Let the Children Come

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It was one of those moments when the veil between this world and the next becomes a bit thinner, sitting in a Pei Wei chomping my Asian Chopped Chicken Salad, hold the chicken and wonton strips.

In a conversation where I was expected to have the answers, a friend said something about his preschool-aged girls that dropped into place a long-missing puzzle piece about Christian spiritual practices.

"I've been thinking," he said, "My girls may love Jesus more now than they ever will. Why withhold Baptism and the Eucharist from them when their trust is so complete and their hearts so undivided by doubts and questions?"

Why indeed? Of course, some Christians don't "believe" in baptizing children. Mark Twain was famously asked if he believed in infant baptism. He replied, "Believe in it? I've seen it."

When I am asked why we baptize our little ones and why we grant them participation in Communion at Holy Redeemer, even at a very tender age, I always begin with the words of Jesus:

"'Let the children come to me. Don't stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn't receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.' Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them."

Our children are full participants in our life and worship because Jesus himself invites them close to his person, to bless them.

It's ironic that Christians with the deepest conviction that our salvation is Christ's work alone -- that we do nothing in the exchange, that even our faith to believe is a sheer gift (and I am with them all the way here) -- sometimes believe that it's important for their children to "come of age" in order to "make their own decision" when it comes to the faith their parent's have in Jesus Christ as a gift from the Holy Spirit.

This seems to make Christ's finished work dependent upon a certain amount of personal maturity or intellectual development, even upon an achieved degree of faith, when salvation is the same holy, unmerited gift for children as it is for adults.

As with Israel, God invites all his people close to him and desires that they have full access to his grace and presence no matter what their age. Following the Jewish practice, it was the consistent pattern of the early Christians (abundantly evidenced in the New Testament and ancient Christian literature) to baptize whole families when the parents came under God's covenant, Old or New.

This hit home with full force a few months back. I presided over the Baptism of a young woman with Down syndrome. She was an adolescent, full of joy and love for Jesus. But for her there was no "personal decision," no grasp of the theology and teaching of the apostles concerning the mystery of Jesus nor of the rich biblical and abundant apostolic witness about Baptism, no "mature awareness" of what was happening, just a simple love for Jesus and her parents, a trust that did not come from herself but an effortless charity granted by her Lord. It was pure beauty and the Spirit fell with great power on the waters and us all.

It's true that the churches in which children are baptized, and the parents who bring them for Baptism, can neglect their responsibility to lead these children to mature and personal faith by example and teaching, and that, at times, baptized-as-children adults of these churches can assume too much upon their family's faith, not surrendering their everyday lives to Christ. This can, of course, happen also to those whose full participation in the life and worship of their church in the Sacraments is delayed by the practices of their churches or their parents. The outcomes can be just as heartbreaking but why "stop them" when Jesus opens his arms wide to the little ones?

Christ never abandons the baptized and such adult outcomes should never be the basis of a pendulum swing or overreaction that bars children from the waters of Baptism or from the table set by Jesus himself, the supper of Christ's Kingdom rule to which all baptized citizens are welcome.

So, yes, we invite our children forward every Sunday at Holy Redeemer and never "prevent them." Parents make the final decisions about when their children participate in Baptism and the Eucharist but the church never restricts the little ones when their parents are ready for their involvement.

And, yes, my friend got it right: How can we know if the minds and hearts of our children will ever be as pure and undivided and resolute in their love for Jesus as they are right now?

Let these words from Augustine -- a teacher received by all Christians -- draw you into the heart of Christ for all little ones:

"Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are denying that Christ is Jesus for all believing infants. Those, I repeat, who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants, infants that is who have been baptized in Christ, Christ the Lord is not Jesus. After all, what is Jesus? Jesus means Savior. Jesus is the Savior. Those whom he doesn't save, having nothing to save in them, well for them he isn't Jesus. Well now, if you can tolerate the idea that Christ is not Jesus for some persons who have been baptized, then I'm not sure your faith can be recognized as according with the sound rule. Yes, they're infants, but they are his members. They're infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves." (Augustine, Sermon 174, 7)

In the words of a great song sung by children of all ages, "Little ones to him belong; they are weak but he is strong."

Thanks to the parents for allowing our lives to be touched by the presence of three beautiful girls with trisomy 21. They are different, alright: they make every moment heaven-like, as if the veil were briefly lifted between this world and the one to come.

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @kennethtanner.

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