Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Steps of Discipleship: Study (Learning is fundamental)

Sunday, September 10, 2006



Acts 2: 41-47
Colossians 1: 9-14

Rev. Dean Snyder


Our bishop, John Schol, has been talking for the last couple of years about Acts 2 congregation and Acts 2 disciples.


When he gives examples of Acts 2 congregations, one of the churches he frequently mentions is us – Foundry Church.


This past annual conference when he referred to us as an example of an Acts 2 congregation, I suddenly got nervous that people would start asking you about being an Acts 2 congregation, and you would have no idea what they are talking about. 


So, this is what I plan to do during September and October. The Acts 2 model of discipleship has five components. Three are internal or inward looking – 1) learning or study, 2) community or fellowship, 3) worship and prayer. Two are external or outward looking – 4) mission, service, advocacy, and 5) sharing or evangelism.


So I plan to spend five Sundays looking at each of these aspects of Acts 2 discipleship, one per Sunday, beginning today with the theme “Learning is fundamental” and concluding the second Sunday of October with the theme: “Evangelism is not a dirty word.”


Then, at the end of October, I will spend two Sundays talking about Acts 2 fruit. Acts 2 congregations produce Acts 2 fruit.


Acts 2 congregations do these five things – learning, fellowship, worship, mission, and evangelism.


This is based on Acts 2 which we will be reading again and again in worship in September and October – “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer…they distributed to all, as any had need (mission)…and having the good will of all the people, the Lord added to their number (evangelism).” Excerpted from Acts 2: 41-47.


Learning, fellowship, worship, mission, evangelism.


We are beginning today with learning. For the Acts 2 disciple, learning is fundamental. Acts 2 says: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching…”


To explore this more deeply this morning, I’ve turned to Colossians 1 which talks about three kinds of learning – knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.


Colossians 1: 9 says: “…we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”


Verse 10 adds: “…as you grow in the knowledge of God.”


For the Acts 2 disciple learning is fundamental. Colossians 1 says there are three kinds of learning that disciples do – knowledge of God and God’s will, spiritual wisdom, and understanding.


First, we need knowledge. We need to know our story.


Yesterday, Dee and Deryl and I led one of our baptismal orientations for parents. It was great. We talked about baptism and the church’s ministry with children while babies were crawling all around Helen Harris Parlor. I love to have babies crawling all over the place.


It is my job at these orientations to explain baptism theologically. When I try to do that I am well aware that baptism is not something I invented. If you were to assign me to invent a ceremony to welcome babies, children and adults into the community of Christian faith, I would have never come up with a ritual that involved sprinkling babies with water.


Baptism grew out of our story. It is deeply rooted in the biblical story and human experience. It emerged. We inherited it.


We have not invented our faith; we have inherited it. We need to hear it, chew on it and digest it. We develop it in our generation. We need to be part of perfecting it and then pass it on to the next generation and let them perfect it some more. But we did not invent it. We need to learn our story.


The most basic way of doing this is Bible study. The Bible is a book best read in community. When Acts 5 says “they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching,” the point isn’t so much that it was the apostles who taught as it is that it happened in community…a group of people trying to understand together God’s heart and will.


We need to know our story.


We need to know our story as Methodists, I think. This year our education committee is including a significant amount of church history in our adult curriculum. This is good. The Wesleyan Study Institute begins next Sunday with faculty members from Wesley Seminary teaching about Methodist history. If we are going to help shape our denomination’s story for future generations, we need to know our heritage.


We also need to know other people’s stories. I’ve been impressed again and again by the kind of study our Seekers Class does. They have studied the three religions of Abraham, the archetypal myths that unite many religions. They will be reading Karen Armstrong’s book about the beginnings of all the world’s major religions this fall.


This is important. We need to know other people’s stories.


