October 30, 2011

One Teacher, One Father, One Instructor

Passage: Matthew 23:8-10

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father - the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

In her book The Human Voice Anne Karph cites studies that show that newborns can discriminate between their own cries and those of other babies.  Babies get upset when they hear other babies cry; anybody who has been in a hospital maternity ward does not find this observation all that startling.  Here, though, is something fascinating.  When 1-day-old babies were played audio recordings of another neonate crying, as well as recordings of the wails of an 11-month-old, and a recording of their own cries, they cried most in response to howls of the newborn—and here is the startling part—they didn’t respond to the playback of their own cries.  It is my observation that by the time this child is 14 years of age the only cry they respond to is their own.

The love of one’s own voice is not a problem limited to teen years.  It was a day filled with challenges by the Jewish religious leaders of various stripes—Sadducees, Chief Priests, scribes, Pharisees, Herodians—all trying to discredit Jesus.  Jesus now turns to the crowds and his disciples and warns them, amount other things, to beware of desiring titles and places of honour for the sake of being honoured or the presumed superiority though to accompany a title; to see in the desire for these things for their own sake the deception inherent in self-exaltation.  Among Jesus’ followers the greatest is the servant of all.  We much prefer that all are servants to the greatest—why would anyone strive for greatness otherwise?  We are ever prone to calculate what’s in it for me.

1.  I have, in recent years, tried to expunge from my vocabulary the word “pharisaic”—and derivatives of this word—because it is used almost exclusively to mean something negative; a synonym for hypocritical.  Jesus’ warning of the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees spoken as an address to a group of people has come to be taken as providing a description of a group of people.

When Jesus appeared among the Jewish people in the year 4 BCE there were several different groups within Israel.  The Sadducees recognized only the first five books of the Older Testament as scripture, and believed nothing about the resurrection of the dead.  Plainly Jesus wasn’t a Sadducee.  The Scribes recognized all of the Older Testament as scripture and ransacked it day and night, but weren’t particularly oriented to the Kingdom of God.  Since Jesus was preoccupied with the Kingdom of God, plainly he wasn’t a scribe.  The zealots hated the Roman Army’s occupation of Palestine.  They were obsessed with assassinating Roman soldiers, fomenting revolution, and restoring self-government to the Jewish people.  Plainly Jesus wasn’t a zealot.  The Pharisees were teachers.  They taught the Torah, that Torah which Jesus said he came to fulfil but never to deny.  As a matter of fact there are many parallels between the teaching of the Pharisees and the teaching of Jesus.  If you were a first-century Jew you would likely consider Jesus to have belonged to the Pharisaic movement.

Jesus’ affinity with the Pharisees is apparent in our gospel reading; with respect to the Pharisee’s teaching Jesus said, “do whatever they teach you and follow it.”  Therefore we must never see Jesus and Pharisees as having nothing in common.  And we must never regard our Lord’s criticisms of his fellow-Pharisees as a pretext or excuse for disdaining Jewish people then or now.

In Matthew’s gospel the section that follows our reading has Jesus’ pronouncement of seven woes with regard to the scribes and Pharisees; blunt appraisals every one of them.  Many read this text as if Jesus was bent on retaliation: “Woe to you” is taken to mean “Just wait, fellows, you are going to get yours.”  The word Jesus uses for “woe” isn’t a threat; it’s a lament.  The word “woe” doesn’t express ill-temper or vindictiveness or denunciation; it expresses sadness.  Our Lord’s heart is breaking for people who are confused themselves and can only confuse others.  “Woe to you”, on the lips of Jesus, means, “Fellows, if you only knew how mistaken you are; if you only knew how wide of the mark you are; your situation is pitiable.”  Jesus isn’t flaying them; he’s lamenting their blindness and its consequences for them and others.

2. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” said Jesus, “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach.”  I do not need to give you examples of hypocrisy for you to know the devastating effects it has on people, on families, on churches, on a nation.   Time and again I have heard a familiar story of how someone was connected to a congregation; of how they found the message of trusting Jesus as Saviour and Lord appealing; of how it was discovered that the lives of those professing faith did not match with the message proclaimed; and of how they decided to disconnect from the church and turned away from the message of the gospel.  I also know that some of the hypocrisy that discourages is my own.

What I am about to say is not to excuse hypocrisy but I would point out to you that Jesus did not think that the fact that the Pharisees’ practise did not match their teaching was a reason to throw their teaching overboard.  Jesus said, “do whatever they teach you and follow it”.  Friends, never let the poor behaviour of a follower of Jesus be a reason for not following Jesus.  The gospel, even on the lips of those who do not practise what they teach, is still the good news.  The Pharisees were in the habit of memorizing the Torah; they were walking copies of the law.  What they did with it might be suspect, but not their teaching.

Seeing the inconsistencies in others is easy; spotting hypocrisy is simple.  Seeing it in others should lead us to look to our own hearts; for Jesus it was an occasion to lament—not for gloating or retaliation or condescension.

3. When you read the New Testament epistles it becomes clear that there were officers in the church; apostles, teachers, pastors, bishops, prophets/preachers are some of the names for these officers and it was understood that Christ gave these as gifts for the church.  It is evident, then, that when Jesus said call no one rabbi, or father, or instructor/teacher these first followers of Jesus did not understand Jesus to mean that the church ought to have no leaders and that titles for offices were forbidden.  Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point.  We see another example of Jesus using hyperbole when he said “if your right hand offends you cut it off”; his followers understood him this way—we have no evidence of Christians holding services for the amputation of offending appendages.

