One of the gifts of reading the New Testament, especially the Gospels, is that we get to see how often those closest to Jesus get it wrong. The disciples are his partners in ministry, but many times they don’t seem to understand what Jesus is really all about. I wish I didn’t find them quite so relatable in those moments.
In the Gospel of Mark, some people try to bring children to Jesus for a blessing (Mark 10:13-16). The disciples apparently don’t think this is a good use of Jesus’s time. They rebuke those who try to bring children forward. The word used for “rebuke” is exactly the same word used when Jesus speaks harshly to a demon in Mark 1:25.
In other words, the disciples reject children in the harshest terms possible.
“When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to the disciples, ‘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 the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Mark 10:13-16
It’s uncomfortable to admit, but I’ve been like the disciples. I’ve tried to be a gatekeeper for Jesus and I even tried to keep children away, thinking they didn’t know enough to be included.
When I transitioned from the Lutheran church to the United Methodist Church, I was surprised to learn that Methodists allow children of all ages to receive Communion. Growing up, I was not permitted to receive Communion until after my First Communion Class in third grade.
When I came to the Methodist Church my children were little—my son was five and my daughter was only three years old. When it was time for Communion, I expected the pastor to place his hands on their heads and bless them, like I experienced in the Lutheran church. Instead, he offered them Communion!
“Woah,” I thought, “these people do not take the sacrament of Holy Communion seriously. How awful.”
Even after my husband and I decided to join the Methodist church, I carried a little chip on my shoulder about it. I thought, “it’s a shame we don’t teach children what Communion means! This church should do a better job! When a child hasn’t even been taught the basics, Communion can’t be meaningful for them!”
A few years later I found myself serving as the Interim Director of Children’s Ministries at that same church. I had a lot to learn so I read everything I could about Methodist Children’s Ministry.
One day I found myself reading a little book about children and the sacrament of Holy Communion.
What I read that day, not only knocked the chip off my shoulder, it put me in my place.
I appreciated the scriptural and theological reasons for including children at the Communion table, but that isn’t what changed me.
The thing that changed me, the thing that opened my heart—maybe even made it feel strangely warmed—was this: Even a child knows when they are being excluded. No one, especially a child, should ever feel rejected at the Lord’s Table.
That was very powerful to me. The altar (the church!) is a place where no one should feel rejected.
I was high and mighty—and mighty wrong—when I thought that children had to have a certain baseline of knowledge to come to the table. God never says anything of the sort in the Bible.
Children don’t understand the full meaning of Holy Communion, but you know what? Neither do I. In fact, in the United Methodist Church, we say that “Holy Communion is a mystery too deep for words.” If we turned away everyone who didn’t understand all that happens in Communion, the table would be empty.
Besides, even if we can’t understand what’s happening in Communion (all the theological nuances of it, or how the Real Presence of Jesus exists in the bread and juice or wine) we do know what it is to be fed. Even newborns instinctually cry for food! Just like a child can understand being excluded or rejected, they can understand being included. The Communion table can be a place where they experience a sense of belonging as they celebrate God’s unconditional love.
When I was walking around with that chip on my shoulder about children receiving Communion, I was like the disciples who tried to keep people from bringing children to Jesus. I was wrong. Everyone belongs at the Communion table. Everyone has a place in the Kingdom of God.
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