Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

In our growing-up years or as young adults, most if not all of us had a favorite teacher. Do you remember such a person? Some or many of us may have had a number of teachers we really liked. So making a choice could be difficult. But think for a moment about such a person and why she or he was your favorite.

Was it that teacher’s ability to draw you into whatever topic you were learning? Or was the class simply your favorite subject in the first place ?Or was it something about your teacher’s personality? A good sense of humor? A positive attitude? Empathy? Understanding? Encouragement?

I want to tell you about not one but two such educators in my life. The name of 1 of them was Dr. Steven Tigner, who taught in the Philosophy Department at the university I went to. Among other things my fellow students and I enjoyed were his magic tricks. That’s right! Magic tricks. Now he didn’t perform them only for entertainment, but also as a visual aid to get across a point he was making.

Since Dr. Tigner taught in my major, I could justify taking several of his courses, the most important of which was a class on ethics. That subject was one of his specialties. In fact, years later he helped William Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Reagan, in editing a collection of children’s “stories, poems, and essays,” entitled, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, focusing on topics like responsibility, perseverance, honesty, and loyalty.[i]

My other favorite teacher was Marjorie Buck, who was in charge of the fifth-grade Sunday school class at my home church. The subject was the missionary journeys of St. Paul. I loved it in part because I really liked maps ,and she was always pulling out some big ones displaying those different-colored lines highlighting everywhere he and his colleagues traveled—the farthest two points being Jerusalem on the one hand and Rome on the other.

But I also enjoyed the class because Mrs. Buck herself was so engaging. When teaching, she had an excitement and liveliness about her. Maybe that came in part from the fact that she was the assistant at the public library and was accustomed to reading or telling stories to children. Maybe what also impressed me was the fact that her own children were grown, but she was still willing, even interested, in teaching other parents’ children. And last, she not only talked about her faith, but also lived it in her daily life.

When instructing his students, the teacher in today’s Gospel did not use books or maps or even magic tricks. And they in turn did not take notes ,but committed to memory what he was sharing with them. And, of course, their class was held not in a Sunday-school room or in a lecture hall on a college campus, but out on a grassy hillside—away from the crowds that had gathered below.

We could say he was teaching on the subject of virtue, of moral reasoning. But it isn’t quite that simple. While Jesus was talking to others about ethical behavior, while he was describing what a disciple does, he seemed to focus more on describing who they were—or could be. He was focusing more on characteristics that defined who they were than on their actions themselves. In other words, their identity as disciples came first, their actions then flowing from that identity.

·         Does one, for example, know that he or she is spiritually poor? As in the refrain of an African-American spiritual: “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer?” Does the disciple recognize that in him- or herself, rather than being like the Pharisee in the temple who, on seeing a tax collector nearby, prayed, “God, I thank you…I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like” this man?

·         Does a person know—in being among the meek and the merciful—that individual is blessed? That humility and empathy are not only things one practices, but part of who a person actually is? Part of a person’s very makeup and character?

·         Does one know that in making peace—mediating differences between two parties, or counseling and helping a client resolve an emotional conflict within him- or herself, or patiently but persistently negotiating a treaty among two or more nations—might be much more likely to happen with someone who is, in his or her own heart, mostly a peaceful person?

Before he could teach the disciples anything else, Jesus had to teach them who and what a disciple, a follower of God, is in the first place. A fair amount of that he could do in words, in speech, in moral instruction. But, in the end,  it had to come from his own actions, and, in turn, those finally depended on who he was, on his very own being—on his identity as the Son of God.

Now, being the Son of God—that’s just about as good as it can get, right? On the one hand, yes. On the other, well...not so obviously when it comes to the blessing of persecution for the sake of righteousness, that is, for the sake of justice or salvation itself.

That’s what Paul was trying to get across in his first letter to the Corinthians. He told them that who the Son of God was wasn’t exactly what the rest of the world expected it to be. For most Jews, recognizing him would have required a greater sign from God—that the Messiah would exercise worldly power, would drive out all others from the land.

For Greeks and other Gentiles, such a person would have to embody a wisdom resembling one or more of their schools of philosophy. He would have had to contribute a wisdom that could be added to their body of knowledge without disrupting it, without being different from it in any significant way.

But a Son of God who was not only not triumphant, but instead was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed? For most other Jews of that time, that simply didn’t belong to the script, to the game plan in the holy book. And for most of the Gentiles? In and of itself, it didn’t make any sense at all.

And so, for each group, Jesus and those following him were, at best, a mystery and at worst little else than a bunch of losers—stupid or lacking in strength or maybe both. To describe himself and other believers, Paul repeatedly used the words “weak” and “foolish”—even as persons who were, in the eyes of the world, “low and despised.” And yet, they also were among those whom God chose as disciples and to whom God gave spiritual power and spiritual wisdom.

My mother once told me about an incident she witnessed at a school she attended as a child. It was a learning experience, but did not take place in a classroom, but instead out on the playground. It had to do with another girl—who happened to be slow of mind. Now, while we know that children are capable of great sensitivity and empathy, that that is not always the case. And, in this instance, it wasn’t. A group of children were teasing that girl, making fun of her because, mentally, she was not as quick as they were. Finally, in exasperation, she shouted, “I may not be smart, but I love my Jesus!”

Along with Paul, we ourselves might say even more than that: “We may not be strong and we may not be smart, but we too love our Jesus. For he is the one in whom we find our true strength and our true wisdom.”

That may be the most important lesson we learn as disciples of Jesus: That we find, that we hold dear, that we seek to live out an identity that comes through him and him alone.

[i] New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.