Essential: Learning

Scripture: Psalm 119, Acts 2:42

Back in March, when staying at home became a thing, it was branded by certain people as a chance to finally achieve everything you had always meant to achieve but never had the time to. It was time to spring clean your house, read those neglected books on your bookshelf, write your novel, learn a language, build something, or finally be able to do a pushup. To be honest, it wasn’t altogether different from some of the messaging I was getting from church circles. “Never waste a crisis,” is something I heard a lot around that time. Here was this opportunity falling right in our laps to perfect our websites and our digital ministries just like we had always been meaning to. There was learning to do!

I was – quite frankly – not into it. For me, like for most of us, life had just been turned upside down. I had less time, not more. My anxiety was high. I didn’t care about wasting a crisis, I was just trying to survive it.

It’s only more recently that I’ve started to come around a bit. Life has settled somewhat into its new rhythms. They are still difficult rhythms, and they will probably change. The future still seems very much up in the air. Still, it’s beginning to feel like more of a marathon and less of a sprint. It feels like time to discern rather than just react. It feels like time to ask what this season has to teach us and the ways it invites us to respond and change, maybe for the long haul. My hope over the course of this series is that we’ll begin to do that. As we look back to the post-Pentecost church of Acts 2, what was it that made them into this new thing called church? And how do we embody these things now, especially in this particular season none of us asked for?

Last week we talked about worship as the first essential aspect of what it means to be the church. The first Christians gathered in the Temple, praised God, and were awed by what they saw God doing in their midst. We talked about how all the rest of what they did flowed out of that sense of awe. Today we come back to that very first sentence about the church in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. In other words, the second essential aspect of church – and the first thing Acts specifically says about the church – is that they were committed to learning.

They weren’t learning just anything, of course. They are learning what the apostles have to teach, the ones who were there in the upper room when the Holy Spirit blew in like a rushing wind and tongues of fire, the ones who knew Jesus in the flesh and heard him teach and saw him heal and who knew what it meant to leave it all behind and follow him. They are learning the stories of Jesus, who he is and how he died and rose again and what it means to claim that salvation is through him. These are the stories that give the church its identity.

The church today may not have the apostles here to teach us in the flesh, but we do have the words of Scripture – both the part that tells us about Jesus and the part that tells us the first chapter of God’s story. It’s certainly nothing new to say that one of our key jobs as the church is to read and study the Bible. We’ve been doing that since long before Covid-19 was a thing. And one of the blessings of this time of online meeting has been getting to see more of you join in our Sunday Bible study. As we read through the Bible in a year, my hope has always been that getting a sense of the whole story will help you to put things into context and understand more as you go back and study the bits and pieces on your own. Still, as we look ahead into this season of ministry front of us, I wonder if we might hear a call to approach our sacred story differently, to bring to it fresh ears and new questions and maybe even a renewed sense of urgency, as we figure out anew just who we are.

It is possible to fall into the trap of learning things just to know them, as if being able to recite John 3:16 or pronounce 2 Corinthians is enough to make us good Christians. I would be the first to tell you that the Bible is fascinating in its own right, but still, the church is not an ivory tower, because the church can’t exist in isolation from the real world that it is part of. God doesn’t call us to learn for the sake of having knowledge. God calls us to learn so that our lives and the world can be changed by what we learn. Our Bishop, Sharma Lewis, defines disciples as lifelong learners who influence others to serve. We learn so that we can serve and help others do the same; we learn how we fit into God’s story so that we can live it here and now.

I told you a few minutes ago that I belatedly came around to the idea of not wasting this crisis, and of trying to discern what it had to teach us and offer us instead. I think that shift, for me, came around the time Ahmaud Arbery’s name showed up in the news. He was the young black man who was killed by white vigilantes while out for a jog – just weeks before George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police sparked waves of protests across the country. What happened to Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t indicative of something new in our country, it was just the latest incident in a string of many such incidents, and I know my own privilege in being able to forget, for a time, especially as Covid-19 ravaged communities of color across the country while I stayed safe at home. But the news was a stark reminder that there were things going on in the world beyond my own stress and anxiety, and maybe it was time to look beyond myself again. That was around the time I picked up the book How to Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, which is one of those books I had kept saying I would read when I had more time. It was time to make time.

A couple weeks ago as Katie and I talked about plans for the discussion group on So You Want to Talk About Race that begins tonight, she sent me an article she came across – one I then saw appear again and again on social media. Its headline was “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.” And I read it and I recognized myself in it, because sometimes it’s easy and comfortable to learn for the sake of knowing information and think we’ve done our job.

But it’s hard to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves when you don’t know what you’re up against, or how you’ve been part of it all along. Our hope for this discussion group is that there will be learning that will help us to live more fully as God’s people in all shades of black and brown and white, resisting racism in specific and concrete ways, as a result.

Does reading a book about race count as devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. No. But maybe. Kind of. We can’t neglect that foundational story of Scripture that makes us who we are. We should know it well enough to live as part of it. But sometimes, I believe, God’s people are called to learning in new ways that help us live out our part in the story in specific ways today. It might, at any given time, have to do with race, or LGBTQ+ issues, or immigration, or it might have to do with how to be a church in the midst of a pandemic. In all of these things, God’s church is called to learn, and to follow where God leads as a result. So let me ask you, and you can feel free to answer in the chat or otherwise: What (or how) do you think God needs the church to learn now, in this season of ministry?

I don’t want you to think that we can’t do anything or really BE the church until we have all the right facts lined up, and all the right lingo. The church of Acts 2 devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. And, as they did, they also worshiped and prayed and broke bread together and shared what they had and bore witness to people being healed. In other words, they did all the other things that made them the church. And I’m sure learning about the Kingdom of God came through all of it. Learning was an ongoing part of the process, not a prerequisite. And it still is.

Thanks be to God for the story and the teachings that make us who we are because they enable us to follow Jesus. And thanks be to God for calling us forward, and equipping us in new ways as we seek to live out that story in a world that keeps changing, and always stays the same.

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