for Christian Education Sunday, 2010
I Cor. 10: 1For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3They all ate the same spiritual food 4and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. 6Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. 11These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Focus verse: “11These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.”
If you haven’t yet been to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, I would highly, highly encourage it. The exhibit runs until October 24. I’ve been to it twice, and could easily go again.
If someone else paid my admission, of course.
For me, the highlight of the exhibit was seeing fragments of the actual 2000-year-plus–old scrolls, found in caves near the Dead Sea some 60 years ago, some of which are from the Bible, many which are not. But they still relate to today’s Bible passage and our focus on Christian education, because there’s a very slim, outside chance that the Rabbi Saul of Tarsus—our Paul–whenever he was in Judah or Jerusalem, might have read or prayed from one of the very scrolls whose parts and pieces are in the Science Museum of Minnesota even as I speak.
Or just as likely, these scrolls could have been the ones from which Paul’s personal collection of Bible scrolls was copied. We know from his Second Letter to Timothy that Paul had some scrolls of his own, when he wrote Timothy and said, ”When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments (2 Tim. 4:13).”
With that, and with today’s passage, we get glimpses into Christian Education of the First Century, or Christian Education as the first Apostles practiced it. It really wasn’t all that different from our Christian Education today, except for the technology available to us. But the subject material was the same: the Bible. Only, in their case, the Bible was what we now call the Old Testament. To that they added their stories and traditions about Jesus, and his way of interpreting and applying the Old Testament in this new dispensation of God, what Paul called, “the fulfillment of the ages.” Those later became our New Testament.
In effect, the first generations of Christian Education were actually Jewish education for Gentile Christian converts. For Christians of Jewish background, Christian Education was, in a way, Jewish re-education, with the familiar passages, prayers and prophecies re-interpreted through their experience of Jesus Christ. This we see in the way Paul writes to the Corinthians about the disturbing and difficult things that happened during the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. From the tone of it, I get the strong impression that the Corinthians already know these stories, that he is not just teaching them about these things as much as he is reminding them. They would previously have learned these Old Testament stories and passages from him, from Apollos, and from the husband-and-wife missionary team, Priscilla and Aquila.
The point of those particular Old Testament lessons was to draw comparisons between that Hebrew Exodus, 1500 years before, and their spiritual and moral exodus from the world, as Christians. One lesson of the Exodus is that its one thing to get God’s people out of Egypt, its another thing entirely to get Egypt out of God’s people. After all they had suffered there as slaves and scapegoats, and after all that God had done to liberate them from Egypt, still, whenever things got rough and they had to exercise some trust in God, they clamored to go back to the familiarity of their victimhood, oppression and self-destructive indulgence, whether geographically, or spiritually and morally. As Paul reminds them, an entire generation had to die off in the wilderness before the nation was ready to enter the promised land.
Our Exodus in Christ is not that much different, nor all that much easier than it was for our Hebrew spiritual ancestors. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with deadly snakes, fire coming down from heaven or the earth opening up to swallow us when we grumble and rebel. Jesus has already paid the ultimate, complete price of our redemption. But the stakes are no less high, Paul warns us. The things that provoked these punishments are still just as deadly and destructive to us, in and of themselves.
Nor is the time any less urgent. And we are no less important. If anything, we are extremely, supremely important, Paul assures us. Because, he says, these things, recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, happened as warnings and lessons with us in mind. Not that we too should fear deadly snakes biting our ankles, or the earth opening up to swallow us, or the avenging angel striking us dead like flies. Rather, that we might view our slavery to sin and to the world with no less alarm and disdain than did Moses and his fellow Hebrews. Also, that we might treasure our promised inheritance at least as greatly as did the Israelites, working their way toward the promised land. And that we might fight just as hard for it. Not against other persons, because our enemies do not have flesh or blood. But against our tempter and accuser, and against the spiritual and moral residues of Egypt yet within us.
We are also important, and our situation is urgent, Paul says, because we are the people upon whom “the fulfillment of the ages” has come. By that Paul means that we are living in that period of salvation history for which all the previous stages were preparatory, like the Exodus and the kingdom of Israel. Those events were the appetizer; our age is the entree. Those were the foundation; we are the building. Those were the overture, this is the show. That was the introduction, Jesus and the Kingdom of God are the opening chapters, and our mission to the nations are the last chapters. That’s how we fit in, as the people for whom “the fulfillment of the ages” has come. The task and the time are urgent, because the only thing after us is the answer to our prayers, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
For all Christian Education workers and teachers today, that means that each of our students and disciples are also extremely important people, because upon them has come “the fulfillment of the ages.” And because all that came before us was for their sake. And ours. In the economy of God, every student, every attendee, every inquirer and seeker and disciple in our Christian Education classes is worth the whole of salvation history story before us, each one is even the goal and object of the whole salvation history story, even if there was only one of them. The same is true for ourselves. I hope that in our classes, our lessons, and our lesson planning, that we prepare and pray and pay attention to our students with that same degree of urgency and with that same extravagant sense of everyone’s importance in the household of God. Teachers and sponsors, we would do well to pray for our students and prepare our lessons with this sense of urgency and of everyone’s supreme importance. If it is true that, “whatever we have done for the least of these,” Jesus’ brethren, then this church exists for the sake of our youngest, most tender, vulnerable, impressionable people in their most tender, vulnerable, impressionable stages of life.
