Not that Kind of Baptist

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Receiving the Kingdom as a Child

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Jesus tells us that we receive the kingdom as a little child.  What in the world did he mean?  How do we become as a little child?

The Gospel reading for Sunday, October 7, 2018 is a longer passage in Mark about divorce and children.  In a prior passage, Jesus taught his disciples that the antidote to their narcissism was to be welcoming to the lowest members of society.  However, in this passage, Jesus shifts his focus to the actual behavior and characteristics of children which are worthy of emulation in kingdom seeking disciples.

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Mark 10:13–16

We shouldn't be surprised that the disciples have so easily forgotten the lesson of Mark 9:30-37 about welcoming the child.  They are portrayed as rather stubborn and difficult of learning throughout this Gospel especially.  

  • Why are the people bringing the children to be touched by Jesus?  Most likely they were seeking a blessing from Jesus, as a blessing could often be communicated through both words and a physical touch.  Baptists sometimes accompany ordination services with the "laying on of hands" which is understood to channel blessing.  Also, it could have been that some of the children were sick and their parents had heard that Jesus had healed others through his touch.
  • Why did the disciples speak "sternly" to those bringing children?  Perhaps it was their history of narcissism, of seeking their own greatness.  Perhaps they thought they were the gatekeepers to Jesus, and Jesus could not be bothered with persons as lowly as mere children.  Perhaps they were still smarting over their failure to successfully cast out the spirit from the young boy which prompted Jesus to say that "this kind can come out only through prayer." Mark 9:29.
  • Why was Jesus indignant?  This raises a host of interesting issues.  The word ἀγανακτέω means angry or indignant.  Much of Christian theology, prompted by a desire to portray God as impassive (cannot experience emotions), has interpreted any reference to Jesus' anger as merely metaphorical or human projection.  Surely the God of the Universe could not experience anger, many theologians asked rhetorically?  My own view is that Jesus really did experience emotions as the text says he did.  If we take the text at face value, and further accept that Jesus' humanity was real, then it should not be difficult to accept that Jesus could be indignant.  We could think of feeling indignant as a kind of righteous anger prompted by the disciples unjust act of preventing children from seeing Jesus.  
  • What does it mean to receive the kingdom "as a little child"?  Jesus phrases this as an exclusive requirement.  We must receive the kingdom "as a little child" or we "will never enter it."  I'll devote the rest of this blog to answering this important question.  

I think that our common sense interpretation of this passage is probably not far off from what Jesus meant.  By that, I mean we all associate certain qualities with children that can illuminate this text.  A child is born into this world:

  1. Without the ability to protect or feed itself;
  2. Entirely reliant on others for their care and keeping;
  3. Without the cynicism of our age with its distrust of genuine expression and others' motives.

These are physical and psychological realities which you could nuance with your understanding of nature vs. nurture and special exceptions.  Put into theological terms, to be a like a child then is to be entirely reliant on God's grace for entry into the kingdom.  The Bible uses different metaphors to capture the reality of becoming a child of God.  Paul speaks of adoption (a metaphor dear to my heart) in Galatians 4:4-5.   Paul also speaks of inheritance and becoming part of the family of God in Romans chapters 4 and 8.  

The power of thinking of human beings before God as little children is that it captures an essential element of biblical theology: that we are all born into this world in fundamental equality before God.  All must receive grace in order to enter the kingdom.  No person merits grace.  No person earns his or her way in.  

I believe Jesus was continuing his lesson from Mark 9:30-37 when the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest.  The reason this has to be repeated over and over again is that the disciples (and of course, we!) don't get it.  In just a few verses, James and John will come to Jesus and ask to sit at his left and right hand "in your glory."   They still didn't get it.  The kingdom of God is not about seeking our own glory.  It begins with a recognition that our own spiritual poverty (apart from God) won't do us any good.  This is why Jesus says in his very first beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

So, to be "as a little child" means we cannot rely on our own accomplishments and "greatness."  Instead, we must be solely reliant upon the will and grace of God.  There is so much more to the story, of course.  The rest of the story is nothing short of our whole lives as disciples.

But here Jesus is talking about just entering the Kingdom.  And in order to "enter" you must be reliant on God's grace alone.  

Painting attribution: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cranach_the_Elder_Christ_blessing_the_children.jpg

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Welcoming the Child of God

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The Bible passage I'd like to explore can be summed up like this:  Jesus reacts to the disciples' narcissism by welcoming a child in their midst.  Now, what can this mean?  

My passage is drawn from last Sunday's lectionary reading, Mark 9:30-37.  In the passage, Jesus tells the disciples yet again that he will die.  They were incredulous the first time (Mark 8:31-33), and the second time they seem to ignore him.  

After leaving a child exorcism that left the 12 disciples frustrated at their lack of success, they are feeling threatened.  Their power has seemed to ebb.  What they thought was an inexhaustible supply of miracles had run dry.  This kind only comes out with prayer, Jesus explains to the disciples when they ask why they could not cast out the spirit.  

But rather than retreat to their quiet place to pray, they gather together to argue.  That should resonate with us in this cultural moment.  Their argument is about who is the greatest.  And it prompts this exchange in the Gospel of Mark.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It has long puzzled me why Jesus reacted in this way to their bickering.  But upon closer examination, I believe it is because Jesus had to display for them a tangible example of how those who are last in the society show us something powerful about God.  Or put more exactly, when we welcome the least powerful, we welcome God.

