This past week I had the opportunity to teach Methodist kids from all over the Kansas East Conference about Jesus. That’s right. I did something I enjoy. For the past three summers I’ve been part of iNstitute, which is a camp for high school youth sponsored by Kansas East and held at Baker University in Baldwin City. Each summer I’ve made new friends and met some dynamic young people from around our area, some of whom have tremendous leadership capabilities that I can only hope will be utilized to their fullest potential.
As part of the camp students have an elective portion of their day called a “Lifesaver.” Lifesavers are four day courses that students can sign up for based on their interests. Once you commit to a Lifesaver, that is where you’ll be for the week. These classes cover tough issues (grief, loss), hot-button issues (abortion), justice, relationships, prayer, and Bible skills. For the past three summer I’ve covered some aspect of the biblical story. For the first two years I did my best to help students frame the overall story of the Bible and see where we fit in. Most of the students found this helpful, as the stories that they had heard in sermon and Sunday school were familiar, but in their minds were held as scrambled pieces of a very large puzzle. How each story interlocked and related to the other was a bit unclear, and spending a few days covering creation, covenant, the exodus, the monarchy, the Babylonian exile and return, the coming of Christ and the early church helped establish the big picture. Once the big picture of the Bible is established it is easier to recognize how church history has flowed from that, and then derive a trajectory upon which we are called to enter as the church awaits Christ’s return.
I changed directions this year, in a way, and decided to focus my teaching over four days on the life of Jesus. After talking with high school students I found the highest degree of familiarity with Jesus’ birth and with his last week. What happened in between was a bit of a fog. Most of the students knew Jesus preached, but they couldn’t really say what. The could name a few of his miracles, namely the feeding of the 5,000 or the healing of a person or two born blind. Others could name one or two other narratives. For the most part, however, the middle part of Jesus’ story seemed lost to these students. Most of what students could say that they had heard in their churches were mainly some understanding of the atonement, or an explication of justification by faith (though they wouldn’t use those exact terms). Any relationship to Jesus as teacher seemingly was lost–the Grand Exemplar of our faith, the one Christians are called to emulate, may have been referred to, but not closely examined. His practices, his mode of relating to people, his way of challenging religious authorities, his way of encouraging and welcoming the oppressed, his announcement of the Kingdom of God, his understanding of Messiah as suffering servant, and more–these aspects may have been touched on, yes, but emphasized and carefully examined, no. Jesus was understood as a nice guy who taught us how to love, and who wants us to love others, but not depicted as a Master to whom we owe our allegiance and discipleship–a discipleship that in costly ways will form us into people who may love as Jesus did, though not always result in our building a “nice” reputation.
Though I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, my course on the life of Jesus included the highest number of students I had ever taught. Over 20 students wanted to learn about Jesus. Most of them said the same thing. They had heard about the birth and the death/resurrection of Jesus. They wanted to fill in the gaps. They wanted to know more about the Master so that they could follow him better. They wanted to be able to better tell the story. Some openly expressed doubts about the whole Christian faith, and thought a good place to examine their doubts would be within the context of an exploration of the life of Jesus. I was pleased and amazed at the turnout for the course.
During the week I chose to include a small lesson on the history of Christian artwork or architecture (historical) or a pop culture reference to Jesus, such as his appearances on South Park. Each evening our camp community worshipped in Baldwin United Methodist Church, which includes some rather extravagant stained glass. The largest stained glass piece is at the front of the sanctuary, behind the altar. The lamb is at the center. Lower, on the right and the left, are featured a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. These four images have traditionally symbolized the four evangelists–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I asked our students after our first gathering if they had noticed those symbols. Most had not. Upon drawing them to the attention of the class, I asked if they knew what each symbol meant. They did not.
In our older church buildings, it seems as though our forebearers were wise in including numerous symbols to point to different elements of our tradition. The human, lion, ox, and eagle are but one example. These images are based on a verse found in Revelation 4:7, which portrays four winged beasts surrounding the heavenly throne. They were applied to the four traditional gospels early in the tradition, each symbolizing some particular emphasis of that particular book. The human, attached to the Gospel of Matthew, pointed to Jesus’ humanity. The lion in Mark reminded the people of John the Baptist, who announced the Christ like “a lion in the wilderness.” The ox reminds us of Jesus’ slow progress towards Jerusalem, as well as his strength and steadfastness as he marched to the cross. The eagle, which has long been associated with the Gospel of John, reminds us of the evangelist’s emphasis on Jesus’ divine nature and the high Christology contained within this particular telling.
My point is this: we have plenty yet to tell about the life of Jesus. For some of us, the signs are everywhere. We know people who are asking questions and are interested in the life of Jesus. We have the four witnesses in the New Testament to tell us the story, but we also have practices, artwork, and symbols that can open up the conversation about who Jesus was and is. Young people are open to learning.
It is my hope that we’ll recognize this great opportunity we have to engage the story of Jesus, disciple people to be his followers, and join the adventure which Jesus is leading us on in our age.
I’ve got to head to the store. My parents are coming in tonight!
Peace be upon you all.