Henri Nouwen is one of the most influential Christian writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. He taught at top universities in the US for over twenty years and was a rising star of Christian acadamia. But then his life took an interesting turn. He spent a year’s sabbatical at l’Arche community in france. A community set up to live alongside people with mental and physical disabilities. It impacted his life so much that he was willing to give up teaching and accept a call to become a pastor at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada.
Henri meet Adam there and took on part of the responsibility for caring for Adam, who was severely disabled, helping him with his morning routine… Nouwen writes
“ helping Adam meant waking him up at 7:00am, taking off his pajamas and dressing him in a bathrobe, walking him to the bathroom, shaving his beard, giving him a bath, choosing his clothes for the day, dressing him, combing his hair, walking with him to the kitchen, making his breakfast, supporting his glass as he drank, brushing his teeth, putting on his coat, gloves, and cap, getting him into his wheelchair, and pushing him over the pothole-rich road to daybreak day program, where he would spend the day until 4:00pm.”
Nouwen does not romanticise the nature of his relationship with Adam. In his book ‘Adam: God’s beloved” he talks of the struggles he had… he thought at first that they had put the neediest member of the community in the hands of the most incompetent’. He talks of learning not to rush Adam along, as it resulted in him having major seizures, but to learn to go at Adam’s pace.. Nouwen came to appreciate the time spent with Adam and value the privilege of knowing and loving him. Time with Adam became Nouwen’s quite time, he comments about how Adam who could not speak was able to teach him…
‘ His wonderful presence and his incredible worth would enlighten us to comprehend that we, like him, are also precious, graced, and beloved children of God, whether we see ourelves as rich or poor, intelligent or disabled, good-looking or unattractive.”
The same kind of learning that Jesus wants to convey in the passage we are looking at today in response to his disciples question ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”.
This year we are working through Jesus teaching on the kingdom of heaven In Matthew’s gospel. The series is called ‘A 2020 vision of the kingdom of God: the Manifesto, mission, meaning and means of the much awaited kingdom of Heaven’. In Chapter 18 Jesus talks about the means of the Kingdom of God… speaking of the sort of community his disciples were to form, what the church should be like. A kingdom of God community where the agenda of this world is turned on its head, where it is not about greatness and status but humble trust and service, not about having our own way but careful care for others, working together on reconciliation and forgiveness. A community not about the powerful but the powerless.
It starts with that question that the disciples ask Jesus “Who then is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” this question comes after a period of Jesus ministry where the disciples had come to realise that Jesus was indeed the messiah, God’s Son. Peter had confessed it, it had been confirmed by Jesus feeding miracles, walking on water, and for at least three key disciples by the transfiguration. The obvious answer to the question who is the greatest in the kingdom of course is Jesus, the messiah, however Jesus had spoken of his messiahship leading to his suffering and death. And the disciples understanding of the Kingdom was still shaped by the aspirations of the Jewish people of an independent Israel as a world power. A political military messiah, that would lead to power and status. In the other gospels the question is crouched “who will sit at your right hand and you’re left when you come into your kingdom”. Who will get the top jobs, be the top dogs.
Jesus puts a child in the middle of them. An object lesson and tells them unless they change and become like this child they will not enter the kingdom. Unless they take the lowly position of a child they will not be the great in the Kingdom of heaven. We struggle with what Jesus is meaning. Does it mean having a childlike faith a sense of innocence? A naive unquestioning faith? Maybe it would be nice if it was… But that does not answer the question Jesus is asked. Maybe it represents our cultures understanding of children. But we are talking about status and position in the Jewish and first century world, a child had no status of their own. Child mortality rates were high, children’s value were as workers in the family farms or business. Bible commentator Michael Wilkins puts it like this…” The humility of a child consists of their inability to advance his or her own cause apart from the help and resources of a parent.” The kingdom of heaven is not about earning or deserving God’s favour. But rather it is about knowing that we like a child are totally dependent on our heavenly father and his love for us, his love shown in the sending of his own son Jesus Christ to live, suffer and die for us that enables us to come into the Kingdom… by god’s grace not our greatness, God’s mercy not our merit.
