Sunday, May 12, 2013

Children, Young People, and Parents (1 John 2:12-14): What these designations mean for the Church



“Little children, I’m writing to you because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ name. Parents, I’m writing to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I’m writing to you because you have conquered the evil one. Little children, I write to you because you know the Father. Parents, I write to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I write to you because you are strong, the word of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one.”                                                                                                                                       (1 John 2:12-14)

I’ve always puzzled over what John meant by “children,” “parents,” and “young people” in this passage.  The general flow from beginning to maturity through young adulthood is clear.  But why John does not follow developmental order and whether he intends these as discrete stages of spiritual life or as three mutually reciprocal aspects of life at every moment are less clear.  For my money, I don’t think John is describing three separate categories of church membership.  Rather I believe he is describing our life in Christ as God’s people as a spiral that traverses childhood, young adulthood, and maturity at ever-deepening breadth and depth throughout life.  He orders these stages culminating with young adulthood and its vitality and strength because that is the aspect of this community’s life John seeks to evoke and nurture in their present distress.

Even if I’m right about all that, I still remained short on detail on what “children,” “parents,” and “young people” might mean.  Then I read this piece by Tim Elmore on Scot McKnight’s blog “Jesus Creed” about the different set of messages people need to receive in the first two decades (childhood and adolescence) to mature and thrive in life.  Elmore believes that only the first set messages, those for childhood (the first decade of life), get effectively communicated.  This leaves adolescents underprepared to mature and thrive throughout their lives.  These Childhood Messages are:

1. You are loved.                                                                                                           
2. You are unique.                                                                                                         
3. You have gifts                                      
4. You are safe.                                                                                                            5. You are valuable.

The Adolescent Messages that don’t get shared are these:

1. Life is difficult.                                                                                                            2. You are not in control.                                                                                                3. You are not that important.                                                                                          4. You are going to die.                                                                                                  5. Your life is not about you.

These messages ought to build on one another, mutually reinforce each other, and set the stage for a genuine adulthood.

All this set my theological imagination going.  The childhood messages of Christian faith can, in my judgment, be identified with what John Goldingay calls “the gospels of the Old Testament” - the Pentateuch, the books of Genesis to Deuteronomy – and the fulfillment these pre-figurations in Jesus and his gospel of the kingdom in the New.  That might look like this:

1.    You are loved/Genesis 12:1-4; 50:19-21/ In Jesus the love of God for humanity and all creation is manifest by his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

2.    You are unique/Exodus 19:4-6/ In Jesus the uniqueness of humanity as God’s image-bearers and royal representatives protecting and nurturing creation to its full flourishing is exhibited, embodied, and enthroned.

3.    You have gifts/Leviticus 19:2 – we are “holy,” set apart to God and for God’s use; all of who and what we are will be used by God to further his purposes/ In Jesus we experience how a holy God makes and keeps an unholy people wholly his and wholly for use in furthering his purposes.

4.    You are safe/Numbers 23:18-24/In Jesus we rest assured that God will never leave us or fail in any of his good purposes for us and our world.

5.    You are valuable/Deuteronomy 4:5-8/In Jesus God’s people become his means of spreading his blessing throughout the world.   

All this constitutes the good news of the Christian gospel.  These realities make and keep us God’s children, his beloved daughters and sons.  Our significance and security derive from what God has done to make and keep us his children.  Without an awareness and experience of these things, growth in faith is not possible. 

Yet this is not all there is to the gospel.  God has work to do and he has chosen to do it with and through us.  Indeed, this is the very salvation God gives us – to participate in his passion to set all things right.  Embracing this salvation entails grasping what Elmore calls the Adolescence messages.  Like the childhood messages, these Adolescent messages have substantial corollaries in the life of faith as well as natural human development:

1.    Life is difficult/Mark 4:13-20; Ephesians 6:10-20.

2.    You are not in control/Romans 8:18-39.

3.    You are not that important/Philippians 3:1-11.

4.    You are going to die/1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Romans 8:18-39.

5.    Your life is not about you/Matthew 16:24-28; Philippians 2:17.

I suggest that these theological corollaries to Elmore’s Adolescent messages are the kinds of things John has in mind with his mention of “young people” in 1 John 2.  They form the people of God into a people capable of extending and implementing the victory of Jesus in the world.  With the “sword” of God’s own Word (Ephesians 6:17) this people exercises the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero) with and for all they meet.  This is how the church as John’s “young people . . . have conquered the evil one” (1 John 2:14).

We cannot, however, become such “young people” without having been and building on the messages we received in childhood, nurtured on the milk of God’s good news in Jesus Christ.  The experience and practice of these “inner” (childhood messages) and the “outer” (adolescent messages) in mutual reciprocity leads to the maturity of becoming “parents,” who have a deep and abiding knowledge of the eternal and triune God. We cannot become “young people,” then, without moving on to a fuller and deeper experience and understanding of what our lives in God’s 
love are finally all about.

We cannot even get started in the faith, though, without the messages of childhood.  Natural children need that strong sense of love, uniqueness, giftedness, safety, and value.  Likewise, so do God’s children.  The great tragedy of a good bit of the conservative church in North America is that this good news of the gospel is obscured by strong dose of moralism and a view of God I call “The God with a Scowl.”  If God is always keeping score on us and we believe he finds us always falling short and has an unseemly readiness to punitively strike us down, well, you know where that ends.  We see it all around us today!

There is, of course, a liberal version of this as well.  Here the emphasis is so much on God’s love that the “fighting” edge of the “young people” never properly develops.  We just carry on with our already established liberal political moralism as if that was what God’s people are to be doing.  We see this too all around us today!

Either approach leaves God’s people infantilized, unable to grow into adolescence and maturity or live with each other as a result.  The best we can seem to do is take sides in our country’s so-called “culture wars.”  Each side claiming God’s imprimatur and anathematizing the other, the church of either stripe simply gets assimilated into its surroundings rather than “yeasting” that environs with a genuine “gospel” alternative.  We can’t even imagine such a thing, so busy are we with “defeating” the other side!

Perhaps John’s somewhat cryptic designations of the church as “children,” young people,” and “parents” which is, I believe, a mutually reinforcing set of realities and divine gifts that enable the growth of the church to maturity, can help us move from the childhood we seem stuck in all fronts and begin to engage our world as the “young people” God intends us to become!

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