Our Gospel this morning brings to a close Jesus’ Sermon on Mission. Throughout Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching his disciples what it means to be disciples, and what that experience will look like for those who answer his call.
As this chapter unfolded, Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples, empowered them to preach and teach and cure those who are sick and to drive out evil spirits – you know, all very “technical” aspects of discipling.
Then, Jesus sent them out and when they returned from their inaugural mission in the world they were all stoked up, full of the stories of the things they have done and seen, the people they had encountered, the ways in which they had grown throughout their time away.
If we go back to the beginning of his gospel account, we’ll remember that Matthew delivered Jesus’ genealogy, establishing connections between Jesus and the historical figures and prophecies of old, and pointing to him as the promised Messiah. Here at the end of chapter 10 the gospel writer Matthew, makes connections of another kind.
Here, Jesus draws the straightest line between himself and God, making the astonishing statement that to accept him means to accept the one who sent him – in other words, to know, believe in, and accept Jesus is to know, believe in, and accept God – which is the heart of the gospel. But then, Jesus extends that line even further:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” he tells those disciples who will carry out this mission into the world, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Within these three verses, Jesus uses the word “welcome” no less than six times. Six times in this Gospel passage, as Jesus is wrapping up what it means to disciple, Jesus ties the welcome received by his disciples to discipleship itself.
Jesus extends this understanding of discipleship to the potential hospitable action of simply giving a cup of water “even a cup of cold water” to one who proclaims and serves the mission of Christ, as themselves serving the mission of Christ and therefore earning the reward as well.
Those who offer hospitality to the disciples on the basis of their connection to Christ, are answering a call of their own, and are thus disciples themselves. Those who support the disciples through prayer, financial support, offering them welcome and caring for them enter into the mission itself, and Jesus welcomes the offering they make and the work they do and makes them disciples, too.
As twenty-first century followers and disciples of Christ, we are still being sent into the harvest. The world may look vastly different from the first century Palestine of Jesus and these disciples, but as community being sent into a perilous world we still depend on the support and hospitality of others. Jesus says of those who enact such hospitality “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”
In the ancient world identity was tied to family and community. It was understood that in showing hospitality, one welcomed not just an individual, but implicitly, the community who sent the person and all that they represent. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus would mean receiving the very presence of Jesus himself and of the one who sent him, God the Father. That is the kind of interdependence still operating in the church, and it is consistent with the claim Jesus makes in his more well-known words from chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it (fed, quenched, clothed, nursed or visited) one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
This week, nine members of our congregation went forth here on the Eastern Shore to participate in a Service Retreat. We expected to work – to serve the needs of several service organizations and facilities that serve some of the most vulnerable people living in this region. We expected to spend time in devotional study and activities. Four youth and five adult members of the congregation signed up to do our good works in the name of Christ, to spend some time deepening our spiritual lives, and, to have a little fun.
As I stand here today, I can’t even tell you what I expected out of this week. All I can tell you is that the experience of this week far exceeded any expectation that I, as the “spiritual leader” of this group might have anticipated as we began our planning months ago. To be honest, I am still processing the experience of the Service Retreat, the connections we made to those who regularly devote their time to address the wide-ranging needs of others. I witnessed the members of our group grow in awe of ways that God is known through the ministration of humble servants who are compelled to go above and beyond in regular ministries of compassion and care. The vast majority of those with whom we worked are volunteers, and even the paid staff go well above and beyond the time and limitations of their paid positions to compassionately care for the needs of others. The need is great and truly, the workers are few.
In every place that we went, we were known as followers of Christ – the t-shirts we wore might have had something to do with that – and we represented Grace Lutheran Church. In every place we were welcomed, genuinely accepted in to the ministry or work we were there to do, and offered overwhelming hospitality. It was, in a word, humbling.
Of the four places that we served during the week, three deliver services to those in need of the basics – food, clothing, help with everyday necessities, or shelter. You know, all the things you would expect to be supplied by a mission society, a housing shelter, and a soup kitchen.
We expected to do our good deeds, perhaps engaging with some of the recipients of our well-intentioned labors through this service week. What a good feeling that would be!
Sandy did a wonderful job of connecting us with the places where we would serve, scheduling our time with them and then preparing us for our service element. But she couldn’t prepare us for the people we would encounter.
In place after place we encountered true disciples who, because we were a church group volunteering our efforts for a time, offered us extraordinary hospitality. We, who came to serve for a few hours and leave, were welcomed and embraced by those who work in the trenches each day, each week, whenever they can put in a few hours.
In each place, we were welcomed as honored guests by staff and volunteers who were ridiculously grateful for our little bit of time. We heard about the mission of each organization, and we came to understand how each staff person and each volunteer who keep these places going sacrifice of their time and give their talents because they care deeply about the tremendous need they witness through their work, and because they feel called to make a difference. They serve with humility and passion and humor. They see the humanity of the people they serve, and they are committed to making lives in some way better, more tolerable, more secure.
While the welcome we received and the gratitude that was expressed to us were both heart-warming and humbling, especially when compared to the daily work of the saints serving these ministries, they were also indicative of the Spirit at work in places where the mission of God is being served through the outreach, feeding, sheltering, accompanying and clothing ministries take place day in and day out.
Even on the day in which our service took the form of care of the environment as we fought mosquitos and flies to clean up trash at Assateague, we received a warm welcome and the gratitude of the staff and patrons of the park.
As Jesus preached to the disciples and continued to prepare them for their imminent work in the field for the sake of the Kingdom of God, Jesus spoke of welcoming and hospitality as broadening the mission and reach of their ministry. God connects us to one another through these things as we we are immersed in God’s ongoing mission. The good news for us today is Jesus’ reassurance that even your smallest acts of kindness and generosity, done in faith are remembered and they have cosmic significance because they make a difference beyond what we can see.
Each act of kindness or support for the mission and ministry of those on the front lines are an extension of Christian kindness and are gathered into God’s work to love, bless, and save this world. Each of us here this morning is commissioned and empowered to serve in the greater work of God in whatever way we can, offering hope, compassion, love, care, and new life to those on the margins.
In all we do, let us pray that we might never tire or be discouraged, that we might know the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to be present and active, blessing our work and support of ministries near and far. May you come to know how God is calling you to serve the mission of the church, that others may know the love and care of Christ Jesus, and be welcomed into a new reality of hope and love in the name of the one is was, who is, and who is to come.