“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” I was startled by these words this week. Like someone in soft soled shoes they snuck up on me. Appearing as if out of nowhere, with a meaning that was at the same time, remarkably simple and audaciously radical.
Do these words mean that if we receive a child we receive Jesus? That is what they seem to be saying. Do you want to know Jesus? Do you want to be connected to Jesus? Then, receive a child.
Wait a minute! Don’t you have to believe something first? Aren’t their creeds you have to affirm and profession you have to make and covenants you have to enter into before you can be connected to Jesus? Yes. Yes, of course there are, that is what I have always thought.
But these words in our text this morning do not mention any of those creeds, or professions or covenants. There is only a child, Jesus and the one who sent Jesus. Three simple ingredients, less complicated than a Betty Crocker cake mix, right?
I spent the early part of this week hanging out with preachers at our Vermont Conference Clergy Convocation. During one of our small group discussion times, I asked a couple of my colleagues this question, “Could being Christian be as simple as receiving a child?” I got the look, the “What in the world are you talking about look.” It is very similar to the look I get from some people when they see me putting mayonnaise on my French fries. It indicates clearly, if nonverbally, that is not something I am willing to try.
Of course, when you are hanging out with preachers, nonverbal does not last for long. My colleague begin to explain how misguided my question was, “Anyone can do that. Lots of organizations help children. That does not mean that they are Christian. You have to believe.” I recognized her concerns and I had heard most all them having spent most of my growing up years in a faith tradition to put a pretty high premium on believing the right doctrines and believing them in the right way.
To be clear, what we believe is important. Those creeds, confessions and covenants matter. But what if they do not matter more than what Jesus suggests in our text this morning? What if they do not matter more than simple, human act of receiving a child?
There is definitely this model of being connected to Jesus in the New Testament. Our text this morning illustrates it. Last week, Jesus invited us to deny ourselves, take up a cross and follow without any mention of us needing to believe anything. A similar model is suggested in Matthew, chapter 25, “Lord, When did we see you hungry and give you something to eat? And the lord answers, “When you did it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.” James 1:22 tells us “. . .to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Doing, like receiving a child, is what is important.
In spite of a wealth of biblical material that would lead us to prioritize our actions on behalf of Jesus over our beliefs about Jesus, the history of the church has overwhelmingly prioritized believing and mental ascent to doctrines and creeds. So that we are conditioned to think that our being Christian is primarily, if not exclusively a matter of what we say we believe.
Again, what we believe is important. Take a minute look at the page in your hymnal to left of hymn 241. No, we are not going to sing in the middle of the sermon. Scared you didn’t I. On that page, you will see two of the confessions that our congregations use to help us understand our connection to Jesus. These are good and important words. There is nothing there with which I disagree. I am just wondering if these words are more helpful to the cause of Christ if we use them to help us understand and explain what happens in our hearts and souls when we receive a child or after we have given food to a hungry person rather than as the ticket to get us in the door.
Chicken, egg, which comes first? Does it matter? Can we know? It is important for us to think about for a couple of reasons. First, If what we say we believe about Jesus is the essential factor in whether or not we are deemed to be Christian, then it is altogether possible for us to confess the most Christian confession ever written and never receive a child. We might say, “I am not sure what Jesus meant by that, but it really doesn’t matter because I believe the right stuff about.” If what I say I believe is all that matters, then not only do I free myself from any moral or ethical reason to receive a child, there is really nothing to keep me from locking up a child, separating a child from his parents. If what I say I believe is all that really matters, then I am not likely to get to the point in my spiritual development where I not only understand that receiving a child is receiving Christ and the one who sent him, but that rejecting a child is rejecting Jesus, abusing a child is abusing Jesus, leaving a child unfed and hungry, is leaving Jesus unfed and hungry.
