Let the Little Children Come (Luke 18:15-17)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (New International Version)

I happen to believe that kids are closer to the kingdom of God than most adults.

Us big people have developed a lot of baggage over the years. And all that stuff tends to obscure God’s kingdom and the light of Christ within us.

Kids, however, especially small children, still haven’t discerned any veil between the seen and unseen worlds. They freely move between them both without any problem.

So, of course, Jesus wanted to be around children. If he had any homesickness at all, I’m sure the presence of kids made him feel at home more than anywhere else on this earth.

Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

The kingdom of God is here within us.

The disciples of Jesus had some difficulty with Christ’s branding of the message because it was not exclusive enough for them. They wanted limits on the us part.

Kids are part of that mass of people that God is with. Children deserve as much or more attention than adults. More than simply saying that we care about kids, we need to be like Jesus. He let the children come to him and was intolerant of anyone preventing kids from doing so.

Since the disciples were, ironically, still living in a small world, they rebuked those who brought little children to Jesus.

We aren’t specifically told why the disciples rebuked the adults bringing children to Jesus. Maybe the children were making a lot of noise and were being a nuisance in the middle of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps the disciples had Jesus on a tight time schedule and this bringing kids to Christ thing was causing a delay. It could be that the disciples simply saw children as an interruption to the “important” work of ministry. 

I tend to think that the disciples simply failed to appreciate the children. The dominate view of kids in the ancient world was to see them as potential adults. Kids were pretty low on the ladder of society. The disciples likely saw no reason for children to be involved in what was happening.

The babies and toddlers and small children were brought so that Jesus might place his hands on them and pray for them. That still seems to me to be the best reason to bring kids to Jesus. 

“This story teaches us that Christ does not receive only those who voluntarily come to Him of a holy desire and moved by faith, but also those who might not yet be old enough to realize how much they need His grace….  From this we gather that His grace reaches to this age of life also….  It would be cruel to exclude that age from the grace of redemption.”

John Calvin

“Jesus does not only save repentant adults; he also saves dependent children and all those whom we think are incompetent to respond to Jesus.”

Frederick Dale Bruner

Jesus flat out rebuked his disciples for hindering the little children from coming to him. He wanted just the opposite of what was taking place. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such little people as these. 

As mentioned, children were at the bottom of the societal pecking order in the ancient world. Their place in that society was to be respectful and quiet, to speak only when spoken to, and to never interrupt an adult.

Yet, Jesus took the time to touch them and pray for them. He invited this interruption to his schedule. Christ bluntly told his disciples that they were the ones being the hindrance, not the kids.

I baptize all sorts of people, including kids and babies. Why? Because in baptism, I recognize that the smallest ones among us can come to this holy sacrament. I understand that in baptism the Holy Spirit begins and initiates the process of salvation that will take that little one from infancy to adulthood and eventual death. I discern that, ideally, the child grows to live into their baptism by recognizing by faith that Jesus died and rose from the dead and grants grace and forgiveness to all who come to him. 

In that process of salvation, of coming to know Jesus, we have the sacrament of the Lord’s Table to strengthen our faith and demonstrate to us that the saving work of Jesus that has been accomplished. It is a Table of grace for all the members of Christ’s Church. 

In my Reformed Christian tradition, we believe that Jesus is not physically, but spiritually present at the Table.  Because Jesus is present, we are able to receive the grace available to us as Christ’s members. So why, in light of this reality, and the words and practice of Jesus toward children, would we ever hinder and prevent the smallest members among us from participating at the Table?

Here’s a thought: If Jesus himself were serving communion in a church, and a group of 2-year-old children came toddling up to the Table to see Jesus, would you stop them from doing so? Or much like the disciples, would you rebuke those bringing children to Jesus?

As for me, I’d rather not be rebuked by my Lord.

Jesus gave children the three gifts they most need: time, touch, and prayer. Parenting and teaching are holy vocations, and we have the wonderful privilege of bestowing these same gifts on our children, grandchildren, and students.

Time, touch, and prayer are ways we bless children. And, what’s more, as God’s children, we are all to approach Jesus and spend time with him, allow him to touch us, and interact with him through prayer. 

