Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Jesus is famous for telling his disciples, “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Matt 18:3). But what does that mean? How does a person become like a child again? Surely, Jesus does not mean we must become physically small and chronologically young, since that’s impossible. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born again, but he doesn’t mean that we must come forth from our mother’s womb once more.
Becoming like a child is not about size or age.
Perhaps it means that one must become as sweetly innocent as a child again? Only someone without children would think that’s what Jesus means. As a child, I often wondered what my mother meant when she said my brothers and sister and I “would be the death of her.” But as I watched my siblings’ children growing up, I understood. My nieces and nephews aren’t malicious, but they aren’t exactly innocent, either. After a few early mistakes, I learned that when one of them asked me for anything, even water, I had to check with the nearest parent to see if it was okay. For instance, from the moment I walked in the door of my sister’s home, her children started working me. Matthew would yell out, “All right! Uncle Fran’s here!” as if I were his best friend and we hadn’t seen each other in years. Katie would give me a hug and a kiss, and Bernadette would pull me over to whatever game or drawing she was engaged with, so I could admire her work. Soon, though, one of them would lean close, and whisper in my ear, “Can I have a cookie?” Before long, and hardly even realizing it, I was handing over a whole package of Oreos, and my sister was asking me how someone supposedly so smart could give three small children what is in essence a bag of sugar, thirty minutes before their bedtime.
Becoming like a child is not about innocence.
So if becoming a child is not about size or age or innocence, what is it about?
It’s something even harder, something very unappealing, about which it is impossible to be sentimental.
Becoming like a child is about helplessness.
The risen Jesus says to Peter, “Now you go where you like, you do what you want, you are in control. You are young enough that you can go fishing with your friends when you want to; you are strong enough that you can swim from the ship to the shore, and by yourself lift a full net of fish. But the time is coming when all that will change.” Listen again to how Jesus describes that change: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus is describing what it is to be a child. We lift up our arms as Mom or Dad pulls a jacket or sweater down on us, brushes our hair and ties our shoes. They hold our hand and lead us to places we do not want to go: school, church, the doctor’s office or the dentist’s chair.
When we are children, someone else is in charge, decides what we wear and where we go. Childhood is a time of total dependence on others: for safety and protection, for care and love, for life itself. Children can not make it on their own.
Jesus says to Peter, “That is where you are headed again. If you continue to follow me, you will become like a child again. Other people will decide where you live, and it will be in prison. Other people will decide what you wear, and it will be rags. Other people will decide what happens to you, and it will be death. And in that cell and under those chains and on that cross, you will have no one to turn to but me. And I will not abandon you.” That is the path Jesus lays out for Peter. He will become like a child again, but the ones who make the decisions will not love him, the ones who lead him will not protect him, and the places he is taken will not be safe. When that time comes , Peter will be helpless. Peter will not be able to make it on his own. But Christ will be there.
Peter accepts this path. He becomes like a child again. As we hear in the Acts of the Apostles, he fearlessly proclaims the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The result is “the captain and the court officers had brought the apostles in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin.” Peter does not choose to go to court, he is lead there. He does not decide to stand before the Sanhedrin, he is forced. Because Peter has heard the call and turned his life over to Christ, because he obeys God rather than men, he is ordered about, given no choice, forced to come and go at the will of another. Peter is sent to prison. Peter is made to suffer. Peter is killed.
But there is the wonder of being a disciple. Peter will be weak as a child, led by others, given no choice, unable to protect himself from punishment and prison. But Peter will be strong, stronger than he has ever been before. Dependent on Christ, Peter will be utterly free; obeying God instead of men, he will rejoice within prison walls. Peter dies to himself to live in Christ. He gives himself away, and so receives himself back, loses his life and so saves it, just as the Lord promised.
When Jesus says that we must become like children again, he is not offering a sentimental vision of innocence, of returning to the supposedly carefree days of childhood. He is saying something harsh. He is asking us to remember what it was to be a child, to have little control, to live at the direction and insistence of others, to be so dependent that we could not survive on our own. Weren’t we all glad to leave that behind and begin to make decisions for ourselves? Christ says: “As a child, you had to live that way. Now, choose to live that way. Choose to be dependent, ask to be weak, freely hand your lives over to me.”
Unlike Peter, arrest, imprisonment and execution do not await us; but like Peter, sin, loneliness, and loss will come. We fail, we sin, our bodies weaken and our minds grow slow, and as we face a hard future we are borne back into the past on waves of regret and loss. And for some there does come a time when others, sometimes strangers, must dress them and feed them and lead them. Today, Jesus tells us that being his disciples will not keep us from these sorrows, will not save us from weakness and age, will not spare us the wounds of sin and loss. But if we become like children again, if we turn our lives over to Christ, if we obey God rather than men, if we say “Not my will, but yours be done” and mean it, then suffering wounds us but does not destroy us, sickness ravages but does not ruin us, sin and loss weigh us down but cannot break us. Christ handed over his spirit to the Father, and thus was death destroyed. When we hand our lives over to Christ, every hardship and grief that comes to us comes to God as well; and He is our help, stronger than flesh, deeper than blood.
Jesus calls from the shore to the apostles, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They hadn’t caught a thing. On their own, after a whole night of fishing, these professional fishermen had nothing to show for their hard work. Jesus says, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” They obey his command, and receive in an instant what all their hard work did not win. At this Mass, Christ asks us the same. “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Have we? Have we found any food that really satisfies, any pleasure which does not fade, any gift or hope or trust which can last in the face of death?
Christ says, “Take this, my body. Take this, my blood.” We can’t make it on our own, we can’t catch it, we can’t earn it. We must receive it. We must stretch out our hands, and take what he alone can give. And when we do, then like children called around the dinner table to rejoice in a meal we did not make, we are young again.