I preached about that a week ago.  You can watch it here.  

One of the main reasons it is a puzzling text is we don't "get" the child reference like the disciples would have.  Children were not elevated in first century culture.  They did not have legal rights and were not exactly held up as paragons of wisdom.  Think about all the laws governing children, their care and protection, enhanced penalties for crimes against children, and the like.  Think about the vast amounts of books and media culture which focus our cultural and parental anxieties on children, their rearing, progress, and education.  We are a child-focused culture.  

Read one way, the Bible is child focused, almost with a laser like lens at least in the first few chapters of Genesis.  Having children, fertility problems, God's promises relating to them...all loom large.  But they are not viewed the same way in the Bible as they are in our culture. 

A child could be a slave in ancient Roman society.  And in fact, there were thousands of child slaves.  

So, one possibility for the preacher--the one I took in preaching--is to see Jesus as elevating the lowly.  To the extent that children were viewed as without any special dignity or power, then his welcoming of a child is a way of turning the disciples' pretensions to power upside down. I believe this interpretation is buttressed by other passages where Jesus gives a special status to children.  A prominent example that will happen in the very next chapter is Mark 10:13-16, where the disciples again showing their stubbornness in learning, try to prevent children from seeing Jesus.  Let the little children come to me...he tells them.  Weren't they listening?  Apparently not...and apparently we aren't either.  

While they were busy arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus had just finished casting out a spirit from a child (Mark 9:14-29).  While they were busy denying that they had been pathologically obsessing about their own greatness, Jesus embraced a child.  

We might ask, who are the especially marginalized and oppressed people in our society?  And we might ask, once we begin truth telling about that, what are we doing to welcome them?  

I think of the 12,800 children separated from their families in U.S. detention facilities as the New York Times recently reported.  I think of LGBTQ persons who are routinely shut out of churches, membership and baptism and communion denied.  I think of homeless persons suffering from a lack of shelter, mental health care, and substance abuse facilities.  I think of, I think of...now you think of a child of God and fill in the blanks.  Who are you thinking of now?  Go and welcome that person.  

For, as Jesus tells us, to welcome such a child in Jesus' name is to welcome Jesus...and therefore to welcome God.  

Image attribution:
Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Let_the_Little_Children_Come_unto_Jesus.jpg

 

 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
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What does this mean?

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How do we interpret what we experience?  The Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday takes up this question in a powerful way (Acts 1:1-21).  

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:1-13

What does this mean?  That is a fundamental question, posed more than once in the Book of Acts, and posed countless times by Christians over the centuries.  It is one thing to have an experience, it is quite another to determine what the experience meant.  In the Acts passage, we are not told the content of what the Holy Spirit spoke, although there is a tantalizing reference to "God's deeds of power."  This much is clear: the people hearing the Holy Spirit were from  diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.  They heard the speech in their own language, but they did not know the meaning of what they heard. 

This is not surprising; it happens all the time.  We hear a sermon and a room full of people come away with a diverse set of impressions and interpretations.  What was the sermon about? folks wonder.  Ask as many as you like, and you'll get slightly different answers.  

Stanley Fish's famous anecdote contained in his book Is There a Text in this Class?  illustrates the point nicely:

 On the first day of the new semester, a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me. She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question: "Is there a text in this class?" Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as "walking into the trap"), my colleague said, "Yes; it's the Norton Anthology of Literature," whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung: "No, no," she said, "I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?"

 As you can see from Fish's anecdote, the interpretation of a sentence is slippery.   Even what we call the literal interpretation is subject to several reasonable options.  Was the student asking what the textbook would be for the class?  Thinking so would be perfectly reasonable, and indeed, the most likely interpretation it would seem.  But she meant something entirely different. 

Fish used this story not to show us that there are an infinite variety of interpretations, but that the range of meanings are actually quite narrow.  We could exhaust the meaning fairly quickly based on the interpretative community to which the student belonged.  So, rather than throw our hands up in despair when approaching the meaning of the text, we can be assured that  the range of reasonable meanings are not truly infinite.    

In the Acts lesson, the quoted passage ends with the amazement of the diverse audience's reaction: "what does this mean?"  But notice that others are instantly given to interpretation; they sneer and suppose that all the participants are "filled with new wine."  Those used to the domesticated and orderly silence of tradition may think that the explosion of the Holy Spirit is simply the drunken ramblings of fools.  Peter, however, understood the meaning quite differently.  

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Acts 2:14-21

What a remarkable interpretation!  What richness of meaning!  Of all the meanings that could be drawn from the multiplicity of languages, Peter thinks of the Prophet Joel.  It is a rather subversive passage, not one to be taken literally by the those opposed to letting women preach, for example.  Joel says that men and women, slaves and free will see visions and prophesy.  Those who oppose women preaching somehow read this passage right out of the Bible.  But why did Peter think that Joel contained the hermeneutical key to  the meaning of Pentecost?

I suspect he looked out at the crowd of Gentiles and Jews, an ecumenical lot standing together, and saw for the first time that God speaks to all of God's children.  The Holy Spirit cannot be contained.  She descends and ascends, inflames and inspires where she likes.  (The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it is feminine).   Of the range of meanings available to Peter, this one was the most beautiful and hopeful.  It was also true.  A happy coincidence.  Peter would dream his own dream and prophesy in due course (Acts chapter 10), but he had to be open to the Holy Spirit first.  May we be so open.  

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