May we all have the humility to bend down at eye level to the littlest among us so that we and others will know that the kingdom of God is among us.

All Saints Day

All Saints Day by Vasily Kandinsky, 1911

In all times and every place throughout history God has specialized in taking imperfect or broken people and transforming their lives. On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us. This day is meant to be a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant impact in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is much more than a focus on extraordinary persons; it highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith. We also remember that all believers in Jesus are united and connected.

Remembering is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture. Over a hundred times we are told to remember God’s covenant with people and redemptive actions on their behalf; to remember the needy and those less fortunate; and, to remember the significant persons who influenced us in our journey of faith.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

Who were the people in your life that went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions?  Who were those persons who labored behind the scenes in prayer so that you and others would know Jesus? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

Gordon McDonald, a Christian pastor and writer, at the passing of a lifelong mentor, recalled his loyalty and the crucial counsel he gave in a crisis: “He was there when, many years later, my life fell apart because of a failure for which I was totally responsible. In our worst moments of shame and humiliation, he came and lived in my home for a week and helped me do a searing examination of my wife. I will always remember his words: ‘You are momentarily in a great darkness. You have a choice to make. You can—as do so many—deny this terrible pain, or blame it on others, or run away from it. Or you can embrace this pain and let it do its purifying work as you hear the things God means to whisper into your heart during the process. If you choose the latter, I expect you will have an adventurous future modeling what true repentance and grace is all about.’”

We truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith and patience. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith when we remember them and allow those here in the present to journey with us along this road of faith.

Today is an intentional day of remembrance. We remember answered prayer and salvation. We recollect the people who gave us the life-giving gospel message in both word and deed. We remember the death of Christ and recall that he said he is coming back.

All Saints Day by Kandinsky, 1913

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good. This is exactly what the Apostle Peter did for a church which needed to recall and remember the mighty acts of God:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

Our memories are accessed through symbols and with taste and sight. God uses symbols as a means of revelation. For example, when the Lord wanted to demonstrate the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told the Israelites to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar. It sounds awful. Yet, the worshiper never walked away from the experience scratching his head and wondering what it was all about because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption. His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

Symbols have the power to access other parts of our being in knowing God. We are more than thinking beings; we are also emotional and sensory creatures. We need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals. Every year faithful Jews gather to remember and re-enact the Passover – the story of how they were enslaved in Egypt, oppressed by Pharaoh, and set free by God. To this day pious Jews still remember the Passover by eating and drinking together and telling stories.

We need both words and sacraments. Therefore, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of kindness and gratitude in giving gifts and sharing food. Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people. Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together. Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of care and redemption. Jesus told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words. 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you” (Luke 22:7-20). Rather than analyzing the bread and discussing the wine’s vintage, the disciples simply ate and drank. They tasted real food and drink. They also tasted real spiritual food. It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.

God is good, all the time; and, all the time, God is good. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. Christ is present with us through our ritual of fellowship and food. When the sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin was asked how Jesus is present to us at the Lord’s Supper he explained, “Now if anyone asks me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either the mind to comprehend or my words to declare….  I rather experience it than understand it.”

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are historical events which happened and are forgotten. Then, there are past actions which linger with continual results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continue to exert powerful force into the here and now.

Saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them we proclaim that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Believers are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ until he comes again. So, let us respond to God’s wooing invitation to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through faith, hope, and love. For God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help.

The Importance of Baptism and Communion

Okay, I know there are some people who think that I am out of my crazy skull talking about baptism and communion as things that actually shape a person’s worldview as if they play a central role in a Christian’s life.  Are they really that important?  The short answer to that is “yes”. Here is the longer answer, and I will frame it by asking two questions: what place do the sacraments (or ordinances in non-Reformed theology) have in the Christian life? and, why do we even need them since we have the preaching of the Word?

We get something in the sacraments that we don’t get by sermons alone. The sheer physical presence of the elements of water, bread, and wine engages the whole person in sight, touch, and smell and not just through an engagement with the mind through the ears. The sacraments present the good news of Jesus to us, along with the Word, more clearly. Perhaps all of us have had the experience of receiving an e-mail with an attachment we cannot open. We may gain a certain amount of knowledge and understanding from the e-mail itself, but without the attachment the communication is insufficient and lacking. Holy communion and baptism are the attachments opened to us revealing the presence of Jesus among his people and showing us the incredible union we have with God through Christ’s redemptive events.

