry?
The sermon on the mount deals with such daily realities as these…
How does Jesus think – swapping narratives…
When it comes to doing life it’s true to say that we live at the mercy of our ideas and narratives. What we think determines how we live. An awful lot of false narratives about God and human life are perpetuated in our world and even in churches. In this series we’re going to examine what Jesus thought, and look to build our response on his narrative.
In each session the theme will be introduced and a number of false narratives that govern the way we live will be identified. From here we’ll then look at Jesus’ narrative and explore a better way to live.
The series is deeply practical and calls for a degree of openness and honesty. The reality is that we’re all much alike, a mixture of good and bad desires and intentions, we live with successes and failures often in equal proportion, and we live messy compromised lives as we try to navigate our way through with the help of God. There’s no point pretending otherwise because when we do everyone else knows we’re lying! And so as a group it’s important to foster a spirit of honesty and openness as we work through this series.
At the end of each session there is a suggestion for a practical step in transforming life – it’s called Soul Training. The sessions work best if everyone in the group is willing to give the practical exercises a chance and if the group encourage and support one another in this.
The Structure of the series:
We’ll start by exploring Paul’s discourse in Romans ch1 as we explore the damage that living by false narratives does.
The following week we’ll look carefully at the Gospel call of Christ as he calls us to live his Kingdom values.
From week 3 onwards we’ll examine a number of very practical ‘ways to live’. The full programme is listed below.
How to Ruin Your Life Without Really Trying
The Gospel That We Sometimes Don’t Hear
The Invitation to Kingdom Living
Learning to Live Without Anger
Learning to Live Without Lying
Learning to Bless People who Curse Us
Learning to Live Without Pride
Learning to Live Without Worry
Learning to Live Without Judging Others
Living in the Kingdom Day by Day
It is my hope that this series will be a joyful encouragement to live the life that we’re called to in Christ. That it will be of practical help to us all as we become ever more virtuous, happy, easy in ourselves, and useful to others.
I hope you enjoy it!
Simon Butler – May 2011