Jesus and The Child – Principles discovered on the road to Jerusalem

I’d like to invite you to take a walk with Jesus and his disciples from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem and note what we find about child ministry.

Author – Keith White 
 This article has been printed and given as a lecture in many different contexts. 
 Dr Keith J. White is Director of Mill Grove where, with his wife Ruth, he is responsible for the residential community caring for children who have experienced separation and loss. He is Chair of the Child Theology Movement and founder of the Christian Child Care Forum.

Walking with Jesus
Caesarea Philippi was on the slopes of Mount Hermon, north of the Sea of Galilee not far from the present day Damascus. The journey we are embarking on with Jesus took him from near the very north of the area in which he ministered to near the south, from a centre of pagan worship to the heart of Jewish celebration and sacrifice. It is difficult to keep track of Jesus’ life story when we focus on single verses or passages and so we can miss emerging trends or links.

Do you remember what happened immediately after the stunning revelation on the Mount of Transfiguration that confirmed in an unforgettable way the truth of Peter’s declaration? The father of a boy who was suffering from seizures, probably a form of epilepsy, confronted Jesus and told him that his disciples hadn’t been able to help his boy. They asked Jesus why they were powerless in this situation and, as Jesus explained why, the journey began on which we now embark with them. When we look at this, we notice that he led by actions and example, not simply by words. That is how we will best teach and equip others. The process is as important as the content of the Gospel. Jesus & childhood 
 I have argued elsewhere that a theme running right through this climactic period of the ministry of Jesus is that of children and childhood. It seems as if every incident and all teaching is compared and contrasted with childlikeness. I am not going to expound this now but my exposition is set within this understanding of the narrative.

So let’s begin our walk with Jesus. For some perhaps the idea of a pilgrimage will resonate, even possibly suggesting for some a forerunner to the Stations of the Cross. I want to share from this passage eight insights into the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven taught by Jesus that are axiomatic in our ministry among children, young people and families.

The critical importance of faith and prayer
As far as we can ascertain, it was on Mount Hermon that Peter, James and John saw the transfigured Jesus with Moses and Elijah and it was in the shadow of this snow-capped peak that the father brought his son to Jesus. Jesus healed the boy. The disciples, who had been unable to help, wanted to know why they couldn’t rebuke and drive out the demon. Jesus spoke of their lack of faith (Matthew) and the need for prayer (Mark).

The two responses form an integrated truth: faith and prayer are inseparable. They are the bedrock of our mission with children in every setting. 
 As I have pondered this response of Jesus, it has begun to dawn on me that the overwhelming importance of prayer and faith was not just something that Jesus reiterates in his teaching and mentoring of his followers but was incarnated in his life and ministry. In John’s gospel we have the privilege of eavesdropping as Jesus prays. Later we will enter into the wrestling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsamane. But this was accompanied by the profoundest faith in history. He has just told his followers that he must suffer and die and that he will be raised to life on the third day. Have you stopped to reflect on the faith of Jesus? 
 I’m not sure what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind when he summoned up his great catalogue of people of faith by referring to Jesus as the author of our faith (Hebrews 11:2) but, in using a word applied to Jesus as the author of life and salvation, perhaps we should pause to let the significance of this moment in his ministry sink in.

Notice before we move on, the faith of those who brought people to Jesus, including the father of the epileptic boy. Until we can also pray ‘Thy will be done’ our interventions are loose canons! 
We should seek to find the agenda of our heavenly Father in the life of a child or family. Our primary task is to discover the Mission Deo and to join Him in it, not to seek to enlist His assistance for our own endeavours!

The necessity of changing and becoming like little children 

By heading south we have now arrived at Capernaum, the well-known town on the shores of Lake Galilee, where Peter’s house was situated, and one of the centres of the ministry of Jesus. It was the place where he had healed so many as the sun was setting and so fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. So what do we make of this text? The meaning of this teaching is commonly misunderstood. Usually people make a list of the attributes of children (for example: they are trusting, questioning, reliant and dependent on others) and then seek to apply them to adults. We must be very careful if we do this that we don’t read our adult and cultural preferences into children! A primary question concerns whether we are prepared to change or not. 
 If we are not, then we are unlikely ever to enter into God’s way of doing things.

