Sunday, March 8, 2015

Assignments in the School of Jesus (a sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent)

This Lent we’re thinking about what it means to be disciples of Jesus, using the illustration of discipleship as being like membership in the School of Jesus. We started on the first Sunday of Lent by reminding ourselves that the word ‘disciple’ is far and away the most common word for ‘Christian’ in the New Testament. The word means ‘learners’, or ‘students’, or even ‘apprentices’ – which may be a better word, because the School of Jesus doesn’t just teach intellectual truths, but lessons in the art of living as we were designed by our Creator to live. Then last week we went on to look at two of the ways that God shapes us as followers of Jesus: participating in the community of disciples, which we call ‘the church’, and hearing the Word of God as we read the scriptures. These two disciplines are fundamental to us as we continue to participate in the School of Jesus.

This week I want to think with you about ‘Assignments in the School of Jesus’. Most schools give assignments; students don’t always like them, but they’re an integral part of the learning process. You may have never thought of the concept of ‘assignments’ in connection with growing as a follower of Jesus, but I think it may be a very helpful illustration. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Years ago I read a column in ‘Christianity Today’ magazine written by Jim Packer; Jim was a highly respected Anglican theologian, had taught at various seminaries for many years, and had written some highly influential books. He was much in demand as a speaker at various conferences and events, and so this quiet Oxford scholar became something of a world traveler, with lots of experience of the various mishaps that can happen on international journeys.

Jim began the column by reflecting on a journey he had taken in the past, and how the airline had lost his luggage – an experience many of us have had, and not something we tend to react well to! He talked about his impatient reaction, how he had fumed and raged and not really given a very Christ-like response to the airline employees, and then he went on to reflect on how God can use circumstances like this to invite us to grow in the Christian virtues of patience and understanding and gentleness and so on – in other words, how these events can be like ‘assignments in the School of Jesus’. He concluded the column by saying, “I’m writing this in New York; I’m on the way to Florida, but my luggage appears to have gone to Chicago. I think I am being invited to try the assignment again!’

This is what I mean by an ‘assignment in the School of Jesus’. ‘Discipleship’ can be a very nebulous notion: we might think vaguely about being a nice person, loving our neighbour, helping the poor, or some such thing, but it can all seem very indefinite and ‘spiritual’. But discipleship isn’t ‘indefinite and spiritual’: it’s a very concrete experience of following Jesus in the daily choices we make. Listen to the words of Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27).

There are two things I want you to notice in this parable. First, hearing the words of Jesus isn’t enough. Coming to church, saying the prayers, standing respectfully for the gospel reading, blogging or tweeting about how much we love Jesus – that stuff is all well and good, but it’s possible to do it and still ignore the things that Jesus taught us. As someone wrote a few years ago, many Christians believe in Jesus, but they don’t seem to believe the things that Jesus believed! I think a lot of us actually believe that Jesus was a rather impractical person, only vaguely in touch with reality, who didn’t really think through the real-world implications of what he said – in other words, that he was completely different from any other carpenter or building contractor that you and I have ever known! But no – to be a follower of Jesus is to be committed to doing the things that Jesus told us, and the church exists to help people learn to do that. As Jesus said at the end of Matthew’s gospel,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).

So just hearing the words of Jesus isn’t enough – we have to actually put his teaching into practice in the real world. The second thing I want you to notice is the meaning of the phrase “These words of mine” – “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock”. Which words is Jesus talking about?

Well, he tells the story of the wise and foolish builders at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, so it’s quite clear that Matthew intends them to refer not just to the teaching of Jesus in general, but to the specific things that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. And you know very well the sort of thing Jesus says there! He tells us that it’s not enough not to murder people – we’re to turn away from hate and anger and resentment too. It’s not enough just to avoid adultery; we’re to turn away from lust. We’re to tell the truth at all times, turn the other cheek when someone attacks us, and love not just our neighbour or friend but even our enemy, just as God loves his enemies too. We’re to be faithful in prayer, in fasting, and in giving to the poor – not to impress others, but because we love God. We’re not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth – we’re to live a simple life, with few possessions, seeking first the Kingdom of God and trusting God to provide for our needs. We’re not to judge others, but to concentrate on the log in our own eye rather than the speck in our brother or sister’s eye. In all things, we’re to do to others as we would wish them to do to us. And we’re to remember that the road to life is hard and narrow, and few people find it – in other words, don’t just go with the flow, but be prepared to be part of a minority who live for the Kingdom of God and commit themselves to doing the will of God.

So yes, this is very challenging teaching, but this is the profile of a follower of Jesus in the New Testament - and of course there are many other places in the gospels where Jesus fills out the picture. But we can easily get intimidated by these teachings: we look at all our possessions, for instance, and the idea of giving most of them away and living a simple life seems scary and impossible. So we need to get our heads around the difference between ‘trying’ and ‘training’.

I first came across this difference in the writings of John Ortberg. He used the illustration of a marathon. No one just wakes up and decides to try to run a marathon - if you do, you’re dooming yourself to failure. A marathon is something you train for, in small steps, gradually building new habits of diet and exercise into your life, so that over a period of time you become the kind of person who can run a marathon.