One of the problems Jesus had just noted with respect to his fellow Pharisees was how many of them misused their position as teachers of the law. “They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi”, said Jesus.  Their role as a teacher in Israel was to speak of glorifying God; instead they seemed most interested in self-aggrandizement.  Their role was to orient the lives of the people they served to God; instead they sought to draw everyone’s eyes to themselves.

When Jesus said they did things “to be seen by others” the Greek word here is a root of the English word “theatre”.  If we live our lives to create a certain perception for other people then we have set limits on the life we will get.  If we live life knowing that we are seen by God a greater life emerges. (If all life is a theatre the question is who we perceive to be the audience.)

Lord Mancroft, British peer and businessman, said: “All men are born equal, but quite a few eventually get over it.”  “The human heart is deceitful”, said Jesus.  Some people do aspire to join the ranks of the clergy because they enjoy the attention; like to have a place of honour; enjoy the sound of their own voice.  If this is the motivation the proclamation of the gospel has an insincere sound.  Others find their hearts deceive them once they are in the office; a creeping sense of entitlement fosters an attitude that honour is deserved.  Close on the heels of this comes the equating of the preacher’s good with the church’s good; power easily deceives the human heart.

It isn’t just preachers that need to guard their hearts with respect titles and offices.  I don’t think we are to understand Jesus’ admonition here to mean that we ought never to seek positions of influence nor to receive honours.  We are to ever guard our hearts from the love of these things; seeking them for their own sakes in what they do for us.  Leadership sought as a means of self-aggrandizement does harm to the church but it also does harm to companies and business and governments.

“Ego builds a cardboard fortress that humility must, every day, tear down,” wrote Christian author Frederica Mathewes-Green. The way to guard your heart from such deception is ever to keep reality before us; “you have one teacher, and you are all students...you have one Father—the one in heaven ... you have one instructor, the Messiah.”  You have one teacher, one Father, one instructor.

4.  As we have already noted in this message it was the conviction of the early church that Jesus have given pastors and teachers to the church for the purpose of building them up in Christ; for the purpose of nurturing and sustaining our Lord’s gift of faith in believers.  When Jesus says that we have one teacher his followers did not take this to mean that they should not listen to their pastors and teachers in the faith.  His words do imply that our teachers and pastors should be heard in relationship to their consistency with the One teacher.  If we wonder what we ought to do with respect to some ethical question we listen to our teachers but with eyes and ears always open to the One teacher to whom we owe our obedience.

In preaching I offer you convictions about many matters—you can easily agree or disagree with me.  The posture of the believer isn’t do I agree with my minister or not—the posture is to discern if this is consistent with what our Saviour calls from us.  It is obedience to Christ that matters; he will always lead you in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  It will always be for your good no matter the challenges of what we need to change or give up.

5. On the night Jesus was betrayed he told his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit who “will teach you everything”.  The triune formulae of Jesus’ saying should be noted—one teacher, one Father and one instructor, the Messiah.  The word translated “instructor” is a Greek word used to speak of a personal or private tutor.  Jesus’ tutoring here describes reality for the believer and calls for a response.  In other words, since we have one teacher, one Father, one instructor our response is to organize our lives according to this reality.  We organize our living in order to be taught by this one teacher, to love the one Father, to be tutored by our saving instructor.

Today we acknowledge the 171 Anniversary of Central United Church and Reformation Sunday.  We stand in the Methodist tradition begun by John Wesley—a thorough son of the Reformation.  In late March of 1739—almost a year after his experience of “his heart strangely warmed” when for the first time in his life knew his sins forgiven—Wesley was invited by the great preacher George Whitefield to come and help him at Bristol in England to preach in the mushrooming revivals.  Wesley, at first, did not know what to make of open-air preaching—field preaching as he called it.  In his journal of April 2 he wrote: “At four in the afternoon I submitted to ‘be more vile’, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”

Response to his preaching was immediate and here we see Wesley’s genius.  Those who responded in faith he formed into societies—small groups we would say today—to, as Wesley put it, “watch over each other's souls”.  Methodism was thus born; he formed these societies all over England to promote the spiritual life of believers.  Wesley was an Anglican Priest—he saw Methodism as a way of renewing spiritual life in the Anglican Church.  It was after he died that Methodism became a church domination.  Methodism spread to Canada; Central United Church began as one of these Methodist Societies—part of what was then called the Yonge Street circuit.

Many have noted that attendance at our worship services is down this fall.  A number of families have moved away from our community; several of our senior faithful parishioners are finding the frailties of life prevent them from what they once could do; some families have moved to other congregations seeking active youth programs.  It all seems to have happened at once.  Your church council is working on strategy for our future and welcomes your input.  I want to say to you that your presence at worship is a gift that promotes the faith of every other person present.

I also want to say that we may have something to learn from our history.  Methodists organized their lives to be taught by our One teacher, to love the one Father, to be tutored by our Saviour; meeting in small groups to promote spiritual life in one another was a key part of how they organized themselves. This is consistent with the first church who met in the temple and house to house.

But no strategy works because it is a fool-proof strategy.  Our commitment to Christ in our lives is the foundation for anything to work—for you have one teacher, and you are all students ... you have one Father—the one in heaven, ... you have one instructor, the Messiah.