Sunday, February 22, 2015

A School for Life (a sermon for the first Sunday of Lent)

When I was a little boy, I went to old stone churches with stained glass windows. Most of the stained glass windows were pictures of biblical stories, and many of the stories pictured Jesus and his first disciples. Of course, as was the custom, Jesus and his disciples had halos over their heads – circles of light that emphasized the fact that these were very, very special people. I think that may have been my first encounter with the word ‘disciple’ – a character in a stained glass window with a halo over their head.

Not long after that, I began to read stories from a Bible story book. These stories had water colour illustrations, and Jesus and his disciples appeared in those stories too. Nowadays the first thing I notice about those illustrations is that Jesus is blond, which is a bit unusual for a first century Jewish man, if you think about it! But once again, these pictures helped to form my understanding of the word ‘disciple’ – a disciple was a person who lived long ago, dressed in strange clothes, and went around with Jesus. ‘Disciple’ was definitely not a word that included me.

So it came as a real revelation to me when I realized that ‘disciple’ was one of the most common words used to describe Christians in the New Testament. Did you know that the actual word ‘Christian’ is only used three times in the Bible? The word ‘disciple’, by contrast, appears approximately two hundred and fifty times. It wasn’t just used for the twelve who followed Jesus around; it was also used for a wider group, and later on in the book of Acts, after Jesus had ascended into heaven, it was still being used for those who had come to believe in Jesus and had committed themselves to following his way.

In Acts chapter eleven we read about how the Christian message reached the city of Antioch in Syria, where ‘a great number became believers and turned to the Lord’ (Acts 11:21). News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas up to Antioch to encourage these new followers of Jesus and help them grow in their faith. Barnabas enlisted the help of young Saul, later called Paul, and the two of them spent a whole year with this young church. And then in Acts 11:26 we read these significant words: ‘And it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”’.

What does that tell us? It tells us that the words ‘Christian’ and ‘disciple’ describe the same people. A disciple is not a person who lived long ago. A disciple is not a particularly holy or spiritual Christian. ‘Disciple’ is simply another way of describing a Christian. The word ‘Christian’, of course, comes from ‘Christ’; we Christians are the people of Christ. ‘Disciple’, on the other hand, describes our way of life; it means ‘learner’ or ‘student’, or, perhaps even better, ‘apprentice’. ‘Learner’ or ‘student’ can give the impression that this is an academic thing, involving a lot of reading and studying and writing notes and so on. Well, maybe it will involve those things, but at its heart it’s essentially a practical thing. We want to learn how to live our lives the way God intended; Jesus is the Master of this subject, and so we apprentice ourselves to him so that he can teach us this new way of life.

This Lent I want to spend some time with you exploring what discipleship looks like for us. Some of the thoughts I want to share with you have come from a little booklet written by my friend John Bowen called The School of Jesus; I should say at the beginning that John knows I’m doing this and has given me permission to do it. But I need to add that John’s thoughts are only a starting point for me; I’ve developed them and taken them in directions that I think are meaningful for us and applicable to us in our situation here at St. Margaret’s.

The thought I want to focus on with you today is this idea of ‘The School of Jesus’. That’s what we’re doing when we become Christians, when we become followers of Jesus: we’re enrolling in the School of Jesus. He’s the Master or teacher, and we’re the students or apprentices. It’s actually more like a trade school than a high school or university, because being a disciple is a practical thing, and so Jesus is going to focus on giving us practical lessons in the art of living in God’s way.

That’s what the School of Jesus specializes in. If we’re choosing a school or university or a trade school, you generally want to know what it’s good for. Is it more of an academic institution, where I can learn science or philosophy or languages, or is it a hands-on kind of place where I can learn carpentry or welding? Has it specialized in medical training or computer technology, or does it have a really good reputation for turning out excellent veterinarians?

Or we might start at the other end; what am I looking for in a school? Am I looking for a general sort of education, or do I want to focus specifically on a skill that will get me a good job? Do I want to be a mechanic or a biochemist, a translator or an accountant? The answers to these questions will emphasize the sort of school I choose to enroll in. And so it is with the School of Jesus. Does he teach the sort of thing I want to learn? What’s the curriculum? What skills will I learn, and how will I use them?

Of course, there are many different ways of answering that question, but I think the one that gets to the heart of the matter comes from the lips of Jesus himself in John chapter 10. In that chapter, Jesus uses the illustration of the Good Shepherd to describe himself, and he contrasts himself with the thieves and robbers who sometimes plunder God’s flock. In verse 10 he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that (people) may have life, and have it abundantly” – or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life”.

What does that mean?

Back in the 1940s Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of radio plays for the BBC; they were based on the life of Jesus, and she called them The Man Born to be King. In one of the plays, there is a speech that Sayers puts on the lips of Mary Magdalene; Mary was one of Jesus’ original followers, and she appears several times in the gospels and the book of Acts. Before she met Jesus she thought she knew what life was all about. She knew how to have a good time. She thought she was experiencing life in all its fullness.

In the play, Mary reminisces with Jesus about the first time they met. She says:
“Did you know? My companions and I came there that day to mock you. We thought you would be sour and grim, hating all beauty and treating life as an enemy. But when I saw you, I was amazed. You were the only person there that was really alive. The rest of us were going about half-dead – making the gestures of life, pretending to be real people. The life was not with us but with you – intense and shining, like the strong sun when it rises and turns the flames of our candles to pale smoke. And I wept and was ashamed, seeing myself as such a thing of trash and tawdry. But when you spoke to me, I felt the flame of the sun in my heart. I came alive for the first time. And I love life all the more since I have learned its meaning”.
She thought Jesus would be sour and grim – after all, he was religious, and that was her image of a religious person. But to her amazement, Jesus was different; he had a quality of life that she had never seen before in anyone else. And she wanted to learn that life from him.

