Becoming like Little Children

When Jesus told his disciples one day that unless they became like children they would not qualify for entrance to the Kingdom he surely didn’t mean childishness. They had just asked a very adult question, a typically human question about status and privilege: “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?” His response – “become like children” -surely has to do with the human propensity to make simple matters unnecessarily complex, to pile layer upon layer of guidelines, interpretations, rules, regulations and hoary traditions on top of elegantly simple truths, until they are no longer visible nor recognizable. Sometimes a child, with a simple question, observation or gesture can remind us, teach, lead us, back before we developed all these complex habits: the Sacrament of Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, for instance.

I delivered the homily during Mass in the Roman Catholic Church where my daughter-in-law and three granddaughters are members and my son attends and participates. The girls go to the church’s parochial school and the church is a central part of the family’s life. We attend too – for Christmas pageants, school programs, First Communions. The parish priest and I have become friends and he often jokes about hiring me to be his assistant in my retirement. He graciously invited me to preach which I did on a recent Sunday. In the pews were other family members, Presbyterians all. Two granddaughters served as altar girls for the grand occasion, complete with white robes, pectoral crosses, carrying candles in the processional and serving at the altar. They rang the bells during the Eucharist at the moment of Transubstantiation, a personal high point for them and for all the Presbyterians. When Lilly successfully performed her assignment she looked out at her gathered family and executed a perfect fist pump, like she does when she scores a soccer goal. I think Jesus would have liked that.

Then came the moment Protestants dread. Should we go forward to receive the elements or not. Every time it happens I have the same internal discussion. Should I show my respect for my Catholic neighbors’ traditions and abstain? Should I stay seated because I do not ordinarily go to dinners to which I have not been invited? Or should I participate because I believe that it is Jesus’s table and no one should be excluded? Ordinarily I don’t decide until the very last minute. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. This time I looked to see what my family would do. Some remained seated. But my granddaughter, Rachel, who has Down Syndrome, a member in good standing in her Presbyterian church and a regular recipient of the Sacrament, didn’t hesitate. She hasn’t heard about 500 years of conflict over “Real Presence”. I watched as she stood and stepped toward the aisle followed by her sister, mother, cousin and grandmother, my wife. So, of course, I walked down from the chancel and fell in line behind Rachel. When she received the wafer, different from the Presbyterian Wonder Bread cube, she had a little difficulty and when offered the Cup lifted it to her lips and took an impressive gulp. There were two Communion stations, so Rachel walked to the second and had another impressive drink of Communion wine. My heart soared, in spite of conspicuously standing before the priest in my Geneva gown and tabs, at how Rachel, once again, had gone right to the essence, the heart of the matter, skimming over twenty centuries of accumulated ecclesiastical complexity to be part of the friends of Jesus gathered at his table.

Sarah Hinkley Wilson, from the Institute of Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and Thomas Albert Howard, professor and Director of the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College, have written a superb article in the Christian Century titled “Reformation at 500”. The article is excerpted from their book, Protestants after 500 Years, one of the many books that will mark the half-millennium anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. “Something big and important happened 500 years ago,” the authors remind us and offer valuable and important suggestions as we plan for the celebration. Recognize that hostility and recrimination shaped confessional theology on both sides: “Disentangle the hostility” is one. Examine how politics and personalities led to explosive results, is another one. The authors recall that Pope John Paul II wisely counseled that ecumenism must be based on forgiveness and reconciliation.

As I sat in Mass and observed my friend, Father John, leading the liturgy, I was impressed again with the history and continuity, the particularity and the universality of the Mass and how it is part of the heritage of all of us. I’m part of that too. I’m a thorough Presbyterian, but the catholicity of the church is deeply a part of my theological, ecclesiastical tradition and my personal faith. As we prayed for the church in the Mass, I prayed for the church’s unity, for the day when all are welcome at the Lord’s Table, the day when the terms Catholic and Protestant are no longer necessary or relevant.

As we ponder and increasingly worry about the future of the church and institutional Christianity, it occurred to me that the most appropriate way to celebrate what happened 500 years ago and to observe Reformation is to find a way to unite what has been separate for far too long.

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