Today we lift up the ministry of Christian education, we will bless teachers and learners, and we celebrate all the ways we learn to live as God’s people. What comes to mind when you hear the words Christian education?
Some of you may think of Sunday school, others may remember a person whose faith shaped yours more than any curriculum, class or sermon. Perhaps you remember Bible drills and flanell boards, or a grandmother who taught you good questions were more important than good answers. Perhaps you remember late night conversations with friends or a book that helped you understand your faith in new ways.
I remember night time prayers with my mom. I remember old Mr. Schneider whose glasses were the thickest I had ever seen; he rode his bicycle everywhere he went, including children’s worship on Sunday mornings at 11, and he told us Bible stories like he had been there and everything had happened only yesterday. I remember religion teachers in school who were kind and full of knowledge and wisdom. I remember youth group leaders who lived and taught the faith like there was nothing more important in the world. I remember my grandfather whose formal schooling ended in 7th grade and one of my theology professors with a dual Ph.D., and I can’t tell you which of the two was more influential in shaping my faith. I remember older kids in youth group who let me sell fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate with them at the Christmas market and talked with me about God and colonialism and global trade. I remember singing a particular hymn every year on Easter, early in the morning, and the tune as much as the words has come to capture for me the deep meaning of resurrection hope.
I believe the whole life of the church is educating people in their faith. People use words like instruction, teaching, nurturing and development when they reflect on what Christian education is about. They speak of transmitting the faith and encouraging critical thinking, of spiritual formation and developing godly habits, of catechesis and socialization, and the list goes on. I would say, Christian education is a curious blend of the intentional teaching in settings designed for that pupose and the wild and wonderful learning that happens in all kinds of life moments. I learned a lot about God and prayer lying on my back in a boat in the middle of a lake in Sweden in my late teens, but that doesn’t mean that everybody else would have a similarly transformative experience simply by getting into a boat and rowing out to the middle of a lake. Some parts of Christian education can be included in how a family structures their day together or how a church plans its curriculum, other parts simply happen when we’re open to God’s presence and work in us.
I love the reading from Deuteronomy we heard earlier.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
This is what it’s all about, life and faith and education, everything: to love God with every capacity we have been given to think, feel, desire, will, speak, act, and suffer. The passage continues with instructions on how to learn and maintain that love:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Keep these words at the center of who you are as a person. Let these words occupy the center of your being, let them determine who you are becoming day by day and year by year. Keep them, but don’t keep them to yourself.
Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Recite them to your children so the next generation of God’s people may learn to keep them in their heart. Let them be the last words on your lips when you go to bed and the first ones when you rise. Let them give rhythm to your days, let them shape how you listen, think, speak, and act; keep them and they will keep you. Bind them as a sign on your hand, so you remember to keep your actions in tune with God’s will. Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, so both your thoughts and your vision are shaped by God’s purposes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so both your private and your public life are spaces defined by God’s love and justice.
In order to love God with every capacity of their being, God’s people are to open their inmost self to God’s words, talk about them amongst each other, and let them structure their experience of time and space. Their lives are to be centered and rooted in these words and dedicated to hearing and keeping them, reciting, debating, and living them. Ultimately, everything in this brief passage flows from faithfully hearing in the community of God’s people what God has spoken.
The focus in the apostolic witness of the New Testament is very similar, which isn’t surprising, since it is the same God who speaks. We Christians affirm that God has spoken in Christ, and that the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, are the event through which we are to hear, keep, interpret, debate and live all that God has spoken. We affirm that the ultimate word of God is not a text, but a life. The ultimate word of God is a human being who embodied God’s compassion and mercy among us.
In Colossians, the apostle teaches and admonishes those who have received Christ Jesus as Lord that we live our lives rooted and centered in him. Christ doesn’t take the place of the words of Torah so beautifully affirmed in the passage from Deuteronomy, no, he lives them completely, he embodies them. And for us to faithfully hear what God has spoken is to live in Christ and to have Christ live in us. The apostle writes, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” and this is not just a new dress code. Because we live in Christ, his character becomes visible as our true nature. Our interactions become expressions of his compassion, his kindness, his humility, meekness, and patience. We bear with one another, because Christ bears with us. We forgive each other, because Christ has forgiven us. Because we live in Christ, his perfect love of God and neighbor, a love that doesn’t exclude the enemy, becomes the garment that fits us all perfectly: in him we are one humanity, redeemed from our idolatries and restored to our true status as creatures made in the image of God.
Perhaps you wonder if clothing ourselves with compassion is just a game of dressing up and pretending that we are God’s people, you know, chosen, holy and beloved. But it’s rather the other way round: Because we are God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, we are finally free to stop pretending that we are who others need us to be or have made us believe that we are. Clothed with the perfect love of Christ, we live the life we were always meant to live. It is the life of the renewed humanity where Christ is all and in all. In this redeemed life, our hearts are no longer ruled by enmity and strife, but by the peace of Christ. And in this redeemed life, everything we do, we do in the name of Christ.
And so I want to suggest that all Christian education is about one thing: learning Christ. It encompasses learning who God is, learning who we are, and learning to live the life God desires for us. And it encompasses learning with our minds, our hearts, our hands and feet, and all our senses.
The apostle writes in Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” “You” is plural here, as just about everywhere in the epistles; it’s a subtle reminder that learning Christ cannot be a solo adventure, but is inherently communal. The verse can be translated, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you and among you,” and we are reminded that Christ is at work both within us and among us, and that in order for the word of Christ to dwell in us we must learn to dwell in the word, individually and collectively.
I already mentioned that learning Christ is inherently communal, it is also inherently mutual. The apostle tells us to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” Learning Christ happens through one-anothering, which isn’t a verb yet, but I want to suggest that we begin using it anyway. Learning Christ happens through one-anothering. Learning Christ doesn’t divide the body into some who teach and all the others who learn. Learning Christ brings us together in a community where all learners are teachers and all teachers are learners, all God’s people together, young and old.