I have a Master’s degree.
I say this not to brag, but to iterate that I have done a lot of learning in my life. Between the time I was in Kindergarten until I graduated with my Masters of Divinity, I went to school for 20 years, and since I graduated I continue to go to Conferences and classes to continue to learn and keep my mind sharp. I wish I could tell you that I have always had a passion for learning, but I haven’t. Actually for a long time, like most youth, loathed learning, and in some ways I still do. I questioned my parents on how much more I actually had to learn. I looked forward to the day I would graduate so that I didn’t have to learn anymore, and when I said that to my parents they would always laugh and respond with, “Honey, you are never done learning.”
It was those words I always found funny from my parents, probably as much as they found mine funny. I thought logically at some point in time I would graduate from whatever institution I decided to conclude my learning with and start doing work and move past learning. However, I neglected to consider how important learning is to the life of any person no matter their profession.
Learning takes us beyond where we are and calls us to continue to grow in whatever field we may practice in.
The same can be said of our faith. We are in a state of perpetual learning in our faith journey.
We have been given, by a leader in our denomination a vision, and we have been encouraged ourselves to implement this vision within the context of our own local ministry. In that, we have been called to take the vision given to us a specify our own vision. We are doing this by taking intentional time to evaluate our ministry and find how we can move forward. However, before we move there let us explore the vision set before us to help our minds and hearts focus on what ministry we are called to.
Our Bishop, Sharma Lewis, has called us to be “Disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.” (http://www.vaumc.org/ncfilerepository/AC2017/CanyouSeeItClosingWorship.pdf)
This week I want us to focus on that first part. That as disciples we are lifelong learners.
This is an important aspect of being a disciple because it is important to recognize the continued work of God throughout the course of our lives. In the United Methodist tradition, we call this sanctifying grace.
Our United Methodist doctrine proclaims, “Through God’s sanctifying grace, we grow and mature in our ability to live as Jesus lived. As we pray, study the Scriptures, fast, worship, and share in fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice in our communities, we strengthen our capacity to love neighbor. Our inner thoughts and motives, as well as our outer actions and behavior, are aligned with God’s will and testify to our union with God.” (http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage)
This is just what it means to be a lifelong learner. It means that we live into, and practice, this understanding of God’s sanctifying grace. Because we know that God is always working with us and around us we acknowledge the great wealth of knowledge that presents in our understanding of who God is and how God calls us to act.
It is also along these lines that the writer of Hebrews pens the lines we read today. While this passage seems quite chastising of the state of the early Christian’s it provides us an excellent backdrop as to the importance of continued learning.
We read, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb. 5:12-14)
The writer here wants to bring about the point that his readers have become somewhat lethargic in their learning. They have become lax, even on the most basic teachings. We can gather from this that this lethargy of knowledge has affected their faith, otherwise it would probably not have been written about. It is so crucial for us to call this what it is because it helps us to admit to ourselves that we are never done learning in our faith.
So often we look at our justification in faith, that is often thought of as our moment of conversion as the ultimate time of our faith. Instead of thinking of faith as a journey we consider it, instead, as a moment in our lives when we make the decision to follow Christ. Everything revolves around that moment, and it is in that moment we are saved and often the moment our learning about Christ concludes. It’s not that we aren’t taught anything after that moment, but all our learning either perpetuates our complacency or reiterates that which we already have heard. We are not challenged to grow in Christ. We continue to be the same baby Christians we always have been. According to the writer of Hebrews, we are drinking that infant milk, thinking we are eating those mature solid foods.
We are saved by our faith in Christ, yes, but we are also saved by the manner in which that faith changes who we are as a human being. Lifelong learning is an admission that our faith does not begin and end with our conversion. It admits that there is much more to God than what happens in one moment, but that the more we learn and grow in God the more we learn and grow in grace. We must continually consume that which is offered by God.
John Wesley described salvation as a house. He said that prevenient grace is the front stoop, the house is there, whether we see it or not. Justifying grace is like stepping through the doorway, we enter the house. And sanctifying grace is the inside of the house, all of the rooms to explore and learn. Wesley noted the importance of the exploration of the house. It was through exploration we learned more about God and God’s plan for our lives. If we lived in that door frame we would only understand our faith through that frame. We wouldn’t grow or mature, and our faith would continue to be defined in its infancy stages.
Lifelong learning does a few things for us.
Learning broadens and even diversifies our thought. Learning can take us from a single-minded view and open our minds to many other views. I am not saying that all of these views are correct, but our exposure to other views helps us to narrow down our own views. One theological book I read to prepare for my commissioning papers and interviews was called Not Every Spirit and the author espouses that we can determine what we believe by identifying what we do not believe. By broadening and diversifying our own thought we then become better at discussing our own beliefs, something I believe is lost when we do not commit ourselves to learning, especially learning outside our own train of thought.
Learning also changes us. While we broaden and diversify our minds through learning that learning changes us. We become different people and what we learn impacts our lives and even our beliefs. When we close ourselves off to learning we can become stuck in one world-view that may not even adequately reflect that which we may actually believe, but because that is all we have learned that is all that we know. This, I believe, is a great tragedy in our tradition. We have taught people one way and, instead of creating God-following Christians, we have created God-fearing Christians.
Lastly, learning calls us to be better. The more that we explore that house of salvation the more we learn about God and God’s plan, and the better we are able to serve as God calls us to serve. Learning focuses that vision and calls us to live as we have learned. There is something functionally different from being a Christian of infancy in faith than of being a Christian with a mature faith. It is not that one is greater than the other, but we must recognize that we are not called to remain an infant. We are called to grow, and in that growth, we become a better Christian in the manner that we live out the Gospel.
So now we must ask how. How do we learn?
We learn by way of a few things. First of which I would set forth is prayer, that is a personal connection to God. Through prayer, we become connected to God and build that personal relationship. Prayer can open our mind to that which God is trying to teach us. Next, we must look towards our sacred texts, that being the Bible. The Bible gives us a recording of who God has been revealed to be in the world. Scripture provides the basis for spiritual learning, but it also should not be the extent of our spiritual learning. We have, through history, many different schools of thought in how we interpret scripture. It is beneficial for us learning the faith to experience these as well. This is that mind-broadening I spoke of earlier because it helps us to move beyond just the words of scripture and helps us to move to a point of better understanding scripture. I would point you to commentaries on scripture, or sermons that expound on scripture and help us to better learn the meaning behind the verses written. Lastly, I would call you to experience your faith. Another great way to learn is to live your faith. Live that life which God calls you because in that we experience faith. We go out and help people and teach people ourselves, and thought that we, in turn, learn ourselves. While this is an ideal held by those who have already done some learning it continues to perpetuate the idea of lifelong learning and growing in our faith.
I urge you to latch onto this idea of lifelong learning. Ask yourself how are you learning? How are you growing your faith? How are you stretching your beliefs?
Learning provides a space for us to grow, and growth helps us to live into the people God calls us to be. So go and be those disciples.