Baptisms are frequently a time when people come to church who do not normally do so. How can one preach in such a way that their attention is caught by the explanation of what is going on, and they want to come back to learn more? This sermon uses the image of the Christian life as a school to try to catch the imagination of such listeners.
Christians haven’t always called themselves Christians. “Christian” is actually a label that was stuck on them by people who were not Christians.
The name by which the first Christians called themselves most often was “disciple,” literally a “learner” or a “student.” For them, when they thought of Christian faith, the thing that came to their mind first was not church or services or the ten commandments or being a good citizen . . . but learning! Which means that for them the church was first and foremost a school, and the Christian life a process of learning. And for them baptism was simply the way that you enrolled in the school.
Well, that raises some interesting questions. Where on earth is this school? What is it for? What do you learn there? What are the teaching methods? Who are the teachers? And where are classes held? Can you graduate? And is it true that the graduate programs are out of this world?
The easiest question to answer is: who is the teacher? Jesus! Many times in the pages of the earliest biographies of Jesus he is called teacher; and a couple of times he calls himself by the same title.
But what is it that he teaches? What is the curriculum in this school Jesus is running? He said on one occasion, “I have come so that people might have life and have it in all its fullness!” (John 10:10) That’s it! Jesus is a teacher of life: he teaches us how to live as God’s people in God’s world in God’s way-and in the friendship of God. That’s what people saw in Jesus: it’s what gave him that unique quality of being fully alive; it’s what attracted people to be his disciples. They wanted to learn the life that they saw in Jesus.
But I want to ask: how do you learn this kind of life? I’ll tell you how you don’t learn it. Jesus’ school is not an academic kind of place. The school of Jesus is not a school for passing on information. You may know the definition of a lecture as the process whereby the professor’s notes become the student’s notes without passing through the minds of either. Jesus was not into that kind of learning.
So in the school of Jesus, how do we learn? Jesus has a specially vivid image for this:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
There in the centre of this saying of Jesus is his offer to be our teacher: “Come . . . Learn from me.”
And he gives us a powerful image to explain how we learn. He says, “Take my yoke upon you.” I was in Africa this past summer, and sometimes saw an ox-cart pulled by two oxen yoked together. One reason for doing this is to train young oxen: a farmer will link together an experienced ox and a young ox, and, as they pull the plough together, the older ox shows how it is done, as it were.
That’s what Jesus is saying by this picture. He is saying, I am already wearing the yoke of being God’s person in God’s world. Come and walk alongside me, share the yoke I’m already carrying, and I will teach you what I know.
What kind of learning would that be? It will be very different according to who we are. But just as in those first days, it may well involve such things as:
o learning to be more generous;
o learning how to forgive;
o learning to come alongside someone who is a bit of a misfit;
Jesus the Teacher may also want to mess with our career plans, or our retirement plans, or our holiday plans. The list is endless: the lessons of Jesus’ school are as diverse as the situations a hundred people can find themselves in over the course of a week!
If this sounds difficult, well, it is. But there are encouragements here. Firstly, Jesus says he is a teacher who is gentle and humble. He is the kind of teacher who is nurturing, and patient with our mistakes, and who takes time and trouble with us individually.
Then too he says his yoke is “easy.” For anyone who has been a follower of Jesus more than about 24 hours, that sounds a little strange. Being a Christian is often tough! But I believe that what he is saying is that his yoke is well-fitting. It’s like when you’re looking for a pair of new shoes, and you finally find one that’s just right. You say, “That’s a really easy fit”, meaning it’s comfortable, it’s right for you. This is the sense in which Jesus’ yoke is “easy”-not that it’s no sweat but that it fits us well. After all, in those days, yokes were made one by one for individual oxen, so Jesus is saying, My yoke is made specially for you. It doesn’t mean there won’t be work, it doesn’t mean there won’t be difficulty-but it will still be the yoke I made for you.
One more thing. Jesus was being pretty practical when he said these words. And when he said, “Come to me!” that wasn’t a theoretical statement, and his hearers knew it.
In my imagination, when he had finished, and the crowds were going home for supper, there were some who didn’t leave straight away. They pushed through the crowd and came up to Jesus, maybe a little hesitantly, and said something like this, “Jesus, you know what you said about being your student and sharing your yoke? I really think I’d like to do that. Is there some kind of application form? Do I have to get transcripts?” And whoever that person was, whatever they had done, wherever they had been in their spiritual journey, Jesus said, “That’s great. You’re welcome. We’re just going to have supper. Come eat with us and I’ll introduce you to the others.”
What we’re doing today by baptizing Laura is registering her in the school of Jesus. We want her to grow up with Jesus as her teacher, so that she learns to be the unique person her Creator planned for her to be, to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way-and with the friendship of God.
But what about us? Some of us have never thought of Christianity this way. It’s a new idea. Others of us would have to say, Well, I used to be involved in church when I was younger, but I’ve kinda skipped a lot of classes in recent years.
But, you know what? In one sense, nothing has changed since that first day. We can speak to him just as if he were present here in the flesh. And the offer of becoming his student, learning to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way, still stands, whoever we are, however long we’ve been out of school. And his invitation, “Come to me”, is just as real today as it was two thousand years ago. And now just as then he waits to see what we will say.