Today, I want to talk about what baptism demands of the Church, as we’ll soon be baptizing little Rylie into the Body of Christ. But I also want to talk about the Gospel passage appointed for today, as is our responsibility every Sunday as preachers governed by a lectionary. We don’t get to pick the readings -- clearly, considering today’s Gospel -- but it is nevertheless our job to receive it with humility and sincerity and preach the truth contained therein. What does the Spirit have to tell us in this Gospel, for this situation in which we find ourselves as this particular parish? That was one of the main questions asked by one of the lecturers at the conference I attended last weekend in Dallas and it’s stuck with me since. Today is the momentous occasion of a baptism, and while our Gospel may not initially appear to harmonize with it, we’re going to dive in anyway! God’s truth always coheres in Scripture, so here we go!
Baptism is first and foremost a cause for celebration because it’s how the church declares victory. We will witness nothing less than a child’s participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today, little Rylie will enter into the fold of a new humanity, cleansed from the sin which has thoroughly corrupted the human community and the whole creation. She will be liberated into the reconciliation achieved by Jesus Christ. The words about baptism in the New Testament of words of victory. For Rylie, the old will passed away, behold, the new will come. She will be buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him in newness of life. And the rest of us gathered around her today as the baptized stand as representatives of that new life. Having professed our own vows in direct response to the event of Rylie’s baptism, we will be irrevocably implicated with her. We are all, with Rylie, members of one Body. So it is a happy day, and God bless Rylie, her parents, godparents, and family who have presented her for so great a sacrament.
While keeping the joy of baptism front and center, however, Christ’s severe admonitions in this morning’s Gospel passage add another dimension to our reflection, seeing that we baptized a child into our midst, a little one. But the grave warning that Christ delivers today regarding our treatment of little ones proceeds directly from his deep and abiding concern for children, which is ultimately the reason why we baptize babies in the first place. So I want us to think in this direction: having just irrevocably implicated ourselves in the life of Rylie in baptism, what does the Spirit have to say to us in this Gospel?
Let’s hear again the main warning from Jesus: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” That’s the better option, compared to the wrath of God. But in the passage, it looks like it almost comes out of nowhere. Jesus just addressed a completely different issue immediately prior, with his disciples complaining that someone else was casting out demons in his name. And as soon as he’s corrected them, he proceeds into this warning about millstones. However, the topic is not unprecedented. In last week’s Gospel, we found the recognizable words from Jesus: “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” I think that the warning about the millstone should be read as the flip side of this statement. Because Jesus identifies himself with children, such that to welcome a child is to welcome Christ, it directly follows that to harm a child or to in any way damage a child’s belief in God is to offend Christ himself. It’s essentially a variation on a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching, where he aligns himself so intimately with the weak, the suffering, and the oppressed that he shares their experiences as his own. “When you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, you put a stumbling block before me,” Jesus is saying.
Because we’ve welcomed a little one into our midst this morning, we have
welcomed Christ into our midst. But we’ve also acted as Christ to Rylie in the welcoming. See how Jesus plays both parts here, the welcomed and the welcomer. He identifies himself with the child, even as he himself takes the child up in his arms. Christ receives the child, and Christ is the child received. And for the Church which is the Body of Christ, this means that we are accountable from both directions. If we in the Church cause a child to stumble, we not only offend Jesus in that we fail to follow his example, we also offend him as the child who stumbles on our account.
Often, it’s by understanding the stakes of failure that our responsibilities become clear. Today’s Gospel is an example of this. The errors that the disciples fall into in this chapter are all very characteristic of distracted adults. Which is why Jesus’ constant focus on children is not surprising. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks his disciples. “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” That sounds familiar. Even if we’re not so arrogant as to constantly assert our superiority, living and working in a competitive society like ours practically compels us to rank ourselves. It’s a demanding distraction, and one which makes life exceedingly difficult for the least of these. And Jesus responds that, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To drive home the point, it’s then that he picks up a child into his arms. To welcome a child is to be a servant of all because you can’t leverage your care of a child for something in return. Caring for children demands a kind of grace; it’s an analogy of God’s own gracious care for us. So committing our attention and care to the children of this parish trains us up in the very likeness of God. Like Mother Beth said last week, Jesus takes up the child “to give the adults in the story... the message of grace to the undeserving.” Kids call the grace out of us, so to speak. And by the way, it’s not like we become different kinds of creatures upon becoming adults. That children explicitly show forth the inherent dignity and irreducible value of humanity is only because… humanity has inherent dignity and an irreducible value.
By the time Jesus deals with the disciples’ next problem with the wrong kinds of people casting out demons in his name, he’s about had it, and launches into the warning about the millstone. One almost gets the sense that what gets Jesus so worked up is that he’s literally witnessing the kinds of calculations and distractions that lead to our neglect of children. And he proceeds to wrench his disciples’ attention, with brutal imagery, to the source of the problem. It’s in them. The problem is each of them, individually. It’s not that fellow disciple who you think has incorrectly assessed his own value over and against yours. And it’s certainly not those other people over there somewhere who don’t boast the right cred to do the special stuff. Both of these distractions are a failure of grace, and those who need grace the most, typified here by children, are the first to suffer from the distractions.
So how do we make good on our vows to support the children we baptize in their lives in Christ? How do we continue to welcome them? I think we begin first by comprehending the gravity of our union with Christ, we share a fundamental identity in Christ that transcends all others. From this shared unity, we welcome our own children by regularly bringing them to church to participate in the liturgy, ensuring their instruction in the Faith, saying the Daily Office with them during the week. And we welcome the children of others by smiling at them in the pews, supporting our Sunday School teachers, bringing meals to new parents. Anything we can do to resist the segregation of ages in the Church will help immensely. And all of this demands our vigilance and attention. It requires that we start renouncing these habits and mindsets which have no room for dependence and vulnerability.
The baptism of infants puts the servanthood of Christ front and center, for by their very nature, children demand our unyielding care. May the Spirit continue to bestow the grace of our own baptisms that we welcome children with joy.