I’ve heard teachers say that schools would be much easier without the children. There’s a tendency among ministers to say that churches would be much easier without the members!
Both of these comments are unrealistic and unfair, but probably borne of frustration, especially when things don’t go smoothly or in a hoped-for direction. School is nothing without the students. And church is nothing without the members.
Which brings us to the climax of Jesus’ teaching on mission in Matthew 10 that the Lectionary has been tracking for the last three weeks. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus encouraging us with a vision of ‘Mission Possible’; last week, we heard him encourage us to be neither surprised nor afraid in the face of opposition.
Now, this week, in the final instalment from Matthew 10, Jesus brings it all together with the importance of people. Strategies can wait. Tactics are not of primary importance. People come first in Jesus’ vision. These three verses are saturated with the centrality of people rather than programmes for the mission of God. As we explore the different people Jesus talks about here, we get more flavours of mission.
‘Let’s talk about you.’ It sounds like a chat-up line. But Jesus begins by talking about his hearers. ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (verse 40) is where he begins. Now if Jesus said that to me – ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, I’d think, steady on a bit! That’s a huge statement to make. How can people receiving me, a mere messenger, be like receiving Jesus himself?
The reason I think that way is because I think of messengers in the modern way. I don’t expect our postie to represent any of the people who send me letters that he delivers. He’s just an intermediary, doing his job. That’s why we say, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ when someone brings bad news.
In Jesus’ day, however, it was different. People wrote letters, but had no postal service. To get their letters delivered, they had to choose people who were reliable not only to take the correspondence to its destination, but also to deliver its contents. Those who delivered letters were the personal representatives of the writers. You could say that those entrusted with delivering correspondence in the ancient world were ambassadors for the writers.
So when Jesus says, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, he is saying, ‘You are my ambassadors. I trust you to go into the world in my name and speak my message.’ That is the sense in which people welcoming us is like welcoming Jesus. Not that we are his doubles, but that we are his ambassadors.
That itself may still be nerve-wracking! Who, me, acting as Christ’s representative? But yes, it is true, and it is the greatest honour open to a human being. No honour bestowed by society can compare with this. A Christian musician by the name of Abraham Laboriel was asked to be part of a band that played at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, but he had an existing commitment on the date in question, and so he declined. ‘Don’t you know you’re going to be playing for the President of the United States?’ the organiser asked him. ‘Don’t you know I play for the King of Kings every time I play?’ replied Laboriel.
The world knows we are Christ’s representatives: let’s accept our commission.
Next come the prophets:
‘Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward’ (verse 41a).
I think this expands the notion of the ambassador. The ambassador represents the king’s message; the prophet brings the king’s word. Prophets are those people who clearly bring God’s message to the current situation. They do so with such a vivid sense that we know we must decide in response to God.
They are not merely wordsmiths, although the words are important. Like their biblical counterparts, they may enact the message in such a way that we gain a clear sense of God’s mind. They may be Desmond Tutu laughing in the face of apartheid. They may be John Sentamu cutting up his clerical collar on television as condemnation of Robert Mugabe. However, they may also be the person with the quiet word for another that came as they prayed.
Prophets, then, have a key rôle to play in calling people to repentance, commitment and steps along the road of discipleship. Thus, we can say they have a missionary function.
The questions for us are who are the prophets in our midst? And might we have a prophetic edge to our words and deeds? It requires people who in the first instance are more willing to listen than to speak, to pray rather than preach. True prophecy only comes from communion with God.
3. The Righteous
Next, Jesus says,
‘and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous’ (verse 41b).
Who is ‘a righteous person’? Shouldn’t that be all Christians? Yes, of course. However, there is also something specialist about this, too. And just as prophets extend the notion of ambassadors, righteous persons extend what we understand by prophets. Our mission isn’t merely to proclaim the word, like ambassadors, nor to declare and enact it, like prophets. Our mission also involves living the word of Christ, and that’s what makes for ‘righteous’ people in Jesus’ eyes.
We see it today in a movement that is taking the Gospel into impoverished areas. As it does so, it is impressing and challenging young people. It’s often called ‘the new monasticism’. In the UK, a good representative is The Eden Project: not the eco-friendly destination in Cornwall, but Christian outreach on the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester, living and serving the needy. In the USA, it’s most high profile project is The Simple Way, founded by Shane Claiborne and five other members of Eastern University who decided to move into an impoverished suburb of Philadelphia.
