Reading Mark 9.30-37
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Something familiar, but also a bit strange, has just happened in St. John’s. The priest read aloud a story from a big red book about a teacher who put a child in the middle of his disciples. The story tells how this teacher embraced the child, how the teacher said that to welcome such a child was actually to welcome him and, indeed, that to welcome a child was to welcome God. If the priest had read on just a few more verses, the people would have heard that those who do not welcome children deserve to be drowned, but today’s lectionary left that bit out. The reading of the story was surrounded by pomp and circumstance. There was a procession before it was read and the text was bathed in incense – apparently a legal high! At the end of the reading, the book was held high, and the priest (I) told the people (all of you) that what they have just heard is good news from God, and you responded with a shout of praise. You will get the impression that this story is meant to be taken seriously.
This makes what will follow in just a few minutes’ time so very peculiar. The priest will invite people to gather round a table to share in a simple meal of bread and wine in remembrance of this man who welcomed children. A six-year-old boy (let’s call him Tom) will hold up his cupped hands, looking forward to receiving a piece of bread like everyone else. But he will be disappointed. The priest will ignore Tom’s request for bread. To be sure, the priest will have a blessing for him, but Tom will know that this is just not the same: it feels like second best.
Perhaps later the priest will try to explain to Tom why he was missed out. If Tom is a child of the Church of England, he may well be told that his exclusion was all because his name was not on the little list kept in the vestry, the register of children admitted to communion, to be available to be inspected by the Archdeacon at a parochial visitation. Possibly the priest will explain to Tom that he keeps this little list because the regulations issued by the Archbishops’ Council tell him he must – but that might be too much detail for someone who is only six. Tom won’t be quite old enough to ask why these regulations aren’t processed and censed instead of the big red book if, as it seems, they are more important.
Jesus silences his bickering disciples by setting a child in their midst. There is no precedent or parallel for what Jesus says about children. Children were precious to the community to which Jesus belonged because they represented the Israel-yet-to-come, the Israel of tomorrow. Jesus himself, by contrast, is someone who placed infinite value on the child here and the child now, the Israel of today.
Over the last fifty years or so, there has been a wealth of theological reflection on the teaching of Jesus about children and the place of the child in church, but that reflection has yet to impact on the continuing marginalisation of children at the Eucharist. A French theologian showed that Jesus’s estimate of children is not based on the qualities we like to attribute to them – such as their openness, trustfulness, spontaneity, insight, whatever – but rather on their helplessness. Like the poor, with whom Jesus also identified himself, children live by grace – human and divine. The disciples vie with each other for highest status in Christ’s coming kingdom. That status, Jesus teaches, belongs to those who have no status.
Jesus puts young Tom at the heart of his religious community. His standing as a child is emphatically not conditional on his intellectual understanding. In this respect, Jesus’s estimate of Tom differs from that of the Archbishops’ Council. Jesus does not expect from Tom a precocious grasp of mysteries beyond mortal comprehending; he does not insist that Tom must appreciate the significance of the sacrament before he offers it to him.
We understand by grace and by the means of grace. We ‘taste and see’ – in that order. To insist on Tom having prior instruction before admitting him to communion is like trying to teach him to read while refusing him books. The child whom Jesus esteems so highly is any child, not the especially trusting, especially knowledgeable, or especially perceptive child. Recent studies on the child in church, especially at the Eucharist, direct us to the role of the child in Judaism, notably at the Passover commemoration. The importance of children at Passover has often been stressed, but there is one fact about the child at Passover which is often overlooked. It is precisely the child who does not yet understand, who does not yet – so to speak – appreciate the significance of the sacrament, whom Passover sets at the very heart of the celebrating community. For, as many of you know, the seder, the Passover meal, begins with a child asking, ‘Why is this night different?’ The meal recalling the redemption of the Hebrew people from slavery cannot even start without the child who does not know what is going on. It is a sobering reflection for churches trying to welcome children meaningfully into their community and sacramental life.
Children are to be valued as equal members of our church families, and not regarded as those who sometimes make a bit more noise than they should, and might disturb our quiet contemplation just a little. You obviously can’t have a total free-for-all and there is always, of course, a balance to be struck: this issue has caused friction and many a frosty stare in some congregations. But I suspect I know whose side Jesus would be on in such disputes, if today’s Gospel is anything to go by. And I think he would add that the encouraging and nurturing of the younger members of our churches should be way up the list of our priorities.
Tom’s story has happened in this very church, and in many others, more than once. It is a strange coincidence that today’s Gospel comes just as we are to begin First Communion preparation for children in our own parish – next Friday, in fact. We are playing it by the rules. I know people have differing views on this and I can certainly see the merit in some sort of preparation for taking an active part in the sacramental life of the Christian community, and to have at least a modicum of understanding of what you are doing when you do that. But, frankly, it is a preparation all of us need, whether we are six or sixty – and not just as a one-off, but continually. Seeking a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s grace is a lifelong occupation and, for Christians, receiving bread and wine is one of the key ways in which that can happen. It is the one thing among all the sacraments of the church that Jesus actually told his followers to do in remembrance of him. And, in any case, how many of us have a full grasp of what we are doing when we take communion – and I include myself in that? But we take it anyway, with gratitude, and we let the sacrament do its work in us.
Interestingly, children baptised in the Orthodox tradition receive communion by virtue of their baptism. And that applies to a couple of our children here. As a priest, part of whose vocation it is to administer communion, I firmly believe that the sacraments carry within themselves an efficacy all their own, which comes to God’s people, whatever their age, by grace alone. So although the rules will be adhered to and the new Archdeacon, when he comes, can ask which children are actually authorised to receive communion, in my book, they all should, if they want to, anyway. Children are not just the church of tomorrow: they are the church of today – just like the rest of us. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.