During Lent, on the advice of a friend, I read my way slowly through the book of John. I had told her I wanted to meditate on the mystery of the cross. I found a short commentary -- A Simple Guide to John by Paul J McCarren -- and tucked it into my bag along with my Bible, and I read passages during my light rail commute to downtown Portland, where I work as a language teacher.
Unexpectedly, I found myself meditating on the role of Jesus as teacher. Again and again, the sensitive writer of the commentary drew my attention to the many ways in which the book of John is the story of Jesus’ tireless, endless work as a teacher. John is the story of Jesus’ brilliant success, in his triumphant lesson on the cross, but it is also the story of his many failures. True, they are not his failures so much as his students’ failure to learn. Yet as a teacher myself, I found profound comfort in knowing that Jesus had mostly hard days in his classroom on earth.
Reading the gospel of John sent me into my own classroom each day with new eyes. I’ve often prayed before class, asking for Jesus to calm my nerves and keep my focus on him and on my students—not on myself. But with the words from John fresh in my mind, I started seeing teaching itself as an act of faith.
On page after page, I was seeing Jesus with new eyes. Jesus learning (learning, like us!) at the wedding at Cana. Jesus repeating the same lesson over and over again, with infinite patience. Jesus using stories and miracles to teach—metaphor both physical and verbal. Jesus teaching without degrees, without permission, without accolades and publications. Teaching in the midst of danger. Teaching in the midst of his own grief, loneliness, fear.
Over and over in John, Jesus invites those who would learn from him to admit their ignorance, and then to pay attention to their lives and their thoughts. He invites them to notice the gap between who they are and who God is, between their behavior and what they say they believe. “If you want to learn from me, you’ll have to follow me,” he says (12:26). In this way, though he is human like us, Jesus is the perfect teacher. Who he is and what he teaches are one.
Since March, I’ve continued to reflect on Jesus as teacher. I think about the slow apprenticeship of my own hard heart, the years of my wary approach to the cross and to Jesus, and how at first, I protected myself from the painful beauty of the cross by regarding Christ as one teacher among many. “I think he was a great teacher, like Buddha or Ghandi,” I said then. “He was one in a long line of prophets and teachers.”
It seems short, small, the distance between these arrogant, fearful words and the confession of faith I made years later. But the distance is huge. A canyon, a chasm. It’s an impossible journey I could not have made on my own. Grace carries me across this distance daily, nestling me into the strange reality of Jesus as both teacher and lesson, as both God and human. How grateful I am to be a perpetual student of Christ.