Embracing Children Embracing God (Mark 9:30-37)

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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.

‘Welcoming God’ (Matthew 10:40-42)

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It’s always good to feel welcome. I’m really thankful whenever I am visiting people that, firstly, I have the right address, but also that people are generally welcoming to me. It’s a real blessing to be invited into a people’s homes, to spend time with them over a coffee, and to talk with them about life and the journey of faith that we’re all on. That is why it is important for us as a congregation to be a welcoming community, so that people can feel at ease when they connect with us, and they can find a sense of belonging with us through the welcome we offer.

This text from Matthew 10 comes at the end of Jesus’ instructions to his Twelve Disciples before he sent them out on their first missionary journey. Jesus warned them that not everyone would welcome them and receive the message they brought (vv13b,14). However, Jesus said that those households that did receive them would also receive the peace of God (v13a). Then, at the end of his instructions, Jesus went even further by saying that those who welcomed his disciples also welcomed him, and by receiving him, they even welcomed the presence of God among them.

Stop and think about that for a moment…

On the one hand, these were Jesus’ specific instructions to a certain group of people at a particular time and place. However, as followers of Jesus whom he also sends out into our time and place, Jesus is also saying that when people welcome us, they welcome him and the presence of God with us.

This becomes really important because so often I have heard people ask where God is in the world. When people are hurting, confused, struggling or broken by life’s circumstances, God can often seem to be absent and uncaring. Jesus is saying here that God is present in the struggles, pain, uncertainty and joys of life in the presence of his people. As we live in the good news of God’s present and coming Kingdom, and as we participate in God’s mission to bring his peace into the world, God is present in the living, breathing body of his Son in the world. God makes himself known and extends his healing, life, cleansing and freedom through our words and actions.

This leads me to ask: do our words and actions reflect the grace and love of Jesus and our heavenly Father? As people welcome us into their homes and lives, is the presence of our forgiving and peace-giving God made real in their lives through us?

This becomes our goal as Jesus’ disciples: to grow in the peace of God as members of his Kingdom so that we can be bringing his peace, grace and love to everyone that we meet. The aim of being Jesus’ disciples is less about getting to heaven, and more about making the Kingdom of God real in our world by extending God’s gracious and life-giving presence to everyone who welcomes us. This might be in our homes, our work places, our schools or universities, anywhere we are welcomed and received by other people. The promise of Jesus is that as they welcome him as they welcome us, and by welcoming him they also receive the presence of God who is the source of all life. This is the same God who forgives sinners, who shows grace to those who need it the most but deserve it the least, who brings the light of new life out of the darkness of death, who washes the feet of his followers, and who gives us his all in his self-sacrificing love of the cross.

As we begin a new week, spend some time thinking about who will be welcoming you this week. How can you be the peace-filled and grace-giving presence of God in their lives? Ask the Spirit of God to keep you close with Jesus through faith so that, as people welcome you this week, they might also welcome Jesus in you, and through you they might find peace in the presence of our gracious and loving God.