Easter V, 2018
On our honeymoon in Paris Susan and I visited the Musee d’Orsay to view the Impressionists. As we wandered the vast former train station I was struck first by the work of Claude Monet. He painted similar themes in various series, painting repeatedly water lilies, a bridge over a pond, sheaves of wheat in an open field, Rouen Cathedral. While the subject matter was similar in each series, it was portrayed in remarkably different ways, reflecting shifts in the time of day or season.
Some time ago, I experienced the power of another series in an exhibition of the portraits of Vincent van Gogh. In one of the rooms was a series of self-portraits that van Gogh had painted during the last four years of his life. Each self-portrait was remarkably different in terms of facial structure, facial expression, background, clothing, line, texture, and color.
In their series, Monet and van Gogh invite us to look at a subject and, then, to look again to see something new, as if they are telling us that a single perspective is not enough to capture the fullness of a situation or person. This is particularly evident in the van Gogh self-portraits. In one painting, he appears as a solid middle-class Dutch businessman, looking away from us with clear eyes, clothed in a stylish coat and hat, and surrounded by a tranquil blue background. In another, he peers out with a slightly tilted, sideways glance, wearing a farmer’s clothes, his face set off by a murky gray background. In still another, he appears hatless, his gaze meeting ours and his face offset by short, densely textured brushstrokes of black, dark green, and red – the same technique he used in Starry Night. The background flows into his coat and seems to link him to the surrounding cosmos. “I am all of these people,” van Gogh seems to say. “If you would understand who I am, you must look and then look again.”
In a similar manner, scripture offers portraits of God’s interaction with humanity at various stages and different contexts over the course of covenant history. Added to the rich tapestry of scripture is the equally rich history of the church and its traditions and beliefs. As van Gogh seemed to command, so too, scripture and the history of the church: “If you would understand who you are as disciples, you must look and then look again.”
This third week of our series, “Seven Covenants of Discipleship,” we come to “Study Regularly.” To say it almost seems pointless, of course we must regularly study our faith, the Bible, the history of the church, our tradition of beliefs. But in reality, how many of us do?
In his seminal text on Christian Education, The Teaching Ministry of Congregations, Richard Osmer of Princeton, claims Christian Education is as significant for every member of a congregation as any other ministry. “In Christian communities,” Osmer writes, “teaching is a form of ministry; ministry is a way of building up congregations for mission; congregations discover their mission within the missions of the triune God.” That is to say, the ministry of Christian education forms us as disciples and as a community of disciples.
We are, then, always to be engaged in Christian education in one form or another. It could be an adult Sunday school class, a weekday class, a covenant group that meets weekly, a discussion group in a pub, or a circle that dives into a rich lesson on a regularly basis.
Our Protestant tradition gathers us under the banner,
Encountering the story as a 57-year old father, one who has encountered hard times, perhaps disconnect, even estrangement with a child, no doubt I would read in the story the mercy of the father. It could move me to take stock of my own actions as a dad.
From the very start the church has recognized the need and significance for regular, on-going teaching in the faith community. Paul’s letters, -including 1 Thessalonians, the oldest writing in the New Testament – offer a glimpse of the importance of education for forming disciples and faith communities. Except for Romans, Paul wrote to communities he knew. And in each, he offers advice and insight that is at once general and specific to the community he addresses.
In First Corinthians, Paul is writing to a community torn apart by factionalism. Some members of the community view themselves as spiritually advanced and have begun to question Pauls’ apostolic authority. Different groups profess loyalty to different leaders and they begin to find Paul’s thought distasteful. They start to embrace homegrown spiritual definitions that are strictly dualistic rather than what later will be called Trinitarian.
Paul sets out in his letter to combat the factionalism and theological confusion by teaching. Specifically he writes to build up the community in love. Hence the famous chapter 13. In fact, chapters 12-14 contain some of the most beautiful writing in all of Pauls’ corpus. In these verses, Paul sets out to address those in the community who had begun to place an emphasis on showy displays of their spirituality in worship that disrupted the gatherings. He is seeking to bring the disorderly and self-centered worship practices of the community under control so that the church as a whole may be built up. To do so, Paul does not harangue, rather he teaches, he educates, he builds up.
In these chapters, he walks the readers through the true purpose of spiritual gifts, they are for building up the whole body. That’s the language of our section this morning. All summed up in his theme, the community’s one Lord, who continues to guide them through the one Spirit, is building them up into one body in which each part is important and contributes to the common good.
Pauls’ teaching is the perfect reminder of our own, on-going need, for Christian education that is deeper and more involved than our daily devotional. Paul had lovingly started the church at Corinth. The record indicates that added to the two extensive letters we posses, there were two more. Making his communication with this beloved church his most extensive. Yet they had gone astray from his initial teaching and formation. They had embraced practices that tore down the community rather than building it up. So Paul instructs. It is his way of inviting them, and us, to look at the portrait of the community as divinely guided, then to look again, and again still. Each time to gain a deeper, fuller context and understanding of the faith we profess and confess. So it is that to enhance our covenant of discipleship, we are challenged to study regularly. We do not know all God would have us know, until we draw our last breath.