Second Sunday in Advent, Mission Sunday, December 8th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Christian Education – Educating for What?
This morning we, both St. John and Trinity, are celebrating Mission Sundays, considering the Word of God before us with particular Christian Education efforts in mind, for St. John, Martin Luther School of Bismarck, and for Trinity, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. So we are covering each chronological end of the educational spectrum, from kindergarten and elementary school, the beginning of formal education, through Seminary, where men are taught towards serving in the Office of the Ministry. Both of these educational institutions are committed to working within a Lutheran ethos, God’s Law and Gospel, His Holy Word, reigning supreme in what they say and do. These are both worthy causes for us to be supporting.
But as we support Christian Education with our money and prayers, it would be a good thing to know the purpose of Christian Education, why we do it, and what we should expect from it. Knowing the purpose is good for us, as we consider our own Christian Education efforts, and our personal involvement, as well as for considering what schools we should support, and how we might hold them accountable.
It’s always good to consider the why of education, Christian or otherwise, so that we can then take a look at how it’s going. Why do we teach anybody anything? Why do we teach a baby to eat with a fork, and teach toddlers to share? Why do our public schools exist, and what should their goals be? What is the goal for parents when they choose to home school? What are the goals of our educational efforts, and the measurements for their success? Who has the authority to determine these things? You might think the answers are obvious, but these days the why and what of public education is highly controversial. Thankfully, that’s not our question this morning. But we will consider the goals and means and measurement of Christian Education.
Now to be sure, Christian Education has some earthly elements mixed in. If you want to study the Word of God, which was recorded in Hebrew and Greek, then to do your best you will eventually need to consult some worldly scholars. God has chosen to use earthly languages to communicate with us, and of course the Church speaks in the languages of the world, because Christians do, and also because the Church is always seeking to speak her message to the world. So, there is no purely spiritual, Biblical education, without any interaction with the world. And very much today, both in the Lutheran day school and in our seminaries, the concerns of worldly education are heard and felt. Our schools must meet laws and regulations. Lutheran schools seek to be accredited, by secular accreditation boards. It can get a little messy, trying to sort it all out.
It was probably less confusing in the past, because not so many centuries ago, virtually all education was done by and through the Church. But no more today. In our context, every Christian school must also meet government standards, which may have nothing to do with the faith, and often may be at odds. Again, we won’t try to answer all these questions. Rather, I bring them up to point out how easily we might get distracted, pursuing as of first importance any number of concerns, which may not have anything to do with the real purpose of Christian Education.
So, what is the primary purpose, and the proper goals, of Christian Education? With this question in mind, it strikes me that we have a very helpful bunch of readings before us on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, readings focused, as we always do for at least one week in Advent, on Christ’s return in glory, coming to judge the living and the dead.
So with the Return of Christ in mind, let me ask a question: Is Christian Education for making better people? Is its goal that we live happy lives? Be successful? Is Christian Education primarily about this life, or about the world to come? I submit to you this morning, that while a concern for this life is not contrary to Christian Education, and indeed is a part of what Christ has to teach us, this life and how we live it is not the proper primary focus. Teaching children, or adults, to be good people and live a good life is not the first goal of Christian Education.
This is, I think, pretty much the goal of secular, worldly education, to enable people to live good, productive lives, contributing to the republic and the society, and enjoying themselves along the way. There’s much good, and nothing necessarily wrong about such education. But we should be careful not to let this become the primary goal of Christian Education. Because doing so is eternally dangerous. I recently read a compelling article about how to raise a pagan in a Christian home. The upshot of the article is that if Christian parents make learning to be good people their primary goal for their children’s involvement in Church, the probability those children will grow up and leave the Church is very great. You see, the problem is the teachings of Christ don’t necessarily, actually don’t normally translate directly to worldly success. So kids, taught by their parents that living a good life is the most important thing, end up doubting or dismissing the value of Christ.
Christ and His Apostles do teach us to love our neighbor, for example this morning Paul exhorting us to please our neighbor, and build him up, to live in harmony and welcome one another. These teachings are fairly well accepted by the world, in theory at least. But the Lord also teaches us that the world hates Him and will hate His followers. Jesus and His Apostles teach us to flee from sin, and give us very specific lists of sins, many of which the world doesn’t consider problematic at all. For example, professing God’s teaching about sexual purity and the sanctity of human life from conception will today get you labeled a religious nut, or a bigot, or, strangely, a woman-hater. But the Savior teaches us to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular. The Lord teaches us to trust in Him and His Word, and not in the promises of earthly power and wisdom, so much so that He says gathering with believers in Church, hearing the Word, and receiving the Sacraments, is more important than making money, or having fun, or anything else. None of these teachings will necessarily lead to a successful life in the world, and in fact often work against it.
