Luke 18: 15-17
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 19Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 21He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 23But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
26Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’
1 Corinthians 13:11-12
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known
I was recently watching a popular crime-based TV drama and one of the police officers who was assigned to a crime scene needed to visit the local church to get a statement from the village priest. He tried to get out of the interview by passing it off to a colleague, but the colleague forced his hand and this character soon found himself face-to-face with the religious leader. It was obvious from the officer’s behaviour that he was more than a little bit uncomfortable talking with the priest and even simply standing in the church that was adorned with colourful stained-glass windows and rich, dark woods illuminated by candlelight.
After a few awkward conversations, the minister looked at the officer and asked him what had happened to him that was so horrible that it put him off of religion so much? The officer admitted that he’d been raised in a family that attended church faithfully every week. But when he was about 13 or 14, he started going through some very difficult struggles and was afraid to tell anyone about them. So, he turned to God, praying and praying for God to end the terror that he had been experiencing. He admitted that he felt as though God did nothing to help him, so he walked away from his faith, his church, and his God.
The reading today contains two stories that receive a little and a lot of attention at the same time. The story of Jesus welcoming the children and the passage about the rich young ruler are heard from the pulpit and the lectern on many occasions. I’m sure most of us have heard at least one or two sermons about each of these passages. So, they receive a lot of attention. But, at the same time, many of the sermons and messages we might hear about these stories echo similar points: have child-like faith (whatever that means) and don’t love your possessions. This has been my experience, at least.
Today, we’re going to put these passages back together into a whole. If you open the Bible to Luke 18, you’ll probably see a heading before verse 15 and another before verse 18. The first probably says something like, “Jesus and the Little Children” and the second might read “The Rich and the Kingdom of God” or “The Rich Young Ruler.” In the original texts, these headings wouldn’t have existed. In fact, there would be no chapters or verses either. Just stories—that’s what the original texts were: stories.
While the addition of headings in Bibles may help us find different passages, they also divide stories into pieces that are not always reassembled into a whole. While I’ve heard my share of sermons about Jesus and the children and the rich young ruler, I’ve yet to hear one that places both stories side-by-side. This is strange, considering that the stories seem to flow together seamlessly. The headings of these stories allow them to be ripped from the context and the larger narrative. So, today, we put these two passages back together in order to see how doing so might shed new light on them.
When read back-to-back, you can almost see Jesus still holding little children when the rich man came up to him and posed his question. Here is Jesus, sitting in the dirt with children around him and on his lap. In Jesus’ culture, this would have been taboo. Children were not held in high esteem. They weren’t seen as innocent and joyful little people as they are in some cultures today. They were really seen as at the same level as animals. After all, the high infant mortality rate meant that adults didn’t always get too attached to their young children for fear that they might not be with them the next week, month, or year. Although there is certainly evidence that first-century parents did love their children.
So, suddenly, Jesus’ welcoming of the children becomes more subversive and radical than when this passage is depicted in pastoral images of Jesus on a tree-swing with children playing around him. In welcoming the children, Jesus was overturning the status quo of his day, giving children a high place in his kingdom when his society gave them a very low place on the social ladder. But Jesus didn’t just welcome children; he affirmed them as members of the kingdom of God. In fact, he said they were kingdom members par excellence. He said that his followers should become like these children. Children become models of true kingdom members and they take centre stage if only for a moment, demonstrating exemplary and authentic membership in God’s kingdom. This is a direct challenge to the religious, cultural, and social order of Jesus’ day.
In most sermons that I’ve heard about this passage, this would be the time to explore what it is about children that makes them exemplary members of the kingdom. What I’d like to do instead is talk about what this means for Christian education. After all, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, it seems like we adults should be the ones learning from children in Sunday school.
Clearly, there is something about children that makes them model kingdom citizens. There are most likely many things. Perhaps it is their purity, innocence, dependence, trust, inquisitiveness, or the fact that they are not as tarnished by the world as adults can be. It’s probably all of these things and more. So, if children are exemplary kingdom members, why should we involve them in Christian education or spiritual formation at all? If they’re the ones who show us the way, why should we put our efforts into teaching them about the Christian faith? This now seems like an odd passage to use for a service focused on Christian education.
Additionally, this passage about Jesus affirming children as kingdom models seems to contradict another famous biblical passage. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about how love is patient and kind and many other wonderful things. But then he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Is Paul contradicting Jesus’ message by saying that we need to give up childish ways and become adults-in-the-faith? Jesus tells us to be like children. Paul tells us to grow up and give up childish ways. At first glance, these passages have opposing messages. But if we look closer, we see otherwise. Jesus is speaking to his followers about real, live children that are in his midst. Paul is speaking to the early church. The church has been around for a couple decades. The church is growing up. It’s passing through adolescence. So, Paul says that the church has to leave childish ways behind and grow up in the faith. While Jesus’ words were about literal children, Paul is speaking metaphorically, reminding the early church that while it’s appropriate to act certain ways as children, we all have to get older, let go of childhood, and grow into adulthood. He’s not saying that children can’t be members of the church or the kingdom—he’s saying that Christians need to grow in the faith that made them exemplary kingdom members as children.
While Paul offered wisdom about faith formation two millennia ago, another church leader and author offers insight into faith formation today. In his most recent book, Brian McLaren offers an admittedly unscientific description of Christian formation that reflects his own experiences and the experiences of many people with whom he has spoken. I know that it certainly mirrors parts of my spiritual life.