Assignments in the School of Jesus are all about this training; they’re opportunities to exercise our character muscles and move a little closer to the goal that Jesus has for us. We don’t make the entire journey at once; we move slowly and steadily toward the goal, getting a little closer each day to the character profile of a disciple that Jesus has given us. Slow and steady, one day at a time – that’s what makes a consistent follower of Jesus.

So what are these ‘assignments in the School of Jesus’? And how are we given them? After all, we can’t see Jesus, so how do we know which specific things he’s asking us to work on at any given time?

In my experience, assignments in the School of Jesus tend to come in two ways: from reading the Scriptures, or from the circumstances we go through. Let me give you some examples.

First, through reading the Scriptures. Not just a casual reading, of course: assignments usually come to us when we’re reading slowly and attentively, listening carefully for what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us in the text. When we do that, things will tend to jump out at us, and it won’t be long before we realize that God has given us something new to work on.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik and our kids were very little, we read this passage in the gospels:
Jesus also said to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).

Now, I think Jesus was teaching by exaggeration here: I don’t think he literally meant that we should never give a banquet for friends and family! But I certainly think that he meant we should regularly invite to our homes people who we’re not connected to by ties of friendship or family – the poor and needy, people who need it, even people we don’t especially like. And as Marci and I read the passage, we thought, “We’ve never done that. We’ve actually ignored this passage every time we’ve read the gospel of Luke – we’ve just skipped over it”.

So we decided not to skip over it. We thought of the people we knew in Aklavik, and we decided to invite a particular young couple with two small kids for supper at our house. We knew them a bit, because the young man was in and out of jail, and whenever he was in jail, his wife would come over to our house to use the phone to talk to him. They were very surprised to get our invitation, of course, but we had a nice time with them that night. I don’t know if anything huge happened in their lives as a result of that dinner, but I certainly had a better relationship with that young man in the years that followed. And of course, it wasn’t a huge change in our dinner invitation policy: it was just a small step in our training as followers of Jesus.

So here’s one way of getting assignments in the School of Jesus: reading the scriptures, and especially the Gospels, with our eyes and ears open to opportunities to put into practice the things that Jesus teaches us there. The other way is through the circumstances we find ourselves in as part of our daily lives. Over and over again, as the day progresses, we will be given opportunities to respond to the things that life sends our way in a Christ-like manner. Sometimes we will fail, and sometimes we will succeed. But if we keep our eyes and ears open, each day can be a day of progress toward our goal of being like Jesus.

One example of this, of course, is the story I told you from Jim Packer and his lost luggage. Most of us tend to react very badly to that sort of thing, and we often take it out on airport staff who have had no part at all in the loss of our luggage! But Jesus tells us to do to others as we would have them do to us, and Paul tells us to ‘be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven (us)’ (Ephesians 4:32). So each trying circumstance we go through can be an assignment in the School of Jesus, an opportunity to exercise our patience muscles. I’m very aware of the fact that I often fail those assignments!

Let me give you another example. A few years ago I was in Toronto speaking at a conference for the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism. This was back in the days when I was just getting interested in Anabaptist/Mennonite forms of Christianity, which put a lot of emphasis on obedience to the words of Jesus. I was staying at a hotel on Bloor Street and each day I walked a couple of times to Wycliffe College and back. I passed a Tim Horton’s on the way, and one evening I noticed a man sitting on the ground outside Tim’s, with a hat on the ground in front of him, obviously asking for money.

I ignored the man and walked past, as I usually do in those situations, trying hard to avoid his eyes, but then about ten feet further on I stopped and, if you’ll pardon the language, mentally said to myself, “Oh shit!” Into my mind had come that passage where Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30), and I realized that even if I didn’t intend to take that verse literally, I couldn’t just walk past and do nothing – not if my journey of discovery into Anabaptist Christianity was going to mean anything. I thought for a moment, and then I went back, went into the Tim Horton’s, bought a coffee and a muffin, came out and gave them to the man. I wish I could say that I’ve followed this policy ever since – and I know that this is a difficult issue and there are different opinions as to what is the best way of dealing with it – but I do know that if I’m going to call myself a follower of Jesus I can no longer ignore people who are in obvious need. After all, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the ones who ‘went by on the other side’ were the priest and the Levite, and that’s not very good company to be in!

Well, my time is almost up, so let me sum up. We are disciples of Jesus, members of the School of Jesus. We’re in the process of being transformed into Christ-likeness, and in this process, ‘training’ is much more productive than ‘trying’: we tend to move forward by taking baby steps, a little at a time. And this is where assignments come in. Assignments are specific challenges that God gives us to put a particular teaching of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. Successful completion of the assignment brings us a little closer to our goal of Christ-likeness. The assignments may be small, but they are never insignificant, because each one is an opportunity to move closer to our goal.

So – what assignment might Jesus be giving you today? Is there a particular Scripture that he has placed on your heart, perhaps a saying of his that is challenging you, and that you know you can’t ignore? Or is there a particular circumstance you find yourself in that’s giving you the opportunity to exercise your Christ-likeness muscles and respond as Jesus would respond? If there’s something that comes to mind, pray for strength to carry out the assignment according to God’s intention for you. And if there’s nothing that comes to mind, tell Jesus that you’re ready for whatever assignment he has in mind for you, and then be on the lookout for his answer to your prayer.

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