Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Who are these little ones and what are we supposed to do with them?
If you were paying attention to the Gospel for today, you probably thought the sermon would focus on forgiveness and the process Jesus spoke of to reclaim the fallen and erring. But today we will focus on the first part of the lesson and the attention Jesus gave to the “little ones” who believe in Him. Lest you think this is merely about children, the issues raised have deep significance for the faith. The argument over infant baptism is less about baptism than it is about faith. Can infants believe or not? Even dyed in the wool Lutherans are tempted to say "No, they cannot have faith – not in the sense that adults have faith." But what does Jesus say of these little ones who believe in Him? If by faith you mean what American evangelicalism has defined it – knowledge, understanding, and consent -- then you are right. Infants and small children cannot believe. But if by faith you mean what the Scriptures call faith, that is trust, then perhaps we have something to learn from these little ones and not just something to teach them. Faith is trust and the little ones Jesus spoke of show us what trust in the Lord with all your heart and mind and body actually looks like.
Matthew uses disciple to mean the Twelve. The term disciple in Matthew does not mean believers in general but is a specific term for the twelve apostles. So who are these little ones whom the twelve disciples are to be like? Who are these children whom we need to become like in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven? Who are these whom Jesus calls "greatest in the kingdom of God?"
They are the mikros or micro size believers, the smallest of children – infants and toddlers. They too belong to Jesus – but not as cute little folks to humor or to entertain us. They are not ornaments. They belong. Somebody once said that Jesus welcomed the children and taught the adults. Today we teach the children and so they might entertain the adults. Jesus insists that they have something more than their cuteness to offer. Jesus calls these children His own BY FAITH. Faith which is not an intellectual act but the childlike trust of the heart – something that does not demand proof or verification. As a child trusts in the parent, so do we as children in faith trust in the Word of our heavenly Father implicitly - by the Spirit's work.
What God seeks from us is the trust of a child. Such a trust transforms the little into the mighty. There is a lesson here for the Twelve Disciples and there is a lesson in this for us. Jesus used a child to teach those who were closest to Him, who has seen Him do miracles and proclaim the Kingdom, to learn from these children what it means to believe. Now this faith is God's work and the fruit of His Spirit at work in us – whether we be young or old, wise or foolish, rich or poor.
Jesus said whoever receives this child of faith, receives Him. This was both a promise and an assurance to the disciples that He would work in them and through them to accomplish His purpose. It was at the very same time, however, a warning against taking lightly these little ones who believe in Jesus. For if we make light of them and their faith or we cause them to sin or stumble in faith, we are accountable to the Lord. To stand at cross purposes with the Lord and His gracious will for His children is far worse than drowning and giving up this mortal life.
So what is our responsibility to the little ones who believe in Jesus? We are to guard them against temptation. We are to watch over them lest they wander from the Gospel and from the Kingdom of God. We are to protect against them falling into manifest sin that would deprive them of God's grace and gift. Even if it requires some sacrifice on our part. The eye or hand or foot that would causes us to sin is expendable but the little ones who believe in Jesus are never expendable. They are His most precious possessions. And we are to teach them so that as they mature, their knowledge may be commensurate with their trust.
Truly we need to hear Jesus' words today. We are severely tempted to turn children's ministry and youth ministry into mere entertainment, glorified baby sitting, in which the greatest of all criteria for success is whether or not our kids are having fun in Church. The sad truth is that we can have fun all the way along the road to our destruction. What our children need from us are those who will care for them, teach them, and protect them. In the process we learn from them. We adults with all our fears, suspicions, hardened hearts, and cynical attitudes learn from them the childlike trust that believes without seeing and trusts without fear.
Guard the little ones, says Jesus. This is our most sacred responsibility. They are far too important to simply entertain or to be used for our entertainment. We need to provide them that which will strengthen their lives in and their connection to Jesus through His Word and Sacraments.
Think about it. We act as if children were in the way of worship and we sound like the disciples pushing away the children from Jesus. We diminish our children by distracting them or entertaining them or using them for our entertainment. And we also diminish ourselves because we forget that just as they have something to learn from us, we have something to learn from them. Jesus insists that they are too important to babysit. He calls us to teach them the faith and the kingdom of God even as we learn from them what it means to trust without fear.
The greatest disciple, according to our Lord, is a trusting child. It is no different today. We come to God not with our accomplishments to taut or our great wisdom and intellect and understanding to promote us. We come as children, trusting in our heavenly Father, believing His Word to be true, and caring for each other with the same serious and deliberate purpose with which we treat the greatest in the Kingdom of God. Have you ever wondered why God continually speaks of us as His children? Why it seems we never grow up from being children of our heavenly Father through Christ, our Lord?
The real problem for the Church today is not that our message is no longer relevant. As long as people sin or die or lose hope our message is relevant. The real problem for the Church today is that we act as if we have something God wants or needs. We have forgotten that the path of faith is the road of trust. We cannot tread over the weak or the small. We cannot turn faith into an intellectual exercise. What tempts our children is what tempts us – the fear of God’s will and the presumption that our intelligence is what matters. The way we care for our children is the way our heavenly Father cares for us. There is a connection here. It is not because I say so, but because Jesus does. These little ones are not window dressing or ornaments. They are part of the body of Christ the Church – by faith – and while we can teach them the story of the Gospel, they can teach us how to trust in the Christ of that Gospel. Amen.