Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Disciple, the Bible, and the Church (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent)

This Lent we’re thinking about what it means to be disciples of Jesus, and we’re basing our thoughts around a little book written by my friend John Bowen called The School of Jesus. Last week we reminded 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.

To be a Christian is to be a disciple. Jesus himself told his first followers to go out and invite more people to follow him; he said:
“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 baptism, too, finds its true meaning in the context of discipleship. Baptism is enrollment in the School of Jesus. That’s why we ask parents bringing children for baptism to make promises about their own faith and their commitment to the Church. After all, it makes no sense to enroll a child in the School of Jesus and then not actually bring them to the classes!

And this brings us to our topic for this week, which is to do with how learning happens in the School of Jesus. Today we’re looking at two important aspects of this learning process: our participation in the community of disciples, which we call ‘the church’, and the nourishment we receive from the scriptures, through which the word of God comes to us.

Let’s start with the community. All four of the gospels describe how Jesus begins his work by gathering a community of disciples around him. John’s gospel, for instance, talks about two followers of John the Baptist, one of whom was named Andrew. John points them to Jesus, saying, “He’s the Lamb of God”; they go after Jesus and spend the day with him, and later on Andrew finds his brother Simon Peter and takes him to Jesus too. The next day Jesus calls a man named Philip to follow him; Philip finds his friend Nathanael, and he also becomes a follower of Jesus, and so the disciple community continues to grow.

There are variations on this story in the other gospels too. Most of the early disciples are Galilean fishermen, but not all of them. One of them, named Matthew or Levi, is a tax collector, a member of a despised profession; tax collectors weren’t even allowed in the Jewish synagogues. They were especially hated by the Zealots, because they were collaborators with the Roman government, and the Zealots were dedicated to overthrowing the Roman government. But Jesus even called a Zealot to follow him! Can you imagine the conversations around the campfire between Levi the tax collector and Simon the Zealot? Imagine, NDP and Wild Rose Party supporters in the same church!!!

But of course, that’s the whole point. What these people had in common was their call to follow Jesus, but in other ways they were very different. They had to learn to love one another, to get along with people they disagreed with, to be patient with one another’s weaknesses, to forgive one another. These were some of the most important lessons Jesus had to teach them, and those lessons are only teachable in a community. You can’t learn to love others by correspondence. You can only learn it by being part of a community with others.

Later on, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he sends these disciples out to spread the message and call more disciples. And what do these new disciples do? Everywhere that the gospel message spreads, new disciple groups spring up. The apostles were not interested in spreading the message to individuals in isolation; they knew that life in community was absolutely essential to Christian growth. So those who believed and were baptized committed themselves to being part of the disciple community. Listen to these words from Acts chapter 2:
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:42, 44-47).
What stands out about this is the togetherness of these early disciples: they came together often, to eat together, to pray, and to listen to the apostles’ teachings. They even shared their possessions, so that everyone had enough to live on.

The Church is meant to be a community of disciples. The most important thing about the Church is not that we have wonderful music or splendid liturgies; it’s not that we have beautiful buildings and exciting programs; it’s not that we have bishops and robes and a long history. The most important thing about the Church is that we are a fellowship of disciples of Jesus. Following Jesus is a counter-cultural activity, and it’s extremely difficult to do it alone; we need the encouragement of our fellow-disciples. And so Jesus gives us this family of fellow-Christians, and he asks us to commit ourselves to it. I use the word ‘commit’ intentionally; that reading from Acts said, ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. That sounds like a commitment to me.

If we want to learn to follow Jesus, we need this fellowship of disciples. By myself, I’m prone to make mistakes and get discouraged, but with my fellow Christians to pray for me and talk things over with me, I’m much more likely to get it right. In this fellowship, we hear the scriptures read and explained; in this fellowship, we share in the bread and wine of Holy Communion as Jesus commanded; in this fellowship, we meet together to study the apostles’ teaching so that we can grow as disciples.

And yes, I know that it’s a time challenge for all of us. We all live busy lives, and there are a hundred other things competing for our time and attention. But this is the honest truth: Jesus has called us to be disciples, and it’s not possible to be disciples in isolation. We need to come and be part of the disciple community. That message comes through loud and clear in the pages of the New Testament.

Of course, the church has to get its act together too! Churches have a habit of getting wrapped up in secondary things. What’s the best form of service to use on a Sunday? What’s the best way of governing the church? What’s the most effective way of raising money for the things we want to do? But these aren’t the most important things about the life of the Church. What we need to keep coming back to again and again is this simple truth: the Church is meant to be a community of disciples who help each other learn to follow Jesus, and who go out and invite more people to become his disciples. We need to be giving our best attention, day in and day out, to that job, because that’s the mission statement Jesus gave us.

So we’ve seen that the community of disciples is essential for us if we want to grow as followers of Jesus. The other thing we need to think about today is the nourishment we receive from the Word of God in the scriptures.

