Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a well-known 20th century theologian. For many pastor friends of mine he’s on their Mt. Rushmore of top Christian thinkers of all time, and for good reason. He grew up and served as a pastor and theologian in Germany between World Wars I and II, but what many don’t realize is that for the most formative time in his career he primarily pastored children.
It started when he himself was a child. His father was agnostic, his mother was Christian. She was the daughter of a pastor and herself a trained teacher. So little Dietrich basically grew up in a Sunday School class.
In later writing he recalls his mother gathering his siblings and him around her to tell them the stories of Jesus through the illustrations of a picture Bible. It was here with his mother that he learned the power of stories to engage and form faith in children.
Later Bonhoeffer recalls the influence of non-parental adults too. Uncles, friends, neighbors who loved him, who he specifically remembers regarded him as a person. Even at a very young age he had adults that he said “respected and shared in his personhood.”
The other thing he recalls influencing his ministry with children is experiences of their suffering. A death in the family, a lost dog, financial hardships, Dietrich recalls the extent to which these experiences of suffering, for children, often ended up being occasions for experiencing deep love, and deep engagement of theology, even from the mouths of babes.
The disciples saw them coming and tried to shoo them off. “Can’t you see he’s busy? This is grown up stuff. Get those children back in your caravan!” This made Jesus angry. “How dare you!” he said. “Let the little children come to me.”
And they did. Kids. Toddlers. Babes in arms. Drooling, sticky, needy, just as they were, they were brought by their parents to be placed in the hands of Jesus.
While they were still approaching, he made an announcement. “Listen up, grown ups. The kingdom of God, my kingdom, it belongs to them. To little children.” Then, taking a child in his arms and holding her for all to see he said “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive my kingdom like a little child will never enter it.” And then he blessed her, and he stayed there until each and every child had been embraced and blessed.
“This,” says our Brother Dietrich, “this is why children belong in the center of the life of the church.”
If you’ve ever studied this text you know that in Jesus’ day children weren’t really regarded as more than property until they could work. They were kept for their utility, their potential, not their personhood. I’d love to tell you things are much different in modern times. In Bonhoeffer’s day he saw children regarded primarily as potential soldiers, and today both silicon valley and the church can be guilty of regarding children primarily as potential consumers, again, not persons in their own right.
Bonhoeffer reminds us, this is the kind of thing that angers Jesus. No, says Dietrich, children aren’t expendable, neither are they just a resource to be exploited, they are bearers of the image of God as they are. They are to be told the stories, regarded as whole persons, and embraced by the arms of the church as they are embraced by the arms of Christ.
But then Bonhoeffer goes even further than that. He says this story of Jesus with the little children is not just a picture of what Christ offers to children, but what children reveal to the church. He says children belong in the center of the church not just to receive the love and care of Jesus, but also to minister to us with a vision of the kingdom of God.
He says this story reveals that children are “the form of our eschatalogical being.”
They are our future, but not in the Whitney Houston sense. He’s saying something more. He’s saying that children, as children, reveal to us what we, by grace, may one day become.
I saw a meme online this week from a parent saying that one of the best things about Back to School season is counting down the days until someone else gets to deal with being asked for a snack every five minutes. But that’s the thing. Dietrich says this is God’s highest hope for us.
What God expects, all that God asks of us, is to have the kind of faith that trusts that God will feed us. “The right way to approach God,” he writes, “is [like a child] to stretch out our hands [to the] One who we know has the heart of a Father.”
In the end this story is not about the children. It’s about the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not a government we must run, or a war we must win. It is not a society we must build, or a nation we must preserve. The kingdom of God is a gift to be given, at it has been lavished on the likes of children by the one whose perfect trust of his Father led him to willingly die for the salvation and restoration of the world.
Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me… not just for their sake, but for yours too. See how I welcome them as they are, drooling, sticky, needy, and see how I give them the keys to the kingdom, requiring nothing in return.”
Hear the Good News. This kingdom is open to you too. Sticky. Drooling. Needy. Today once again at this table he invites us to receive his kingdom, to believe in it, to live in it with the faith of a child. Having already removed every hindrance his Kingdom awaits us and is now here, and invites us to come.
Thanks be to God.