We know very little about the early life of Jesus. Nothing was recorded in our gospels until this account we find in Luke. There are other stories recorded about Jesus, but they were never put in our gospels, probably because these later writings seemed to those early church fathers who set the gospels to go beyond the pale of gospel and into fantasy. The fact of the matter is that the early writers were not concerned about these stories – Jesus was interesting to them because his words and his deeds a mature man, mattered to them, changed them, somehow freed them to live wise lives themselves.
Clearly Jesus grew up and in the process said things and did that perhaps he shouldn’t have. We have the fairly innocuous statement to attest to that fact – Jesus grew up in stature and wisdom.
We can also surmise from Luke, without getting into too much wild conjecture, that Jesus’ early years of education and training “took.” For in our reading we learn that he wanted to stay in the temple, even after the parents had left, to talk to the elders. That Jesus astonishes the men in the temple may be fabrication, but it’s not to far out there to think that a child could be wise beyond her years and teach a little something to us adults. Some people have wanted to read this whole scene, from his instruction of the men to his response to his parents as a bratty kid feeling his oats. Maybe. It is simply unknown what was going on. But if the account is correct that he was about 12 then, he was dealing with issues that come up around the time of a Jewish boy’s rite of passage, the bar mitzvah. For some facing a such a passage, deep questions are not strange questions. Questions about purpose and about meaning of life have an urgency in those years that they don’t seem to at others.
The part of the story that seems to get the attention these days is where Jesus talks back to his parents. But before we jump to conclusions, that he is being a rebel pre-teen, let us remember that Luke probably did not have any material to work with from Jesus’ pre-teen days. He made this story up in order to make a theological point or two. – to be a follower of Jesus is not just a matter of believing whatever pops into your head about Jesus, not just a matter of believing whatever your pastor tells you, it requires dedication, it requires education, it requires, in short, a kind of growing up, a quality of learning that takes more into account than one’s own well-being. I like what the Good as New Translation tells us a few verses earlier in chapter two, when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the temple as a baby Simeon and Anna are there and they recognize Jesus. Luke writes that Anna pointed Jesus out to those who had their country’s best interest at heart.
Jesus did not simply grow older – he matured in this constellation of those who had their country’s best interest at heart. Maturation and growing older are to different things. It may be impossible to be mature and wise and young but it is not necessarily the case that being older is the same as being mature and wise. In other words, it is growing up in a certain way that concerns us who, in one way or another embark on a new journey in our lives.
What do we need to grow as Christians? Wealth, prestige, a powerful experience? A good education at a fine school? While these things may be important to an easy life, they are not central to the life Luke is at some pains to portray is worth growing up into.
You have heard the story about the two twin women who celebrated their 93rd birthday, with all their senses intact. The newspaper told the story and asked “To what do you attribute your longevity?” Their response, told deadpan, was “Time!
So too it is with the Christian – time presents the opportunity for growth and we may not waste it assuming that we will grow by the sheer fact of getting older. We cannot wait for those mountaintop experiences that seem to to be the ticket for spiritual growth – they’re not. We cannot wait for God to knock us off a horse – that was just a story told for drama – God works in more subtle ways. Let us reject the calls from the fundamentalists who imply that if we’ve not had one of these experiences we are not Christian.
A divinity school friend who was somewhat hostile to religion – she was a scholar of eastern nihilistic religions – once remarked about Christianity that it was such a simple religion – that it’s stories were always the same. Nothing ever changed.
And we must admit – mustn’t we – that while we love to tell the old, old story, as that hymn has it – something in us rebells. Haven’t we something new to say? Haven’t we any new experiences of Jesus? Or did the experience of Jesus end when Jesus died? My friend was right. We talked of dying and being reborn. But our talk is often always the same.
But that is not to say that her finger was never on the pulse of Christianity – a pulse which surges anew in new times, a pulse that drives us away from the church and back into it, a pulse that leaves us longing for a leave-taking from the church, and a pulse that pulls us back into the church. The real matter of Christian growth is about a willingness to live in this creative moment, this two and fro, to see time as not only a sequence of events, but also, occasionally, as periods without sequence that birth a qualitatively different spirit in us. We grow up in our Christian faith when we can let go — when we can see again that this journey we’re all starting out on today must both draw on experience from our pasts and synthesize them through creative interchange with those who have the best interest of our community at heart.
Christian growth as a result involves knowledge and an ever-increasing supply of it. Things change and our understandings of these things with it. The increasing number of states who have affirmed the right of gay and lesbian partners to marry signifies not only a change in law, but a change in thinking. Headline news last week was the gay bishop of the New Hampshire Episcopal church suggesting that religion gets in the way of justice. How often have we let religion get in the way of clear thinking about matters of ultimate concern? In St. Paul’s greatest treatise on love he reminds his audience that change happens – that we begin, in matters of religion, like a child, on milquetoast, but that we are called to put an end to childish reasoning. “As people face up to the fact that opposing gay marriage means disregarding the happiness of the people most directly (or even solely) affected by it, most of us come around.” –Jonathan Chait (The New Republic)
Here we get to the nub of the matter – that which is religious, is that which enables us to regard the other as indeed a human being after God’s image – which simply means able to speak the truth in love, able to drop our guard with each other and bridge differences with honest and hopeful (but not fearful) activity and dialogue. The hardest words we ever learn to say are, “I need you.” or “I love you” but it is just these words which give us the grace to see beyond our own noses. If we are to grow up, we do it by adventuring into the new world together, by leaning on each other’s arms, by acknowledging that we need each other in the journey.
So let us grow up, and grow together with arms and hearts and minds open to the gift of grace that calls us from loneliness to companionship, from fear to courage, from distrust to understanding, from isolation to communion. Amen.