In many church settings, children and youth are treated as spiritual beings in waiting. They are called the “next generation” and are only thought about in terms of what they might contribute to the church in the future, when they “grow up.” When this attitude reigns, ministry with youth focuses solely on teaching youth what they need to know so that they grow up to be faithful and faith-filled adults. While learning certainly is an important part of the faith journey of youth (and everyone else for that matter!), it is important to remember that youth already are members of the body of Christ, with important gifts to contribute so that the body can truly be a sign of Christ in the world. This Sunday’s Gospel (John 6:1-15) hints at some of these gifts of youth.
The scene opens with a large crowd is following Jesus, and there is concern about how to feed such a group. When Jesus asks Philip where they can buy bread for all of these people, Philip can only see the limits of the situation. He answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” It is hard to fault Philip for being so practical and financially-oriented. Many of us raised in the consumer culture of the United States are used to looking at things primarily in terms of how much they cost and whether we have the money to pay for them. Many of us can also identify with Philip’s feeling of helplessness in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem. While it may sadden us, sometimes it feels easier to say, “The problem is too big. There is nothing to be done.”
Andrew, another disciple, is a bit more imaginative than Philip. He is the one who finds the boy with the five loaves of bread and the two fish. While he knows that this scant amount of food will not go very far when there are five thousand mouths to feed, he seems to prefer to do the best he can with the insufficient amount of resources they have. We can admire Andrew for not giving up as easily as Philip did, yet there is still resignation and pessimism in his question, “But what are [five barley loaves and two fish] among so many people?”
There is another character in this story, however, one we do not hear speak, who demonstrates what a faith-filled response entails in this situation. It is the boy. Certainly the boy knows that the little food he has will not go far. Yet he is willing to give up what he has, to hand it over to Jesus, to take a chance on what might happen. As Shawn Madigan has written, “He seems willing to share all that he has, hopeful that someone will make a little into something more. He is open to possibilities where his elders see limitations.”* The boy sees the situation differently than Philip and Andrew do; he sees with imaginative hope. He believes that something big can come out of something small. He trusts that doing what he can will make a difference for the greater good. He is the true disciple of Jesus, because he sees the world through the eyes of faith.
Like the boy in this story, youth today have gifts that the church needs now, not later when youth grow up. Youth see and imagine the world differently than adults. They have an amazing ability to point out hypocrisy when they see it, as well as the passion and energy to work against the hypocrisy they discover. Many youth live with a sense of hope and a sense that they can make a difference in the world. All of these traits are part of living as a disciple of Jesus, of living with the eyes of faith.
What gifts do you believe youth have to offer the church? Why does the church need the presence of youth?
What specific gifts can you bring to the church?
*Shawn Madigan, CSJ, Sunday by Sunday, July 29, 2012.