Maybe true learning doesn’t begin until we have no alternatives left, but to learn.
There’s a terrifying moment in the life of every kid learning to ride a bicycle, when he or she goes from four wheeler to two wheeler—losing those training wheels. Some of you probably asked for the training wheels to be taken off. The rest of you asked that they be left on. Whichever category describes you, there was that moment when you looked down on your maiden voyage and could see nothing on the left or on the right, no visible means of support, and you thought, What am I doing?
The church at large is currently experiencing that surreal moment. A number of things we are used to aren’t here anymore. In our own church we were used to ninety-eight percent live interaction, but now it’s turned around to ninety-eight percent digital. There have been consequences. For instance, spiritual hunger leveling off or declining. A weird sense of isolation, even though you keep logging on to zoom room meetings. Overall anxiety.
The question on the table is what we should do about it.
I’d like to take you back to a time of severe challenge for the disciples, when Jesus took off their training wheels. Jesus had, of course, died on the cross for our sins. The disciples, being so green, were not yet illuminated to understand what that meant. Instead of rejoicing they were severely disillusioned, and didn’t know what to do with themselves, even though he had told him numerous times in advance what would happen. When their disappointment couldn’t have gotten worse, Jesus resurrected. They were relieved, and no doubt consoled themselves with the idea that since He had returned, things were going to be the way they always had been.
In John 20:22, the resurrected Christ had appeared to the disciples in a room, and told them he was going to send them on mission. When he had said this, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This was an amazing moment. It differed from Acts chapter 2, where the Holy Spirit came upon them like a rushing, mighty wind. Here, it was a gentle breath, slight, and life-giving.
It meant that they wouldn’t merely have Jesus with them anymore, but Jesus in them. The implication of this can be seen down in verse 29. Jesus said to Thomas, (as well as the other disciples), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
His future intention would be to bless the faith of those who would walk by His invisible presence through the Holy Spirit. In other words the Lord Jesus would take the training wheels off the disciples, by withdrawing His visible presence.
There are two possible reactions to this news. One of them says, “Wow! So wait a minute. If Christ is going to be in me through the Holy Spirit, that means the glory and the truth and the grace that’s in Christ will now be in me? Sounds great!”
That’s the reaction God would want us to have.
But there is another response that goes like this: “Oh, so that means we’re not going see you anymore? It won’t be like it used to be, back when…uh…it was good?”
The disciples seem to have picked up the latter attitude, at least temporarily, according to John chapter 21:3. For after receiving a mission for the world, and the Holy Spirit, Simon Peter said to the disciples who were with him, “I am going fishing.” What a way to cap off everything that had just taken place. Of course, this wasn’t recreational fishing, it was the way Peter had made his living. It was his life before he had met Jesus. And it’s as though He was saying, Since things are going to be different than they were, I think I’ll fade back to what I had before.
When one believer in a fellowship does this, it’s like a domino effect. Others follow suit, with nary a protest. In this case, the disciples who were with Peter said to him, “‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”
Jesus then does something to restore His wandering disciples. He appears. Not only so, but He makes breakfast for them on the beach. Following the meal, Jesus lovingly confronted Peter:
John 21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.
It’s as though Jesus had to say audibly, physically, what he has been saying inside of Peter through the Holy Spirit, but which Peter had not discerned. In plain words He charged His disciple to spiritually feed and shepherd others. Peter, like a lot of believers who have yet to learn the Spirit’s voice, acted in self-bound ways. He had a whim, an emotion, a good reason, and then made a decision.
But the life Jesus described was something different:
18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
In fact, this is an excellent description of life responding to the Holy Spirit—an inward compelling that can influence a believer to make choices he or she otherwise would never have made on their own. In light of this new reality, Jesus then tells Peter, “follow me.” In other words, by obeying the Holy Spirit, Peter would be obeying Jesus. And so the Lord repeats in verse 22, “You follow me.”
Peter had learned how to follow Jesus during all the prior days when he could see Him. But it was time to learn without props, when the visible appearance of Jesus dwindled in frequency, replaced by an endless invisible presence.
Through years of responding to, obeying, and following the Holy Spirit, the disciple Peter became the Apostle Peter. In the absence of something he’d gotten used to having, he truly learned.
When we were growing up, my younger brother, when it was time to get his training wheels off, negotiated to leave one attached. Just in case he wobbled and started to lose his balance, that remaining wheel would be his insurance. But he ended up riding his bike at an angle, while leaning on that training wheel wherever he went. He torqued it so badly out of shape that finally my dad took it off, and made him learn how to ride the bike outright. The result was my brother became a better bike rider than all of us. In fact, his bike was in the worst shape usually because of his riding it off ramps, and such, and getting air time. Anyway, he thoroughly rode his bike, because the thing he had been leaning on had been taken away.
I believe the church overall has never been in this place before. We’re used to seeing people in person, at small group meetings, and then on Sunday mornings. We’re used to leaning on these things, and it was a healthy rhythm for a long time, but now those wheels are off. If you want to contact somebody, you have to pick up a telephone. It’s an intentional act.
Or you have to log into a zoom meeting, but not when you’re spiritually half-dead, and not wanting to be there. Instead, you want to enter it hoping to do as Jesus told Peter, to feed the sheep, and hoping someone will do the same for you. There’s also in-person experiences, like micro-groups, and small Sundays, where three or four of us get together. This keeps up our morale, and reminds us there’s human reality beyond flat screens.
Another big item that’s materializing during covid-19, is spiritual self-feeding. That means seeking Jesus in the Bible and through prayer, even if you don’t have people sitting right next to you. We tend to be more alone now with an endless barrage of media messages.
News media works like a two-cycle engine of fear and outrage. We had outrage back during the riots. Now we’re in the fear cycle with Covid. I’m not saying the reports and concerns are all fake, but remarking on what happens when people are brought to a point of obsession with them. There’s only so much terror or hatred a human being can tolerate without becoming emotionally exhausted. And these two cycles endlessly alternate. When covid loses its teeth in the fear cycle, we’ll be due for a dose of outrage, amply supplied by the national elections.
Serious Christian these days must determine that if they watch a half hour of online news, then they’ll need to give at least as much time to the Scriptures in order to counteract the effects of their viewing.
At this point there’s a giant sifting process going on. When the current crisis fades away, I worry some Christian leaders may not be leaders anymore. They’ll still have their titles, but they won’t have the spiritual capital that actually made them leaders to begin with. Some shepherds won’t be shepherding anymore. Some disciplers won’t be discipling anymore. Casual meeting attendants won’t be attending anymore.
During these days when the wheels are off, we’re being challenged to drill down into real things. But with the grace of God, and our willingness to learn, we’ll come out on the other side as the church, the little house that the Lord desires.