I homeschool our eldest son. The curriculum we use for writing has a pedagogical practice that I’ve grown to admire, not only in teaching the subject of writing but for teaching in general. It’s called the “Competency + 1” model. Here’s how it works: When teaching grammar, for example, a concept is introduced one at a time. The concept is then modeled extensively by the teacher, and when opportunities arise to give examples of the concept, the teacher takes advantage of those opportunities. So if I wanted to teach on nouns, I would introduce a simple definition for a noun. Modeling the concept of a noun is easy. After he writes, for example, we could go back and edit his draft together finding all of the nouns together. While in simple conversation, I could stop him and ask him to tell me what the nouns were in the last sentence he said. Since a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea, I could place tangible things in front of him like a picture or a phone to further the exercise. (You get the point). After these methods of introducing and reinforcing the concept of a noun, he may eventually point out a noun before I do; perhaps in need of recognition or praise. Once we’re to the point of competency, I’m then able to add my “plus 1” – perhaps it’s an adjective that modifies nouns, or a pronoun that replaces a noun, and so on. Here’s where this pedagogical model shines: Once the student has become competent at applying a concept, and even as the teacher introduces new ones, the teacher will still require that the student use the original concept or technique taught within every assignment. For example, suppose I assign a two-paragraph paper, and the original assignment was to underline at least one noun in each sentence. Because adjectives were introduced as his “plus 1”, he underlines a few of the adjectives until he grows comfortable and confident in doing this without additional help. Even if ten concepts have been introduced after the first lesson on nouns, he still has to underline a noun in each sentence. Competency + 1.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus acts as a master teacher to his disciples, the crowd, and most especially to Peter. Jesus has extensively modeled what the way of love looks like. It’s a way that leads to healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy (to name a few). Not only are these concepts captured in parables and stories told by Jesus, but they are also tangibly expressed in seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, and even smelling the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, the sovereign reigns called the Messiah. Peter, acting as the student, has the correct answer for who the Messiah is, and it’s none other than his teacher and friend. It’s Jesus. Peter is competent in naming the Messiah; however, Peter was incompetent with the consequences of what that meant. Jesus then introduced his very own Competency + 1. It’s a hard lesson because it required everything that Peter had learned up to that point, and yet, it needed an even deeper unknowing of everything he thought he knew about what the Messiah was and what Jesus ultimately had to do. The plus 1 Jesus introduced was the cross. The cross was the Messiah’s final destination. As if that lesson didn’t confuse Peter enough, Jesus then foreshadowed his own death and resurrection. His resurrection was only possible by way of the cross. Participating in Jesus’ resurrection, the lesson continued, meant Peter taking up his cross to follow Jesus. This plus one teaching was so complicated Peter could not master it. No wonder Peter initially rebuked his teaching. Why does taking up one’s cross lead to suffering and death?
Above, I said that Jesus’ way of love leads to healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy. How can these virtues be accomplished if suffering and death are involved? It’s with questions like this where we all must travel beyond the concept of Jesus as a great teacher. We now enter into the dimension of faith, which is every Christian’s plus 1. Jesus is not a great teacher among many. Jesus is not a great prophet among many. We claim these truths alongside Peter. The truth that Peter could not comprehend that day was that Jesus was none other than God in the flesh, and the cross he would take up to his death ultimately revealed the great paradox that sacrificing the self in love is God’s way of showing the glory of life in his kingdom. This selfless act transcended teaching, going beyond it into the realm of truth, and is why Peter could never master it. It is why Peter would later find and discover healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy to be gifts of God hewed from the cross.
Today is the 2nd Sunday in Lent in the year of Our Lord 2021. It was the 2nd Sunday in Lent – 2020 that we last gathered together at St. Julian’s parish. It’s been one whole year since we’ve worshiped together in our spiritual home. As I think back on this year, there were many times that I didn’t get the message and missed the teaching. In my pride, I resented the suffering that I had to go through. I didn’t want to bear the burden of quarantine and mask-wearing. I wanted to travel freely, to see my family, and be with my church family. In these moments, I intellectually knew that social distancing was necessary for the benefit of all, but in my moodiness, it was all so inconvenient. It wasn’t until very recently that my heart remembered that the way of Jesus is sacrificing the self in love. Like Peter, this became my plus one teaching.
Once known, I started seeing it everywhere. Self-sacrificing love is when a mother cares for her children even when she’s bone tired. Self-sacrificing love is when a meal you could have had ended up on a neighbor’s table because they need it more than you. Self-sacrificing love is donating time to a cause or even an organ to one who needs it most. Self-sacrificing love gives bread instead of a stone or fish instead of a snake. Once I started finding this type of love, I equated it with Jesus. Like a mother, Jesus cares for us in self-sacrificing love. He shows himself to us in family meals, beside hospital beds, and as a shoulder to cry on. In my suffering comes a love beyond myself that suffers with me. It is this self-sacrificing love that was paradoxically born on the cross of Christ. It is still a profound mystery, and we are all privileged when its power gifts us. So as we begin another year apart, turn your eyes upon Jesus and your feet towards the cross. The cross is the Christian’s plus one and the lens through which to experience this world. Know that you are not alone for Jesus goes before you to show you the way.