Discipleship—The Original Pyramid Scheme

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 22nd, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (Year A, Proper 24).

I will never pass on an opportunity to discuss 1 Thessalonians, which is the oldest text we have from the early Christian church.

I don’t know if you share this same curiosity, but I am fascinated with these folks who found themselves building a community together, after Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and confoundingly empty tomb. A community, not just of Jewish believers who see Jesus as the messianic figure that the scriptures talk about (their liberating king), but also of Greeks who are inspired by the roaming missionaries, and their message of social and gender equality in Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians, we listen to the communal voice of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as they speak tenderly to one of these groups—a house church in the city of Thessalonica that is in crisis. In the letter, we read between the lines to see the image of a fledgeling community facing persecution and theological quandaries. In the response of the three men, we see the glimpses of the dynamic between the founders and the fold—our oldest example of discipleship in the Christian tradition.

Now, let me clarify that to see, it is our oldest example, with the Gospel being dated later than this early letter. Of course, we inherit stories from Jesus’ ministry, which act as out ultimate examples in the Christian tradition.

Discipleship, which is a word we don’t use outside of religious circles anymore, speaks to a commitment between teacher and student. Apprentices, who carefully watch the master craftsman to learn their trade, are our closest metaphor for this kind of relationship. With both disciple and apprenticeship, there is a strong human connection, as wisdom and experience are passed down from one person to the other. As well, the identity and reputation of the master become tied directly to the work and reputation of the student.

There are certainly other examples of this kind of relationship in the modern world—I attend McGill and the actions of the student body will reflect positively or negatively on the institution as a whole. Yet, in our society which is more individualist than communal, our modern examples lack a certain amount of intimacy or symbiosis. We like to see people for themselves, or at least we like to pretend to, so we try to hold each person for their own individual actions and successes, instead of as groups—it’s why we have MVP awards for team sports.

Now, these three men, crafting a love letter filled with encouragement and advice, are wonderful examples of early Christian discipleship. Like, true teachers, they don’t shy away from correction (which is seen more clearly later on in the letter). Paul, you may have noticed, is very pastoral in many of his letters, but also employs the strong language of correction when his apprentices are, in his opinion, out of line (Galatians is an excellent example of this). Since Paul’s reputation and identity are entwined with the churches he plants—discipleship is both about genuine care but also his self-preservation—it’s complicated and messy.

One of the features of Paul’s letters is that he tries to model to his readers that their identity, as disciples of Jesus, is entwined with the reputation of Christ in the world. He talks about being witnesses, examples, and light; and he always brings it back to Christ. As a disciple of Paul, who is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul emphasizes over and over again that his disciples are the disciples of Jesus. And he gets pretty ticked when people refer to themselves as the disciples of Paul or the disciples of Apollos; he wants the emphasis to consistently be on God, the starting point of their genealogy of faith. He writes a genealogy for the early church, one that he extends back all the way to Abraham. And, it also extends through history to include you and me.

A characteristic of evangelical movements I really appreciate, is that there’s often a line of transmissions that is kept alive through testimony. By sharing and re-sharing people’s stories of how they came to faith, they recite their genealogies of faith to one another over and over again.

For myself, I am fortunate to know a little about my family’s history. My family is Irish, and my surname, “Mullin”, comes from “Maolan”, an ancient byname meaning “The tonsured one” (tonsuring being an ascetic practice of shaving your head), and refers to a monk or holy man. In early Celtic Christianity, monks weren’t required to be celibate, so my family comes from a long line of Celts who took up the Christian faith and also acted as spiritual leaders.

Do you have a genealogy of faith? Who came before you, and walked a path that you discovered you could follow? Was it a parent or grandparent? A close friend? A spiritual teacher? Or, are you the first of your generation, having stumbled onto “the Way”?

Now, disciples are not merely descendants. Once they’ve “graduated”, they go on to become teachers. We hear of early missionaries and preachers like… the deaconess Phoebe in the Letter to the Romans… or Lydia who founds the house church in Philippi… and Priscilla and Aquila who bring the teacher Apollos to the faith.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples were also commissioned to go out and teach, the Gospels tell us they received this instruction even before his crucifixion.

So, like a pyramid scheme, the disciple becomes the teacher, who disciples others, and so on and so forth. Which, is how you and I came to be here today.

But, unlike a pyramid scheme, this message, or movement, has lasted a long time—millennia. I think Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have an important observation about why that is, they spoke of the message arriving in Thessalonica with power and conviction. And, that it resulted in joy for the community there. Pyramid schemes offer a lot of different things to us…wealth, better looks, more friends, better sex, bigger homes, and happiness.

But, the Gospel offers liberation, so that even in the midst of suffering and persecution there is joy. It was, and is, an alternative to the politically endorsed way of being that said you were born to be a slave, you were born to be a noble person, and that’s the way life is.

These three men speak about chosen-ness—and it always reminds me a little of Harry Potter. Because those books inspired a generation of children who, on their 11th birthdays, crossed their fingers and wished so hard to receive a letter from Hogwarts—something saying they were special and chosen.

There’s a magic in that—being chosen, being uniquely important to someone.

Which, is what Paul tries to instill in his communities—their being loved and chosen by God. Even some of the Hebrew prophets write about this, the being formed lovingly by God in our birth mother’s wombs, and our lives being laid out uniquely for us.

Why do you think Peter, Simon, and the sons of Zebedee leaped at the opportunity to follow this crazy itinerant preacher around the backwaters of Galilee? Because, they were fisherman—they were supposed to do the work their father and his brothers had always done, to work alongside their cousins, so that their sons would go on to do just the same.

And then, this man walks up to them and chooses them. Out of all the men there with the boats, mending the nets, he picks them—the teacher tells them to come and follow him.

Discipleship, is about a special relationship between student and teacher—one that goes beyond care and reputation to seeing the potential within someone else. To saying, this person deserves to hear the words of life, about how important they are to God, about all the good things that God has in store for them—they deserve freedom from the bondage of sin and death.

And, disciples, after having experienced this, want others to be able to experience what they have, and so they become teachers—living out their message through their actions as much as through their words.

Jesus said to them, “Come, and follow me…and bring others.” And, they went.

Where is God asking you to go? Who is he asking you to speak the words of life to?—through your actions as much as your speech. Where is he calling you to be an example to others?

Let us take some time to reflect on these things. Amen.

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One thought on “Discipleship—The Original Pyramid Scheme

  1. For those of us who have experience very real rejection as children the message of chosenness is liberating. Someone love me? Someone chooses me? How can this be? But then acceptance and adoption wash over you like a cresting wave, they overwelm you and lead you safely home. And then…you also choose. Choose love, choose peace and truly live.

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