Let the children come to me. It’s a statement of mission and purpose from Jesus, but also a statement of faith. It is a statement that reflects that type of openness that we believe Jesus offers. It is a statement that resonates deeply with how we hope God’s love is embodied. It is a statement that is invitational, one that emerges repeatedly, in subtle acts and not so subtle teachings, in private homes, in the synagogues of multiple towns, and on the lakeshore and countryside of the region of Galilee.
Let the children come to me. While we reflect periodically on how revolutionary this type of Jesus invitation was to his hearers, it is understandably easy not to ponder its impacts more deeply for the people to whom Jesus was speaking, and how that reflects within our culture today. In a society where status was important, where the have and have nots were clearly defined, Jesus sought to connect his ministry primarily to the have nots. In doing so, he also challenged the haves to consider their own reflection on God’s teaching and extension of God’s love. We witness that dual challenge to the have’s repeatedly throughout the Gospels, symbolized in the places where Jesus spent his primary ministry – almost completely outside of the holy and political powerful city of Jerusalem – and to the people Jesus shared his primary ministry with.
Previously, Matthew’s gospel had used children as symbols of the ‘little people,’ those who are often forgotten or marginalized by first century Jewish society, similar to lepers, women, eunuchs, and those who were considered to be ‘demon possessed.’ In this text, however, Jesus is concerned with the actual place of children in church life. In contrast to contemporary Jewish and pagan religious life, the Christian community encouraged participation by the whole family. Matthew’s version is different from the Gospel of Mark.
It is more definitive and less ambiguous. It moves from a passive ‘touch’ to ‘lay hands on to pray.’ That may not seem significant to our ears, but Jesus’ followers would have recognized the shift and stark contrast. Laying on of hands is a typical act of blessing from a revered teacher. While it is likely that the practice of the Matthean church is reflected in this text, one in which children are welcomed into the community as equals alongside everyone else, this additional break with cultural mores did not happen without objection.
At the beginning of our text for today, we hear that familiar phrase that is a part of this story, where the disciples sternly rebuked those who brought their children to Jesus. This was Matthew’s way of highlighting the existence of the cultural tension that still was being debated by the early church about children. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus did not simply tolerate children. He did not have a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality. He did not create a second class citizenship for them. He welcomed them, fully and completely, as part of the blessed community, alongside the disciples, leaders, and other marginalized groups who were part of the early church.
Moreover, Jesus emphasized a special place for children in his ministry by naming that God’s kin-dom not only belongs to children, but to any persons who are ‘such as these.’ We may overlook that phrase as the culmination of Jesus’ instruction and assume we understand its meaning without context. But this is an equally important concept that Jesus seeks to convey to his followers. Jesus is noting here that anyone who receives his blessing and instruction like children are heirs to God’s beloved community.
This is the quintessential Jesus invitation that we see in the Gospels and in select verses in Paul’s letters. Those who are blessed and receive God’s love do are those who are able to do so without presumption or self-justification. Think about that for a moment. How well has the Christian church fared on that mark? Too often in church history, we have witnessed Christ’s church placing barriers between God’s people and the reception of God’s love and blessing. Most of the wars fought over the past two thousand years were centered in disputes over how the message of Jesus was to be interpreted and offered. And too many Christian churches today presume a posture of exclusion or propriety over the teachings of Jesus that Jesus himself never would have countenanced.
Earlier this week, I saw a form for a Christian school in Northern IN. On that form was a set of 15 doctrinal statements that the congregation of which the prospective student was a part, if it was not the church affiliated with the school, had to agree to in order to insure admission. The statements were extremely conservative/fundamentalist in theological expression, and I counted only one that we would agree to without qualification or objection. To be fair - there was room for the pastor to craft statements that would express difference with the school’s doctrinal views, but it was unclear how those differences would be factored into the prospective student’s admission. And so I wonder how a school or church with those types of doctrinal beliefs would read the words of the Jesus invitation to ‘let the little children come to me,’ without presumption or self-justification.
Sadly, this type of experience is more the rule than the exception. And I also believe the church of Jesus Christ suffers for it, far more than those who are denied blessing or acceptance because of those views. God’s love and blessing through Jesus are not denied. Those blessings still flow through. Unfortunately, it’s in spite of, rather than because of a portion of Christ’s church that those blessings are received.
This is another place where we can look to our children for guidance. As Jesus himself notes, the children not only receive the blessing and love of God through him, but it’s also vital for his followers to note the manner in which the children come to Jesus – without presumption or self-justification. Children learn both of those traits soon enough, it seems. But there is a sincerity to how children learn about God and receive God’s blessing that those of us who are adults can learn from and model.
In our congregation, there are times when the children at Beacon Heights, including my own, engage in what I will categorize as ‘bodily exuberance.’ Sometimes they run to the front for the children’s time during worship or are very active in their play after worship or during congregational activities or find other motion filled acts of being together. Part of our role as parents, grandparents and adults responsible for the care of our children is to help them to be mindful of their own body space and how to be respectful of the body space of others, both peers and adults. That’s important.
And yet, it’s also clear that our children generally see their church as a safe space, as a place to which they enjoy coming, and a space where they actively desire to engage in activity and relationship with the whole congregation. I hope that never changes. Not only because their energy and vibrancy is one of the best sources of the Jesus invitation we have for new families with children who come to Beacon Heights, but it also serves as a model for the adults of Beacon Heights for how we engage our own faith lives. Our children love their church and the relationships they encounter here. That is a gift and a blessing. They are a gift and a blessing.
One final story about our children. Many of you may remember the activity earlier this year when children and adults were invited to make new welcome bags for first time guests in worship to Beacon Heights. It was a successful and fun activity, one that I hope we will repeat again when the number of welcome bags run low. But it is what happened afterward that was unexpected to me. Participating in the creation of those welcome bags gave our children ownership over when and to whom they are given to. I have seen several of our children welcome a new friend or family to the church on a Sunday, and following worship, go out to the north entrance area where we keep the bags and make sure the new family has received one.
Isn’t that a powerful act of welcome and faith modeled by our children? To such as these belong the blessing and love of God. From such as these do we see modeled and highlighted the Jesus invitation. Amen.