So, let’s ask ourselves whether we are allowing Jesus to change us. Then comes the issue of becoming like children and I want to admit that I am becoming steadily less sure what it means as I study its meaning with others across the world. We certainly must avoid sentimentality in our responses and ideas. Perhaps it has something to do with having open and enquiring minds; being ready to learn and to obey, to grow, to change, to wonder. Put practically, it may be about being ready and willing to pray the Lord’s Prayer: 
 “Our Father in Heaven … your way of doing things take precedence, your will be done … ” “You are the potter: I am the clay.”

Welcoming children in the name of Jesus and so welcoming Jesus Himself 

We are still in Capernaum, with the fishing boats moving silently across waters of Galilee clearly visible as Jesus speaks. Some years ago I was asked a question that cut me to the quick. I had already given more than quarter of a century to caring for children at risk in my family home, Mill Grove. The (angry) questioner challenged me: “Do you really want to be in this ministry?” 
 I immediately knew from my instinctive defensive reaction that he had touched a raw nerve. The result was a deep pondering of my calling during which I realised that I had reservations and possibly regrets that must have affected my relationship with the children and young people I sought to help. Over time I began to learn what it was really to welcome children in the name of Jesus: to be open to them with my whole being.

And I have come to recognise those parents, teachers and carers who have opened their hearts to children; who love and respect the children they are alongside. 
 When we are open to children, really joyful in our ministry, then we will find that we have welcomed Jesus. If so our work is a great privilege. This interpretation is an antidote to a spirituality that focuses on the pilgrimage and identity of self. In such a case, ministry among children might be a way of meeting our own needs rather than theirs.

Understanding how abhorrent child abuse is to God
With barely a pause, Jesus changes mood dramatically. It could well be that these words of Jesus are his most angry and condemnatory. And as he speaks he surely points at Galilee. That is where the ripples of the person drowned with a millstone around his neck would forever be lodged in the imaginations of the listeners to his dire warning. It’s so hard to read and hear them that we often simply omit them. Don’t you shudder when you hear of child abuse by church leaders and the attempts of some to cover it up? Can you imagine how Jesus feels or who can sound the depths of sorrow in the Father heart of God (the title of the hymn by Graham Kendrick) about this? But this is not restricted to specific acts of abuse. It includes everything that might cause children (little ones) to sin. Have you considered the world we have allowed to be created for twenty-first century children and the pressures on them to sin? Think of child soldiers who steal, murder and rape in their hundreds of thousands. Think of the tens of millions of child prostitutes.

Think of the children of the rich who grow up to envy the possessions and wealth of others and long to have it. Consider those who are ‘branded’ around the world by trans-national corporations and marketing machines. Think of corporate and institutional paedophilia. In all these cases and so many more, children are being led into sin. How does God see the modern world developing around us, given His primary concern for children, little ones, the weak and the vulnerable? And where does that leave us? Question from child at risk: “Why do you go to church? You know everything in the Bible, and you are good, so you don’t need to go!” Reply from carer: “I go to kneel down and ask God’s forgiveness not only for the sins that know I have committed but also for the systems and institutions that I am allowing to be created and not challenging that cause little ones to sin.” It’s a sobering thought.

Valuing each child as an individual of inestimable worth
The water of Galilee is still lapping near the feet of Jesus but now it is the hills, particularly to the east, richer in colours and textures as the afternoon turns to dusk, where the listeners now focus their attention. Don’t overlook the fact that the story of the one lost sheep in Matthew’s Gospel is set in the context of children and little ones and that it begins with a’ reference to the guardian angels of children. There is also a moral: see that you do not look down on these little ones. There have been some varied Christian reactions to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but something that underpins the document is a sense of the dignity and worth of each child. 
 It is salutary to reflect on the fact that this is why we are all alive in Christ today: because God sees each one of us as of eternal, value and sent Jesus as the Shepherd to search for us and bring us to our Heavenly home on his shoulders.

Allowing children and their families and friends to come to Jesus
Jesus now leaves Capernaum and Galilee and wends his way south along the River Jordan but on the East side known as Transjordania or Perea. He would have passed the place where he was baptised and it is not fanciful to consider that it was near such a spot that this next incident occurs. 
 John the Baptist at first resisted the request of Jesus for baptism before allowing the authority of Jesus to take precedence. This is one of the eight elements where we probably think we can move on without much need to reflect. Surely we all agree on this point? What controversy could ‘there possibly be? Well, the disciples, having been taught specifically by Jesus all that we have just considered, actually tried to prevent people from bringing children to Jesus! 
 And sadly it is not difficult to find examples of churches and Christians who have, intentionally or not, done this down through the centuries.

