Back at the end of chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus looks out on the crowds of people following him, hungry for the good news, and has compassion for them, He says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to sent out laborers into his harvest.”
Apparently, Jesus decides that the disciples should be the answer their own prayer (God, who I often think has quite the sense of irony and humor, works that way sometimes), because throughout chapter 10, he prepares them.
They themselves will be the laborers to which he refers. In what is often called the Missionary Discourse, Jesus sets about preparing the disciples so that he can send them out to labor in his vineyard, his field, his kingdom. He tells them what to do, what to pack (or not pack, as it turns out), and gives them power to cast out demons and teach with authority.
Jesus gives them a clear-eyed view of the cost of discipleship; to follow and serve him means to carry their own crosses. To speak the truth as he speaks it, to love the cast-off as he loves, to preach the grace and mercy, compassion and forgiveness of God for all people will not always be well-received. To be prophetic, naming the sins of men and declaring God’s counter-cultural will for humankind will, at times, mean rejection.
As he wraps up this time of preparation for mission with them, Jesus has these last words of wisdom, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” he says.
In the first century Palestinian world of Jesus, as in many places in the world today, societies functioned as communal hives of people with deep kinship connections that governed their behavior and worldview.
Unlike our rabidly individualistic society, each person considered themselves and was considered not as individuals uniquely separate with inviolable identities endowed with all manner of rights and entitlements, but as integral parts and members of a group, working together to achieve benefits for the whole. As a result, if even one person extended welcome to a stranger, their action represented and initiated welcome by the whole.
Kinship networks demonstrated a “dyadic” view of personality, meaning every person is assumed to be filled with the same character, values, and patterns of behavior. Therefore, while we may find Jesus’ words a bit confusing, in his world, they would have made perfect sense to those to whom Jesus was speaking.
As disciples are sent out representing Jesus, they should expect to be received in the same way Jesus himself would be welcomed. By extension, since Jesus is sent by God, Jesus should be welcomed as God would indeed be welcomed.
This not only has implications for those who are to welcome the disciples into their homes or communities, but also for the ones who are sent out to proclaim the Good News. It as implication for those to whom they minister, and for disciples of Jesus Christ as well. This is still true for us, today.
As disciples of the Lord, Christ goes out with us – we are the presence of Jesus in the world. We bear his image to those with whom we have contact.
This means that as people observe our words and deeds, our actions and interactions, we are not only representing ourselves or the church, but are carrying with us the same Christ who died upon the cross for us; the same Christ into whose death we have died; this same Christ is present in each and every one of us.
The words we speak hold the same importance as if Jesus were standing there speaking them himself – and the way we are received is as if Christ himself is received in that place.
How different would our ministry be as baptized daughters and sons of God Almighty and as the Body of Christ in the world, if we took seriously the understanding that we are Christ’s presence in the world? How different would our world look? How different might our conversations be, how would our behaviors be impacted?
Similarly, it is important to note that Jesus speaks to what happens to those who go out as the presence of Christ. There will be times when we are well-received, and there will be times when we will be challenged, and even rejected. When this happens, Jesus says, Christ himself is being rejected. Disciples should move on.
By extension then, the welcome that we offer those who come our way as seekers or believers, or even as not-yet believers and as “little ones” – those new to faith or with hesitant belief - has implications for us as well. The reward that Jesus speaks of in both cases is not numeric reward, nor is it a financial reward. The world measures effect and success and failure in these ways.
When disciples of Christ are received and welcome, Christ himself is welcomed…..the reward is the abiding presence of Christ in their midst.
There is a weariness today as the discord and dissention within our world has reached a fever pitch. It seems we cannot agree on anything. The past several months have been hard on everyone as the pandemic has simply added one more type of fuel on a hotly burning fire. So, let’s consider what it means to be the presence of Christ in this reality:
Following the way of Christ means to care for the other. Jesus has compassion on those he deems like sheep without a shepherd. To be the presence of Christ is to be one who cares deeply for the welfare of the neighbor.
This has implications for what we do and how we act, not in individualistic insistence on the desire of the self, but in godly love and concern for our friends, neighbors, loved ones, and even our enemies. We are the presence of Christ in the world when we love as Christ loved and care deeply and faithfully for one another.
Today, that means taking precautions to keep one another safe. It’s why we are all wearing masks and observing our distance, no matter how difficult that is. It is why we have been separated from one another these past months and why we will continue to be cautious about gathering.
To be the presence of Christ in the world means to love the neighbor; to stand against racism and poverty, to speak for the one who is disadvantaged, mocked, rejected, and oppressed. Speaking love in a world of hate is the Christly thing to do.
My friends, Jesus is our great reward. He is the gift that goes beyond all human reckoning, and he calls us to a new and better way of living.
As he calls us to be laborers in his kingdom, Jesus equips us with all we need to survive and thrive. He gifts us with his very self. By the grace of God we are nurtured, strengthened and in God’s mercy forgiven for those times when we don’t quite get it right.
The mention of the little
ones in need of a cup of cold water elevates the least powerful member of the community of disciples into a position of equal importance to that of prophets and righteous ones. They are equally and completely dependent, first on God and then on the hospitality of the communities that received them. Their vulnerability and dependence were the key to the success of the mission. The same is true today.
God is honored when we do acts in His name. He is honored when we receive prophets because He is a prophet. He is honored when we receive a righteous person because He is righteous. He is honored when we give a drink of water to a disciple because He is a disciple. He is honored when we love because God is love.
As cross-bearers, Jesus-followers, God-lovers, let us show us and show forth the one in whose name we live and move and have our being. In the name of Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, may it be so.