The fastest growing denomination in our nation is the SBNR, Spiritual But Not Religious, a curious indictment of the present condition of institutional church. One SBNR asserts generations of people who have never been inside a traditional church and are looking for community, for a place where someone will notice if they are absent, and most of all, they want to feel at home and find food for their spirits. I wonder if that has not been the case since the beginning of time and especially in the time of Jesus.
Consider the quarrel the disciples are having as they walk along with Jesus. In ancient days, traveling with a famous rabbi meant walking in a certain order. The rabbi first, followers next and at the end of the line are the little ones, the ones who are not ready to ask any questions. Children, toddlers and women who care for the babies are always the last ones in the line.
Hear his words: When Jesus arrived at home he started questioning them. “What were you arguing about on the road? I could hear you quarreling.” The disciples fall silent. They broke a rule. Their voices were loud enough for him to hear, and they were fighting about who was number one. Number one might mean the one who made decisions the rest of them had to follow. Number one certainly gets to walk in line right behind Jesus, and everyone they passed on the road could see who is number one. But there is danger. The greatest one of all must not fill up with pride. Self-important people forget who is the leader they follow and think they really are number one.
Wouldn’t you just want to curl up and die if Jesus caught you fighting about how important you are? Well, he did. And even if they don’t answer Jesus, he tells them the answer. “Come here. Sit down. Listen. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
“Give me that child.” He picked up a child, who happened to be sitting in the midst of the disciples, invisible. No one would let a child in there, but you know how kids are – they walk in and sit down like they belong and listen to things the grown-ups wish they were not hearing. So, there was a child, and Jesus picked up the child and put both arms around him, and a miracle happened. Jesus received the child.
It is hard to see the miracle in English. Received has the sense of identifying with someone, of becoming the same as someone else. It means becoming the other: their tears, their wounds, their broken arms and their broken, addicted spirits. Not just holding them, but receiving them so that two are really one.
“Who ever receives and welcomes one such as this receives me, and whoever receives me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me.” The arms of God will go around us and hug us until all the hurting, broken, wounded, tied up parts of us are absorbed into the body of God, where they are transformed and offered back to us in the form of peace and well-being and joy and liberation and justice and righteousness.
It’s a mystical, spiritual thing to sit at the feet of Jesus and have eyes opened and to know that the first will be last, that the greatest will be the one who serves the others. To give yourself away to someone who does not have the power to say “thank you” in a public arena or give you a plaque with your name on it. To become so welcoming, so filled with hospitality that even the Lord God Almighty and the Son of God, Christ Jesus, can enter into your being.
But it happens. It happens when we recognize that God is the lover, the host who invites us to sit down. It happens when we sit and wait for what is emerging from the heart of God to come and elevate the least among us to the most important. It happens when the Spiritual But Not Religious are received and become part of the future of the Church in an emerging new shape. We will rejoice and give thanks, especially the little ones who may be the first to see it.