Pentecost 16 – September 20th, 2009
“It's for the Children”
And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
The Christian faith is full of surprises. God does things and says things that are exactly opposite of how we would do - or say they should be.
Our reading from James today is full of these contrasts – between the wisdom of the world, and the “wisdom from heaven”. Jesus knew such wisdom well. And it's perhaps one of the most striking aspects of his teaching. He honestly shocked people when he said, “turn the other cheek”, and “wash each other's feet” and “the first shall be last – whoever would be great among you must be slave of all”.
Today our reading from Mark unfolds these surprises even more. In a great reversal, Jesus takes these disciples who were increasingly impressed with their own rock-star status and he teaches them a lesson in humility. That true greatness is found in lowliness, and last-ness.
Remember, these disciples were witness to many amazing things. The fame and glory Jesus was generating must have rubbed off on them, at least in their own minds. They themselves had been given authority to heal and cast out demons. They saw the crowds thronging around Jesus, and surely felt a little puffed up themselves by all the attention. So one day on the road they began to discuss their own greatness – and even argue which of them was the greatest. “I'm better than you are. I'm the most important. I'm the best”
Sounds pretty childish, doesn't it? And when Jesus asks what they were arguing about, he surely knew. But they kept silent. No one wanted to admit to what they were doing – they too must have known it was wrong.
Yes, the guilty silence. It reminds me of the way a child acts when they are caught being naughty. “What were you doing that was naughty?” The parent asks. “I don't want to say” the child replies. The disciples were acting like children.... rebellious and bickering children who were caught in the act of sin.
We are no better. We are just the same. We argue amongst ourselves. We get puffed up with pride in ourselves. We set ourselves against each other. We are selfish and willful and petulant and full of all the same sins that made the disciples act like children.
Funny then, that Jesus takes a child to teach the disciples a lesson in humility. Receiving children – regarding them, acknowledging them, well it wasn't considered a top priority for adults. Especially for self-important disciples of the great rabbai! But Jesus shows special care and concern for children. He says, “let them come to me and do not hinder them”. He touches them. He blesses them. He commends their faith.
Perhaps this is a key – there's a difference between being childish and child-like. In sin, our actions are childish. Everything that we adults try to correct in our children – all that misbehavior that comes naturally to them – is also in us. The childishness, selfishness, and obstinate rebellion – all the worst things we see in them, God could say the same and worse of us.
But Jesus commends those whose faith is child-like. All the best characteristics of children, like trustfulness, humility, openness to being taught. Through Jesus we become children – children of God and heirs of eternal life.
To receive a child, we must stoop down from our pedestal of pride. And only in such humility can we receive Christ. Only confessing our sins do we receive his forgiveness. Only in denying our own powers do we rely on his power, his Spirit. Only in lowliness are we exalted.
And now another surprise, another reversal, another opposite-of-how-we-think-it-should-be. The disciples were too caught up in their petty squabbling and childish pride to hear and digest what Jesus had just said – that he would be betrayed, die, and rise again.
This is the second time Mark records Jesus telling what his future holds. The first time, Peter tried to rebuke Jesus for all that suffering and dying talk. Jesus called him Satan. Well now Jesus is bringing it up again and rather than rebuke him they just ignore it all. They've got better things to talk about, like which of them is best.
But there is no better thing to talk about than the work Jesus does for us. His suffering, death and resurrection. There is no more childlike faith than the one who says, “Jesus died for me, to forgive my sins, and rose from the dead for me, so that I get to go to heaven”.
Such child-like faith receives the Christ joyfully. And in receiving Christ, we receive the Father. And if we receive the Father, that makes us his children.
And we express our faith in God by serving our neighbor, yes, even children. Our own children, first of all – those whom God has placed in our care. We bring them to the font to receive their Savior in the Water and the Word of promise. We bring them to His huse to hear his word, and learn and grow.
And we care for all God's children – young and old – as we show our love in acts of mercy and kindness. And whatsoever we do to the least of these, even for the children, we do it for Christ.
“It's for the children”. Jesus could have said that on his way to the cross. It's for the children – the children of God's creation who had become children of destruction in their sin. What a great reversal – what a great surprise. That by his lowly suffering and humble service, even his death on the cross – he makes us children of God once again – restored, renewed, and one day resurrected to eternity.