Long ago, in a land far, far away, that is to say, England in the 1700’s, there lived a man who is very dear to the Methodist’s heart: John Wesley. John Wesley was very concerned about grace and the sacraments. However, he didn’t call them sacraments, he called them ordinances. Today, the United Methodist church has two “ordinances.” They are baptism and communion. But does this mean that there are no other sacraments? I do not believe that is true. In fact, we encounter sacramental life in many ways and in many places. I would propose that we also encounter the sacred in our children. Yes! Our children are a sacrament.
John Wesley asks us in his sermon, “The Means of Grace,”1 “are there any means ordained of God, as the usual channels of his grace?” (emphasis mine). His answer is “yes!” In his assessment, Christ has ordained certain defined practices or means that convey his grace “into the souls of men.”2 Wesley understand a “means of grace” to be that which conveys grace and is ordained by God. That leaves us with two primary questions: (1) How can children possibly convey grace? and (2) Is it ordained by God?
Wesley’s understanding of means of grace include:
1. Solitary and communal prayer,
2. Reading, hearing, and meditating on scripture, and
3. Eucharist or communion.
This is a very interesting list! Baptism is missing from the list and prayer and study are included. That is quite different from the church’s understanding of sacraments or ordinances. The official definition of sacraments are:
The United Methodist Church recognizes Holy Communion (also called the Eucharist and the Lord's Supper) and baptism as sacraments, because they were instituted by Jesus as means of bestowing the grace of God upon the recipient.3
We have travelled away from an expansive understanding of sacraments that John Wesley presented. The broader definition of a sacrament is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”4
What would it mean to us to consider our children, all children, a means of grace?
First, we would have to consider what children are. Jerome Berryman, the author of our Sunday School curriculum Godly Play, describes children as a “kind of communication of God’s overflowing exuberance that is unified and intensified.” 5 Oh! It is a little uncomfortable to think of God as having a childish exuberance. Children can be so intense and express every emotion, every pain, and every joy completely. If children are a means of conveying God to us, then God must contain those qualities. That is a little uncomfortable! That is a grace that is not controllable. That cannot be cleaned up and put away until next Sunday. It is a grace that demands our attention in the most uncomfortable places. (Parents, how many times has your child followed you into the bathroom?) Grace should not be so easy to control.
Second, consider the creativity and play that children teach us. Most of the time, our educational systems (in and out of church) are geared towards one goal: creating enough control to teach a mass of children one point. This system teaches children to stop creating. This is antithetical to what children are created to be in the Image of God. Our God is a creating God. Look around you and you will see evidence of the most awesome levels of creation: Mt. Ranier, bunny rabbits, porcupines, platypus (platypi?), and the most breath-taking, baby’s eyelashes resting as she sleeps. Wait, let’s go back. Platypus? Who in their right mind would create such a silly looking creature? Oh, that’s right! God did. Our God is a creating God who definitely expresses humor through creations such as the platypus. Now, take a look at some of our children’s drawings. Have you seen anything quite like them? It has to be the answer to why Pokemon6 is so popular among children. They are fantastical creations that speak to creativity out of control. After all, Chikorita (pictured) is not any more crazy than a duck-billed platypus! Children join God in a crazy, fantasy-filled creative process.
Children also have a “sinless” nature. United Methodist doctrine is interesting on this point. The United Methodist Church was formed by joining the United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, together. As a result, we have two doctrinal statements in our Book of Discipline. In the United Brethren portion, it reads: “We believe children are under the atonement of Christ.”7 That is a mighty powerful statement. Put another way, it might read that Christ’s grace flows over children. John Wesley would call this prevenient grace. The grace that goes before you preparing the way. Most of the time we are clueless to this grace. But to live in the midst of the creative process that is God’s prevenient grace takes my breath away. And that is where children live—if we let them.
This is why children in the United Methodist church participate in baptism and in communion. It is not required that they understand, as in a believer’s baptism, but it is required that the community understand. The community and Christ carry the day for our children. In welcoming the new child into the community through baptism, we welcome Christ. The reception of the child carries Christ to us.
Since children are “covered” by Christ, they are fully invited to participate at the communion table. In all likelihood, at the Last Supper, if it was indeed a Passover meal, there would have been women and children present in addition to the men. Children, in fact, had and have an important role during the Passover meal. Culturally, children would have participated. Ecclesially, just as Christ covers children for baptism, it is the position of the United Methodist Church to have an open communion table. This means open to all manner of people, adults and children. It is assumed to be a matter between the participant and God. In the case of children, it is difficult to know whether they have an intellectual knowledge of faith. However, we can see that children have a wonderful emotional knowledge of faith. If it isn’t necessarily expressed in language we understand; it is expressed when they reach out and take the bread. Although they may be tiny, their faith in their parents and their church community is inspiring. They are putting their whole trust into our hands to care for and shepherd them. In taking communion, it strengthens our resolve to step with them through the faith-defining process. And this is what Christ has done with us. He has put all of his life into our hands. The hands of the church. We are the representatives of Christ on this earth. As that old saying goes, “we may be the only Christ they ever know.” Our children teach us to walk forward and put our hands forward, receive Christ, and then to put our hands outward and express Christ. Where the children may not have a full understanding of what the bread and wine are, they do have a full and complete trust in the familial and communal leadership. The community can carry the intellectual knowledge for these children as they grow into their life of faith-definition. Being faith-filled does not always mean being able to articulate your beliefs. It does mean reaching out and grasping Christ where you can. This, our children show us. And this is where we can see Christ in our midst.
I have this image from when I was little. Who remembers Romper Room? They had this magic mirror that the hostess would look into and recite: "Romper, bomper, stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?" Then the hostess would list off names of children she could “see.” What if each one of us is the host, the mirror is Christ, and we are naming all the children we see? What a blessing that would be for all of us. To see through Christ’s eyes and for children to be seen as part of the body of Christ, as they are.
Children, in all their chaotic, creative, wonder, give us the opportunity to see Christ in a way we never envisioned. They are a means of grace and a sacrament.
Thanks be to God!
Shalom and Amen,
1 Wesley, John. “Means of Grace,” Sermons, on Several Occasions. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), ebook.
2 Men, women and children.
4 Wesley, “Means of Grace.”
5 Berryman, Children and the Theologians: Clearing the Way for Grace. (New York: Morehouse Publ., 2009)
7 The Book of Discipline. (Nashville: UM Publ. House, 2008)