Just about every church I go past has a sign out the front telling people that they are welcome. Almost anyone who is involved in a church will be able to tell you that it is important that we are welcoming communities. We want people who connect with us in one way or another to feel welcomed and accepted when they come through our doors, or participate in one of our events or programs. Welcoming is so important to us that we have an entire roster dedicated to making sure that when people come to worship on a Sunday morning, they are met with a warm smile, a hearty handshake and a friendly ‘Good morning.’
When Jesus talked about welcoming, he wasn’t talking about a sign out the front of our church or a roster of people to say ‘Good morning.’ The Greek word which Jesus used and is often translated as ‘welcome’ is more about receiving a person who knocks on our door, for example. To welcome or receive them means inviting them in, spending time with them, getting to know them and being in relationship with them. That’s why this word can also be translated as ‘accepted’ or ‘embraced.’ To welcome someone means to invite them into our lives and embrace them, possibly physically like a hug, but definitely in relationship.
One thing about that really hits me about Jesus’ words in Mark 9:37 is who Jesus encourages us to welcome or embrace in relationship with us. Jesus says,
‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.’ (NLT)
We might be familiar with the times Jesus points to the children and tells his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to people like them (see Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). However, Jesus’ message here is different. He is saying that when we welcome little children, we actually welcome him, and we welcome God with them. Jesus is saying that as we embrace our children as a community, and as we establish and foster relationships with them as our younger brothers and sisters in the faith, we are also embracing Jesus in those relationships.
Think about that the next time you give a child a hug or hold a baby. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we are embracing him in our relationship with that child. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to hug God? Maybe Jesus is pointing us to a way of doing that.
Another thing that strikes me about Jesus’ words is that I couldn’t find him saying this about anyone else in the New Testament. Jesus talked about people welcoming him through the disciples he sent out as missionaries (Matthew 10:40 NIV; John 13:20 NLT) but I couldn’t find Jesus saying that we welcome him through any people other than children. It’s significant that Matthew (18:5), Mark and Luke (9:48) all report Jesus saying the same thing. I tend to think that if one gospel writer includes something Jesus said, then it must be important. If two writers both have it, then it’s even more important. If three or more gospel writers record Jesus saying the same thing, then we’d better be listening. Because Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain these words about embracing Jesus and our heavenly Father as we embrace our children, we had better be paying very close attention to what Jesus is saying to us here.
This is why our work with Growing Young is so vital for our church. It gives us 6 strategies through which we can be welcoming and embracing children in our congregation, and welcoming and embracing Jesus in them. We welcome and embrace children and young people when we:
- Hand over leadership positions and responsibilities
- Empathise with them
- Take Jesus’ message seriously
- Fuel a relationally warm community
- Prioritize young people and their families everywhere in the congregation
- Are the best neighbours towards others, both locally and globally
One reason why Growing Young is so important for us is because it encourages us to recognize the presence of Jesus in, with and through the children and young people of our community. If what Jesus said is true, then we need to ask if Jesus would feel welcomed by our congregation. It is too easy for us to prioritize what we want for ourselves rather than what will embrace young people. I hope for a congregation where children and young people are surrounded by more mature sisters and brothers in the faith who will care for them, walk with them through the joys and struggles of life, and will apprentice them into living in the way of Jesus so they can grow into the faith, hope and love that come with being his followers. Growing Young is about growing as a congregation which recognises Jesus in our children and young people, which welcomes and embraces them as the presence of Jesus with us, and through whom we might find the grace and peace of Jesus.
There is something very different about what Jesus says in this text. Nowhere else in the gospels do I hear Jesus saying that we welcome him through other people in the same way that we welcome him in our children. Maybe he wants us to give them special attention, special care, to receive and embrace them in the same way we would receive and embrace him.
Our family is very thankful for the ways in which this congregation has welcomed and embraced us over the three years we have been here. In particular, we are very thankful for the way you have welcomed and embraced our children. I hope and pray that every child and young person who has a connection with our congregation would experience that same kind of welcome and acceptance. As we welcome and embrace the children and young people God gives us, we also welcome and embrace Jesus, and we welcome God.
Because God comes to us in a special way through our kids.