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The kingdom belongs to such as these

A reflection for a service of acknowledgment and lament on the anniversary of the national apology to survivors of institutionalised childhood sexual abuse

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew 19:13-15 NRSV

At the age of 18, as a first year social work student who knew nothing really about the world, I was placed at a local children’s home to be a mentor and support person to a young girl who had been abused – mentally, physically, and sexually – over a prolonged period of time by her parents.

Well-schooled in the theory of what such an assault can do to the body and soul and innocence of such a small one, I was hopelessly unprepared for the sheer love and delight with which I was greeted each week – or the heart-wrenching sobs and sheer strength of her little hands as she clung to me when it was time for me to leave. 

And so the scene from Luke’s Gospel, though brief, is for me a beautifully human and incredibly powerful one which challenges the traditional place that we as society assign to children.

In Biblical times, children had no rights, no status, and, therefore, no power whatsoever. 

As they are brought to Jesus for a blessing – and please make sure to note that they are brought to him and don’t just approach of their own freewill or accord – Jesus not only protects them from rejection and criticism and makes them feel welcome, but he also up-ends every single power relationship and perception of what eternity with God looks like when he proclaims that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these little ones more than it does to the people who have brought the children to him, more than the disciples who have followed him daily but haven’t seemed to grasp what grace is all about, and certainly more than the pharisees who have kept the letter of the law their whole lives long and use that law to nail Christ to a cross. 

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these …”

I’ve read many commentaries and heard sermons where that line has been used to call us as adults into a more playful relationship with Christ, to innocence, to simplicity, to spontaneity, to wonder, to let go of grudges …. I’ve even preached a few of them myself but, as we talk honestly about the reality of the sexual abuse of children and of the place of the church in the midst of such pain, and as we read these words of Jesus in the light of little children being brought to Jesus for a blessing by one group of adults and turned away by another group of adults, perhaps we should hear a little more clearly that the kingdom of God belongs to: 

  • those who are taken where they don’t want to go,
  • those who are kept from blessing and safety and love, 
  • those who may have rights in this day and age but lack the power or resources to claim them,
  • those who are vulnerable, invisible, voiceless, 
  • those who in their search for God – both intentional and accidental – are turned away because it’s not a convenient time, because they offend our sense of what is right or proper, because church is a place for worship and not for justice ….

On this day, may we be deeply challenged to consider how our church belongs to children and to those like them who, in their vulnerability, are made most welcome in the loving, healing, freeing grace of God. 

How do we create a safe church together in which all can know that they are welcome, in which all can be protected, in which all are given voice?

Yours in Christ
Yvonne

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