McLaren says that the spiritual life often begins with a season of simplicity, when our life with God is characterized by pure, authentic, joyous, wondrous, heart-to-heart connection with God. It’s that time of courtship with God when we can’t seem to get enough of God’s endless love. But as the spring gives way to the summer, the season of simplicity can give way to a season of complexity, when life throws difficulties at us, when we may fail in our faith, and when we reach out for God’s helping hand. This might lead to the third season, perplexity. We may feel isolated, alone, and abandoned by God. We can be confused that God did not point a mighty index finger at our problems and zap them away. This is the season of being in survival-mode. After a time of perplexity, a season of harmony can come. In this season, a quiet fullness of joy and transcendence overcomes our confusion and pain and we are once again face-to-face with God—but in new ways. McLaren likens these seasons to growing up from infancy to childhood, adolescence to older adulthood. As we move from season to season, stage to stage, we bring all that we are with us. Harmony doesn’t obliterate simplicity, complexity, and perplexity—it brings them forward and fulfills them. I think this is a beautiful way to speak of the spiritual life.
Now, what does all this have to do with our passage from Luke? Using McLaren’s ideas as a guide, we can see that Jesus affirms the spiritual season of simplicity that young children carry with them as they enter into the world. He reminds us not to abandon this time of simplicity that we experienced as children or as new converts to the faith. He tells us not to become so enmeshed in complexity and perplexity that we forget the simple yet powerful connection to God that we had as children or newcomers to the faith.
Enter rich young ruler. Jesus is holding and affirming young children as he is approached by a young man with great wealth, power, and status—the opposite of the children on his lap. The man asks him what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus responds by saying he must follow the commandments and the man states that he’s been doing this since he was a boy. But Jesus gives him another order—he must sell all he has and give the money to the poor. Then he is instructed to come back and follow him.
I don’t think that this order is for all people at all times. It doesn’t seem to me to be a universal literal demand on all Christians. Jesus’ instructions in this passage are for that man at that time. Again, let’s let McLaren’s framework inform our discussion. Jesus hears the young man say that he’s followed the commandments since he was a boy. It appears as though the rich young ruler is still in a season of simplicity. Paul might say he has not put childish things behind him. Jesus seems to give him instruction that adds confusion to his simplistic view of religion and faith. Perhaps Jesus is trying to thrust him into a season of complexity. Perhaps he is trying to help the young man grow in faith. But alas, the man walks home and we do not hear from him again. Jesus then looks at the crowd and offers a statement of spiritual complexity—‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’
Clearly, Jesus affirms the faith of children. But we see from the passage that he also wants people to grow in their faith and begin to experience seasons of complexity, perplexity, and harmony. Whether we experience it as children or as excited new followers of Jesus, the season of simplicity can’t withstand the trials, complications, and difficulties of human life. Perhaps simplicity was adequate in Eden. But the sinfulness of humanity leads to inevitable problems and complications.
Yet this does not mean that simplicity should be completely abandoned when the time is right. We all need to retain aspects of a season of simplicity in order to enjoy heart-to-Heart connection with God. Without the joy of a relationship with God characterized in part by simplicity, seasons of complexity and perplexity can lead us to become hard, bitter, cynical, and angry. But simplicity must eventually make some room for more complex forms of spirituality.
This is where the power of children’s Christian education comes into play. Through the spiritual formation and the knowledge of the faith that is gained through Christian education, children can put meat on the bones of their spiritual simplicity. They can learn the art of theological reflection and acquire the tools necessary for this art so that, when they find themselves faced with troubles and thrust into times of complexity, they have the resources, guidance, and skills to help them remain committed followers of Jesus.
Brian McLaren once said that Christian education ought to be more about helping children learn skills like theological reflection than about simply filling their noggins with data about the Bible. These skills help children wrestle with tough issues—violence, war, injustice, poverty, abuse, and natural disasters. Without a Christian education that offers skills for living a Christian life amidst the pain, disasters, and struggles that are inevitable in a fallen world, children can grow to become like the police officer I mentioned at the beginning of this message. They can choose to walk away from God during times of confusion and struggle rather than continuing to wrestle with God as Jacob did in the 32nd chapter of Genesis.
So, what does Christian education that empowers young people for theological reflection entail?
First, it entails the acquisition of knowledge. It helps children to learn the classics of the faith that are the Old and New Testament. It allows children to walk around in the Bible and come to know the great story of God as well as their place within this ongoing and living story.
Second, it involves authentic spiritual experiences. It seeks to nurture not just the head, but also the heart. Christian education—whether in the home or the church—entails helping children to experience God in ways that they find to be life-giving for their spirits. Some children may love playing in nature or walking along a babbling brook; others may have a deep-set need to dance freely to passionate music; and others may find that God is closest to them when they are involved in God’s mission for the world. Whether alone or with others, inside or out-of-doors, in nature, a beautiful building, or in the inner sanctuary of their bedroom, children need to be given opportunities for Spirit-to-spirit connections with God.
Third, Christian education finds its foundation in the words, teachings, and actions of Jesus. This is what makes education Christian—it empowers children to become followers of the risen Lord and teaches them not only to ask “What would Jesus do?” but also “What would Jesus have me do in this time and place?”
And, finally, Christian education that empowers children for theological reflection takes seriously their status and kingdom kids par excellence. Whether we are parents, teachers, volunteers, ministers, aunts, uncles, or grandparents, we who nurture children, who provide them with an education that is Christian, we can in turn be nurtured by the children in our midst. As we help children prepare for moments of complexity, perplexity, and eventual harmony, children remind us of the simplicity of pure, unadulterated faith. They remind us to see God in a small act of kindness, to hear God amidst the noise of our lives, and the sense God’s presence in the coolness of the morning dew as we walk across the grass.
Christian education is relational. It’s a two-way street, a never-ending process of giving and taking and giving. As faithful adult followers of Jesus seek to offer children Christian education, may they in turn be blessed by the gift that is the presence of these exemplary members of the kingdom of God. And as children learn what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, they mustn’t forget that they have much to teach adults as well.