“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Mark 10:15
I was a horrible child.
At the end of each school holiday I would hope that our village school would burn down and, on the first day of term, we would not have to return. It was a silly wish, we would simply have been bussed to the nearby town where we would have been picked out as outsiders, and the last state would have been worse than the first.
It has been reassuring over the years to discover other people were as bad, or maybe even worse. Watching the final part of The Pirates of the Caribbean, I am always amazed that children can watch the opening sequence completely unmoved; maybe they have become even more cruel in recent times.
When I look back at schooldays, I sometimes wonder what it was that children possessed to cause Jesus to say that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”, and then go on to say that unless we become like one of them, we will not have a place in heaven.
Did Jesus not know that children were the sort of people who wished their school would burn down? Had he never watched children when they think no adult can see or hear them? Did he not know that children could be spiteful? Had he not seen them tell blatant lies and tell grown ups it was the truth? Were there no bullies amongst the children of Nazareth? Was there no-one who was devious? Did he never see children who had mastered the art of twisting grown ups around their little finger? When Jesus said these things about children, did he not realize how bad they could be?
Reading the Gospels, Jesus seems the shrewdest judge of character one can imagine; one need only read the accounts of his conversations with the woman at the well in Saint John Chapter 4, or the rich young ruler in Saint Luke Chapter 18, to see that he quickly sees through evasions to what people are really like.
Jesus is not saying children are like some storybook cherubic figures with glowing cheeks and smiling eyes who never do anything wrong. Unless there has been some extraordinary transformation of human nature over the centuries, the children amongst whom Jesus grew up would have been similar to children of any time in any place, they would have had their bad side, but they would have had other sides as well.
There are two childlike attributes that are key to discipleship. The first is trust.
Children have a huge amount of trust in others. When we are young, our parents are the ultimate authority in all matters. If they say something, it must be right. If the boy down the road’s parents say something different, then they must be wrong. It’s not just our parents who are authoritative on everything, it’s our teachers as well. In infant class at school, I believed my teacher knew everything; the first time she couldn’t answer a question, I think it was about warships, I was very disappointed.
When we are young, we can have an unquestioning trust in people. There are grown ups who know everything and who can do everything; we trust these people without a second thought.
What Jesus is saying is that being a follower of his requires recapturing a way of thinking that we let go when we left our childhood behind.; to have a childlike trust. We trust, because in the end there is no-one else, because we have no-one other to whom we can turn. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have doubts, that we don’t have questions; that there won’t be moments when we stand and shake our fist at God. To pretend that trusting God means that life will always go smoothly is simply to be naïve, there are many people of faith whose lives have been filled with tragedy and misfortune, yet we persist with a childlike trust in him.
If we try to deal with faith in an adult way, in a reasonable way, we come to the point where we realize that a decision must be taken, do we stay in the world of the rational, of the material, or are we prepared to take a leap? It is the leap that Jesus looks for, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The other quality possessed by children in huge amounts is enthusiasm.
Do you remember how much you looked forward to things when you were young? Birthdays, Christmas, days out; looking back, some of the special treats of those times can seem awfully ordinary. We have money to buy things; we can travel where we want; we don’t get excited; we don’t get enthusiastic; life has not the magical quality it had when we were young.
We need a childish enthusiasm.
The word “enthusiasm” used to have a special meaning in the church. It was the word the Church of England used about John and Charles Wesley and those who followed the Methodist way; it meant a lively, spiritual, exciting faith. The bishops did not like “enthusiasm” in the 18th Century, but it was a childlike quality that revived the church in those times.
“The kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” says Jesus. It belongs to the trusting, and it belongs to the enthusiastic. Our share in the kingdom depends on our willingness to become like children.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 4th October at 9am