People called Jesus “Rabbi”, which means teacher. He gathered around him a group of people called disciples. Disciples are people who believe their teacher has something to teach them. They are questioners and learners. The word disciple come a Latin word which means to learn. Learners ask questions, learners experiment, learners commit time and energy to following. Maybe a good term in our time is “apprentices”, because learning for discipleship involves hands on practice. Discipleship is a way of life.
Discipleship is an honoured and treasured term. I remember as a young man reading Jesus’ teachings and being drawn into a way of looking at the world and other people that resonated deep within. I was looking for a guide to show me how to live well and Jesus helped me see what was good and true. His teachings helped me find values to live by. As a young child I discovered speaking the truth was one of those values. I discovered it was much better to tell my parents that I’d broken a precious ornament rather than concoct a story about how the cat had mysteriously jumped up and knocked the prize vase off the mantelpiece… I was amazed at the way Jesus reached out to strangers and people who were rejected by others and tried to do the same. I saw kids being treated badly by others at school so would try and befriend them. Kids from other countries or with a different skin colour would often be picked on or ignored, so I tried to put myself in their shoes and befriend them… I didn’t realise it at the time but the space to reflect as I walked home from school was an invaluable time of solitude where I could reflect and chew things over and Jesus was often part of that time.
In my early 20’s I took to heart Jesus’ advice to live simply and tried to avoid being duped into the consumer dream that happiness is found in having the latest whatever. I found others interested in that dream and we set up our flat to live simply, because we believed that’s what Jesus taught. Part of that dream was to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle so as to consume less of the world’s resources which we did for some years, but alas the meat lover has won through again. We talked about issues together and were part of the anti-nuclear movement staging street dramas and doing whatever we could to alert others to the evil of nuclear weapons. When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, we took his words seriously. To spend billions on making and peddling weapons of destruction in a world wracked by poverty and basic health and education issues, seems so wrong. Jesus clearly stood for another way. His rage at the merchants ripping off the poor in the temples was clear evidence of that. His overturning of the money tables was not an anti-business protest, but was a protest about ripping people off and inappropriate and evil ways of making money. Our banking industry needs to take note. In our flat we talked often of how we could be a witness for Jesus and we tried to invite someone to share a meal with us each week. Getting to know how others ticked and why they held views that were different was important.
When it came to the inevitable O.E. (overseas experience) I felt called by Jesus to do something different. Most seemed to head to the UK for a couple of years but I wanted to look at world poverty and decided to spend a year in a wealthy country and a year in a poor country to see what I could learn. In America I volunteered to help in a rehab community for people suffering from mental illness. It gave me a fascinating insight into the importance of community as a healing power. I also learned as I walked the streets of wealthy American cities that there was terrible poverty there and many it seemed were consigned to the scrapheap of life. Wealth invariably brought injustices as those with plenty tried to protect their position. In India I helped with the Presbyterian mission project in Jagadhri as well as spending time in a multi-faith project in Bihar state (maybe the poorest state in India) teaching children from surrounding villages about agricultural practices that might enable them to grow more food. I learned that people with very little are often happier than those with much. I learned many aid projects end poorly because they are too quick fix and not there for the long haul. People and communities are always very resistant to change even when the change will bring benefit. I also learned that other religious traditions can help us rediscover spiritual practices of Jesus like the setting aside of quiet time to meditate and reflect with God who lives within on what was really motivating and driving my life. Learning from other Christian traditions and other religions was an important part of listening to Jesus, and seeking to be a apprentice….someone who was constantly learning from Jesus.
