When I was a youth director in Cleveland for an inner city church, I had a mentor in my life for about seven years. He was a good guy, a local pastor. His goal was to teach me “a way of doing things,” from preaching to Bible study, running youth group or making home visits. He would always remind me that this wasn’t going to be the only way of doing things but it was what worked for him so he was going to pass that along and when I learned a lesson he would let me go and run with it, adjusting as necessary for my own personality and situation. Because when it came down to it, we were very different people. He was about 25 years my senior, one of the biggest extroverts you could find, he loved being in a crowd, especially the center of that crowd. Me, I never have worked that way, preferring a more gentle and introspective approach to life. Both of us had made many mistakes, he had had the time to reflect and learn from them, I was still making them but trying really hard to learn from his mistakes. My mentor wasn’t perfect, we didn’t always see eye to eye, but I’m not perfect either. But for all that our fairly complicated mentoring relationship was, I would never trade the time and the experiences and the wisdom I gained from Him for the world. The part that I am most grateful for was his time. I knew I could give him a call, stop by the office or his home, grab some coffee and he would always make the time to spend with me. He didn’t always have an answer to my questions or even the “right” answer, but he listened, he cared, he prayed for me and I knew he was there. My mentor didn’t have to take that time to spend with the punk kid that I was, but he did and I am grateful for that.
I mention my mentor today because of the words of Pastor Paul in the Epistle reading. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9-10)
This was Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, his first missionary church plant in Europe, writing this letter from prison for his Christian faith. The book of Philippians is often called the letter of joy, talking about all of the joy that Paul had experienced in being in ministry and Christian love with the family of faith there. But this verse has a tendency to catch us off guard a bit, as Paul asserts that a good way of doing things is for the Christians in Philippi to practice what they have learned and received and heard from Paul. Paul is setting himself up as an example of the Christian faith for them to follow.
Maybe one of the thoughts that we have is “that’s pretty bold for Paul to do, setting himself up as an example for others!” Maybe another thought we have is “better him than me, ‘cause I can’t do something like that!” But whether it is bold or not, as Christians its not really something that is optional for us, rather whether we feel ready for it or not, being an example of the Christian faith and training others up in the faith is an integral part of who we are as Christians and who Jesus Christ has called us to be.
First let’s take a quick look at Paul. This would not be the man who would hold himself up as a perfect example of the ideal Christian. In many of his writings he freely admits that he 1) was a persecutor of Christians, 2) was so caught up in his own pride he participated in the murder of other people, 3) calls himself the chief of sinners, and 4) all of his human achievements apart from Christ he considered as rubbish. But then what would it mean for him to be an example to other Christians to follow and be trained up in the faith? Paul, I believe would say something like 1) he was not perfect but he was forgiven by the grace of God alone, 2) if he boasted now, it was boasting in the Lord alone, 3) in his trials and persecutions and suffering for Christ others could see what faith in action looks like, and 4) what matters is growing in Christian maturity and hope together.
Paul recognized that to be an example to others and participate in raising them up in the Christian faith was integral to what it means to be a Christian. In fact, it comes from the very mandates of Jesus Christ to Christians of every generation. “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing… and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
This “passing it on” of the Christian faith can carry many names: mentoring, discipleship, evangelism, teaching, Christian education, Sunday School; but it all means the same thing, simply being a Christian by grace letting God work through you to bring grace to others. But we still fight against the idea, I know I have, but then I became a dad. There is a billboard that I see sometimes whose message I hold on to tightly. It says, “you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect mom.” I haven’t seen one for dads but the message is the same. There comes a point when you are a parent and all of the feelings of not being ready, not being prepared, not knowing the right things to say have to give way to the reality that now I am a father or mother or responsible for the life of another and its time to be who that little life needs me to be; not a perfect person but a loving and caring parent.
For me that was the line I had to cross, both as a parent and as a Christian. I’m never going to be a perfect parent or a perfect Christian but I still have a job to do and role to play in the life of my children and the people around me and by the grace of God its time to step up to the plate and take ownership of who God has called me to be.
This is done, not by accident, but with intention and purpose. One of the things that parents sometimes say is that they’re not going to teach their children about faith in Christ instead let them decide when they get older what they want to do. I know there’s usually some history and baggage there when someone says that, but we don’t say that about any of the other important things in a children’s life. It’s like saying “I’m not going to teach my kids how to drive, just give them the keys when they get older and see how they do,” or “I’m not going to teach my kids math, I’ll just let them decide if they want to do it when they get older.” If we wouldn’t do this with the mundane but critical areas of a human life, why would we when it comes to Christian matters of faith and hope that will carry our children through their lives and into eternity?
There is a reason that the Bible calls Christians children, because we are to be raised up in the faith, no matter how old in physical years we are, we are still growing up in Christ. To learn to grow up in the faith we need both Christians who are ahead of us to intentionally train us up for service and leadership and those behind us for who we take what we have learned and train them up in the faith. The Bible uses the example of Barnabas, Paul and Timothy. Barnabas was an older pastor, an encourager who spent the time to train a young Pastor Paul up in the faith. Timothy was a young man who learned at the feet of Paul all that he had learned about Christ and what it means to be a Christian. That is a wonderful way of thinking about our own Christian walks, to have a Barnabas or two or three in our lives. Mature Christians in the faith who lead by example and intentionally encourage and train you up as a Christian. But also having in your life a Timothy or two or three, those who you have the privilege to be a Barnabas too, training them up as you have been. These three, being Barnabas, Paul and a Timothy, being both a learner and a teacher is part of becoming mature Christians.
There is always something for us to share and something for us to learn. We do not all have the same gifts and abilities, but we all have something to share given to us from Jesus Christ. For some hope it is a steadfast hope, some it is a deep prayer life, some it is experience, some knowledge, some care and a tender touch, some preaching and some teaching, more gifts than can be listed, but all sharing the one thing matters, the love of Jesus Christ in our everyday life.
You will never be a perfect Christian, don’t wait for it, it won’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that God hasn’t prepared you to be perfect for the people in your life who need to learn from your experiences and faith, trust in God and let Him work through you to accomplish this good work in the lives of others. Amen.