We have tended to overestimate our own skills and importance and to underestimate the significance of the direct relationship between children and their Saviour. What if people bring children to Jesus outside our office hours? What if they have some very strange ideas? What if they need, in our view, education and medical help? Please don’t lightly assume that you and I and our ministries have been innocent in all this. 
 But rejoice that when children do find their way to Jesus, he welcomes them and blesses them beyond our comprehension.

Seeing Children as Signs of the Kingdom of Heaven
(Reference: Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17.) Just as the child is both fully human, and yet still becoming an adult, so the Kingdom of Heaven is both “Now” and “Not Yet”. We are still alongside the River Jordan, and the final destination of Jesus, and the critical event in the unfolding revelation of His Kingdom in Jerusalem, is near. Let me briefly mention just two points. 
 First, if children are signs of the Kingdom of Heaven, then we must get rid of all notions of power, territory, possession and hierarchies to enter it. This Kingdom is a whole new way of living. It’s an upside- down, inside-out and back-to-front world. Put simply it works on almost exactly the opposite principles of the political kingdoms we know from personal experience and history worldwide. God’s ways are not our ways.

Where He has His way, the whole feel of the place, and the nature of our common life together, change. 
 Second, just as the child is both fully human, and yet still becoming an adult, so the Kingdom of Heaven is both “Now” and “Not Yet”. You have daily reminders of God’s way of doing things whenever you see children at work and play. Is there a better sign of the Kingdom? Is this what the “Resurrection Mind” is all about, as it refuses to become fixed and finalised, as it remains open to further journeying, revelation and change? 
 This surely is a characteristic of Mission-shaped Church. It is such a complete contrast with what the disciples and the mother of James and John still had in mind somewhere between the Jordan and Jericho (Matthew 20:20-28).

Understanding Children’s Expressions in the Context of God’s Way of Doing Things (Reference: Matthew 21:12-16.) And now, at last Jesus enters the Temple itself. He has come to His Father’s House. He has come home. He has come to His own. The vast roar of the crowds has ebbed, like the withdrawing tide, and there are now just a group of young people calling out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as they see the signs of genuine mission in action. The authorities are as indignant as the disciples were when people brought children to Jesus! And Jesus draws their attention to Psalm 8 verse 2. 
 If we had time to meditate on Psalm 8 we would begin to see how the cries of newborn babies can be understood in a whole new light when we trust God’s way of doing things; His purposes and intentions. In the Temple the authorities saw the behaviour of the young people who were singing and shouting as wholly inappropriate. Jesus saw them in a completely different way: they were doing exactly what God had intended.

Closing Reflection
At this point we must leave our walk with Jesus. This period in the life of Jesus is of considerable importance in understanding Christian community with children in the midst. There may be no great surprises, but perhaps we are struck by the way Jesus seems to have anticipated modern theories, policies, conventions and legislation. If we are to inspire and equip other Christians to join us in ministering to children, then it makes such a difference if we root and ground our teaching in the life and teaching of Jesus. It is as Rowan Williams said “always worth taking Jesus seriously!” 
 This walk, a journey, a pilgrimage from Mount Hermon to Mount Moriah is one that Jesus calls us to join.

It was an epic one for Jesus, and to all those whose eyes and ears are open, the heart of the Kingdom and Mission have been revealed, it is also momentous. 
 Where is the place where you now need to pause and be with the Master, so that He can show you more of His will and purposes? He is in no hurry to move on. He will wait for you and with you until you are ready to move on. 
 And the whole journey is framed by the cries of an epileptic boy (at the outset) and then the cries of a group of rowdy young people (at the close). Jesus heard in these shouts an echo of the cries of suckling babes. In God’s view such raw sounds are one of the most beautiful, insightful and powerful expressions in creation. 
 Strange that all this has been so hidden from the wise and learned commentators! But then Jesus had already anticipated this: “I thank you, Father, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes…Yes, Father, for such was thy will” (Matthew 11; 25-26).