Sermon for Sunday 19 September 2021
Trinity 16 Fr Julian Browning
Mark 9.36 Jesus then took a little child, set him in front of them, and put his arms around him …
Jesus said that the first will be last; he said that the Son of Man would rise from the dead. They didn’t listen very well to sermons back then, and we’re not much better now. So Jesus gave his disciples a living sermon instead, and it will have to do for us too. Jesus took a little child, set him in front of them and put his arms around him. The child, paidion, could be boy or girl. These days we are conditioned to see children as a protected species up to university age, but there was no safeguarding in Jesus’s time. A child was exactly what you didn’t want to be, without status, without respect, without a place in society, a servant, sometimes it’s the same word for child or servant in the Gospels, everything that is true, as it turned out, about the one who is crucified. So the child became a Christian symbol, strength made perfect in weakness. Like so much that Jesus said, the disciples only understood what his living sermon meant after the resurrection. It will be the same for you and me. When we somehow stumble into some approximation of faith in the Resurrection, we stop worrying what it all means. Let us look then at this living sermon. Let us stop trying to understand, because to understand is to control, and look instead into the eyes of the child.
What can we see? We see ourselves. The child is you. The child is you as God sees you. The child is you as you were, and as you can be again, whatever age you may be. Your childhood is not something you’ve left behind, it lives still. Do you have random flashbacks to your childhood? These might be pleasant, they might be upsetting, they might be imagined, but there’s no denying that they are real. We still have all the possibilities of the child, the potential for beatitude, a new life ahead of us. When Jesus put the child in front of us, he was doing what all good liturgy does, the outward expression of inward reality, it makes explicit for us what is already there, the eternity of childhood, we can’t miss it; you are still held, you do not have to know it all, you are in the hands of a living God. Childhood is not childishness; childishness is just tiresome and is certainly not confined to children. Childhood is the love that springs up, the love that does not discriminate, a fearless love. Perfect love casts out fear. A child lives in the present. A young child has indiscriminate love for all things, and therefore little fear. The child in Jesus’s arms is a living sermon about complete faith and utter dependence, we are that child, and what we might dismiss as sentimentality, Jesus’s arms around us, is a truthful image, and the child is also Jesus in the arms of His Father. Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.
He took a little child because for Jesus the child is a symbol for one who has entered the Kingdom of Heaven. A child has no mask. A child has a free connection to an inner world. The child in Jesus’ arms is a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven itself. To get to that Kingdom, we enter as children, no false façade, no secrets, newborn, closely connected to an inner world, using the natural gifts of childhood: imagination, spontaneity, and creativity. This is to be our new life, our eternal life. This is not an innocent life, but it is a full life. When we look at the child in Jesus’ arms, we see our new self, our rescued self, to whom all things are new, freshly seen, as eternal and as beautiful, as when God first saw and still sees his Creation. However much knowledge and experience we might have, we will always be children in the face of divine love. We are made by God, loved by God, and sustained by God.
When we see and recognise ourselves in that living sermon, we are ready to join the little group of disciples and listen intently to Jesus. In today’s Gospel Jesus prophesies his Passion; it’s the second prophecy of three recorded by St Mark. They are not only prophecies of a death. They are prophecies of resurrection. “…he will rise again.” Jesus lives, and his being is not limited to one location in space and time. He lives with God. A child understands that. What is taken up by God into His kingdom is never limited by space and time. So those raised up by God, those who experience resurrection now, have eternal life. Lift up your hearts. You are raised with Christ. And the term that is used for resurrection in St Mark’s Gospel is not a difficult religious word needing a sermon to explain it, but a commonplace word in daily use, meaning lifting up, raising up, arise and walk, as ordinary and as joyful and as natural a movement as when you and I, as children, were lifted up into another’s arms.