Youth is, of course, a time to experiment and learn. Unburdened by responsibility you can take risks and can be idealistic. Sometimes I had no idea where I would lay my head at night, but things usually work out and around the world people are wonderfully gracious and kind. Time progresses and sadly taking risks, experimenting, and exploring get trampled in our lives. We start worrying about the future and get entangled in relationships that mean we are responsible for the welfare of others. We adopt routines that minimize risk, or avoid pushing boundaries. It’s easy for Jesus to become domesticated. No longer is Jesus a teacher and we apprentices, but we are much happier to talk of Jesus as possibly a friend, or as a nice guy, and church can become a club rather than a community where we experiment and learn. We reflect this in our makeup. You go to Sunday School and Youth Group to learn and then you settle and get through life with the knowledge you’ve learned in those early years. The truth is faith has to continue to grow and change as we learn more and more about life and face new experiences like what to do with wealth, how do we face aging and death, what do we do about climate change. Too often faith becomes a private matter, a Sunday only matter. We might go to a study group, but they tend to be about talking, head knowledge, and not ongoing transformation. After three or four sessions we are as deep as we want to get with each other.
I believe that most of us want to live a life that honours God, our creator, a life that is meaningful, a life of significance, a life that honours our calling. We want to live a life of integrity, a life that is true to our essence, and which will make a difference in our world. To do this I believe we need a spiritual guide and we need to commit to ongoing learning. As Christians we believe we see God most clearly in Jesus. Jesus, is our light, our teacher, our Way, and we need to be learners of this Way throughout our lives. Life long apprentices.
I was speaking a while ago to a person who was learning a new way of living. He had joined a Weight Watchers group. He said he’d been trying to lose weight for years and knew all the head stuff about what was required. Eat less, exercise more….it’s pretty simple really. But however hard he tried he never managed to put it into practice. His weight remained the same or in reality slowly crept up over the years. What made the difference he said was meeting with others who supported him and encouraged him to head down another road. He needed to learn some strategies to do things differently, and he need to know others were with him as he instituted some changes in his life. In just a couple of months he’s lost nearly 10kg. It’s being part of a group that regularly meets together and encourages each other to with helpful advice that’s made the difference, he said.
I don’t quite understand why our religion and spirituality is so private. I don’t understand why we give up learning. I don’t know why we stop questioning and growing like little children do. Life certainly becomes more complex as move down the track and face dilemmas and issues. Disciples of Jesus don’t stop wrestling with that complexity and experimenting with answers.
The truth is, Jesus didn’t just communicate some nice ideas, but declared “I am the way” and invited his disciples to form a community that would learn together and practice together a new way of living. We live in a very different world some 2000 years after Jesus lived, but fueled and inspired by his example, teachings, and sacrifice, and listening for his Spirit alive in our time our eyes and hearts can be Jesus opened to see the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. We make the Way by walking not standing still or by always looking back to past traditions.
Maybe we have been hoodwinked by our academic tradition that defined learning as acquiring information and knowledge. We would be better off thinking of ourselves as apprentices – people who learn by hands on learning and experimenting. The real answers lie in our lives here and now. Past answers can help. But actually we have to face the reality of now. If you ever had children that learned karate you’ll know the meaning of the word dojo. A dojo comes out of the Japanese tradition and it’s a place or school where you learn to practice martial arts or mediation. Theoretically you could have a dojo to learn knitting or cooking. The important thing is that it’s a place or a group where you learn how to do it through practice. You learn karate by fronting up and focusing your energy to smash bits of wood. It’s hands on practice. It involves failure, commitment of time, some pain, connecting with people at the same stage and with the same vision. Together the skills and the mental focus is learned that enables you to do amazing things.
It starts with someone recognizing and voicing a desire to learn and to grow. Someone saying I don’t get it, I need help. Asking a question. Recognizing an itch or a hunger and being honest enough to own it. I believe the gospel of Jesus, spreads not by force, or fear, but by fascination. People itching together, people asking questions, people connecting. Now there’s an interesting image for a church community! People connecting with God by looking to Jesus as the rabbi, the teacher, the way of life. People connecting with each other but also engaging with his Spirit today. People who know we make the road by walking and connecting. (net/cross)
So apprentices…. Learners…..as I’ve said before the church of the future is about circles…people engaging, connecting authentically, searching for true life. Where 2 or 3 gather in my name, I will be there said Jesus ….maybe you have a question or an itch you need to share?.
Dugald Wilson 10 Feb 2019