Who would you want to eat frozen pizza and watch cheesy movies with?
My son offered to help me with my sermon this week, to lighten my workload during our family vacation. And I accepted, because I’d already decided on a topic where I could use his input. It was his suggestion that I start my sermon with that question. And, you know, it’s not a bad place to start. Because eating frozen pizza (warmed up in our Presto Pizzazz Pizza Cooker) and watching cheesy movies is what our middle school youth group does together every Friday evening. And what we have in today’s Gospel is Jesus as a middle-schooler, seeking a context and a community with space for his developing faith.
In this story, found only in the Gospel of Luke, we meet twelve-year-old Jesus – presumably on Passover break from seventh grade at Nazareth Junior High. This is the only story of Jesus’ childhood that appears in any of the Gospels. There are tales about Jesus as a child in some later texts, like the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written probably a hundred years later than the Gospels found in the Bible. In one story, Jesus is five years old, playing on the riverbank. He forms twelve sparrows out of clay, and is playing with them. But then some pious grownup sees him and says, ‘Today is the Sabbath, when observant Jews are not supposed to do any work. Making those clay sparrows was work, and you have profaned the sabbath!’ And Joseph comes over and says, ‘You bad boy, what are you doing, breaking the sabbath?’ Then Jesus claps his hands, and tells the sparrows, ‘Fly away!’ And they come to life and fly away, singing.
Other stories don’t go so well. Once a kid was running past Jesus and brushed by his shoulder, and Jesus got mad and said, You will go no further! And the kid fell down dead. And everyone in the street said, ‘Who is this kid, that everything he says comes true?’ And the parents of the dead kid came to Joseph and said, ‘You are not fit to live in this city, with a boy like that! Either teach him to bless instead of cursing, or move away!’…
I don’t see these stories as real accounts of Jesus’ life. I think that Jesus’ life as a child and young man were mostly unremarkable and/or unknown, and that’s why those years are almost invisible in our Scriptures. Later stories like these are a product of the human impulse to fill in the blanks and create an interesting backstory.
But I think there is some insight in their portrait of Jesus – not as a perfect, holy child – “Mild, obedient, good,” as it says in the verse of “Once in royal David’s city” that we don’t sing – but instead as a very human kid with some remarkable powers.
The Church – the big-C church, that encompasses all our churches – has taught for two thousand years that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Both completely a human being and completely God. A paradox and a wonder. What it means for us in looking at this Gospel story is that while Jesus was most assuredly not a typical 12-year-old, he also was a typical 12-year-old.
A scholar named James Fowler lays out a map of the Stages of Faith Development, based loosely on Piaget’s work on child development. It’s not a perfect framework, but it’s helpful. It points out why we study Scripture and explore faith in different ways with younger children, older children, teens, and adults. And it helps explain why youth group is so important for kids in that Jesus-in-the-Temple age group.
So what’s going on with middle school age kids? The ten-to-thirteen-ish age group? These kids are beginning to move out of what Fowler calls the Mythic-Literalist phase, the phase of our older elementary kids. The Mythic-Literal stage of faith development is the stage in which a child begins to take on for herself the stories, beliefs, and practices of her community. The playful imagination of younger children gives way to more linear and cohesive thinking. Rules, beliefs, and stories are all very important, and are held firmly and literally. The stories and explanations of faith orient the child in the world, telling him who he is and why things happen. Deeper symbolism isn’t consciously understood, though it is at work, most assuredly.
As kids move into their middle school years – especially bright, inquisitive kids, and especially in a faith community that encourages thoughtfulness and questioning – they start to notice and wonder about some of these stories and teachings. Contradictions within the texts, and between the texts and daily life, start to motivate deeper reflection and engagement.
Pre-teen and teenage youth begin to move into what Fowler calls the Synthetic/Conventional phase of faith. Here’s what Fowler says about it: “In Synthetic-Conventional faith, a person’s experience of the world now extends beyond the family [to include school, peers, … work, and more]. Faith must provide a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex range of involvements. Faith must synthesize values, [information and lived experience]; it must provide a basis for identity and outlook…” In this stage, “trust is shifted from stories and explanations and is now placed in the need to belong to a group…. One finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective [or community] …. Authority [may be] located in … traditional authority roles [and] in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group…. One of the hallmarks of this stage is [imagining] God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Parent, Friend, Companion, Beloved, and Personal Reality. The true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply.”
