When we lived in North Carolina and I was a student at Duke, I loved going to the Divinity School’s chapel services. The preaching was great: provocative, prophetic, and sometimes even poetic. The chapel itself was beautiful. The service was almost always carefully ordered. And the music was outstanding, with an organist who ranks among the best in the world. Still, each time I went, each week, I noticed something was missing.
Last year, about thirteen months ago, I met Centre’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee. I was excited—my first appointment! We had, I think, a great first meeting. Everyone had lots of questions, people wanted to tell me about all the wonderful things happening at Centre, and it was a lot of fun. I had questions, too, of course, and I remember that as I asked them, I started noticing something. I noticed something was missing.
And when I arrived here, finally, last summer, after the headache of the move had finally passed and we were all set for our first Sunday together, I was thrilled. Everything was new; everything was a first: my first sermon as an appointed pastor; my first time celebrating Communion; my first time meeting each of you. It was wonderful, and those first days marked the beginning of a very good first year of pastoral work and of our relationship. But once again, almost right away, I noticed something was missing.
John writes his first letter to a group of Christians somewhere in the ancient Mediterrannean world. Unlike most ancient letters, 1 John has no address. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and so on, but John just—writes. In fact, some scholars have suggested 1 John isn’t a letter at all; they say it might have been an early Christian sermon. So we don’t know who or where his audience was.
Whoever these Christians were, and wherever they were located, we do know at least one thing about them: John is writing to all of them. In Greek there are two words for “you.” One is singular, as in, you and you and you but not you. The other is plural, which is so much easier to translate in the South or certain parts of New Jersey: ya’ll, or yous guys. I haven’t searched exhaustively, but as far as I can tell, and I’m pretty sure about this, John only uses the second word for you. Everything in 1 John is for yous guys, ya’ll. We might even say it’s for all ya’ll. Every bit of it.
Now here’s the thing about ya’ll and all ya’ll. We can say, I’m talking to ya’ll, this is for all ya’ll, I love ya’ll, and what we actually mean, sometimes without even thinking about it, is, “I’m talking to ya’ll who think like me,” or, “this is for ya’ll who fit my idea of who needs it,” or, “I love ya’ll who look like me.” And we leave people out. This is the problem with saying “all lives matter.” Of course all lives matter. They matter to God, so they had better matter to us. But saying “all lives matter” can hide the fact that some lives matter more to us than others. So sometimes we need to say, “black lives matter,” or “poor lives matter,” or “homeless lives matter,” or “widowed lives matter,” or “orphaned lives matter,” or “imprisoned lives matter,” to remind ourselves that “all” doesn’t mean “just the people who are like me and my kin.” After all, in Jesus Christ God takes the side of those who tend to slip through the cracks of our ya’lls and all ya’lls and yous guys.
Thankfully, John is a bit more careful than we tend to be. In a letter full of ya’lls and all ya’lls, John takes a moment to spell out whom he’s writing to. “I am writing to you, children.” “I am writing to you, fathers,” he says, though we should really hear him say, “I am writing to you, seniors.” “I am writing to you, young people.” And just to make sure everyone understands him, he says it all again: “I write to you, little children”; “I write to you, seniors”; “I write to you, young people.” John is writing to these people so that he can share a common bond with them, so that his joy might be overflowing, and he is writing to people of every age: children, young adults, and senior citizens.
And this is exactly what I noticed was missing at Duke, at Centre 13 months ago, and at Centre again last summer. At chapel services at Duke we had tons of young adults; more probably than are in 90% of congregations on any Sunday morning. The average age of Divinity School student is 26, and there are 600 of them running around on Duke’s campus. We also had a fair number of middle-aged adults, mostly professors and staff, but also some of the students. Rarely did we have any children, though once in a while a young parent might bring an infant or toddler. Same for senior citizens, whom I saw less often than I saw children. And neither children nor senior citizens were ever, that I can recall, in front, leading worship by reading or praying or singing.
And when I met Centre’s Staff-Parish committee last year, I heard about lots of great things for middle-aged adults, but when I asked questions to gauge how Centre involves children and youth and young adults in worship and church life, I noticed the same thing: another void in whom the gospel might be for. Last summer, same thing. The Sunday I arrived we had at least four ongoing opportunities for adult Christian formation, including Sunday School classes and small groups. But our children’s and youth Sunday School, and our youth group, were on summer vacation.
Now I know what some of you are going to tell me: “We don’t have that many children, youth, or young adults; it’s hard to offer things when you don’t know how many people will show up.” But this isn’t just about what programs we have, and it isn’t just about children. In other places, and even a little here, I have heard people talk about “growing the church,” and they only talk about adding young adults or families with small children, leaving off middle-aged adults and senior citizens. The gospel is for all people. And programs can be a way of treating people like junior disciples who just aren’t ready to handle the real stuff yet—and I’ve seen that in programs for all ages.
This is about intent. John is intent on sharing a common bond, being church together, with children of God of all ages. So he makes sure his “all ya’ll” doesn’t become just another “all ya’ll who are like me.” The question, “do you really think following Jesus is for all people,” haunts John. And it should haunt us, too. When we plan for worship, is it worship in which children, youth, and adults of all ages can participate? When we organize a mission project, do we have ways of everyone—a real everyone, not a pretend one—getting involved? When we plan our Christian education, do we make sure that children’s Sunday School doesn’t happen only because parents teach, or that youth group isn’t just led by one or two people? Do we even think about these things? Do we really think following Jesus is for all people?
And if you’re a child, a youth, a young adult, or a senior citizen, have you claimed your place as a follower of Jesus? Have you insisted that Centre challenge you to devote your life to him? Have you refused to be treated like a junior disciple? Are you as active as you can be?
The gospel is a gift for all that forms a church for all. Children and young adults and seniors and everyone in between. All can’t just mean all. It has to mean you. Amen.