Our text this week was Matthew 10:40-42‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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; 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.’
This verse is one of the most explicit and concise hospitality commands in the Bible. Hospitality is one of our core values here, isn’t it? So when the lectionary brought us to these three verses this week, I initially thought, well, Bethany’s got this one down. We can just call off worship this week, or at least cancel the sermon. There’s no need to belabor the point. We can all get home a little earlier and I won’t need to write a sermon.
I went ahead and dug into the text, though–mainly because I thought if I started canceling worship willy-nilly, y’all might rethink the whole calling a new pastor thing. And I’m glad I did, because I think it has some words to offer us today, some words of challenge and some words of encouragement.
Let’s start with the context. These three little verses come at the end of a long speech Jesus has just given that takes up the entirety of chapter 10. The speech is traditionally called the Missionary Discourse. That’s because he gives this speech as he sends the disciples out in his name to proclaim good news, heal the sick, cast out demons, and announce that the kingdom of God is at hand. They’re going to do mission work in the surrounding towns, and Jesus gives them a lot of advice before they go. Don’t carry too much, stay with people who accept you, shake the dust off your sandals when people are hateful. Don’t be afraid, but know there will be hard times. And then we come to these verses.
He reminds them, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” But then the point of view shifts. Instead of being addressed to “you,” now it says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward…”
It shifted from second person to third. Did you catch that? Instead of talking to the disciples who are getting ready for their mission, now Jesus seems to be talking more broadly about “whoever welcomes.” We’ve shifted from talking about people who will be receiving hospitality, to the people offering it.
It’s kinda neat to see this shift so clearly here because it highlights a tension that runs throughout all four gospels. One of the central things the gospel writers are trying to sort out is, if Jesus said such and such to his disciples, what does that mean for our community now? What do his words then have to say to us now?
The author of this passage remembers Jesus saying to those original disciples, “Whoever welcome you, welcomes me.” And then, it’s as if he turns to look at his community and says, for us today these words from Jesus mean that we are part of Jesus’ work when we welcome someone who comes to us bearing the message of Christ. Not just when we go out bearing the good news, but when we welcome others who bear it.
In addition to the shift in audience, there’s another classic gospel move here: breaking down the difference between host and guest. The passage is initially addressed to followers of Jesus who were going to be guests in others’ homes. And then it turns and addresses followers of Jesus who were hosts to others.
This is one of my favorite things about Jesus, the way that he reveals that guest and host are but two sides of the same coin. From the wedding at Cana, where he provides the wine even though he’s the guest, to the meal at Emmaus where he shows up as a guest and ends up presiding at the table, Jesus is constantly telling us that hospitality, welcoming others in, and mission, going out to serve, are just different ways of looking at the same thing.
That’s a key part of this passage–it reminds the community that whether they go out in Jesus name, like those first disciples, or receive others in Jesus’ name–they are doing Christ’s bidding.
There’s a tendency, when it comes to mission, to feel like we’re not doing enough. I don’t mean just us in this room feel that way–I think it’s part of the human condition. There’s that circle of logic that says, there’s so much to do, and I’m not doing nearly enough, I can’t possibly do nearly enough, so why even bother.
Often, in our minds and in our talking, we privilege those who go to far away lands, those who give up everything in service to the gospel, those who risk arrest or leave their families behind. We think, they are what real Christians look like. But I could never do that. And that sense of, I could never do that, that sense of inadequacy, can become a stumbling block for us that keeps us from doing anything. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
These words from Jesus speak directly to those feelings and remind us that this is not how the kingdom of God functions.
We can be so preoccupied with who is doing more, who serves the most, who are the right people to serve, and what is the right way to serve. It’s like we imagine there’s a hierarchy of Christians, and those who accomplish the most self-sacrificing acts of love are the best, and the rest of us are just chopped liver.
But this passage, especially the second two verses, remind us of how it works with Jesus. Whoever welcomes a prophet, meaning a person who speaks in Christ’s name, whoeverwill receive the same reward as a prophet. Whoever welcomes a righteous person, well, that person is righteous. In fact, whoever welcomes even just an ordinary person in Christ’s name–that’s what is meant here by “little one”–even just offers a cup of cool water to a person in Christ’s name, that person is exactly the same in Christ’s eyes as the person who went out and left everything because they were called.
This is a radically different calculus than the math that the world uses, isn’t it? And yet, time and again Jesus reminds us that kingdom math isn’t like the world’s math. The ethics of hospitality put us all on even footing.
That’s tremendously good news. It’s especially good news if you’re prone to any of those lines of thought we were talking about a minute ago. If that sense of I can’t possibly do enough keeps you from even starting, or I’m not as young as I used to be or I’m too busy right now to do everything that needs to be done in Christ’s name.
If we, as a community sometimes feel like that, if we worry that having the right equipment or facilities will stand in the way of our joining Christ’s work, if we worry that not having enough people, or enough energy, or enough money, or enough anything will keep us from what Christ is calling us to do, Christ says, stop.
To all of us who feel like this in some way, Christ says, enough. Begin where you are. Right now, today. Follow me. Offer but a cup of cool water in my name, and see what possibilities unfold.
Listen. It’s just this easy, and it’s just this hard: whoever offers even a cup of cool water to someone who comes in my name, that person is righteous, that person is good enough. It’s hard to believe that it might be just that simple, isn’t it? I know, for me, making things complicated is one of the ways that I avoid following. Maybe that’s how it for you too.
Hear the good news: Christ sets us free. In this case Christ sets us free from all those ideas that get in our way and prevent us from offering those cups of cool water, those fears of inadequacy or futility. This kingdom logic moves the question away from all these questions about ourselves, what can I do, what can’t I do, away from all those head games, and sets us free to ask the only questions that matter: where is Christ? And how can we welcome Christ today?
Christ says, it’s just this easy and just this hard: welcome the one who bears my message into your midst. Start there. Offer them a cup of cool water, a place to rest their head and their weary hearts.
Perhaps they will be tired, dusty missionaries traveling from a far land. It’s more likely, though that the people who come bearing Christ’s image will be hungry, in need of groceries for the coming week, asking for help with a utility bill or a tank of gas. They might be neighbors searching for community and a sense of meaning. They might be busy families longing for a place to exhale and rest each week. For all of these and so many more, our calling is to ask how can we welcome? How can we offer a cup of cold water?
And when those demons in our head tell us it’s not enough, it can’t possibly help, we remember that we do not live by the math of this world. We live by kingdom math, a calculus where a few loaves and some fish feed thousands, where the wine doesn’t run out, where a cup of cool water is a gift worthy of a king.
May these words from Christ set us free.
May they open our eyes to see Christ’s presence in our midst and in our daily lives.
May they set us free to love and serve with what we’ve been given.
May they set us free from our fear and turn us loose to do the work of the gospel.
May these words shape us in Christ’s image, until we find, in our joy, that there is plenty of water for all, that even as we offer a cup of cool water, so we receive, that indeed, the living water of Christ has washed over us all, setting us free to love and to serve.
May it so be.Bethany Presbyterian Church June 26, 2011