That’s what Jesus’ school is all about: a school for life, a school where we learn what life is all about. We learn how to live in God’s way, how to become all that God had in mind for us when he created us in the first place. It’s not about becoming less human – in fact, it’s about becoming truly human, perhaps for the very first time in our lives.

In John Bowen’s booklet The School of Jesus, he tells the story of a family with two adopted daughters, twins in fact, who at the age of eight were quite a handful. One day one of them came running in from the yard where she had obviously been trying to explain to a friend about her adoption. “Daddy”, she said to her father, “was I adopted or adapted?” Her father smiled. “Adopted, my love”, he said; “We’re still working on the adapting”.

Adopting and adapting are two separate processes. One is a legal status, settled in an instant by the stroke of a pen. The other is a long and sometimes painful process of learning to change and fit in with the history and customs of a new family.

And it’s the same with us and God. When we become Christians, it’s like we’re being adopted into a new family, the family of God. God welcomes us home with tremendous joy. Jesus even told us that the angels of heaven throw a party every time someone joins the family. Adoption is a once-for-all thing.

But then begins the adaptation. God’s family is like any family; it has its own ways of doing things, its own understanding of what’s right and wrong, what’s safe and what’s dangerous, what’s important and what’s not important. If we’re coming into the family for the first time, we’ll likely find it to be quite different. It might even be a shock to discover that Jesus sees life quite differently than we do. Some things we’ve always seen as really important are not important at all to him; other things we thought were kind of trivial, he makes a big deal about.

What’s the goal of this adaptation? Well, the Bible tells us that when God first created us human beings, he made us ‘in his image’, just like children are often ‘the image of their parents’. But human beings chose to reject God’s ways; we chose to be our own gods instead, making ourselves the centre of our own worlds. So God’s image in us has been spoiled. For God, it must be a little like looking at your face in a cracked mirror; he can still see his image in us, but it’s badly distorted.

So God’s purpose for us now is to restore that image in us, to restore us to the beauty and wholeness he had in mind for us when he created us in the first place. And we Christians have a name for that perfect image of God in a human being: Jesus. We Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and also fully human. When you look at Jesus – when you read about him in the gospels, or think about him – you see what God is like. But you also see what a perfect human being can be like – or you might even say, a normal human being, in God’s original plan. Jesus is the prototype of what all human beings can be, once we put our lives in God’s hands and ask God’s Holy Spirit to change us so that we become like Jesus.

So let’s sum up where we’ve come so far. If we’re Christians, then we are disciples of Jesus. Disciples are apprentices; we’ve signed up for training in the art of living as God intended it, and Jesus is not only our teacher, he’s also our model, the one we’re learning to be like. He’s come to give us life in all its fullness, and we’ll experience that life more and more as we learn to follow him. This is a gradual process, a process of adaptation, as we learn what’s important to Jesus and what’s not important, what’s consistent with the life of the Kingdom of God, and what’s not. This is our business now, as followers of Jesus; this is the most important priority of our lives.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we thought being a Christian was just about coming to church on Sundays and trying not to hurt anyone during the week. Maybe we thought it was about learning about the history and customs of the Anglican Church. Maybe we thought church was going to be like an aspirin to take away our pain, or a stress-reduction exercise to help us deal with the frenetic way of life we’ve learned from living in Alberta in a roller-coaster economy in 2015. Maybe we really didn’t expect that Jesus was going to challenge us about our place in this world we live in – that he was going to ask us to consider that we might be worshipping the wrong gods, and might need to take a fundamental look at what our life is really meant to be all about.

Or maybe we’re thinking, “Nobody warned me about this”. Maybe my parents had me baptized as a baby, and they told me it was time to get confirmed when I was a young teenager, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever had much of a say in this. It’s never been spelled out to me just exactly what being a Christian was all about. Going to church is a comfort to me, and that’s all I’m looking for, thank you very much.

Well, maybe so, but that’s not what Jesus is offering. Jesus was never shy about telling people the truth. In one of his parables, he says that if you just hear his words but don’t put them into practice, you’re like a person who builds a house on a foundation of sand. When the flood comes, that house is going to fall to the ground with a mighty crash. It’s better to build your house on a solid foundation, he says. And how do you do that? By hearing his words and putting them into practice. In other words, by being a disciple. That’s what being a Christian is all about.

So, sisters and brothers, let’s commit ourselves to this discipleship process. This Lent, let’s be intentional about seeing ourselves as followers of Jesus. He knows God’s plan for us better than anyone else; he knows that God’s plan is the only way for us to experience life in all its fullness and all its joy. So let’s come to him each day and ask him to teach us to live the new life of the Kingdom of God. Let’s turn to the gospels, read his words and watch how he lives his life, and ask the Holy Spirit to help us to put into practice the things that we learn. And let’s remember the goal: to be like Jesus, who is the image of God, so that we can be what God created us to be – images of God, children who look like their heavenly Father.

Next week, we’ll think about two things that shape us as disciples of Jesus: the community of the church, which is a group of disciples learning together, and the Scriptures, which in some ways are like a textbook for the School of Jesus. 

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