But we especially need to know our own story. A friend of mine, a Methodist, became increasingly interested in Buddhism. She was reading the Dalai Lama’s book The Good Heart in which he expounds on some of the teachings of Jesus from a Buddhist perspective. In the book the Dalai Lama says that you cannot really understand another person’s story unless you have learned deeply your own story. She ended up getting a degree from a Methodist seminary because the Dalai Lama convinced her she needed to know her own story.


Another friend was studying Islam, when – he tells me – he heard a voice inside himself saying something like: “This is fine, but yours is the way of the cross.” In other words, there is nothing wrong with Islam, but you have a story you need to live out of.


Colossians 1 says there is a second aspect of learning – spiritual wisdom. Wisdom. Apparently we can have a lot of knowledge and not necessarily be wise. My mother – who was a great proponent of higher education – also used to warn me that college degrees did not automatically bestow good sense. She did this with reason.


If knowledge is about knowing our story, wisdom is about knowing our human condition. Psalm 111: 10 says “The fear (meaning the awe and respect) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Wisdom is existential knowledge…knowing our humanity.


Spiritual wisdom makes me think of Bill McKibben’s book The Age of Missing Information.  McKibben, an active United Methodist in upstate New York, spent a month watching cable TV. At the time Northern Virginia had the most cable channels of anywhere in the country, so he lived for a month in Northern Virginia and spent all his waking time watching cable TV.


Then he spent an equivalent period of time camping in a wilderness area in upstate New York. In The Age of Missing Information, he compares what he learned watching nature compared to what he learned watching TV.


One observation he makes in his book is that in 30 days of watching TV all day long, he saw an amazing amount of death on TV but not one single instance of natural death. In nature he saw natural death all around him all the time.


Wisdom is what we learn from nature, and from our spiritual practices and from silent Advent and Lenten retreats.


Acts 2 disciples learn our story, but we also learn our humanity. We learn our status as “creatures” in relation to the eternal and the divine. Awe and respect for God and the universe and our place in the universe is the beginning of wisdom. 


The third kind of learning Colossians 1 mentions is understanding. Acts 2 disciples learn to understand others and our own selves. In fact, it is in coming to understand another that we come to learn who we ourselves are.


Knowledge and wisdom are not complete without understanding. Our learning needs to give us the opportunity to come to know and understand one another. Coming to know and understand one another is as important as learning the content.


I am going to make a judgmental statement here, so forgive me in advance. Barely a week goes past that some Methodist from some other part of the country or nearby does not ask me how we can believe the Bible and still be a reconciling congregation.  When that happens, the hardest people to have conversation with are those who know the Bible but have little understanding of people or their own selves. Because they do not understand people or their own selves, they grossly distort the Bible.  


Jane and I saw the opening performance of the new production of Cabaret at Arena Stage this week. It is an amazing production. I have not gone away from a play so impacted for a long time.


Cabaret is a fun play, of course, but the Arena’s production contextualizes it in a powerful way. The play takes place in the last club in Berlin where transvestites are welcomed as Nazism begins to impose its rigid and limited understanding of “family values” on the German society.


What became clear to me watching the play is this – when we repress others, we at the same time begin to spiritually repress parts of our own selves. One repression cannot happen without the other.


When we stop trying to understand another by pushing them into secrecy and denial, we begin to lose understanding of our own selves. When we push others into alienation, we become alienated from our own selves.  


Nazism and the Holocaust remains the greatest puzzle to me. Intellectually, scientifically, and theologically, Germany during the Weimar Republic was the most developed nation on the face of the earth. Reinhold Niebuhr is quoted as saying that one of the great mysteries of our time is that the Holocaust – the most horrible event of modernity – happened in the nation with the most brains per square head of any place on earth.


Knowledge without understanding of the other and our own inner selves is inadequate and misleading.


So, for Acts 2 disciples, learning is fundamental. Acts 2 disciples learn about the knowledge of God and God’s will. We need to know our story. Acts 2 disciples grow in wisdom. We need to know our human condition in relation to the eternal and the divine.


We gain understanding. Surely, we need to understand one another and our own selves.


Learning is fundamental.