I’d like to tell you a story about discipleship. It’s also a story about ‘craft knowledge’, so I know fans of Dave Patterson – including the man himself – will enjoy it too. (If you don’t know what I mean, check out Dave’s latest contribution to the blog.) It involves me, my bicycle, and a day I recently spent in the company of four strangers on an industrial estate not far from our church building in north Cardiff.
I’ve written in previous posts that my family are a fairly active bunch. Our boys have tried most sports; we keep our girls moving with dance classes and netball and basketball. As for Mum and Dad? Well, we were both crazy enough to sign up for the Cardiff Half Marathon this year and are already planning what race we’ll do next. We’re also quite keen on bicycles. This is a slightly more pragmatic: I use one for commuting, some of the kids ride to school and we make others use them to get from one sporting activity to another. Bikes are great. I appreciate that, for some readers, cyclists and (especially) cycle lanes may be the bane of your existence. But, honestly, take my word for it: getting around a city on a bicycle is a great experience. And I say that as someone who almost fell off his bike just this morning. So, yes, bikes are great. But they also need maintaining: tyres need pumping, punctures repairing, seats adjusting, chains oiling, brakes fixing. And so, recently, my wife signed me up for a bicycle maintenance course for me to learn a thing or two about fixing bikes. And learn I did. I spent seven hours in the company of one expert and three other novices and was taught how to remove tyres, repair punctures, clean brakes, align gears and much else besides. Some of these things I’d learned to do years before but – due to lack of practice – I had forgotten. I was hot, sweaty and my hands were completely filthy; my bike had become a magnet for oil and grease and dust and dirt. I loved the whole experience.
Enough about bikes. I said I really wanted to tell you a story about discipleship. A disciple, as many of you will know, is a learner: an apprentice. One writer underscored this particular definition by naming his book on discipleship, ‘Go and Make Apprentices’. Learners and apprentices need teachers and masters. True teaching and learning, true apprenticeship, involves the communication of both theoretical knowledge and practical skill, so that the student becomes able over time to perform the same tasks as their teacher. I know this not only because I teach the Bible; I know this because, while I was a university student, I worked as a guitar and piano teacher. I taught private pupils and classes of students in primary and secondary schools. I had to teach certain aspects of knowledge. This is a guitar. This string is a D. That string is an A. Here’s middle C. This note is a sharp, that one is a flat. And so on. I had to teach people how to read music (I know some superstar rock’n’roll hall-of-famers get by without reading music but a nine year old trying to play a Bach pastiche on a keyboard really has no hope without learning to read music). But imagine that was all I did: pointing out the name of an instrument, its various parts and highlighting notes on a piece of paper. I’ve not achieved much, have I? Paying parents and ambitious headteachers would have wanted their money back soon enough. I had to teach children how to play pieces of music. Pieces they liked and understood and that I knew were appropriate for their current skill set and suitable to help them progress.
Back to the bike shop for a second. My teacher that Saturday was a master. He knew everything there is to know about bikes. He was enthusiastic about them, passionate about them. He was immaculately dressed – much to my surprise I must be honest – and his blue and white double cuffed shirt and mustard coloured corduroy trousers didn’t get so much as a spec of dirt on them as we worked in his workshop all day. What struck me most, however, was his manner: he taught us in the most gentle, calm and patient way possible. He was genuinely interested in us as people and genuinely excited about our bikes and our progress as potential mechanics. Yes, he imparted knowledge to us and, yes, he ensured we left with certain practical skills that we had practised again and again, but it was the way he did it that struck me then and in the days afterwards. I have no idea whether this man is a Christian, but his attitude and actions that day in the workshop made me think of Jesus. They made me think of these words in particular, that come from the mouth of Jesus himself:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
To say this is a famous saying from Jesus would be something of an understatement. Entire books have been written about it, and I’m well aware I can’t do it justice over the course of a few hundred words. But let me say a few things about Jesus and what he says here. It’s amazing, for one thing, how often Jesus made himself the centre of his teaching. He frequently pointed to himself in his preaching as the one his disciples needed to follow and obey. His call to discipleship was radical in the extreme. He expected his followers to leave everything behind to be with him; to love him more than father and mother and son and daughter. He insisted that following him involved every one of us taking up our own personal cross – a symbol of death and death by execution in the Roman world – each and every day. In the gospel of John, Jesus makes a series of statements all centred upon himself – we call them the ‘I am’ statements – that demonstrate who he is and the vital place he must play in each of our lives. And the thing is, Jesus was absolutely right and absolutely justified in making himself the centre of so much of his teachings. After all, to his immediate Jewish audience, he was the Messiah: the long awaited, long promised anointed saviour. He was the Son of Man that Daniel spoke about. He was the Son of God, the greater Moses, the true son of David. Jesus himself said someone greater than Solomon is here, something greater than the temple. And when he said that, he was referring to himself.
Here’s what blows my mind: Jesus, the awesome, anointed, unique Son of God, invites people to come to him. To come to him and learn from him. The people he invites aren’t the clever and the rich and the popular and the prominent. Instead, he says: if you’re weary, come to me. If you’re burdened, come to me. Come to me and I will give you rest. Let me say that again: Jesus invites people to come to him and he promises them, first of all, rest. He’s the true Sabbath as well. Jesus invites people like you and me to come to him and learn from him. Well, it’s to be expected, isn’t it? He’s the Son of God: of course we can learn from Jesus. And not only a thing or two; we can learn everything from him! But let’s not overlook what else he says. We can come to him and learn from him because his heart is gentle and humble. Gentle and humble. I imagine him, just like my bicycle mechanic friend, looking his followers in the eye, smiling at them, enthusiastic about them as people, interested in the details of their lives. I envisage him patiently and gently helping them, correcting them, showing them the ropes so to speak. I can see his pleasure at Peter and Andrew and James and John coming back from a mission trip and telling him stories of healing and deliverance. I know Jesus won’t have panicked when one of them said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing. He was and is humble and gentle in heart.
I have discovered that many think discipleship is little more then regularly meeting with another Christian and talking, possibly over coffee, tea or even beer. This idea assumes that discipleship is simply the passing on of knowledge and the ironing out of character flaws. That’s certainly a part of it; however, if discipleship means apprenticeship – and I am certain it does – then there are not only things to hear from Jesus but also actual skills to learn from him. That’s why he finishes his saying by telling us his yoke is easy and his burden light. Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor here. Oxen would be teamed together to plow a field using a yoke. Jesus invites his disciples to work with him, learning from him, the teacher who gives rest and conducts his lessons in humility and meekness. It’s no wonder Paul tells Timothy:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. (2Timothy 2:24)
There’s a way to teach the way of Jesus, believe it or not. It’s in humility and gentleness, kindness and patience. And it’s practical, personal, permanent: producing in disciples Christlike character and the ability to display the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps it’s time for us all to sign up for a course: not necessarily with a bike mechanic or a piano teacher, but with the one who has invited us come to him, promising that, when we do, we’ll learn from him.