We can just imagine. Mary and Joseph are one day out from Jerusalem, knowing that Jesus is with friends and family. Then there’s their increasingly uneasy realization that Jesus is not in fact with friends and family. There’s been no communication, before or during the event of his disapperarance, and there are no communication devices, no phones or email or pagers. There is the rush back to Jerusalem. There are three days more of searching. And then they find him. God the tweenager. In response to Mary’s admirably restrained question, “Why have you treated us like this?”, Jesus responds. (Here we can supply our own “Duh”.) “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” Of course, Joseph, his legal father, the one who married the pregnant Mary and gave a name and protection to a child not his own, was standing right there. “They did not understand what he said to them.” indeed.
The gospel writer spares us as to how Jesus and his parents actually got back from Jerusalem to Nazareth. The next thing we learn is that Jesus became obedient to his parents. And the next thing we know, Jesus is growing in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. So God the tweenager does grow up.
This is the only story recorded in Scripture about Jesus’ life between his birth in Bethlehem and the beginning of his ministry. For all the make-nice interpretations, it is not a flattering story, and Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” after they were safely over. But that may be the gospel writer’s point. For all Jesus may indeed have been God, he still had to live and grow as a human being also to be truly human. As true human beings, we often learn through our mistakes. Jesus here is shown as he makes a big mistake: it’s not his being in the temple and learning from the teachers; it’s certainly not his growing relationship with God and his own abilities. The mistake is his treatment of his parents as if they don’t matter.
Jesus learns from his mistake. While Mary is clearly upset, his parents do forgive him and take him home; Jesus honors his parents with his obedience. And as he learns, Jesus grows in wisdom, and years, and in divine and human favor.
It could have gone another way. If Mary had made a different choice. If Joseph had made a different choice. If Jesus had made a different choice. Our choices are shaped by what we learn. The noted ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison, now retired from Union Seminary, wrote about the power of our learning from one another: “we have the power not only to create personal bonds between people, but, more basically, to create personhood itself. And to build up ‘the person’ is also to deepen relationship, that is, to bring forth community. … Because we do not understand love as the power to act-one-another-into-well-being we also do not understand the depth of our power to thwart life and to maim each other. The fateful choice is ours, either to set free the power of God’s love in the world or to deprive each other of the very basis of personhood and community. … that which is most human and most valuable and most basic of all the works of love [is] the work of human communication, of caring and nurturance, of tending the personal bonds of community.”
Fortunately for the rest of the story, Mary and Joseph chose to find their son, to communicate the issues involved in his little jaunt, and to take him home to live together again. Fortunately for the rest of the story, Jesus chose to learn from his mistake, and he was able to learn in this particular way because he grew up in a family where love and forgiveness were practices of living together. So Jesus grew into the kind of person who taught the work of communication, who taught caring and nurturance, who taught tending the personal bounds of community. Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as you love yourself, he taught. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Love your enemies. Be merciful. Do not judge or condemn. Forgive so that you will be forgiven. And finally, from the cross itself, Jesus taught forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Jesus did not call people to a set of beliefs. He called people to a way of life, to a way of being together with God, self, and neighbor, to a way of actions and practices that would encourage and strengthen them as individuals and as communities in the face of life’s challenges.
The writer of the letter to the church at Colossae understood this. The letter is addressed to a community in struggle with challenges to its faith, from disagreements within the group and pressures from the surrounding culture. To live together, to love together, to thrive together as God’s holy and beloved, the Colossians will need to act one another into well-being. And so the writer of the letter encourages the Colossians to practice compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. In our sons’ gymnastics room there was a poster: “Practice makes better.” The writer encourages them to practice compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience. The writer also encourages them to bear with one another, to forgive as they have been forgiven; encourages them to love, to be thankful, to teach and admonish one another in wisdom.
2,000 years later, this may not be what we want or expect to hear. In our own culture we glorify the individual, and look upon the communal with suspicion. We are wise in the ways of what Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence”. We hear calls for retribution justice against those who hurt us, not calls for kindness or forgiveness or patience. We are inundated by advertising, that tells us we need to have power and unrestrained freedom, we need to control, we need the breaks we deserve because we’re worth it, and we need them now. Compassion, kindness, forgiveness, patience – these don’t sell very well. Humility and meekness don’t sell at all. Part of this is due to the history of words like these, as we in the church know all too well. They have been used to coerce and abuse people, and to support systems of greed, and marginalization, and power over instead of power with. If we do forgive, as followers of Jesus and for our own sanity, we may not forget, lest the abuse continue or happen again. In our use of these words, we often walk a very fine line between holiness and corruption.
And. And. And. Like the Colossians, we struggle with conflicts in the communities of which we are a part: in our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our churches, our nation, our world. And like God the tweenager, we often have to learn for the first time, or again, what it is to be human. The story of Jesus, the letter to the Colossians, are included in the Scripture in part so that we know that we are not alone in our conflicts and our mistakes and our learning and our growth. God the tweenager does grow up, grows up into Jesus the Christ, who learned how to forgive and how to be forgiven, the one who calls us to the same way
of life, the same way of hope out of the madness and hurt that we and our world so deeply desire, the same way of love: the one who calls use to the actions and practices of communication, of caring and nurturance, of tending the personal bonds of community. That is why the writer of the letter to the Colossians ends the encouragement with this: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
The little phrase, “in the name of”, is important. In the Biblical sense, to act in someone’s name is to act in their authority and stead, with their power, according to their command, and as is consistent with their nature and character. So to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus means to do it with his authority and power, as he would do it. That is the great safeguard. That is the protection against coercion, and the allowance of abuse. That is also the great encouragement: as Jesus learned to love not just God but himself and his neighbors, (even his parents), we can learn to love too.
Today is the last Sunday of 2009. It is the end of the calendar year. But it is also in the beginning of the Christian year that started with Advent. And soon it will be the beginning of the new calendar year as well. We have made our mistakes over the last year. We may be in conflict with ourselves, or with the communities of which we are a part, or even with God. But it is not too late to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is not too late to communicate, to teach and admonish one another. Not too late to forgive each other, or just another, as we have been forgiven. Not too late to let peace rule in our hearts. We can begin again. It is not always easy, to act one another into well-being. It is simple – maybe as simple as holding open a door – it is simple, and, it is not always easy. So today we are given the story of God the tweenager, the God who loves us enough also to take on the risks of human growth and change. We are not alone. Thanks be to God, and a Merry Christmas
to us all. Amen.
~ The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell,
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students