As lectionary passages go, today’s reading from Matthew is confusing, in part because it essentially drops us in on the last two minutes of an hour-long speech. For the whole of chapter 10, Jesus has been talking to his disciples. Finally, after following him and witnessing all that Jesus can do, the disciples are sent out on their own to start spreading the good news of the gospel in word and in deed.
That’s the good news Jesus delivers at the beginning of chapter 10 - he empowers his followers to do God’s work. The rest of the chapter, up until these three final verses we read, is the bad news.
The disciples will get to do this important work but they won’t get paid, they can’t take any supplies, and they can pretty much count on being arrested Wait, there’s more!This work that they are doing will turn family members against each other and create huge rifts in their own families.
Finally, Jesus tells them, only those who love him above everything else in their lives, only those willing to take up their cross and follow him, are worthy of him.
Then come today’s three verses, which sound downright pithy in light of everything that has come before: whoever welcomes you welcomes me and the one who sent me.
Of all the disturbing things about this chapter of Matthew, this verse might be the most disturbing of all, for in it, Jesus makes one thing perfectly clear: when Jesus’ disciples go out into the world to do gospel work, the people they interact with will not just encounter the disciples, they will encounter Jesus. And when people encounter Jesus, they encounter God.
Last week, the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh game of a seven-game series to win the National Hockey League championship known as the Stanley Cup. To add insult to injury, the Bruins beat the Canucks, not in Boston, but on the Canucks’ home rink in Vancouver.
But the big news story the next day wasn’t the Canucks’ loss; it was the appalling behavior of some disappointed Vancouver fans. First a few bottles were thrown, then some fistfights broke out, then flames erupted when a car was set on fire. Rocks were thrown, windows were broken, more cars were set ablaze, the ER of a local hospital was over-run with patients.
It was terribly embarrassing to the city of Vancouver. One Canadian who lives in Vancouver, but isn’t a native, noticed that many Vancouver natives were “desperate to convince others that the rioters were not ‘real’ Vancouverites.”
Associating with groups -- sports teams, schools, religions -- is a natural human tendency. What’s also natural is that when members of that group do things we don’t approve of, we tend to want to exclude them from the group: those weren’t “real” Vancouverites who started those riots; those weren’t “real” Ohio State football players who sold memorabilia; those weren’t “real” Americans who took part in the anti-war rallies; those weren’t “real” Christians who participated in the Crusades.
Whether consciously or unconsciously we know that when we identify ourselves with a group, the behavior of other members of the group reflects on us -- and our behavior reflects on them. (1) But what Jesus is saying goes beyond this -- when his disciples go out to do his work, they don’t just represent him, they are him.
Not long ago, the actor Michael Douglas appeared on Oprah. He talked a bit about his father, the actor Kirk Douglas, and he shared this story:
Dad called me the other night. He said, "Michael, I was watching myself in an old movie earlier tonight and I didn't remember making it."
"Well, Dad, you made 75 movies and you are 94. Don't be so rough on yourself."
"No, Michael, you didn't let me finish. I realized halfway through that I was watching one of your movies."(2)
Pachomius was a man who lived in Egypt in the fourth century. He was one of a group of people kidnapped by roving gangs and sent down the Nile River to work as a slave for the Roman army. The group was imprisoned in the city of Thebes. When Christians in Thebes heard about the prisoners, they brought them food and water. In the hospitality extended to him by Christ’s followers, Pachomius experienced Christ. Eventually, he converted to Christianity and became a leader of a monastic movement. (3)
Will Willimon has served as the bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church for several years now. One of the churches he oversees is Highland United Methodist Church in one of Birmingham’s trendy downtown neighborhoods. Highland began a series of ministries to the homeless people in the area, feeding them and providing them access to washers, dryers, and post office boxes. The ministry has expanded to the point where the church has actually hired homeless people to run the ministries.
But one Highlands member, who actually lamented out loud that her once-beautiful church looked like a city bus stop, went around to local merchants and got them to oppose the church’s ministry to the homeless. A front-page article in the local paper detailed their complaints.
In response, Willimon wrote an op-ed piece to the same paper that said, “I love it when the United Methodist Church makes front-page news not for losing members or fighting over some social issue, but for being the church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do.” (4)
When the church reaches out to the world, it doesn’t just represent Jesus -- it is Jesus. It is God to a world that knows little of the ways of God. When the church does this, when we do this, people encounter the living God.
And this means that the work we do is serious business, because it is God’s work.
Matthew’s gospel isn’t easy, because our faith isn’t easy. Last week, we looked at the Beatitudes and discovered that the first step on the path of discipleship is admitting our need for God. Once we’ve done that, there are all kinds of new laws that Jesus actually seems to want us to follow -- like if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other to hit; if someone takes your coat, give him the shirt off your back as well. If your hand causes you to sin then cut it off. And now here -- when we go out into the world, people who encounter us encounter Jesus and God.
But if we look at the rest of these verses, maybe there is a way we can understand our call to be God in the world that we won’t find completely paralyzing to our life of faith. After informing us that we are Jesus to those we meet, Jesus goes on to say that, “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.”
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water...”
I can do that. And so can you.
A cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty is all it takes. A gesture this simple is the work of discipleship. Sure, what the Highland church in Birmingham did for the homeless in its neighborhood was wonderful, but our actions don’t have to be that grand. And yes, reaching out to someone who became a leader of a monastic movement is pretty cool, but we don’t have to hit a home run to be Jesus. Giving a cup of cold water to someone in need is all it takes for someone to encounter Jesus, to encounter God. After all, Matthew’s gospel is also the one where Jesus tells the parable that ends, “When you did this for the least of these, you did it for me.”
Last week, as I stood outside the sanctuary door about to go into worship, Frank walked in. I met Frank a few weeks ago. He came to the church looking for help and we helped him. Last Sunday morning he was distraught. The friends he’d been living with had kicked him out and he had slept on the streets. Could we help him again? I welcomed him to the church, invited him to stay for worship and said I’d talk to him afterward.
But I’ll admit: I spent the whole church service trying to figure out what I was going to do. Here I was, preaching a sermon on the Beatitudes of all things, and there was a man -- obviously aware of his need for God -- waiting right outside the sanctuary doors for some help from Jesus’ disciples in this church. And I couldn’t figure out how to help him turn his life around.
Well, it turns out I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out what to do...two members of our church stayed with Frank during the service and finally decided that they had to do something for him. So they fixed him a bag of food from our pantry and scraped together a few bucks from their pockets and Frank thanked them and left. But still, they were worried. Had they done the right thing?
When they asked me that question, my response was this: when he came into this church Frank experienced people who cared, people who helped him however they could. Was a bag of food and a few bucks enough to turn his life around? Probably not. But in their hospitality, Frank experienced the love of God. Frank encountered Jesus.
The journey of discipleship is sometimes confusing, often disturbing, and always mysterious. Today’s passage is all of these things. When we encounter people in need, all of whom are God’s children, we are Jesus to them. We are God. It’s an overwhelming responsibility, to be sure, except when we remember that all God calls us to do is extend the smallest gesture of kindness. A cup of cold water turns out to contain more than enough of God’s love.
1. Ryan Dueck, “Real ______ Would Never Do That!”, June 20, 2011.
2. retold by Alyce McKenzie in her commentary on this passage
3. This story was retold by Paul Galbreath in his book Leading from the Water, Alban, 2011, p. 21.
4. Jason Byassee, “The Bishop’s Dashboard,” The Christian Century, May 31, 2011.