Just a Teacher

You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.

One day this past week, while I was walking on Rittenhouse Square taking care of some errands, I came up on a young man who was obviously just out enjoying the day – strolling around, looking up at the sky, even whistling a little bit. As I passed by him, he took a long look at me in my collar and got a huge grin on his face. I’ve seen this happen enough to know what was coming next, and sure enough, he drew up next to me and asked me one of the two questions that I get here in Philadelphia at least once or twice a week: “Are you a priestess?” (If you’re wondering, the other question is “What are you?”) I laughed and said that he was close – I was a priest, actually, not a priestess, which for me always conjures up images of grey robes and standing stones and someone singing Casta diva. What he said next was completely unexpected. “You have too many crucifixes in your church!” Now he didn’t know which parish I serve, and if I worked in some other church in this city I might have been able to respond to this by saying, “Well, no, actually we don’t.” But seeing as I am a priest here, I just said, “Well, that’s interesting. Why do you say that?” To which he replied, “You know, you make it all about the cross and the sacrifice and that one moment. When really that wasn’t what Jesus spent most of his time doing, you know? He went around talking to people and showing them how to be good people. It doesn’t always have to be about the bloody cross. Jesus was just a teacher, you know?”

Now as unusual as this conversation might seem in the context of running errands in Center City, this man’s argument is certainly not an unusual one. From the Jesus seminar, to agnostics, to Christians who are critical of “The Church,” people of all types and persuasions have argued for years that the Church’s focus on the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion has obscured the “truth” about who Jesus was and what Jesus was up to. Jesus was just a teacher, you know? He was a regular man, a great faith healer, a political upstart, who taught people how to love, how to live a moral life, how to choose an ethic that supports the poor and welcomes the outcast. You don’t need all of that hocus pocus mumbo jumbo, they argue. You don’t need sacraments and sacrifice, you don’t need mystery and miracle, and you certainly don’t need crucifixes to show you how to be a follower of this man Jesus. You just need to be a good student of his words. He was just a teacher, you know?

Now Jesus certainly was a teacher. He spent a huge amount of his time teaching, and he took his teaching technique seriously. He taught in parables, he harnessed the power of rhetoric. He liked a good old-fashioned lecture but was also a big fan of experiential learning. Jesus was a teacher, and an excellent one at that. Let’s look at today’s Gospel as an example. Now any good teacher will tell you that before entering the classroom, you need to have prepared a very detailed, very comprehensive lesson plan, with goals, objectives, procedures, and a means of evaluation. As one educational website says, you have to know where the students are going, how they will get there, and how you will know that they’ve made it. So here’s Jesus, heading to the villages of Caesarea Philippi with disciples in tow. It’s a bright, sunny day, with a high blue sky. Everyone is in a good mood. Peter and James and John are out in front of the group, still talking about the healing of the blind man they’d just seen in Bethsaida. Andrew and Phillip are practically skipping along, thrilled to be on the other side of the sea from the Pharisees. Judas is walking alone, wondering aloud where he might get some more of that magically multiplying bread. It is as good a time as any, so Jesus pulls out his lesson plan and calls his class to order. After dealing with Bartholomew who whines oh, Son of Man, can’t we just stroll along and look at the sky for a little while?, Jesus begins to teach.

Today’s Lesson: Jesus the Messiah. Goals for the lesson: 1. to clarify the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ identity; 2. to increase the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ mission; and 3. to introduce the disciples to a deeper understanding of their own mission. Objective 1: The disciples will be able to identify Jesus as Messiah. 2. The disciples will be able to define the word “Messiah.” 3. The disciples will be able to describe what the role of the Messiah looks like in the world, highlighting the Messiah’s suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. 4. The disciples will be able to describe their own response to this Messiah, including taking up their own cross, following him faithfully, and turning over their entire lives to their discipleship.  

Procedure. Step 1: Ask the disciples who people say that Jesus is. Step 2: After hearing these responses, then ask the disciples who they think Jesus is. Step 3: Once the disciples have correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, strongly redefine this word for them by outlining how the Messiah will suffer, die, and rise again. [Accommodation for learning disabled students: If Peter has trouble understanding this new definition, privately rearticulate this vision in a firm and unyielding manner.] Step 4: Once the disciples are able to articulate this new definition of Messiahship, gather in all of the students and give them their work, which is to take on this cross themselves, be willing to sacrifice their own selfish desires when they come into conflict with the will of God, and let go of their death grip on their own lives. Step 5: Continue along the journey, with the disciples beginning to work on the integration of this learning. Evaluation: Jesus the teacher will closely observe the disciples’ progress over the coming days and weeks by noting how they demonstrate love for God and one another. Final note: this lesson may be repeated as necessary, even up to three times total, in order for the learning to be fully assimilated.

This really is an excellent lesson plan. It has clear goals, clear procedures, and an understanding that the objectives will only be met when the disciples adopt this new cross-bearing, self-giving way of being. Jesus is clearly all about instruction here – Mark tells us that he began to “teach” the disciples about the true nature of his Messiahship – not warn them, not pass along to them, but teach them. And Jesus does, in fact, present this lesson again – three times in fact – each time instructing the disciples clearly about what will happen to him for their sakes.

Jesus is a teacher, a dedicated, passionate, efficacious teacher. But he is not “just” a teacher because he teaches, any more than the Bible is “just” a history book because it contains history. Because what is it that Jesus is teaching? It is the lesson of the cross. Jesus is teaching them this – the crucifix. Jesus is a teacher, yes, but he offers us more than simply lessons about how to be kind or how to make good decisions. Jesus is a teacher, and he is a good enough teacher to save his most serious and powerful instruction for the lesson that is most important for his disciples, for us, to learn – the lesson of the cross. Here, right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, at the heart, at the crux of Mark’s proclamation, Jesus works up his most excellent lesson to teach us the central truth of his own ministry: that the Son of Man will experience the fullness of humanity – our suffering, our rejection, even our death – and will transform it all. The cross – this place of shame and suffering – is changed into a place of mercy and glory in the hands of a loving God. The cross changes everything. The cross is the root of our education, the core learning of the Gospel, the wisdom Christ wants to impart. In fact, the cross is the lesson, and the goal, and the teacher, and the evaluation all in one.

And the class, of course, is still in session. The lesson goes on. That great “if” still lingers in the air: “If any want to become my followers….” Is that, in fact, what you want – to be a follower of this Messiah? Is that what you want – to learn this lesson, to practice it again and again until it becomes etched into your heart and soul? Do you want to be a student of this Jesus, to “listen as though who are taught” and to set your mind on divine things instead of human ones, to bear this cross?   

Jesus is before you, waiting for your answer, longing to teach you. You know the lesson; you have seen it again and again. You see the lesson hanging all over this church. The cross is our vindication, and our vindication is nigh. Jesus is Messiah. Study that, you know?

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

16 September 2012

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 18, 2012 .