Giving the words we say a Jesus top priority leaves us vulnerable to division. That has been the story of the church from almost the beginning. Affirming correct doctrine, saying the right words means you are in. Likewise, not saying the right words, not affirming the correct doctrine means you are out. The very thing, the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God meant to be the reconciling of all God’s creation, becomes one more way that God’s creation gets divided even further.
It is perhaps a complex question, which is more important? What you say you believe or what you do? Lots words have been written going back and forth on this question. I think that may be what made the simplicity of it so startling as I read Jesus words this week, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We did that last week with Emma, remember? All it takes is open arms and willingness to hold on and not let go. Why do we make loving God and being loved by God so complicated? You welcome the child or you don’t. And when you welcome the child, you welcome Jesus.
The gospel claims that God himself in his Son got into human life as a child, a newborn baby. Is there anything more vulnerable, weaker or more helpless? Welcome the child, welcome Jesus. When God comes into the world, God comes at the point of the weak, the despised, the rejected, the sick, the imprisoned, the least of the race — the last, not the first. He entered into human life with the powerless and the vulnerable who were buffeted to and fro by all the cruelties of physical and human nature, Jesus Christ gave himself to the weak, to the despised, to the forsaken; and because of this identification, Christ was himself despised and rejected. Our savior was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The forsaken were his people. He didn’t simply dip into their life and problems momentarily and then slip out again. His father had sent him, and it was very clear that it was to the forsaken that he was sent.
While he was with them his posture was that of a servant. He refused to exercise power over them. When they wanted to make him their king, he went into the hills to pray. He would simply be with them, champion their cause, heal their sick, encourage their flagging spirits. He would teach them of the Father’s scandalous love precisely because they were rabble, and finally on their behalf would die between two criminals, themselves outcasts. In the sense that we usually use the expression, he wanted nothing for himself. He loved the riffraff and the rabble so deeply that he simply wanted to be with them, and to serve them in whatever form their need might shape his service. What he got out of it was simply the doing of his father’s will, which to him was his meat and drink. What he got out of it was simply the joy of being with the victimized poor.
He summed up his ministry one day when he visited his home town of Nazareth. Taking out the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he said. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Many scholars feel that means to proclaim the year of the Jubilee, which was the year when debts were forgiven, and there was a whole restructuring of the economic life of the people. Jesus sat down and said, “Today, in your very hearing, this text is come true.”
Although it is not a very pretty picture, when we look at the whole human family in our global village, we will find at the top the wealthy, the powerful, the highly educated, the affluent, the influential. They have carved out for themselves a place. They have secured themselves as best they can against the exigencies of a capricious existence. They have built institutions which secure their privilege. And I think I should not say “they.” I think I should say “we” have built institutions which secure our privilege. That’s what you find at the top.
At the bottom are the poor and impotent, their minds and gifts never developed: they are the dumping ground of human life. They are buffeted to and fro because of their helplessness, as those who are helpless are always buffeted to and fro by the powerful. They have no one to protect them, no one to speak for their rights. They are the lonely ones. You’ll find them in prisons and in psychiatric hospitals, their children are in the welfare system. They are jobless, hungry, thirsty. Their options are extremely limited. They are not wanted. In their present state they could not possibly build institutions to secure their rights and their privileges, because they have so few. We, in our contempt, look down from our secure vantage point and call them rabble, and riffraff. They, they, they.
Part of the scandal of the gospel is that when you meet the abandoned, crucified Messiah, he grabs you and you belong to him. Wherever you are in privilege and power and status and opportunity, you start the movement down, not up. And you go down and down and down until you are powerless, except for his power; you go down until you find yourself standing where Jesus stood. The evangelists that I listened to in my youth didn’t make that clear. But the evangelists in the New Testament make that devastatingly clear. One keeps going down and down until one is identified with the victimized poor wherever they are scattered throughout the earth. Wherever you see them and hear about them, you know if you welcome them, you welcome Jesus and the one who sent him. If you don’t welcome them, you don’t welcome Jesus and the one who sent him.