Monday, January 20, 2020

Disciples & Pilgrims

John 1:29-42
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany / Year A

Most churches do all in their power to hold on to the members they have.  This morning we learn John the Baptist has a different priority.  He implores his followers to leave him and follow Jesus: “There is the guy you need to know.  He has a lot more to offer than I do.”  Can you imagine if St. Paul’s adopted the slogan: “There are much better churches in town than ours!” 

Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel are disciples of John who take his prompt to meet and then follow Jesus… and I mean follow.  They walk with Jesus from where they had been with John on the Jordon River (near the Dead Sea) to the Sea of Galilee, some 100 miles to the north.  Given that the four seem to hail from this region, it is a sort of homecoming for them.  Still, they left here seeking something or else they would not have traveled down the Jordon to meet John.  They went seeking someone who could teach and lead them.  In short, they want to be discipled.

The other day I noticed a sign in front of one our neighboring churches stating its mission is to make disciples who can make disciples in our community and around the world.  I suspect many of us associate discipleship with knowing all the answers.  I imagine each of has at least one friend, family member, or co-worker who can take a person on a chapter and verse whirlwind tour of the bible, stitching together all its answers to questions you may or may not be asking.  We tend to describe these people as folks who “take their faith seriously”, while describing ourselves in comparison as not being as good as them or not having as much faith as them. 

Is this what discipleship is all about?  Is this what Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel are seeking – someone who can indoctrinate them into a system of thinking that makes sense of the world; that answers all of their questions about life by being able to explain in cogent detail God’s exquisite yet explainable plan?

Eugene Peterson, the minister and author of numerous books including The Message, holds there are two main metaphors helpful for people of faith to understand who we are and what we are called to do: disciple and pilgrim. 

Far from being about certainty and knowing the all the answers, Peterson says disciples are people who ask questions.  Disciples are learners – life-long learners.  He contends discipleship is closely related to apprenticeship.  It is like learning the trade of life from a skilled practitioner and then being able to pass on it on to others, most often merely by doing what you do.

I realize over the years I have learned a lot about the priesthood by being around other priests, initially when I was in seminary, then serving as an assistant, and today being in collegial relationships with other ministers.  Some of what I learned I was taught – this is how you fill out the Parish Register of Services.  Some I picked up by repetition – The Rite One Eucharist begins on page 323 of the prayer book.  Some I observed – this is what it looks like to sit with a family when a loved one is dying.  I have been a disciple/apprentice of what it means to be a priest for a long time, but I am still learning.  I can practice my trade and I can show others how to do it simply by letting them walk with me.  If they have questions, I can try to explain why I do what I do.  This is a window into what it means to be a disciple.   

Here is another.  Being from the North I was not raised as a Southerner.  A person does not become a “True Southern Gentleman” or a “Fine Southern Lady” simply by reading a book and then passing a test.  You learn it from grandparents and parents.  You learn it by being immersed in a culture where it is practiced.  You learn what it means by doing it.  It consists of a whole host of skills that work together to become a lifestyle.  This, according to Peterson, is what discipleship looks like. 

We are learners not seeking information, but the skills of the faith.  As disciples, we are not experts who stand above others with all the answers they need, but don’t have.  We are searching practitioners filled with a sense of curiosity, wonder, and awe.  Simply put, we as disciples are people learning to embody the faith – its rituals, its language, its stories, it meanings, its morals, its lessons, its practices.

In addition to being disciples, Peterson states we are also pilgrims.  It is an image hinting we are travelers in life who are headed somewhere, not people who have already arrived.  My own experience of pilgrimage suggests several elements about it helpful in understanding what the life of faith is like. 

First, it involves a willingness to leave where you are and set out for a holy destination. 
Next, what happens on the way to this destination has a way of transforming who you are.  There is something about the people you are with, the people you meet, the experiences you have, and the new environment you touch that works on you; that God works through to work on you.  If you are open, God uses the pilgrimage to mold and to shape who you are and who you are becoming.
Learning to trust is absolutely essential.  You will find food to eat, shelter from the storm, a place to rest your head.  You will get lost on the way more than once, but eventually make your way back to where you need to be.
A pilgrimage, like life, is marked by moments of incredible beauty, deep blessing, and a profound sense of God’s presence.
Along the way pilgrims get tired, sore, and/or hurt.  We are not always at our best.  The support and encouragement we receive from others on the way is absolutely essential.  It inspires us to be more supportive and encouraging of those we encounter on the way.
Finally, I will always remember the words of John, the person I was walking with as we entered Santiago de Compostela, our destination on my pilgrimage in Spain.  He said, “I am not ready for this to be over.”  In life, there is no point getting to where you are going as fast as you can if you do not pay attention to what is happening along the way; if you do not sense the holiness of each and every moment in each and every day.

The end of a pilgrimage signals the end of an incredible pursuit while inviting a new perspective on how one moves through life.  Most days now I do not journey very far into terms of miles and often my main daily destination is no holier than Wal-Mart.  Still, I try to live like a spiritual pilgrim; believing I am on a journey and that the people I am with matter and holy things are happening all around me and God is using all of it to shape and form me, which is discipleship.

The opposite image of a pilgrimage is a crusade and I suppose it is no accident both developed in Christendom around the same time.  People on a crusade intend to change the people they meet and the places they go; reshaping all into their image of what it should be.  I suspect each of us knows at least one person who lives out their faith as if God ordained them to conquer everything in their path.  Eugene Peterson reminds us pilgrimage is an image of ‘participation’ not ‘persuasion’.  It is certainly the model Jesus offers when he invites Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel to “come and see.”  Jesus invited them and us to walk with him, to observe, to ask questions, to be open to a new and better way of being them. 

So, even though we are Episcopalians, we are disciples and we are pilgrims.  We seek to learn the faith and to practice it well.  We pass it on by welcoming others to be with us and by inviting them to learn with us as we go.  We know we are not yet where one day we will be, but as pilgrims we realize we are on a journey to a better place.  We know that as we go God goes with us.  And we trust all along the way we are deeply loved, deeply claimed, and deeply cared for.  As disciples of Jesus we believe life is an adventure; a lifelong journey to a place of becoming who we are supposed to be – children of God, singers of a ceaseless song of praise, faithful followers responding to Jesus’ invitation – “Come and see.”