So: In this phase, our worldview and experiences broaden, so faith is exploratory and inquiring, working to put the pieces together. And our social worlds broaden, so faith is social and interpersonal, grounded in connection and belonging.
Let’s come back to our Gospel story, and look at Jesus as an extraordinary, but also and ordinary, twelve-year-old kid. We see a Jesus whose experience of the world now extends beyond his family… a Jesus who needs independence and freedom to follow his own interests and questions. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrified and furious his parents would have been, after losing him for FOUR DAYS. But there’s something abidingly true about this scene – “WHAT were you THINKING? Don’t you know how worried we were?” “Look, I just needed some time, OK?”
That’s why I treasure having a church community in which my middle-school kid, and all our middle-school kids, can connect with other faithful adults, people who respect them and love them, who’ll be there for them when they need a break from their parents, but still need somebody to trust.
We see a Jesus who has questions – and answers – of his own. A Jesus who is actively working on putting the pieces together. Digging into the holes and the contradictions, working on making sense of it all, weaving what he’s learned into a way of understanding self, God, and world that can guide him into adulthood.
That’s why I treasure having a church community in which my middle-school kid, and all our middle-school kids, can ask their questions, and share their provisional answers. Where there are open-minded, thoughtful folks around willing to share their viewpoints and stories, and also willing to listen, respond, encourage. Sharon and JM, our Middle High Youth leaders, are stepping up to be the designated hitters for the curve balls and spit balls our youth may toss their way; but it’s not just them. Many of you know our kids, not just their names, but what they like, what they care about, what they struggle with. I’m so grateful for that, as both a pastor and a mother.
And we see a Jesus seeking community. Seeking relationship with a group that will give him affirmation, connection, and direction. Maybe the other twelve-year-old kids in Nazareth weren’t interested in the same kinds of things as Jesus. Maybe his local synagogue didn’t have a youth group. So the best peer group he could find was the teachers in the Jerusalem temple. As we talked about this story, my son remarked, “Jesus was probably kind of a quirky kid, and having a youth group where it was safe to be quirky might have been really important to him.”
That’s why I treasure having a church community that has chosen to invest in creating and sustaining that space for our youth. That’s committing funds and space and a LOT of volunteer time to developing a community for our youth, a group where it’s safe to be their quirky selves, to laugh and struggle and wonder and share, and grow into kind, thoughtful young adults with hearts turned towards God and the world.
Independence and questioning within the safety of a trustworthy community. That’s what Jesus found in the temple, when he was twelve. That’s what our kids – as many as six of them, when they all show up and bring friends! – that what our kids are finding here, what they’re building here. This is holy and important work. Please keep it, and them, in your prayers.
This Gospel was just asking for me to tell you about our youth group – a new and growing ministry at St. Dunstan’s – and talk a little about the who and what and why. But I hope there’s more here too. My favorite thing about this particular Gospel story from Luke is that it gives us this vivid moment of Jesus’ humanity. Maybe it was the God in Jesus that drew him to the Temple and kept him there, but there is so much of the human Jesus here too – failing to mention to his parents that he had this plan to just, you know, stay in Jerusalem when they left; and sassing them – let’s call it what it is – when they finally, frantically track him down.
I asked my son, How does it feel to think about Jesus as a twelve year old? And he said, ‘It feels like I’m more like Jesus. It feels like, we will all be twelve, or we’ve all been twelve, and so was Jesus. Knowing that Jesus went through his teenage years too is reassuring.‘
Our prayers and hymns, our rites and Scriptures place so much emphasis on the divinity, the God-ness, of Jesus. And rightly so; that is what makes us Christians. But I welcome and treasure the moments in the Gospels that remind me of Jesus’ person-ness. That invite us to imagine him sprawled over a chair in the youth room, eating frozen pizza and watching cheesy movies with the rest of the gang, and probably fitting right in.