Receive children: receive me.

 

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Reflection for WWDP 2016

 

The service today asks us to look at children, and see in them an image, an ikon of God, and of Christ and of God’s sovereign rule.

 

That’s surprising.

It’s not what we usually do. We’re expected to approach our faith in a grown up way, to use our minds and our experience, to grow in spiritual maturity as we advance in years. We expect to be the ones who teach our children what it means to know God and follow Christ, not the other way around!

 

But however surprising we find those statements, they would have been even more surprising when Jesus made them. In Mark 9.37 he is quoted as saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me’. In our society, children are generally welcomed and valued. They have rights, and society will intervene to protect them if they are mistreated by their parents, or other people, or if they are neglected, if their health is suffering, or if they are not being provided with education.

In Jesus’ society, things were different. The only people who had rights were adult, free men. Children could be mistreated by their fathers, could be forced to support the family by working from a young age, and could be sold as slaves to supplement the family income.

Children, like women, were ‘non-persons’.

So to say ”Whoever receives a child receives me” is telling us that as Christians we not only have to receive, and welcome, and learn from children, but also from the least important and influential people in our society if we are to hope to receive God in Christ.

 

So, while we reflect on how we treat children, we need also to widen our thoughts, and to consider who are the despised and neglected, the unimportant and excluded people in our society and our churches at the moment?

 

But let’s think about children, because, although they are generally well treated in our time, things are not get as good as they could be for many of them. Our own children tend to be important to us; but what about other people’s children?

Let’s reflect first on the situation in our churches.

The statistics say (and we can all see) that the membership of our churches is getting older and older with each new generation. Children and teenagers just don’t seem to feel welcome. I’m sure you have frequent complaints in your churches about noisy children who prevent people from hearing the sermon or the prayers, or just spoil the atmosphere of quiet and reflection that older people have come to church to enjoy. While we may provide activities for very small children that they enjoy, as they grow up, many become bored by worship, or disillusioned with church activities and church teaching and leave – and if they leave, their children are unlikely to attend.

Jesus said ”Whoever welcome one such child in my name, welcomes me.” How can we make our churches places where the children of this and future generations feel welcome?

Then in society: most of our children are better off now than they have ever been. But though they have more possessions than any other generation before them, their parents often have to work long hours to provide them with what advertising leads them to expect, or even with the basics of food, clothing and shelter. They feel pressure at school, and don’t have the freedom to roam on the streets and in the countryside that many of us enjoyed when we were growing up. Surveys indicate British children are among the unhappiest in the world. And a recent report, The Enough Campaign,  by a coalition of churches on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill declares that these reforms will fail to provide enough income for some families – even those in work but on low incomes – to provide their basic needs; so children’s health and education will suffer.

Jesus said ‘Anyone who welcomes on such child in my name, welcomes me” We wouldn’t welcome Christ with inadequate food, clothing or shelter; how can we ensure we welcome children in our society as we would welcome Jesus?

And then in the world: in many places, children suffer from hunger, drought or diseases. Others are victims of child trafficking, which sees them either sold by or stolen from their parents, and used to work in slave conditions, badly treat or sexually abused. Some are abandoned by their parents, and become street children; or are forced into early marriage, so their health and education suffer. Others have been driven from their homes because of war, and left to drown in dangerous craft on the sea, or languish in inhuman conditions in refugee encampments, or are interned with their parents or alone.

If we ignore their plight, we are ignoring Christ in them, because he said, ”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”. What should we be doing to welcome them as we would welcome Christ?

 

In the hymn we shall sing next, we will affirm our commitment to ‘a place at the table’ for everyone, women and men, children and adults, native and foreigner, just and unjust. How are we as individuals and churches going to do that?

 

In our Gospel passage, we heard how Jesus was indignant with his disciples when they prevented children (and, presumably, their mothers and grandmothers who brought them to him) from coming to him, because he said the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, and we need to learn from them how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, better translated as ‘God’s Sovereign Rule’, is not something we only encounter after physical death, any more than we can only be with Jesus after we die. We are expected to acknowledge God’s sovereign rule, and work with Christ, and one another through the Holy Spirit, to put it into effect here and now. Jesus said in order to do that, we have to accept God’s rule (and God’s rules) as a child does. Think what he is saying by that, both in terms of the children of his world, and of ours.

He is saying we accept God’s rule as a non-person – a person with no rights of our own to protect us, no property of our own to defend, no discrimination or prejudice against others (since children don’t discriminate until they are taught to) and no right to judge each other.

We accept God’s rules in absolute trust that the way Christ showed us, of servant ministry, of unconditional love, of humility, of faithfulness even to death, will build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

 

That is the challenge the women of Cuba are presenting us with today.

 

This is the prayer they are asking us to pray:

 

Lord Jesus, we have gathered round

To hear you teach your friends

The truths about the love you bring,

That love which never ends.

We look to the children in our midst

For they have much and more to say,

And join with them to follow you,

To live and walk your way.

Amen.

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