Proper 22 (2009) Year B RCL Principal
Turning things Upside-down
I am going to indulge myself for a moment and talk about my children! Firstly my little girl Katherine. For those of you who have heard all of this before please feel free to switch off for a moment! Katherine is eight next month and she is an absolute joy not always easy, but so full of life and creativity and a desire to know things. Jack is very similar, lively, thoughtful, exploring, fun, with a great sense of humour. He has been at school now for a couple of weeks and apart from coming home very tired, he is enjoying the whole experience, making friends and generally making the most of things. I must admit, though, that I never realised just what an effect having a child would have on me. I come from a large family – large in the sense of lots of us – and have always known what it is like to have younger siblings and nephews and nieces and cousins etc etc around. I am surprised how much Katherine and Jack have changed our lives (not just in practical terms, such as sleep, having to picking up nursery, getting to and from school, meeting up with their little friends, spending lots of money and all of that!) but how my attitudes and understandings have changed.
And I can go on about her for ages, as many know – how exciting it is to see themlearning about everything around them, and to hear them trying out words, and telling me what everything is, how much fun it is to see them playing. The list goes on. I am, I’m afraid to say, the perfect example of the doting dad. But then I am like hundreds of parents before me, and like hundreds of my contemporaries.
But this isn’t always the case, and certainly hasn’t always been the case. In lots of ways we have the luxury of enjoying the childhoods of our offspring, we live in a society relatively free of disease, where education is encouraged and valued, where children are seen as something special.
In poorer countries, and throughout history, children have been viewed very differently. In Jesus’ day children were often considered to be something of a waste of space. When a family had a child they were a drain on the often meagre resources of the family. They needed food, clothing and care until they were old enough to work. It was then that they were really valuable.
In lots of ways our society’s view is the result of the romanticised vision of childhood that came from the Victorian images of children. It was our Victorian forebears that became obsessed with the innocence of childhood, and how precious children were. This is a good thing, I’m not offering a criticism of it! But as childhood deaths decreased, as our society was able to care for children and foster childhood as something important and valuable for itself – we lost this hard edged viewpoint of children being valuable only when they could pay their way.
I’m not suggesting that parents were heartless and felt nothing for their children, but that when life is hard, people can get harder, and it can be difficult to feed extra mouths.
Into this situation Jesus speaks. Jesus turns these viewpoints around, he values children, he shows them affection, he even says that we have to be like them in order to enter the kingdom. We must receive the kingdom of God as a little child in order to enter it.
So what does this mean? Well, children are reliant on being provided for – every one of Jesus hearers would have known that. Jesus is telling us that there is nothing we can do to gain the Kingdom except to receive it. We cannot earn it, we cannot win it, we cannot deserve it – all we can do is take it.
Again, Jesus turns expectations upside-down. So much of conventional religion is based upon earning a reward for religious observance, or for attendance, or for good works. To Jesus, just as a child was unable to earn, to provide for itself, so the believer must take what is offered. It is summed up much more technically in Martin Luther’s emphasis on sola fides – through faith alone. It is only when we can receive from God, let go of our pride and our cynicism, our reticence, our self indulgence, our sin – only then can we truly receive from God the measure of his grace he longs to give to us, only then can we enter into his kingdom here on earth in all its fullness.
The question to ask is whether our own expectations actually get in the way of our Christian life and the life of our Church? IF we don’t expect God to work in our villages, in our lives and in our Churches then God cannot work there.
The Christian life is, or should be, full of surprises. As we discover more about God then we will be constantly surprised at who and what he is, and all that he can do for, to and even through each one of us. The Christian life is an adventure, filled with the fullness, the abundant life that Jesus said he came to bring.
And in order to experience this abundance we are called again to do one thing – to be child-like in our acceptance of God’s will for our lives.
It is important to remember, though, that we are not called to be child-ish, but child like. Called to take life with the seriousness, but absolute joy that children exhibit as they grow up and explore the world. Called to question, to challenge convention, to ask why, to laugh, to cry. Being like a child is about stripping away the baggage and things which weigh us down, and coming to Christ as we are, it is about admitting our need for and dependence upon Christ. It is about being willing to learn, and being willing to change.
In many ways it is about doing things the way Jesus did, that is, differently. In the beginning of today’s Gospel reading Jesus starts with ‘you have heard it said…but I say to you’ – he challenges convention, and even sets the standards higher than the religious authorities of the day. Jesus calls us to be like him, willing to reject convention, willing to do things differently to society, willing to be different.
So, the challenge is there for us. To receive the kingdom. And what do we have to do – to accept it as the free gift it is, to enjoy it, to value it.
And when we are able to do, that God is able to give to us all that he longs to. And with that grace from God then we can live lives to the high standards he calls us to, we can be those who not only know about God’s kingdom, but know God’s Kingdom.
In the wonderfully ironic way of the Christian Faith, our highest calling is to be like a child. In order to be great we must be like those who are the least – in Jesus day that was children. The Kingdom of God belongs to those such as these.