Let the Children Come – by Angie Mabry-Nauta

“Let the Children Come to Me” by Stephen Bates at www.commissionedartwork.com. Used with permission.

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” And he placed his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left (Matthew 19:13-15, NLT).

It was an unusual circumstance that blossomed into beauty and practical theology.  Five-year-old Zoe usually loves F.R.O.G. time (Fully Rely On God – the children’s worship program at my church).  For some reason on this day, one of the volunteers brought her back to Eric, my husband, and me.  “She says she wants to sit with Mommy.”  I was slightly concerned, but I got over it rapidly when I realized that she was just fine and what was coming next in the service.  It was the first Sunday of the month.

Zoe squirmed into my lap and stretched her neck to see better as our co-pastors placed themselves behind the Communion table.  She was curious and drawn in.  “What are Pastor Elizabeth and Pastor Mike doing, Mama?” she quasi-whispered.  Eric overheard her.  We beamed at her and then at each other.  This was the sort of moment of which a pastoral parent dreams — the perfect combination of practical theology, my child’s desire to learn and a real-time teaching opportunity complete with a live-action visual aid.  There I began a play-by-play commentary of what happens in Communion, pre-school style.

Before the elements were consecrated, the invitation was extended.  “If you love Jesus and you’ve been baptized, this Table is for you.”  Quickly thereafter, Zoe saw the people in the pews in front of us begin to stand and walk down the aisle to partake.  “Do I get to go, Mama?”  When I answered in the affirmative, she bounced upon my lap with delight.  When she approached the servers, they bent down to her level.  “Zoe, this is the Body of Christ broken for you,” said the first one.  “Zoe, this is the Blood of Christ shed for you,” said the second.  I whispered to her what to do, then took the sacrament myself.  She bounded as we returned to our seats.  “Mama!  That was yummy and cool!  I’d like to go back to F.R.O.G. now.”  And off Zoe went.

As I watched my youngest return from whence she came, I silently reflected on the glorious mystery that had just occurred.  I thanked God joyfully for the entire scene, seen and unseen.  Then I lamented that in many churches throughout my own denomination such a thing is prohibited from happening.  The children in these churches love Jesus, and most were baptized as infants.  Yet the Lord’s Table is not open to them.  As a parent, this saddens me.  As a Reformed theologian, this frustrates me.

If we as Reformed Christians are to live fully into our sacramental theology, then welcoming children to the Lord’s Table should not even be a conversation, much less a controversy.  Within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) specifically, we adopt Calvin’s language that baptism is the “sign and seal” of God’s promises towards believers covered via the Abrahamic covenant.  Amongst other things, we understand that “in baptism God promises by grace alone…to adopt us into the body of Christ, the church.”[1] We understand, states a 1977 paper of the denomination’s Commission on Christian Action, “that through baptism children are members of the church because they are included in God’s covenant of grace and all of its benefits.”[2] As members of the church catholic and the local congregation who have access to the benefits of membership, one might conclude that baptized infants would, of course, be welcome to receive the sacrament of Communion.  Alas, this is not the case.

Within the RCA, a hierarchy of membership has been created that builds a hedge around the table.  Infants and children are considered to be merely “baptized” members.  In the practice of most congregations, this is sort of a junior or limited church membership, as children are not welcome at the Table. This must until they have made Profession of Faith, which is seen as a sort of “coming of age,” when the young person is catechized towards affirming Christ for her or himself.  After this line of demarcation has been crossed, that person becomes a “communicant” member, and may then (and only then) approach the Lord’s Table to receive the sacrament.

This practice stands in tension (if not contradiction) with Reformed theology, as problems arise in relation to both sacraments.  First, requiring Profession of Faith (read: a youth’s understanding and declaration of faith) for “full” membership and thus admittance to the Table is to suggest that somehow the work of the Spirit was limited or ineffective in baptism.  Moreover, such a prescription is to place too much emphasis on the role of humanity within the mystery of the efficacy of the Supper.  If God indeed is, as Aquinas argues, the “primary mover,” the One who first reaches towards us in grace, then the role of our grasp of what is mystically occurring in the Supper (which is ultimately impossible) is necessarily reduced.

Admittedly, I am on the more permissive end of welcoming children at the Lord’s Table.  Indeed grasping the inseverable relationship between faith and the sacraments, I lean heavily upon the seeds of faith and repentance “that [lie] hidden within [each baptized child] by the secret work of the Spirit”.[3] With Calvin I affirm that although infants and young children are not “endowed with knowledge of good or evil…God’s work, though beyond our understanding, is still not annulled.”[4] For me, this is enough to open the Lord’s Table to baptized persons of all ages.

