Rev. Drew Stockstill
Speaking of Heaven: Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
October 10, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
When I told my friend, Phil, that Ellen was pregnant with Lydia Grace, he said, “Oh, wow! You’re going to get to meet someone who was just with God!” What he meant was that each of us, before we on earth do dwell, exist in the company of our creator. Perhaps then, the greatest teachers of faith are not necessarily the schooled preachers, the aged theologians, the mystic monks, but the unbearably vulnerable children who were more recently with God and carry the good news which becomes harder and harder to hold on to the more the world introduces us to its ideas of what is good for us. “And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Let us pray: Holy God, in our hearing of your word, speak to the child within us, the child you made in your image and likeness, and help us to nurture that child, that in our whole being we may experience more healing and blessing than fear and grief, and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Jesus and his disciples continued on their journey to Jerusalem, and to the cross and resurrection, and along the way, Jesus speaks to us about the great themes of his earthly ministry. We are looking at those themes in this series called, “Speaking of Heaven.” Last week we heard Jesus’ teachings on welcome and his will for us to maintain his spirit of welcome in the world at all times. This week we have, in a sense, a living parable in three acts, which teaches us about receiving the kingdom of God. Turns out, according to Jesus, it’s hard. It’s as hard as getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, it’s as hard as an adult coming to peace with our vulnerability, and finding in delight in being at the mercy of God.
Act 1: “The Kids are Alright”
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to touch them. Sometimes, when I’m playing with one of my daughters I’ll lift her over my head, and she squeals with delight.
As soon as I put her down, what does she say? “Again.” So, I pick her up, over my head, and back down. Again. Up and down, again. And then the other one has heard the game is on and she’s there, “do me.” “Again.” They are fueled by this. Filled with energy. They never tire of the thrill of the affection, being in the air, at my mercy. They find it both exhilarating and comforting. They do not get bored with the excitement of fully trusting, squealing, giggling, again, again.
This is how I’ve long imagined children around Jesus, interrupting his “serious talks” as Lydia Grace calls sermons. It’s in character for Jesus to pick them up again and again, even while sharing the good news. Likely there were those in the crowd, like in some churches, who missed the point, complaining about the presence of the children being a distraction from the serious business of worship and preaching. The disciples spoke sternly to them.
But studying the story again, I noticed, these kids weren’t the ones who ran to Jesus to be pick up, and tickled, again and again. Here people were bringing children to Jesus. They were not bringing themselves. And for him to touch them.
This touch was more than a sign of respect, or a customary blessing. The Greek word for touch is the word hapto, it’s the word Mark uses when Jesus touches someone and heals them. Hapto.
At the beginning of the gospel, a leper came to Jesus, begging to be made clean, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,” hapto, and immediately he was made clean – healed.
Mark 3, “all those who had afflictions pressed around [Jesus] in order to touch him,” hapto, they were healed.
Mark 5, a woman had been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years. She heard about Jesus, and thought, “If I but touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed,” so she did in a crowd, and she was. “Who touched me,” he asked. Hapto.
Hapto, in Mark 7 when Jesus touches a man’s tongue and restores his speech.
Hapto, in Mark 8 when they brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to heal him. He did.
And finally, the last hapto in the gospel is here when people brought little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. They were bringing children who needed healing. These were not kids who brought themselves – healthy bodied kids, who ran, skipped, and jumped to Jesus. These kids
were carried by worried mothers and fathers, grandparents, care takes, carried to Jesus, in arms, on backs, on mats. I’ve sat in enough waiting rooms at children’s hospitals to know, it’s hard to see kids in pain. It was one thing for kids to be around Jesus, again, again, again. It’s another to face children whose beautiful, innocent light is dimmed and flickering. The disciples, for whatever reason, (burnout?) wow, are do they not spectacularly mess it up right here. People holding kids in need of healing and the disciples rebuke them. Y ou don’t fall much further from the kingdom of God than that. And when Jesus sees it, he doesn’t hesitate to lay into those disciples. “He was indignant…Let the little children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these the kingdom of God belongs.”