Then Jesus challenges the thinking of the disciples who are looking at who is the greatest, by speaking of the fact that these little ones are of utmost importance to God. The Pharisees, and well all of us, I guess, have this tendency to see powerful people in the community, rich people in the community, strong people in the community, adult people in the community as more important than others, poor, low status, children. But the community that will be the embassy of God’s Kingdom is to have a different perceptive. Children and the little ones, the powerless and the easily ignored and overlooked are important and central to the kingdom of heaven. They matter to God, so they should matter to his people. The kingdom of heaven is different, we all enter realising our spiritual poverty and putting our trust in God’s great grace, that affirms the value of all and importance of the little ones and in particular children.
Then Jesus reinforces this point when he sounds a lot like the Godfather rather than God’s son. He says that it would be better for anyone to have a millstone put round their neck and thrown into the sea, a first century version of concrete overshoes and thrown in the east river, than causing one of these little ones to stumble or be lead astray. He challenges the disciples to be careful about their own lives. He uses the hyperbole of mutilation, of plucking eyes out and cutting off feet and hands to warn and extol his disciples to ensure they had a very strong self-discipline in place to ensure they did not cause those little ones to stumble. It was better that they entered the kingdom without eyes and hands and feet rather than being thrown in to the fires of eternal judgment. The continuing in sin in such a way as to lead people astray is a sign that we were not genuine followers of Jesus in the first place.
That is quite a heavy way to finish really. So what does this passage have to say to us today.
First and foremost that we are a community that is founded on Grace. It is humbling to think that we like that little child have no ability to advance our own cause with God, that we are dependent on the action and love of a parent, our heavenly Father. The great thing is that God does loves us, and God calls us into relationship with him, invites us into his kingdom through his son Jesus Christ. We are God’s beloved, his adopted Children. It goes against a world where we think of ourselves as independent, able to make it on our own effort and ability, a world where questions about who is the greatest, status, position, power and prominence matter. The kingdom of heaven flips that on its head and speaks of being greatly and sacrificially loved, graciously welcomed in, based on the power and promise of God, God’s greatness not ours.
Secondly that we are a community that is to be characterised by that grace. That reflects the love of God in how we see and treat other people particularly the little ones. When we humbly realise how much we are dependent on God’s grace it allows us to see the value of people around us. That the little ones, those that the world does not see or does not see as having power or position of being important, who may be able to be sidelined and thrown away, are precious and equally God’s beloved. Humble gratitude leads to humble service, receiving grace leads to gracious care and concern for others. In fact as Henri Nouwen found out when you see the belovedness of the little ones you start to realise the magnitude for God’s love for you.
That grace is put into action by seeing that we do not cause those little ones to stumble, that we look at self-discipline to make sure that does not happen. In the epistles we see this aqpplied in different situations. To the Church at Corinth Paul has to write to tell the church not to simply gather and let the rich people eat all the food, because the slaves who were Christian brothers and sisters, couldn’t come till they had finished their work for the day and often all the food would be gone, the ones who needed it most went away empty. James, writes to his church and tells them not to simply give the important and rich people the best seats and to say to the poor go stand down the back, sending the hungry away with a simple God bless you. Have a nice day… we need to look at how we act in the same way towards these types of little ones.
When we think specifically of children it would be easy to talk of the horror of paedophile priests and other forms of abuse , as they seem to fit into Jesus description of actions that speak of lives where people have allowed sin to destroy them and traumatise little ones. In a very practical way the Churches response to put in place child protection policies is a self-disciplining of ourselves to guard against as much as we can the possibility of such abuse. It also sets a basis of the churches grieving over and opposition to abortion and euthanasia. But when we think of the question who is the greatest it challenges us on more relatable level as well. In what ways does meeting our own needs and our own preferences and our own comfort cause the little ones to stumble.
I worked as the youth coordinator for the old Auckland presbytery for four years, and one of the things I found very sad was watching churches hold on to their traditions and ways of doing things at the expense of their children and young people. Sadly the Church in the western world is split along the lines of the cultural gap caused in the 1960’s by the massive influence and change in culture by the mass media. We could equally talk of churches where older people feel sidelined and unwanted. Our vision as a church is that we want to be a flourishing Christian community that is intergenerational, that values all generations, and that will mean we all have to be prepared to put aside wanting it the way we like it for the sake of caring about others of welcoming in the little ones.
I wanted to finish the sermon today with a killer illustration an example that would tie this all together. All I could think of was the obvious answer to the question who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven… Jesus Christ, who showed his greatness through giving his life for world. Whose love for all us little ones lead him to the cross. Paul writing the church at Philippi puts Jesus word in a positive but even more challenging way…
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in
very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God
exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.