What Jesus did (and continues to do) in drawing children to himself was to proclaim, amongst other messages, who is important within the kingdom of God.  During his time, children were powerless.  They were understood to be the bottom of the social totem pole.  They were their parents’ (father’s) property and their personhood was barely recognized, much less cherished.  Along comes the Incarnate Word to turn everything upside down.  “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them!”  Children are not only of value, theirs is just as open of an invitation to come to him as is adults.  Along with everyone else, the grace, gifts and touch of God is extended to children, not the table scraps.  And this is because “the kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.”  Not only have children been elevated, they are to be emulated for their simple trust, dedicated love and unmitigated, joyful wonder towards God.  No, infants and children do not fully grasp what is happening in Communion.  Truth be told, neither do most adults.  As Calvin argues in his Geneva Catechism, “[The] Supper would have been instituted in vain if no one could receive it unless [they were] entirely perfect. … On the contrary, the Supper would be of no use to us if we were not imperfect.  It is an aid and support for our weaknesses.”[5] Let the children come!

It was a practical theology circumstance that blossomed into great beauty and buoyed the faith of a congregation.  When I first arrived to pastor my former congregation, children were not welcome at the Lord’s Table.  A little over a year into my tenure, I brought to the elders the issue.  We read and discussed Reformed sacramental theology and implications of our then-present practice.  For a variety of reasons the vote was tabled.  They just weren’t ready.  Later it came to pass that an 8-year-old girl asked her grandmother why she, too, couldn’t take Communion.  “I know that I love Jesus and I know that he lives in my heart,” she said.  Opening the Table to children returned to the elders’ agenda tout de suite.  It is one thing to discuss theology in principle, and quite another when said theology has flesh on it.

Relatively quickly a decision in the affirmative was made; a process was approved; and the congregation was informed.  When this same child approached to receive Communion for the first time, all eyes were on her.  She was beaming.  I was beaming.  Her family was beaming.  The congregation was beaming.  I feel secure enough to say that God was likely most pleased, too.  Almost every post-worship comment shared with the elders and I that Sunday referred to the Lord’s Supper.  It was the most powerful one that they had experienced – ever for some, in the longest time for others.  The only two differences between that Supper and every other one we had celebrated were the Table now open to children and the glowing 8-year-old girl.

[1] Order for the Sacrament of Baptism of the Reformed Church in America, http://images.rca.org/docs/worship/baptism.rtf (accessed November 17, 2011).

[2] “Baptized Non-Communicants and The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” The Acts and Proceedings of the 171st Regular Session of the General Synod, Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids: Reformed Church Press, 1977) 293-306. http://images.rca.org/docs/synod/BaptizedNonComm1977.pdf (accessed November 17, 2011).

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1960) 1343.

[4] Ibid., 1340.

[5] John Calvin, Geneva Catechism, 1541.  Quoted in “Baptized Non-Communicants and The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” The Acts and Proceedings of the 171st Regular Session of the General Synod, Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids: Reformed Church Press, 1977), 301. http://images.rca.org/docs/synod/BaptizedNonComm1977.pdf (accessed November 17, 2011).

2 thoughts on “Let the Children Come – by Angie Mabry-Nauta

  • November 22, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Wonderful Angie! I had tears in my eyes as you reached your conclusion. Out of curiosity, which resources did you use when presenting sacramental theology to the consistory? I’m not in an ordained position at the moment, but always thinking of the future…

  • November 24, 2011 at 2:57 am

    Brilliant, Ms. Mabry-Nauta! (We haven’t met, so I write more formally.) The argument I made to my congregation was that there is in fact only one sacrament, Jesus Christ himself. Word-and-baptism is our entrance into his life, and word-and-eucharist is our continuance in his life. So the two should never be separated, for they are spiritually one. For nursing infants (before they have begun to eat food) I simply dip my finger in the wine and let the baby suck.
    I also told my people that, in addition to the spiritual-theological argument, I am simply tired of excluding young children. As little ones they know that everyone is receiving something that they are being systematically excluded from. I hated seeing it as they finally accepted that there was some artificial rule at work here that broke the common human rule that everyone of the family and community eats together – that eating together is the sign, sum, and summit of human togetherness. How then are they to feel and understand later that this sacrament is more than that – that it has now become divine-human togetherness? Not likely, is it?
    Your Zoe and the other girl are teaching us adults the truth of Christ’s life-giving presence! Hallelujah!


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