Why do these projects have an impact? Here is what a Christian youth worker and researcher called Jason Gardner says about them:
‘This ‘new’ type of church offers a clear and gospel-motivated alternative to consumer culture. It has also found, much like the church of the New Testament and the campaigns of Wesley and Whitefield, that where the gospel most appeals is amongst the marginalised.’
As another researcher, Bob Mayo, puts it:
‘…having it all is seen as a right, not a luxury.’
Our mission, then, involves a form of righteous living that not only reaches the poor and those on the margins, but also challenges the greed and selfishness of our culture. That might put us on a cross, but God tends to raise up his crucified ones.
4. The Little Ones
Here is a fourth group Jesus mentions at the end of the reading:
‘… 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.’ (Verse 42)
Who are ‘these little ones’? The immediate context demands that they be disciples, too, who are engaged in mission. The phrase occurs elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel and seems to refer to disciples, perhaps particularly vulnerable ones.
I believe Jesus is telling us there is a proper vulnerability about mission. Christian mission is not about going in, guns blazing, and forcing people into submission. The mission of Jesus means going to the world in love, and love of necessity means being vulnerable. We take risks when we love people in the name of Jesus. Sometimes it hurts.
I love talking about the witness Debbie and I share in among the communities at Rebekah’s school and Mark’s pre-school. However deeply rewarding it feels at times, there are other occasions when we know our efforts have failed or been rejected. One person we desperately wanted to help chose instead to listen to the dangerous counsel of a couple who were steeped in the occult. That hurt. We wondered about the consequences for her children. But nobody can force Jesus on people. In the pain of vulnerable love, the little ones of Jesus need their cups of cold water from others.
However, for all the disappointment, it’s important to go on being vulnerable, being ‘little ones’, not ‘big ones’, so to speak. That’s how Jesus engaged in his Father’s mission. That’s how we do, too.
You might think I’ve finished at that point – I’ve gone through the groups of people who are welcomed – the ambassadors, prophets, righteous ones and little ones. However, there is one other group to consider:
Yes, we need to think of the ‘whoevers’ in this passage: ‘whoever’ welcomes the ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones, and who gives a cup of cold water to the little ones. These ‘whoevers’ are the hidden people in the reading.
Jesus makes room for the anonymous ‘whoevers’ in mission. He has a place for those who will not be in the public arena in the way that ambassadors, prophets and righteous people – and even, maybe the vulnerable ones – might be.
The thread running through Jesus’ thought here is that mission requires support. Any and every Christian can support mission by offering practical help and moral support to those who find themselves on the front line of witness in the world. We’ve done that to a small extent this last year in supporting our missionary charity for the year, the Mission Aviation Fellowship. We’ll continue that with a new missionary cause from September, which the Church Council decided last Monday would be Street Pastors. We’ll be providing our cups of cold water in prayer, finance and educating ourselves and others about these outreach projects.
It’s not something that has to be limited to a church’s official missionary causes. It’s something every Christian can do individually. It might mean looking out for particular Christians we know, who may be involved in some challenging witness and showing interest and offering support. Equally, we could contact a mission organisation that grabs our attention and begin receiving their literature, giving money and praying for them.
None of this excuses us from our own involvement in witness as we live in the world. All Christians are still just as much called to speak, enact and live God’s word in a loving and vulnerable way. Support for other missionaries is vital, but it cannot be a cop-out from our own responsibilities. We have a twin rôle: we engage in our own witness, and we seek to meet the needs of others as they bring the love of Christ into the world.
Does it still seem incongruous that Jesus chooses us to be his ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones? Does it seem strange that he calls us in our vulnerability and anonymity to be his representatives and missionaries? Consider this story:
After Jesus ascended, the angels gathered round to ask him what his plans were now, after his death for the sins of the world and his mighty resurrection. ‘Wow, Jesus,’ they said, ‘what are you going to do now?’
‘I have entrusted the next stage of the mission to eleven men,’ replied Jesus.
‘Men?’ gasped the angels. ‘But what if they fail, or make mistakes, or sin? What’s your backup plan, Lord?’
‘I have no other plan,’ said Jesus.
And he hasn’t. We are his plan. We’ve heard about the possibilities and the difficulties. Now is the time to step into our destinies.
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