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Little Ones

Preached on Trinity XXII
Trinity Anglican Church, Lebanon, NH
Oct. 27, 2013

The gospel passage we are looking at shows how seriously God takes sin. For sin separates us from Him, and can also severely damage the faith of those who are sinned against. For sin rarely affects only the offending party. It can really harm "the little ones." The "little ones" Jesus is talking about are those people who do not count themselves great; rather, they are those who realize their need and come to God with the empty hands of faith. These people require our care. To truly be for them what the Church is supposed to be, we must be those who truly follow the Lord, who are truly disciples. One of the things that must occur if one wishes to become a disciple is that one must assume the proper stance toward the Lord that is most evident in children: humble trust and dependence. To get some context for today's reading, then, let us look at the passage immediately before it where the quite different, worldly view sets the stage.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matt. 18:1)

The disciples are all-too-human, aren't they? They are looking for the organizational chart that will tell them about rank and status. "Who is the top dog? Where do I fit into the hierarchy?" These questions are driven by others which might not be expressed, but reveal the condition of the disciples' hearts, and the majority of humankind. "Will I be taken seriously?" "Am I significant?" "Does anyone think I am important?" These are very human questions and come from deep inside us. We all have a deep— though often inarticulate—desire to be valued. And if we believe that we are not valued, all sorts of suffering and pathology and even violence can come bubbling up. We want to matter.

The world of modern America treats this desire for self-affirmation as if it were the most healthy thing in the world. "Of course you are important! Of course you should value yourself! Feeling good about yourself is absolutely essential!" As many believe, everything from poor grades to substance abuse to being a mass-murderer would disappear instantly if only everyone had enough self-esteem. This is the root of all of our societal problems, or so we're told.

Jesus, unfortunately, does not seem to get it. Nowhere in the gospels does He say that people need to love themselves more or that peoples' low self-esteem is the root of all evil. On the contrary, he takes it for granted that self-love is alive and well in humanity and doesn't require any outside help. He says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and this assumes, of course, that we already love ourselves. In saying this, He is not being an innovator or expressing some radical new insight. He is repeating what is found in Leviticus 19 verse 18.

To make matters worse, St. Paul, in Philippians 2, gives instruction that sound harmful to the modern regime of self-focus:

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2: 3)

 

For Jesus and St. Paul, self-love is not something we all need more of. This places them quite out of step with the modern world. Back to the earlier passage. And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (18: 2-4)

You see, the community Jesus brought into existence, and Paul tried to build up, is not one that operates according to the world's understanding. It is the community of the children of God and operates by His rather odd rules. He has a tendency to turn the world's scheme of values and even its "common sense" upside down. "The first will be last." "He that would save his life shall lose it." "If you want to truly live you must first die." None of this makes much sense in worldly terms. But the Church was, and still is, countercultural in many ways. It tells us to become as little children, to assume that trust and dependence on God that adults can find so difficult. It tells us to receive children and nurture them with patience, because that is how God treats us. It tells us to receive the poor and downtrodden, who, like children, do not hold high status. We are to help the beggar because, as St. Augustine pointed out, we are all beggars in relation to God. We are to receive the broken, those whom the world believes to be unworthy of investment, and we are to do it graciously, letting them know that they are valued. If a church will not receive children and the poor, it is on the way to extinction as a church. It may still continue to exist, but primarily as a social club merely reflecting the worldly values of its congregation.

The True Church, however, is built of those who are humble enough to realize their utter dependence on the grace of God. Status seeking really has no place there. When, by the grace of God, people come to see their sin for what it is, and see their inadequacy in overcoming it, at that point they are ready to become disciples. They have been brought low and suffered humiliation in their recognition of their situation. Without this humiliation, few of us will ever find our way to be one of Jesus's "little ones." We will not be able to approach God in the proper way. Children, because they depend on others for their very existence, cannot help but live by humility. The task for us as disciples of Jesus is to learn how to break back into the humility from which we began as children.

All that being said, Christianity is realistic about the desires of people for status, recognition, and the wielding of power which will more often than not lead them to hurt others and often undermine their faith. That is why Jesus assures us that stumbling blocks will exist within the Church and will cause all sorts of mischief. The Kingdom has indeed come, but it takes time and patience and loving correction to lessen the hold of worldly habits within the Church. Sometimes a person will even have to be disciplined or removed because he is causing others to stumble. If a person does not repent of his action even when approached repeatedly by concerned members of the body, he may have to be removed from fellowship. He may be the hand that has to be cut off and cast away. This is a sad reality, but God takes the care of His "little ones" very seriously. Those who cast a stumbling block before these fragile souls would be better off being thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.

Everyone has a part to play in God's Church, and all of the parts are important. It is when people begin to think that their part should occupy a role it was not made for that trouble starts. The famous discussion of St. Paul in 1st Corinthians makes this point well: For the body does not consist of one member but of many…If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose…The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable…God has so adjusted the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:14-25)

When people within the Church choose self-love and desire for status over putting others first, they will become stumbling blocks and cause others to fall. Both Jesus and Paul are trying to teach us that we in the Church need each other in order to be whole. We must be a people that does not countenance speech and behavior that tells a member that they are not really important to the body. We must be a community that in no way places stumbling blocks in the way of those sincerely desiring to follow Jesus.

Without dying to self and its agenda, without leaving behind the vision I have for "My Church," none of us can really do the work God has called us to. Jesus has used the dramatic imagery of cutting off hands and feet to bring home the point to his disciples that how they live together is crucial for the salvation that has come through His ministry. The church that is just a collection of individuals on their own customized spiritual program will not really function effectively as Christ's body. They cannot because they have not acquired the skill to act as one in the care of the weaker ones in the group, so they will be ill equipped to reach out to other, perhaps very vulnerable, people. These are those lost sheep Jesus speaks of.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the model for all of us. Now we must all be shepherds of one another. Jesus has been the shepherd who has left the ninety-nine to go in search of the one who has gone astray. So like Him we must seek the one lost because it is the will of the Father in Heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost. With all the things vying for our attention, it is still of supreme importance to care for the one who is lost. This may not make sense to the world, it may seem like a misuse of limited resources, but it is the will of God. And it really is a key task of the grateful disciple, for he or she knows that without God's grace, we are all lost. We are to be grace-givers to others because we are to be Christ to others, as far as we are able.

The parable of the lost sheep is not about us; it is about God's unrelenting love of Israel and those called to be disciples of God's son. The people called by Jesus cannot help but refuse any logic that would suggest some of these little ones should be sacrificed for the good of the greatest number. Jesus's ministry, his patience with his disciples, embodies God's fierce desire to have the little ones cared for. Just as God refuses to lose sight of them, neither can we.

Robert Philp

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