It is one of the characteristics of our time, one of its most hopeful and most encouraging signs, that men are awaking to higher and purer conceptions of the Christian life and what it is that constitutes such a life. We are beginning to feel, as it was not felt by former generations, that the only true religion, the only Christianity worthy of the name, is that which aims at embodying and reproducing the spirit, the thought, the ideas of the Saviour.
Through and underneath all ecclesiastical and mediaeval revivals, and all vagaries of church tradition or of ritual, this feeling seems to be growing with a steady growth, that the real test of a man's religion is the evidence which his life affords of the Christ-like spirit. And this growing feeling gives an ever-fresh interest to the words and the judgment of the Lord on all matters of individual conduct and daily intercourse; so that if we are possessed at all by it, the Saviour is becoming more of a living person to us, and we ask ourselves more frequently, more earnestly, with more of reality and more of practical meaning in the question, how He would judge this or that side of our life, whether our conduct is in harmony with His spirit, and whether the standards of our life fit at all with His teaching and injunctions.
And how full of new meaning every familiar chapter of the Gospel becomes to you, if you are once roused to this kind of feeling; if you are feeling all the time, here is the spirit which should be dominating my own life and determining it, here are the thoughts, ideas, and views of conduct which should be mine also. How does my common life fit with all this? And it is with something like this feeling in your minds that I would ask you to consider the text I have just read to you. "Jesus took a child and set him in the midst of them. He took him up in His arms and said, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My name, receiveth Me." And while we are considering it, let us notice also that in St. Matthew's narrative there are two other very emphatic expressions. "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven"; and "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones that believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. . . . Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven."
Here, then, is the child taken up by Jesus and set in the midst; we know nothing more of him but this one thing, that he represents to us our Lord's Divine love of little children, and His high estimate of childhood, as the mysterious embodiment of that character and those qualities which bring us close to the Divine life.
But this is quite enough to make us listen to the lessons of thought and warning and hope, which Jesus expounds to us as He stands with the child in His arms. His words may very well set every one of us thinking about our own life and conduct. We look at this scene -- the disciples standing round, their hearts occupied, as ours are apt to be, with their own ambitions, rivalries, and jealousies, and Jesus in the midst with the little child; and we cannot mistake or misinterpret the lessons He teaches us, the lessons which welled up in His heart whenever He saw, or met, or took up in His arms, and blessed a little child.
"Let every child you meet," he clearly says to us, "remind you that if you desire to be My disciple and to win a place in My kingdom, you must fling off selfishness, and put in its place the spirit of service and tenderness." "He that would be first must be servant of all." "You must humble yourself as this little child."
And then He adds the blessing and the warning: -- "Whoso shall receive one such child in My name receiveth Me; but whosoever shall offend one of these little ones, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
We may pause for a moment to consider what it is in childhood, what are the gifts, qualities, characteristics of the child, that drew from our Lord this special love and care and these injunctions to His followers. We do well to bear them in mind, because He has declared with such emphasis that we have no part in His kingdom unless we retain or recover these gifts. And we should bear them in mind, because of the blessing promised to those who help to preserve these qualities in others. Receive, help, cherish, or protect a child, make the way of goodness easy to him, and shield him from evil, and Christ declares that inasmuch as you have done it to the least of all His little ones, you have done it unto Him.
On the other hand, offend any such child, that is to say, hinder, or mislead, spoil or degrade him in any way; do anything to rob a child of any of these Divine gifts, rob him of his innocence, or trustfulness, or his guileless heart, and sow the seeds of evil habits or tastes in their place, and you know the denunciation or curse which the Divine voice has laid upon you for your evil deed.
A child, then, is, as it were, a living symbol of that which draws to us the love of Christ, and we cannot doubt that he is so by virtue of his innocence, his obedient spirit, his guilelessness, or simplicity of character, his trustfulness, and by all the untarnished and unspoilt possibilities of goodness in him.
It is in the blessed endowment of such gifts as these that the little child looks in the face of Christ, and is embraced in the arms of His love.
And these are, or they once were, your gifts. As you love the better life, and hope for good days, hold them fast and cherish them, or if any of them be unhappily lost, let it be your endeavour to recover it.
As we contemplate such a scene as this in our Lord's life with the little child in the midst, and listen to the Saviour's words, all the commands and injunctions to keep innocency, to keep the spirit of obedience, to keep a guileless and trusting and loving heart, gain a new force. They seem to speak to us with new voices; for if the true life, the life that has in it the hope of union with Christ, must be a life endowed with these gifts, whether in youth or age, what a blessed thing it will be for you if you have never lost or squandered them. We cannot too soon learn this lesson; for if under the influence of any wrong motives, or following any wrong ideals, or misled by any bad example, you go astray and rob your young life of these divine gifts, no man knows how, or when, or where you will recover them, and become again as a little child.
And if we turn our thoughts from our own separate personal life, and look for a moment at our duty as members of a society, how this picture of Christ embracing the little child, and blessing those who receive or help one such, should stir us to new and keener interest in social duty! Does it not carry in it, this example and teaching of the Lord, does it not carry in it the condemnation of a great many of our traditional notions about our duty to the young? We see the Lord's tenderness and love and care for the little child; we see how He values the childlike qualities; and how He enjoins the nursing and the cherishing of these. If, then, we have really learnt the lesson which He thus presses upon us, we shall feel something like reverence for every young life, as it begins its perilous and uncertain course on the sea of man's experiences; and with this feeling we shall be eager to help and protect such lives whenever we have the chance of doing it, and we shall be very careful to do them no wrong.
But when we turn from the Gospel and these thoughts which it stirs in us to our common life of every day, does it not rather seem sometimes as if this teaching of the Lord were all a dream and had no reality? And yet there is hardly one of us but would confess that, having once seen this revelation of the Lord, we are put to shame if, as happens sometimes, a young soul comes amongst us endowed with these very gifts of innocence, and high purpose, and trust, and promise of all goodness, which so won the Saviour's heart, and is met, when he comes, in school or house, not by care, or sympathy, or guidance, or protection, as of an elder brother's love, but by experiences of a very different sort. You would agree that it is a shame to us if such an one comes only to find the misleading influence of some thoughtless or bad companion, or to have held up before him some bad tradition as the law which should rule his life here.
I have known -- which of us in the course of years has not known? -- such cases in our school experience. A child has come from a refined and loving home, but only to meet with roughness or coarseness; and instead of retaining those gifts and qualities of childhood, which are the godlike qualities of life and meant to be permanent, he has been led to grow up utterly unchildlike, depraved, debased, hardened; and there is no sadder sight to see than a growth of this kind. And if you have ever seen it; if you have ever noticed the falling away from childlike innocence to sin, from purity to coarseness, from the open, ingenuous, trusting spirit to sullen hardness, from happiness to gloom, you know how terribly in earnest the Saviour must have been when He denounced that woe on any one who causes such debasement of a young soul -- "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones, it had been better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."