By the way, if we as teachers—and we’re all teachers by example, at least—if we wish to impress all the learners here with this sense of urgency, and of their supreme importance, especially the youngest and most impressionable learners, the most powerful way to do that is by modeling it. Adults, the children and youth of our congregation are watching us. If we tell them, “Now go to Sunday School,” and then don’t make any similar effort ourselves, or worse, if we do like some people I’ve heard about, who always dropped their children off at Sunday School and then went back home or to Starbucks to read the paper and drink coffee, what are we saying to our youth and children?
I’ll answer that one. We’re saying that Christian Education is important because its a free, volunteer baby-sitting service. And that its only important for children and youth, but not at later stages. That’s why I prefer to use the phrase, “Christian Education,” or even “discipleship education,” and fairly choke over the phrase, “Sunday School” any more. I’ll recommend even dropping the phrase “Sunday School” from our vocabulary, because as Christians, we’re in school every day of our lives. Frankly, “Sunday School” makes it sound like kids’ stuff. And that reinforces the idea that, once you get past, say, 6th grade or 8th grade or high school, then you’re done. Congratulations! You’ve graduated from …Sunday School! Now that you’ve colored in the rainbows over Noah’s Ark and you’ve pasted little cotton balls onto construction paper to represent the prodigal son and his father, you know the Bible!
No. We need Christian Education for as long as we intend to be Christians. The only graduation ceremony we’ll ever get from Christian education will be our memorial services.
This is just as true for teachers as it is for students. In fact, its critical for teachers, that we remain students of the Bible, the whole Bible, and that we teach from the stance of learners and students, not as masters and experts. That’s why most of my monthly reports to the church council include some sort of notice about what I’ve been reading, and what I’ve been doing to further my own Christian Education.
People sometimes tell me, “I could never be teach Christian Education, because I don’t know much about the Bible and the faith.” Well, I have a confession to make: I don’t either. The Bible and the Christian faith are kind of like mathematics, in the sense that, the deeper you get into it, the more you’ll understand that there is much more to know that you don’t know yet. And the more we learn how much more there is yet to learn, the more we’ll want to learn, the more it will delight us and intrigue us and transform us.
Yes, if you have a basic working knowledge of mathematics, you have more than enough to get along through life. If you can add, subtract, multiply and divide, you already have all you need to know to go shopping, balance a checking account and invest toward retirement. Likewise with the Bible. If all you know is John 3: 16, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life,” you already have enough for this life and the next. But go in a little further and you’ll find that the Bible is not only a book, or a collection of writings, but a world in itself that will require– and inspire— a lifetime of study, reflection, prayer and action.
So, there’s no basic Bible knowledge entry exam to be a Christian education worker here. We want our teachers to know something, but more importantly, we also want our workers and teachers to keep learning and growing, seeking and learning some more. If we don’t know something, or understand something, or have questions, then don’t be afraid to say so. Because you’re probably not alone. It may even heighten the interest and enthusiasm of your class to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question; what do you think?” No less a giant in Biblical scholarship than Claus Westermann, an Old Testament scholar, said, “The first requirement in our reading the Bible is that we still our tongue and permit the Bible to speak. This could be little more than a pious phrase, but it is intended to make a demand of us: that we respect the Bible because it is always beyond us—simply because God is always beyond us. That is to say, we can never fully comprehend the Bible. If we did, we would no longer need to listen to it.” So the most important qualification of a Christian Education teacher here is that he or she is also an avid, eager Christian Education student.
Here’s a good moment for me to put in another plug for our Bible-reading program. If you’ve started it, keep it up. If you haven’t, start it any time that works for you. And if you drop if for a while, you can always come back to it. The weekly reading schedule will always remain posted online. If you haven’t done so yet, please take one of our brochures so that you can mark off the chapters as you go along and keep a record. They make great Bible bookmarks too. If you don’t understand everything in it, don’t worry, you’re not alone. But you’ll find, as you read along, that the Bible is the best interpretor of itself.
With that, you’re on the lifelong journey of Christian Education. A very similar journey to what our Hebrew spiritual ancestors took, getting out of Egypt, and getting Egypt out of themselves. For us its a pilgrimage in place. Its not enough to get Egypt out of our heads. Something else, something better must take its place. And that, again, is why we must be lifelong, avid and eager students of Christian Education, of the Bible. For this moment in salvation history is so terribly urgent, and our students are so very important. As are we, as both students and teachers. Whether we teach by word, or only by example.