Today we’re helping equip some young students to change the world. Nelson Mandela said education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. And we in The United Methodist Church “affirm the joining of reason and faith” in comprehensive education for every person. So we have blessed the backpacks of these young students with our prayer, and we’ve given them some supplies to help them remember the connection between their faith and their studies in school.
Sending children, youth, and young adults back to school – whether to the primary grades or to university – is a reminder that our education never ends. The event that happens at the end of high school or graduate school is not called “completion”; it’s called “commencement.” It recognizes the completion of one stage of preparation and celebrates the commencement of a new phase of life and learning, and it anticipates many more completions and commencements to come.
That’s also what happens in our faith development. Or at least it ought to happen; life is designed for it to happen. Among all the ways in which we can look at the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, one of the most important is to read them as a record of growth in the human understanding of life and in our relationship with God and with all of creation. In the scriptures we can trace the arc of a maturing human faith, from childish concepts of God, through adolescence and youth, to an adult faith that approaches maturity.
In the scriptures we can see human faith grow from a simplistic sense of absolutes – right and wrong, good and evil, black and white – toward a maturing ability to tolerate and even find value in ambiguity and paradox and to integrate them into a complete and balanced whole.
It was the experience of Jesus. Leading up to his baptism and the beginning of his ministry, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52), and that growth continued throughout his life. His disciples were constantly running into the limits of their faith and learning that faith must be cultivated, strengthened, and deepened, lest it become a simple intellectual conviction rather than a living, growing relationship with the unseen God.
The early church knew the need for continuing growth in faith. The writer of our Letter to the Hebrews encouraged it. “So let us stop going over the basics of Christianity again and again,” the writer urged. “Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start all over again with the importance of turning away from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding” (Hebrews 6:1-3 NLT).
As we continue in the school for the Lord’s service “and become mature in our understanding” – or in the translation that sounds a lot more Methodist, as we “go on toward perfection (NRSV) – how can we equip ourselves for our continuing education? What would be in our backpack of faith? Our Methodist heritage tells us there would be two big pockets in our backpack, one for tools we use to nurture and grow our faith (John Wesley called them “works of piety”), and one for tools we use to practice our faith in our daily life in the world (Wesley referred to them as “works of mercy”).
In the “works of piety” pocket there will be a collection of individual practices: reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others. And there will be a collection of communal practices: regularly share in the sacraments, including weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another through covenant discipleship groups and other means), and Bible study in small group settings.
In the “works of mercy” pocket you’ll have a collection of ways in which you take your faith on the road and put it into practice. There will be individual practices: doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others. And there will be practices you undertake with other disciples: seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery; we might labor to eliminate racism and white privilege), and addressing the needs of the poor.
Our growth to maturity, to all the fullness of who God is creating us to be – according to St. Paul, it’s measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13) – our growth to maturity is a lifelong process. We never complete the curriculum; we just matriculate to another level in our course of study. I’m grateful that God creates us in a network of relationships in which we can continue growing toward our fullness. And I’m grateful that along the way we’ve developed some tools that help us in our growth.