It’s often said today that the Bible is a difficult book to understand. I think there’s truth in that, but I also think it’s no more difficult today than it was centuries ago, and most of us today have a much better education than those folks had back then. But despite all this, there was a time when ordinary working people knew the Bible well; they were as well-acquainted with the stories of Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, Jesus and Peter and Paul as we are with the latest TV characters today. And if the first step in understanding a story is just being familiar with it – well, our ancestors certainly had a head start on us. Besides, as Mark Twain is reported to have said, “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me – it’s the things I do!”

So let me invite you, my fellow disciples, to become familiar with this collection of books that we call ‘the Holy Scriptures’. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy we read these words:
‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
When those words were originally written, of course, they referred to what we now know as the Old Testament. But we know that even before the end of the New Testament period the letters of Paul were already being referred to as ‘scriptures’ in the Christian community, so it’s legitimate for us to apply them to what we now call the New Testament as well.

Notice that Paul sees the Bible as being essentially a practical book. He doesn’t say that it’s useful to give us scientific knowledge about the origins of the universe. He doesn’t say that it’s useful to teach us exact historical details of Bronze Age Palestine. No – in the wonderfully clear words of the New Living Translation, he says that it ‘corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work’ (vv.16b-17).

So it’s important for us to be familiar with the scriptures. There’s a passage in the writings of Justin Martyr, an early Christian writer from Rome, in which he describes what happens when Christians come together for worship. One of the things he says is that ‘the writings of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles are read, as long as time allows’. I get the sense from that passage that the readings weren’t short ones, like we have in our Sunday services today! And the reason is obvious: printing hadn’t been invented yet, so people didn’t own their own copies of the Bible. Therefore, when they came together, major time was given to reading the scriptures aloud so that the people would know the story they tell. This was fundamental to the life of the community of disciples, and they knew it.

Nowadays, of course, books are cheap and easy to obtain, and there are dozens of different translations of the Bible into English. Because of that, we don’t spend hours reading them aloud to you on Sunday morning. Why is that? It’s because we assume that you’re reading them yourself at home. So tell me, my fellow disciples of Jesus: is that a fair assumption? And if it’s not, what are we going to do about it?

During our centenary celebrations, Bishop Jane challenged every Anglican in our Diocese to read the Bible all the way through; she even provided a daily Bible reading plan to help that happen. When she did this, of course, she knew quite well that we would run into things in the Bible that were hard to understand and hard to apply to our lives today. We’d have parables of Jesus and Old Testament laws about how to sacrifice doves and pigeons; we’d have practical teachings from the prophets and apostles and long lists of names and genealogies. But I’ll never forget a lesson I learned a long time ago from my friend Harold Percy: ‘If you’re reading the Bible and you come across something you don’t understand, read faster!’

That’s not a joke. There are some things in the Bible that scholars have been scratching their heads about for centuries. If you stop reading when you reach one of those things, you’ll probably never start again! And there are some tedious bits, too: the first nine chapters of the First Book of Chronicles, for instance, are made up entirely of genealogies. But don’t give up! When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Keep on reading, folks; sooner or later, you’ll get to chapter ten, and things will get interesting again!

Why is this important? In Matthew chapter four, in the story of the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy:
‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”’ (Matthew 4:4).
It is the witness of the Christian church down through the centuries that in the Scriptures, and especially in the stories of Jesus, we hear the Word of God in a unique way. This is our spiritual bread. Without it, we are malnourished. So let’s not starve ourselves; let’s eat and grow strong.

So what’s the bottom line for us this week, as followers of Jesus? Well, we’ve been talking about the importance of the community of disciples and the written Scriptures. So let me leave you with two challenges.

I know that we all have busy lives, and that some of us have to work on Sundays from time to time. But let’s be honest; there are weeks when we don’t have to work, but we choose something else other than the meeting of disciples. My challenge is: let’s not do that. Our ancestors in the faith devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. People who really want to grow as disciples of Jesus know that it’s very important to devote themselves to coming together for prayer, worship, and learning. Can we do that? Will we do that? That’s the first challenge.

Here’s the second challenge. About twenty years ago, I realized that it was a long time since I had read the Bible all the way through; I’d read bits of it every day, but I hadn’t gone through the story from start to finish. So I decided to do it. I decided to start at the first page, and read for fifteen minutes a day. And lo and behold, at the end of eight months, I had finished reading the Bible from cover to cover. Since then, I’ve done it several times, using different translations.

All it took was fifteen minutes a day. At the end of eight months, I had a renewed knowledge of the whole sweep of the Bible story. I read familiar passages in their original contexts and came to a fresh understanding of them. Sometimes, I admit, I ran into difficult sections, and sometimes I slowed down and savoured some of the passages I really loved, but most of the time, I just pressed on. I’m glad I did, and I think you would be, too.

So: let’s be faithful in coming together regularly as a community of disciples, to worship and to learn. And let’s be faithful in reading the scriptures and listening for the Word of God as we read. I promise you that these two commitments will be decisive steps on your road to growth as followers of Jesus.

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