Summary: We become part of God's family through baptism and the spiritual cleansing it gives us. Through the spiritual cleansing, we gain a new, child-like nature that allows us to be hopelessly dependent on Christ for salvation.
I'm going to take you on a short walk down memory lane. Some of you may have heard of a singer/songwriter from the 1970s by the name of Ray Stevens. He was famous for writing and recording comedy songs such as "Bridget the Midget", "Ahab the Arab", "The Streak" and many others. He did record a few serious songs, the most famous of which was "Everything is Beautiful". That particular song starts with a group of children singing words that tie in nicely with the topic of my homily today. The verse goes something like this:
Jesus loves the little children
All little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, the disciples try to prevent the children from coming to Jesus to receive his blessing. In his stern rebuke, Jesus reminds the disciples that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Does this mean that the kingdom belongs to children, or does it mean that the Kingdom belongs to those who are LIKE children? I believe it's the latter.
So what does it mean to receive the Kingdom like a little child? There is an apparent contradiction that can best be handled by those who are like children. God is all-powerful, perfect and hates sin, but at the same time He is good, free and grace, and He loves us. Adults often have a hard time accepting this. They try to make Him politically correct, middle class, sensible and safe---but we all know that Jesus is none of these. Those who approach Jesus like a child accept him for who He is, not what they want Him to be. When Jesus says, "Come to me and receive...", children come running, wanting more. Adults, on the other hand, say, "What's the catch?" Those in spiritual poverty are the ones who have figured out that they are the ones who will be given the Kingdom of heaven.
So how do we become like children? We become like children through the sacraments of baptism and Communion. The water of baptism washes away the old life that is full of doubt, evil, etc. and cleanses us. Christ's "blood" gives us a regular spiritual cleansing that we need and get through the Eucharist. Baptism and the Eucharist represent a new beginning and a new life. Life starts with childhood-spiritually and physically. Both physical and spiritual children are naïve, full of wonder and trust. What can be more moving than a small child holding out their hands to you in complete trust you can pick them up? What can be more humbling than the way they ask you for something with a simple belief you can do it, or provide it, just like Jesus can?
In 1 Corinthians 13:11-13, Paul makes it clear that as we grow and mature, we put away childish things. We don't stop being childlike in the sense Jesus talks about---trusting, humble, willing to follow His commands. We stop throwing tantrums when we don't get our own way. We stop trying to "be boss" in every situation, recognizing that our knowledge is partial and that only God deserves to be in control.