Right at the beginning of the summer, before the schools had even broken up for the holidays, there were signs in the shops saying ‘Back to School’. A little cruel, perhaps for those whose summer holidays had not even started yet. Now however, the time is upon us, it is back to school.
For Christians, however, there is no gap. It is always back to school. There is always something to learn. The church is, or at least it should be, a school for Christians, a place where we learn.
For those following Jesus, as he wandered around Israel and Palestine, this would have been familiar. Jewish Rabbis had disciples who followed them everywhere. The disciples were learning how to live faithfully as God’s people. They did this first of all by learning the scriptures by heart. When they had done this, the more difficult task began – to learn how to live in the light of the scriptures. Following a Rabbi was not a matter of listening to endless sermons. There would have been some teaching in this way. But for the most part, the disciples would follow the rabbi around, watching every move that he made and imitating it. This was how they learned to be people of God – they followed a rabbi and did everything that he did. There were even some rabbis whose students followed them to the toilet in case they missed something vital!
But what we have in the Gospel reading this morning is something rather surprising – here the teacher becomes a learner. Jesus, the rabbi who has disciples following him is surprised by, of all people, a Gentile woman. At first he is rude to her, describing her in the dismissive way that stereotypes her as a gentile ‘dog’. But her response, twisting the insult into an insight, surprises Jesus, and he heals her daughter because of it. ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter’. If we are followers of Jesus, learning how to be God’s people by imitating him, then we have too have to be surprised and to learn.
Learning to be like Jesus, learning to be God’s people, is not so much learning from books (although there are some very good books published and about to be published!). It is learning from the people and the encounters that cross our path. One theologian speaks of ‘Found Theology’ – it is the people that the Holy Spirit places in our path that have the most to teach us. These people may surprise us. They will certainly be the wrong people, just as the Syro-Phoenician woman was the wrong person. She was a Gentile, a non-Jew, and as such beyond the scope of Jesus’ mission. He is surprised by her, by her faith and by her wit, and so he learns that his mission, his compassion, needs to be larger than he thought. Who are the people that we consider to be the wrong people? Who do we encounter in surprising ways? How can we be open to learning from these people and these encounters?
The first characteristic of Christian learners, then, is that we learn from the often surprising people and encounters that cross our paths. The second characteristic is this – we learn together. Learning to follow Jesus, learning to be the people of God, is not something we do on our own. We need others to learn with. These people will be teachers, surprising people, and fellow disciples. Often it will not be clear which one we have met today. About ten years ago, the BBC produced a series called the Monastery, in which a group of men spent forty days in a Benedictine monastery, living, working and praying with the community and with one another. The moment that I remember most vividly, is that of one of the men speaking to his spiritual director about how difficult it was to live with one of his colleagues. He got very cross as he related the trials of living with this impossible man. Those of us who had watched the programme could only agree, he really was an awful person to live with. The spiritual director, however, was wise and let the man rant. At then end he asked one question, which was this: ‘Who do you think has the most to teach you over this time?’ Suddenly, the wind fell from the sails of the one who had been ranting. He had much to learn from this difficult man. We all have things to learn from one another, however difficult we may be to live with.
So, we learn from surprising people who cross our path; we learn with and from one another; and third, we often have to learn the same lessons over and over again. That for me is the story of my spiritual life – I am constantly learning the same lessons again and again. Sometimes I flatter myself that I am learning them in new ways, but mostly I need to learn the same things. And the good news is that the Gospel of Mark is structured precisely for people like me who need to learn the same thing over and over again. The Gospel starts in Galilee, with the baptism of Jesus and the call of the disciples. It ends with the women at Jesus’ tomb being sent back to Galilee. The Gospel recognises our need to learn the same things over and over again.
First given at Derby Cathedral 6.9.15.