Sunday 20 October 2019
Learning for Life
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and Luke 18:1-18
By Victoria Johnson
Canon at Ely Cathedral and Trustee and Tutor for the College of Preachers
Context: a principal Sunday service, either Eucharistic or Non-Eucharistic
Aim: to encourage Christian disciples to engage in learning, and ‘practice’ their faith
Those who have ever attempted to learn a new language, or a musical instrument or have trained for a marathon, understand very well the need to be persistent and practise, practise, practise. It is only possible to gain deeper skill and knowledge through a disciplined approach to learning, whether of mind, body or soul. One cannot just speak French without a considerable investment in learning vocabulary, words, and verb tables and actually conversing with others. One cannot just pick up a violin and play a Concerto, as one cannot run a marathon without months and months of training and careful preparation. In a culture where many things come instantaneously, and where knowledge can be acquired at the touch of a button or the swipe of a screen, how do human beings form habits and practices which can sustain them? In terms of our approach to Christian learning and living as a practising Christian, for many learning stops at confirmation or at Sunday school, and there has long been a culture of church going which only requires one to listen to a ten-minute sermon once a week! Is that enough? Where can we mine down into our faith tradition and learn more, either individually or corporately?
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, there is an instruction to continue in our learning through the reading of scripture as something inspired by God. It is also useful for teaching, for reproof and correction, and for training in righteousness. This act of learning is not being done to get a certificate or so we can brag about how well we can quote from the Bible. This learning is to equip the community of the faithful for every good work that they may be called to engage in. This is no easy task, and the Christian must drink deeply of the well of wisdom and also be prepared to be challenged by their learning. Sometimes learning something new can be like wrestling an angel through the night, it can be uncomfortable and painful and very occasionally we may emerge from the experience feeling bruised or even, as Jacob did, out of joint. We should always expect to be changed by our knowledge of the living God, but if we don’t open our hearts and minds to learning about God through prayer, through study, and through worship, there is no prospect of being changed at all. We may stagnate, and our faith may become brittle and irrelevant.
Paul also suggests that the fruit of learning, the proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ, may not be received with open hearts. Whether the time is favourable or unfavourable we are to proclaim the message with the utmost patience in teaching and carry out our ministry fully, as an evangelist, to those who hear and those who refuse to hear. How we do this is a matter for the whole church to reflect on. In an age where many have itching ears, what can we do or say to make a difference? Jesus offers us a parable to reflect on. He advises his disciples to pray and never lose heart. Is it accidental that the term ‘disciple’ is connected to the word ‘discipline’? A disciple is someone who is persistent in following a way of life and being open to learning, in this case from Christ himself.
What is Jesus teaching us? He tells of a widow, who is persistent in prayer, persistent to the point of being a nuisance. The judge she was appealing to did not fear God, or have respect for people, but this woman’s quiet perseverance caused him to reconsider his judgement. If the heart of an unjust judge can be softened, anything is possible. And how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?
The parable then is about persistence, and about practice. It is about attending to our Christian faith with the seriousness it deserves and shaping our lives as disciples in the truest sense of that word. To be a Christian is to be someone who is open to learning about God, about ourselves and about our neighbour safe in the knowledge that this is a life-long task, and we are called to sit at the feet of the one who was called ‘Teacher’ and who said, ‘follow me’.
By persevering in faith and by living as a disciple of Christ, we become a witness in ourselves, in our very being. Through our words and actions, informed and formed by prayer and worship, word and sacrament we become a living testimony to our faith. We give an account of the faith that is within us not by pomp or shows of piety, and not by passing exams, but by quiet persistence, day by day, in season and out of season. Our practice of the faith then becomes so much a part of who we are that we are able to speak a new language of love and proclaim the good news; we are able to play our part in the symphony of salvation and we are able to run the race that is set before us.
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