After a three-week break from preaching (thanks, Stephanie, for a wonderful series on “Receiving the Spirit”!) and a one-week mini-staycation, I’m looking forward to getting back into the pulpit again this Sunday. In some ways the break from preaching seems even longer, since the five-week series I did on “Hearing God’s Voice” was more “teaching” than “preaching,” talking about the Bible rather than actually listening to God’s voice through the biblical text.
As I noted at the end of that series (and also in my last blog post), through this summer our preaching will focus more intentionally on the lectionary Bible readings. And this Sunday those lectionary readings include this snippet from Matthew’s Gospel:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matt 10:40-42).
These words of Jesus are the conclusion to Matthew’s “Mission Discourse,” the second of five major discourses or teaching sections in Matthew’s Gospel (the famous “Sermon on the Mount” is the first). The discourse of Matthew 10 reflects traditional teachings of Jesus on Christian mission. You can find variations of these teachings in Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6, and Luke 10:1-20, and you can see glimpses of them in other early Christian writings (e.g. 1 Cor 9:14; 1 Tim 5:18). Here’s the significance of all this: while the teaching of Matthew 10 is directed to the Apostles, it is understood to have relevance beyond them, to be “mission instruction” not just for the Apostles but for the Church as a whole.
If there’s one key motif that runs through Matthew 10 it’s the idea of “representing Jesus.” The word “apostle” (10:2) has the idea of “envoy,” one who is “sent” under the authority of another to be their spokesperson and to act on their behalf. The Apostles are Jesus’ envoys, and the specific tasks they are given are exactly the tasks Jesus himself has been doing: proclaiming God’s kingdom and healing the sick (10:5-8). Not only that, but they are to do these tasks in the same way Jesus has done them: freely, with no strings attached, and simply, trusting in God’s provision through generous hosts, and ready for danger, knowing that God is with them (10:8-31).
Yes, ready for danger. Representing Jesus in the world means being utterly committed to Jesus and the way of Jesus. It means having no higher loyalty, no greater allegiance, than Jesus: no religious leader, no governing authority, not even one’s father or mother (10:17-22, 34-38). That’s the point of the infamous saying of Jesus, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34). It has nothing to do with literal weapons (when did Jesus literally “bring a sword”?), but everything to do with allegiance to Jesus and the way of Jesus, which will inevitably bring difficulties and even danger to Jesus’ followers.
But while following the way of Jesus might provoke violence and division, it is not itself about violence and division. In fact, it’s about the very opposite of these things: self-giving love. It’s about “freely giving” truth and healing just as we have “freely received.” It’s about “losing our life” for the sake of Jesus. It’s about “giving a cup of cold water” even to the lowest among us, a mutual “welcoming” that is really a welcoming of Jesus, a welcoming of God in our midst (10:7-8, 38-42).
It’s ironic, but tragically true, that selfless love and open welcome often provoke harsh, even violent reaction. We don’t like having our walls broken down—they give us a sense of security. We don’t like free forgiveness, free healing, even free water—at least not for those we think don’t deserve it. And yet being Jesus in the world means exactly these things—breaking down walls that divide, giving freely of the free gifts we have received from God—even if it means we face hostility for doing so.
For those who are committed to Jesus and his way of love, Jesus embeds this promise in the midst of his warnings: “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (10:39). What more can we ask for in this world, but to find life? Being Jesus in the world means taking up his kingdom task, walking in his way of self-giving love, and, though it means great risk and maybe even great harm, it also means following Jesus through that suffering into real life, resurrection life.