The big deal here is that we need more than just talk in communication of the gospel. Just as lovers need more than just the words “I love you” (sermon), they need an embrace, a kiss, some action that reveals and seals the words as real. This is the role of the sacraments in the life of faith, that they assure us, in a material way, of the great love shown to us in Christ (VanderZee, Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, pp.191-2). They lift us to heaven where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and help us to know the reality of grace. The Belgic Confession says this of what we are speaking:

“We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, had ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.”

It is a misguided belief that the only things believers need is a lively sermon and some good praise choruses for their worship experience. Two thousand years of church history testifies to the importance of the sacraments in the life of Christians. We push them to the periphery at our own peril. They are meant to seal the message of union with Christ to us with greater certainty. When they are practiced with the attention they deserve, along with the preaching of the Word, it provides a solid foundation from which to construct a decidedly Christian world and life view of human need and divine redemption. So, how do you view your life and the world around us?

Twenty-Somethings and Reality

 

            A statistic that probably is being discussed more than any other right now in the Church is that the age group 18-29 years old is leaving in great numbers.  Depending upon the study (and many have been done!) the numbers run anywhere from 65%-80% will be gone from the Church by age 29.  As a former minister to college students, I can attest first hand to this reality.  This is a topic that well deserves a great deal of attention, and needs to be addressed from a variety of angles.  Here is just one angle I want to explore:  that of instilling a decidedly Christian worldview into the lives of college age persons through the sacraments. 
 

One of the great tasks of the church, and a vital pursuit for any believing college student, is to continually come in line with a Christian world and life view. Our postmodern and post-Christian society works against becoming spiritually formed according to biblical categories. The university, as important as it is, can be the vehicle of promoting a rival worldview to Christianity. More than one professor in my undergraduate experience told me that they enjoyed shocking freshman students into thinking in more secular terms and away from their “narrow” thinking about God and the church. Although that has been a few years ago, I continually speak with students who feel like they are swimming upstream of the prevailing attitudes on reality in our society and university culture. One of the most significant means that the church can help inform students and promote a Christian worldview is through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Western society, and sometimes even the church, tends to hold to a cleavage between the spiritual and the material in an inherent dualism inherited from ancient Greek categories of thought. Yet, in the sacraments these two elements are firmly united. The good news of Jesus is not just proclaimed by stating propositions of truth, but, as Frank Senn has said in his book Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical the forgiveness of sins is declared “by sentences joined to a bath, the laying on of hands, and communal eating and drinking” (p.31). God is the creator of all things, both visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16). The incarnation of Jesus is where the invisible God became a visible human. There is no dichotomous reality here between the material and the spiritual, but an essential unity. Leonard VanderZee has said that this unity makes the sacraments “a place where God meets us and where the spiritual and physical come together for our wholeness and healing” (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, p.28). Now that the Lord Jesus has accomplished his great redemptive events of cross and resurrection, the sacraments serve as material signs to us of the now invisible Christ. John Calvin called this a “visible word” that declares God’s saving work in Christ on behalf of every human being.

There is certainly a profound place for didactic instruction in the church on a Christian worldview, and I would argue that it needs to take place. But this is insufficient. God himself has instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of proclaiming forgiveness and declaring the unity of reality, and the great union we have with God because of Jesus. When we partake of this, we are doing much more than remembering; we are providing and re-enacting a view of the world that is in contradistinction from prevailing notions outside of Christendom. Here is where college students can find a place of seeing life from God’s perspective.  Emphasizing the place of the sacraments in the life of the Church gives an alternate view of reality from that provided in many secular environments.  This, certainly, is not the last or only word on addressing the great slide of a whole generation of people out of the Church, but the Word proclaimed at the Table is a necessary element to help college students meaningfully connect with a Christian view of life and reality.

 
So, what are some reasons you think people ages 18-29 are leaving the Church?  What are some ways that they might reconnect with their faith?  How might you build a meaningful relationship with a person in this age group?  Do you think the sacraments are important for spiritually forming people?  How about asking those in this age group who have left your church why they did so?