Besides, if a good life on earth is the goal, there are better places to learn those lessons than in the Church. Hockey or gymnastics or football or academic Olympics or just focusing on grades at school, all of these are arguably better teachers of the life lessons kids need to succeed in the world. Sending kids to Church just to learn to be nice people is unnecessary, and kind of inconvenient. God’s goal in sending out His Word is eternal life for sinners. If parents instead teach their kids that the most important goal is learning to live a good life, kids will soon learn to consider the Church unnecessary, or perhaps even foolish, something to be cast off as soon as possible. And they do, in droves.
So, as we consider Christian Education, we need to be careful to keep God’s goals in mind. And in very real terms, the End is His goal. That is, readiness for the return of Christ is the goal of Christian Education. This is really the same as saying repentance for sins and faith in the forgiveness offered by God for Christ’s sake are the proper goals, because readiness for Christ’s return depends entirely on forgiveness, and on faith which receives forgiveness, and on the grace of God, which readily forgives repenting sinners, freely, for Jesus’ sake. Being a nice person cannot be the primary goal of Christian Education because we can never be nice enough to earn God’s favor, and so we can never by our own goodness make ourselves ready for the End. Only by clinging as a forgiven sinner to the promises of Christ can anyone be ready to stand before God.
We can only be ready for Christ’s Return by hearing the truth, about our sin, and God’s grace. Worldly wisdom may help you die with a big bank account, but only the Wisdom of the Cross gives eternal life. The world likes to say “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and we truly live in a hygiene-focused culture. But the only bath that makes one clean enough for the Last Day is the washing of Water and the Word in Holy Baptism. It is a blessing to earn enough to buy food, and an even greater blessing to have someone in your household who knows how to cook it well. But the only meal on earth that prepares us for the End is the Meal that Jesus serves, His Body and Blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins.
Now, readiness for Jesus’ Second Coming, and readiness to live a good life are not opposed. Indeed, they are closely related. Certainly Jesus taught a great deal about living a good life, that is, a life of love toward God and love toward the neighbor. Christian Education will be concerned with how we live, but we need to be careful to understand the relationship between a good life, and being ready to stand before the Son of Man. For there is no true good life, for sinners like you and me, apart from the grace of God in Christ. Apart from Jesus, we might live good lives in earthly terms, certainly, but not in heavenly terms. We are all sinful by nature and incapable of pleasing God with our works. If we ever unlearn this most unpleasant teaching of Scripture, then we will be in danger of making our works the main thing, and this would be setting ourselves up for the sharpest fall imaginable, when the End comes, and God judges us based on our works, and our works are found lacking. What an eternally bitter moment, to realize too late that all our efforts to make ourselves good people have fallen short.
Apart from repentance for sin and faith in Christ crucified and resurrected, the best we can hope for is a good earthly life, in human terms, but a life that ends in eternal disappointment, terrible, suffering-filled disappointment. But true Christian Education teaches of a new hope, a better hope, a hope that is as sure as the blood of Jesus, shed for you. God, not willing to miss out on having a holy people for Himself, sent His Son to teach us the way of holiness, the way of truth, the truth of the Law, revealing our sins, and the truth of forgiveness, for all who trust in Jesus alone. For to all who trust not in themselves but in Christ, God grants forgiveness, and even gives us credit for all the good works Jesus did in His life of service.
Even more, after teaching you to know and trust that in Christ you are ready to face the End, God then works another miracle, producing in you the good works that He has planned for you. Jesus tells us that as we see the leaves on the fig tree and know that summer is coming; so also, we should see the signs and know that He is coming, soon. We also know that, just as the leaves on the fig tree tell us the fruit will soon be coming, so also resting in the promises of Christ will lead to fruit in our lives, the fruit of faith that clings to God’s Word, and rejoices in serving the neighbor.
God grant that Martin Luther School, and Concordia Seminary, and all our Christian Education efforts teach us to rely on Christ alone, for eternal readiness, and for love today, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.