All Saints, Sydenham
5th August 2001
Listen to these words from The Bible in Transmission Ė a document recently put out by the Bible Society. Chris Sunderland writes:
Our churches are currently set up for an "expert" learning model. Our primary means of Christian education remains the sermon whose model is that of an expert lecturing the ignorant people. This will no longer do. Instead the focus must change to active learning within our churches"
Two things are obvious this morning. One is that the people of All Saints Sydenham are not ignorant, whatever else you may be; and Iím not an expert, whatever else I may be. So Chris Sunderlandís evaluation of sermons as a means of Christian education falls flat on its face at the first two fences so far as we are concerned.
But opinions such as Mr Sunderlandís are seldom given without a reason, without, that is, there being some shred of truth behind them; so instead of simply being cross with him, letís use his provocative remark to look at the way in which Jesus taught his disciples.
Jesus was called "Rabbi" (which means "Teacher") both by those who agreed with him and those who didnít. That means that even his opponents reckoned that he was someone who ought to be listened to. Jesus called his followers "Disciples" (which means "Learners").
That relationship of Teacher/Learners everyone accepted right from the beginning of his ministry. It is, of course, a non-symmetrical relationship Ė the two parties are not equivalent to each other Ė as he pointed out when he said "the disciple is not above his master; it is enough that he should become like his master". Thatís not to say that Jesus didnít participate in the learning process himself. Like every good teacher, Jesus learnt as he went along. He "increased in wisdom and stature" as St Luke tells us, "and in favour with God and man". Teachers can, and should, learn from their disciples, but that doesnít alter their basic relationship to each other.
So how did Jesus teach? Well, he certainly used the spoken word a good deal, so he had no hang-ups like Mr Sunderland appears to have, about lecturing his audience: the Sermon on the Mount, whether it was delivered all at one go, or more probably in several sessions, is a good example of one of one such lecture, and the discourses recorded for us in St Johnís Gospel during the week leading up to Good Friday are another.
What sort of things did he talk about? Well, it may come as a bit of a shock to many people to learn that much of Jesusís teaching was about himself and his own relationship to God the Father as the only-begotten Son, as well as our relationship to the three persons of the Trinity.
Jesus did, of course, speak about our relationship to one another, the need for us forgive each otherís trespasses, for instance, and the need to behave as servants towards one another. However, both these sayings are set in the wider context of our relationship with God. We are to forgive others in order that God may forgive us; we must be like the Good Samaritan towards others in order that we may "inherit eternal life" as he said to the lawyer who asked him the question of how that was to be achieved.
Now all of that is a long way removed from the popular idea of Jesus being nothing more than "a great moral teacher" or "just a very holy man". He was, of course, both of these thing, but most of what he said on matters of morals had been said already many times before and long ago by the prophets of the Old Testament, and, more recently by John the Baptist.
But the real core of Jesusís teaching consists of what is called "Revelation". God, who had spoken many times and in many different ways in the past through the prophets has, in these last days spoken to us through his Son, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us.
Revelation Ė revealing something Ė is like taking the wrapping paper off a parcel or opening the lid of a sealed box to reveal whatís inside it. The contents thus revealed were always there in the first place, but hidden from us. So "revealing the truth" isnít so much a matter of thinking up something entirely new, but discovering something, which has been true all the time but never properly seen or properly understood.
Thatís why Jesus used so many parables in his teaching. Every parable describes some aspect of the Truth, some fact about Divine Reality. Any parable if it is pushed too far or made to have too many hidden meanings will result in a distortion of the reality which it was meant to explain. So Jesus tells us that God the Father is in some ways like a King, in others like a Shepherd, a Moneylender, a Sower, a Fisherman or a Merchant Venturer to name just six examples off the top of my head. Each parable is designed to portray one facet, and usually one only, about his nature.
But Jesus didnít only use parables. He employed miracles as visual aids to his teaching. Every miracle was designed to be part of his teaching programme. Some of them he did in public, but others strictly in private, which suggests that some, at least, of his teaching wasnít intended for general consumption, at least for the time being. Sometimes his teaching was directed at the person who was cured; sometimes it included their friends and family; sometimes it was for his apostles only, and in the case of the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden it was to be restricted to the inner circle of Peter, James and John.
Thatís another surprise to many people. Itís generally assumed that "preaching the gospel" invariably means looking for the widest audience possible and trying to find something to say which will be acceptable to all. Not so. Whilst many of Jesusís teachings were directed towards "anyone who has ears to hear", many others were restricted to a select few Ė the Seventy, the Twelve, the Three; some no doubt were said to individuals "for your ears only".
Such "restricted information" was the most important of all. At the Transfiguration he took Peter, James and John away to a high mountain to be apart from the others and there revealed his true nature as God Incarnate in the most direct audio-visual manner. They "beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" as St John wrote many years afterwards. In that acted parable, with a supporting cast of Moses and Elijah he revealed to them secrets hidden since the foundation of the world. But those secrets were to remain secrets for the time being. "He strictly charged them not to tell anyone until after his resurrection", St Luke informs us. And they obeyed him to the letter.
Now all of this suggests that the sermon, to which we subject ourselves every Sunday is something far more than the "lecture" that Mr Sunderland would have us believe. Itís much more akin to a small group of underground resistance fighters in enemy-occupied territory during World War II crouched over an illegal radio-set listening avidly to messages being broadcast from their GHQ. Some of what is being said may not specifically apply to that group, at any rate not for the present; but they should still be listening carefully all the time for the message or the command or the piece of information which is intended for them. Unless they listen to the whole broacast, they may miss the one bit intended for them altogether.
The Eucharist is, of course, the greatest revelation of all. In it we encounter the Real Jesus, Really Present under the species of bread and wine. However, from the very earliest times the Ministry of the Word Ė Bible Readings and Sermon Ė have complemented the Ministry of the Sacrament, and the Ministry of Fellowship with God the Son and through him, with one another.
Each form of ministry reveals the Truth in its own way. If we fail to use all three when we come together on a Sunday then our understanding both of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and our understanding of one another and our understanding of ourselves are all bound to be severely lop-sided.
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