40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 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; 42 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.” ~ Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)
To give a little bit of context, these three verses close out Jesus’ instructions to his twelve disciples prior to sending them out into the various towns of Galilee. Jesus has given authority to his disciples to go out and represent him. All throughout chapter ten of the Gospel according to Matthew, leading up to our reading today, Jesus gives his disciples a number of instructions and orders – orders to proclaim the good news, and even to heal and cure people. Jesus also warns them that they will face persecution due to their role as representatives of Jesus, but he also offers them assurances, such as, “Do not fear.”
Then in verse forty, our reading today, Jesus says to his disciples whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes my Father, the one who sent me. Welcoming in this context means to come to faith through the disciple’s teachings and accepting Christ by accepting them. He says whoever welcomes a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous. Finally, Jesus says whoever gives even just a cup of cold water to one of his disciples will not lose their reward; this reward he speaks of is the reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom of heaven.
There’s a lot of emphasis here on the person doing the receiving, welcoming, and the offering of water, but it’s also important to recognize the disciple’s role in all of this, and their responsibility as people who are sent out to represent Jesus. After all, the disciples first have to go out in order to be received in the first place. It starts with Jesus, it continues with his disciples, and then come the repercussions of their ministry.
Notice how, before any of the receiving happens, the disciples first have to be sent out to be an embodiment of Jesus, to do his work in his name. The idea is that the disciples would represent Jesus so well that those who receive them would receive Jesus and furthermore, receive God the Father.
It is so important how Jesus is represented by his disciples.
So, you mean to tell me we as disciples are representatives of Jesus, you might ask? We have to represent Jesus well? What does that even look like? Why is how we represent Jesus so important? Well I’m glad you asked all of those questions.
You could be the closest thing to Jesus that some people will ever meet on this earth, and if that’s the case, how do you want those people to perceive who Jesus is? Even if we’re not the first Christian or disciple or representative of Christ that someone meets, again how do we want to represent him?
As I was sitting with this scripture in preparation for today, so many questions such as these kept circling around in my head – questions I think are worth asking ourselves and holding ourselves accountable to every day.
“What kind of Jesus do I want to represent? Who am I portraying Jesus as? What kind of Jesus are we as Christians leading people to believe in? Is it an apathetic Jesus? Neutral Jesus? White Jesus? American Jesus? A hateful Jesus?”
What kind of Jesus are we portraying with our words, our behaviors, or even our silence? What about with our conversations, or our discussions with people who don’t share our same beliefs, values, views? Am I doing good or am I doing harm in his name?
Jesus has been represented in some pretty harmful ways, and I’m sure most if not all of us know of at least one person who turned away from the church and maybe even religion altogether because of a horrible encounter they had with a so-called representative of Christ, or with a church body.
Of course, the easy way to respond to that so we don’t have to take responsibility is to say “Well then that person was putting more of their faith in the Christian than in Christ” – to that I would have to say, no, we don’t get off that easy. We’re supposed to emulate him to the best of our abilities, acknowledging we all fall short, but that’s not an excuse to not try our best to treat every child of God as someone who equally worth our love, kindness, and grace.
People can meet us and as a result, they can say, “I don’t want anything to do with the Christ they follow.” Or people can meet us and as a result, they can say, I want to know more about the Christ they follow.
As the Church called to embody Jesus, everything we do, has the power to help or harm people’s images of Jesus. Now of course we do not have the power to change who Jesus is but we do have the power to change who people think Jesus is. And that’s something we should take very seriously.
I don’t know what was running through the disciples’ heads or what side conversations they had with each other as they dispersed into Galilee, but I can imagine if I had just been told by Jesus that I had the authority to go out and represent him, I’d be nervous, because that’s a lot of pressure right? Jesus is like, “Hey, I’m the literal Savior of the world, but go represent me, no big deal.”