Speaking of heaven, it’s kids, those who leap into the arms of Jesus, and those who are placed there, that already, currently, in this present moment, exist in the kingdom of God. That’s what Jesus says. That part of eternity that we so often think of primarily of as a future, after death destination, is something that such as these kids exist in today. How easy it is for them to simply be at home in that which many adult disciples strive with great anxiety for, hoping we’ll get there after we die. And it is kids in need of healing, wounded children that inspire Jesus to speak of heaven this way. Who could be more vulnerable, more helpless than these children? And they are already in the kingdom of God.
Act 2: Shock and Grief
A humble man knelt before Jesus with the million, or trillion-dollar question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the eternal life?” He’s speaking of heaven. He has all he needs in the way of earthly possessions, he’s pretty confident he’s led a moral, faithful life, now he’s shoring up eternity. His earthly retirement plan was secure now he’s checking with the good rabbi, spiritual advisor to confirm his heavenly accounts are in good order. It’s the last area of his life he’s feeling vulnerable.
The disciples have no problem letting a polite man whose got some money in to see Jesus about an important spiritual matter. This is the kind of serious business they approve of.
Let’s contrast this scene with the prior. Children in need of healing, brought to Jesus, and adult Jesus followers stand in the way. Jesus rebukes his followers and lifts up the children, touches them, blesses them. They, the helpless, are the model of discipleship, of earthly kingdom dwelling.
A responsible, faithful, well-to-do man of faith concerned with living a good life and inheriting eternal life, lacks only one thing. In the end of his encounter with Jesus he leaves with shock and grief. When Jesus sees the one thing the man lacks, sees his vulnerability, it fills him with love for this man. Jesus’ wants this man to lack more, sell all that he owns. The one thing the man lacks is what the children have in abundance, and that is a complete reliance on the mercy of God. That reliance fills a child with delight, it brings a child back again, and again, and again. To experience complete reliance on the mercy of God fills a child with peace, with joy, with love. But for an adult, for a man with many possessions, to let go of all that he holds on to for security, to give it all away and embrace, like a child the wealth of trust in God, to be at the mercy of Jesus… it is shocking, he goes away grief stricken.
Children know very little control in this life and certainly they seek more and more as they grow. But in their engaging with trusted adults we learn that it is when they can be completely free in their trust of us that they are in heaven.
River has been out of school this week because of a COVID exposure in her class. She’s fine, but it means she got to go to church with me some this week. She’s a good sport about it and likes to be here. She was coloring and snacking and playing with our dog Rhody in my office with the door mostly closed while I met with Paige and Jim on some financial matters. After some time, River poked her head out. She had been so quiet we’d forgotten she was even there. I asked if she needed anything and she said, “no.” I said, “OK. Well, we’re almost done; go back to coloring and I’ll be right there.” She nodded her head but we all saw her big blue eyes fill with the tears and the biggest drops you’ve ever seen run down her cheeks. She didn’t make a sound or a single complaint, but in that moment all three adults let out the same sound of heart melting pity. I went to her and picked her up, as she let out a few sobs. She only wanted to be with us. So, I she set on the counter as we discussed the finer points of the church budget and Paige put big shiny plastic rings on her fingers, and Dr. Hoffman brought her snacks, and the Messiah nursing student doted on her, and she was in heaven. In her vulnerability, we looked at her and loved her. This is how God looks at us, when we embrace our vulnerability and receive his mercy, his compassion, his love, when we receive the kingdom of God. Speaking of heaven....
Act 3: How easy it is.
“Then who can be saved?” asked the perplexed disciples who thought a man like the one who knelt before Jesus to be the picture of success and virtue; a potential leader in their movement, and who tried to shoo away kids in need. This all seems so hard, and for them it was, it is. But it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to try to thread a camel through a needle. What’s the point? And anyway, it’s impossible.
But for God, and for children, well, it's as simple as opening our arms, releasing all we cling to for security and meaning and out of fear, opening our arms to release all the world has filled them with, letting it all fall away, and the fear as well, so that we can better receive the gift of Jesus’ love, so that we can embrace that child within us, reaching out to God, longing to be embraced in all trust and mercy. Opening our arms so we can hold onto him who’s never let that child within us go, as he lifts us in his arms, again, and again, and again. Who can be saved? Well we can, and we are, thanks be to God.