But we really don’t have to imagine that hard how the disciples were feeling or what they were thinking because we, too, have been commissioned to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s a task of ours as Christians, and a daunting one, at that. Perhaps the disciples were thinking as we often think, “How do I get people to receive me and receive Jesus, how do I make disciples, what do I do, how do I act? What if nobody welcomes me?”
“What if I mess this up” is a common concern of ours, and the answer is, we will, many times. But the point is that we keep trying, and we keep opening our minds and our Bible and our hearts; being transformed by our knowledge of Jesus, which helps us become more like Jesus.
We aren’t sent out fully equipped. The first disciples weren’t, and they even had face to face dialogues with Jesus himself. But they weren’t perfect representatives who were perfectly equipped for the task – we aren’t either. But we go out anyways, just as the first disciples did, relying on the Spirit and on our knowledge of who Jesus is, and we represent him as best we know how.
A couple weeks ago the church I attend in Durham offered an opportunity for us to come stand in silence in front of the church building as the bells rang for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the time it took for George Floyd to be murdered; somehow he managed to get out the words “I can’t breathe” but it didn’t matter. My church is in downtown Durham along a rather busy road, and as we all stood there, plenty of feet apart, cars driving by likely wondering what all of us were doing out there, I couldn’t help but think to myself – Wow, the world is watching the Church right now. What we, the Church, do right now, has the ability to represent what Jesus would be doing right now.
The Church is a flawed and exceptionally imperfect representation of Jesus, but we, the disciples who make up the church, are called still to respond to the events of our world the way we discern Jesus would respond. And that’s terrifying because sometimes the church doesn’t always respond well to these things; but what we do (or don’t do) in the name of Jesus, matters (especially right now). The world is watching whether we ignore it all, which is SO easy to do; far easier than confronting and examining our biases and ignorance.
But as representatives of Christ, we have the ability to represent a quiet, neutral, comfortable complacent Jesus in a box. Or we have the ability to represent a Jesus who stands with the oppressed, who uses his voice for good and for justice, who does no harm, and pours out empathy upon every person he encounters.
You might be asking yourself, “Well how can I respond to what’s going on in our world, what can I do, how can I represent what Christ would do in this context, especially during quarantine?”
Well, beyond being kind and loving towards your neighbors, you can have open, respectful, curious dialogue with one another about these topics. You can read books and articles written by persons of color. You can be intentional about having conversations with people in the community (from a distance) who are different from you. You can pray and ask God to open your heart and mind to what your heart and mind were closed to before. You can stay informed and educate yourself and be willing to change once you know better than you did before. You can read the Bible and see how Jesus behaved and responded in high stress, high, emotion, tense situations. These are practical things that we can all do and they make more of a difference than you might think.
Friends, it’s easy to think our role as representatives of Jesus has nothing to do with these issues our world is facing; it’s easy to think it’s not our place to talk about these things; these things that we might have labeled “too political” for church. I know I am certainly recovering from being somebody who thought Jesus “would stay in his lane” and not involve himself with “political, worldly” things like social justice, but in reading the Bible and coming to know Jesus more, we find that Jesus didn’t really leave us a choice, this is his lane, and therefore it’s ours, too – we are sent out into the world to represent him in the midst of everything going on. We’re called not just to be bystanders but to immerse ourselves and embody Jesus in whatever context we find ourselves, bringing the heart and mind of Christ into whatever issues are affecting our siblings in Christ.
We’re not called to remain in a bubble. We’re not called to show up once or twice a week to hear a sermon that makes us feel good, especially not when what we need is to be uncomfortable and face unrest because that’s what’s going to motivate us to examine ourselves and discern how we best represent Jesus in these days we are living in – these days of pandemic, racism, police brutality, and so much hate and misunderstanding.
If we think what’s going on in our world doesn’t concern us as Christians, or we think it’s too political for church, remember how political Jesus’ death was. Jesus – our perfect Savior – was sentenced to death by political leaders. He was hung up on a cross to be crucified – a form of capital punishment – by which he is likely to have died of asphyxiation.
Jesus, too, could not breathe.