A cup of water

In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus gathers the twelve, he gives them authority over unclean spirits and sends them off. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, and the twelve are only the beginning. “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he tells them, “and as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” They are to act as his envoys, sharing in his authority and power to forgive and heal, but also sharing in his poverty and homelessness. They are to take no money, no bag for their journey, no extra clothing, but depend entirely on the hospitality of others for shelter and food.

He also prepares them for rejection. They will not be welcomed everywhere, and they can expect to experience some hostility since he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves. They may also have to face painful division within their families because of their loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom of heaven. For all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promises, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Last Sunday we reflected on the weight of these words, the weight of wanting to be worthy of him; todays lection are the final three verses of the speech. Something is different in these closing lines. He no longer speaks of the risks of going out, but rather of the rewards for welcoming them in. It’s just a slight change of perspective. One moment we see ourselves in a small group of itinerant disciples walking toward a house, wondering if they will be welcomed, now we see ourselves inside the house, wondering what to do with the strangers about to knock on the door. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It is in these closing verses that it becomes clear that Jesus is not just addressing the twelve who are about to go on the road, but all his disciples. You and I are no less part of this mission than Simon, Andrew, James and the rest of the twelve. In our life together, in our proclamation, in our intentional and accidental everyday witness to Christ God is reaching out in mercy to the world.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, congregations of Christians already existed in many cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Itinerant Christian prophets and teachers were not unusual at all; on the contrary, early Christian writings suggest that at times they may have become a burden to the small communities. Not only did they need a place to stay and something to eat (and occasionally overstay their welcome), sometimes they also disagreed with each other. Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians, “We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work…. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”[1] And another leader warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[2] Matthew makes sure we remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”[3]

He is addressing one audience, but he’s talking to two groups; the settled Christian community and the itinerant prophets. He’s assuring the prophets that they don’t need to sell their word like peddlers, as it were, because the ones who receive them will receive a rich reward for their hospitality. And he’s promising the welcoming community the rewards of welcoming a prophet in their midst. A prophet’s reward is in kingdom terms what we might call a king’s ransom, only that tilts it too much to the monetary side of things. A prophet’s reward is treasure in heaven, a kind of wealth and fulfillment money can’t buy.

Congregational life in Matthew’s day was very different from Vine Street, we know that. But having lived with people for a few decades, I imagine that life was also very similar. Nobody’s too eager to welcome a prophet, either because things are going just fine or because they’re a little iffy already, and whether you’re comfortable with the way things are or a little nervous, you don’t want some outsider coming in and stirring up trouble.

What I hear Jesus saying here to the prophets among us, is, “Don’t be afraid. Speak the word you have been given without fear. The truth of the gospel is at stake. Don’t be silent and do not walk away too soon.” And to the congregations of disciples I hear Jesus say, “Welcome a prophet, welcome without fear anyone who speaks in my name, whether or not you agree with them. The truth of the gospel is at stake. Do not close the door too soon.”

There aren’t a lot of itinerant prophets around anymore, but there’s plenty of settled Christianity in our city, and there are voices and perspectives, Christian voices that come to us like those of strangers who are passing through. Men and women who may speak with a pentecostal accent or a catholic sensibility, people we have perhaps dismissed as holy rollers or papists, or had already labeled as pinkos or fundamentalists, and who wants to listen to them? “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” and whoever doesn’t welcome them will have to wait for the reward that much longer.

Itinerant and settled describe the early days of Christian prophets and house churches, but to be sent and to receive are also aspects of being church together that never become a thing of the past. Jesus calls us to be fearless when we venture out beyond our comfort zone with the word of life in our hearts, in our hands and on our lips, and to be equally fearless in receiving the word of life when it comes to us – to listen, to test, and to hold fast to what is good. And the reward, it turns out, is not just tied to prophets and the righteous. We hesitate to use words like prophet and righteous, we want to be careful because they are precious, and we might cheapen them by overuse. But we do not hesitate to pray for the courage to speak the word given to us without fear and to seek righteousness in the company of Jesus. The promised reward is tied not only to prophets and the righteous. Jesus says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because they are my disciples—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” At the end of a long speech addressing the challenges and dangers of living as those whom Jesus has sent, at the end of a chain of difficult teachings about the hard places where faithfulness might take us, at the end we are given this beautiful word like a cup of water.

I see a prophet sitting on a hot, dusty sidewalk, tired from calling the city to repentance so that he too might have a place to lay his head, and one of the waiters steps out of the hip restaurant across the street, carrying a small tray with a tall glass of water, ice cubes jingling, and she kneels beside him and says, “You look thirsty, brother.” It’s just a cup of water, but she offers it with the mercy that holds the universe.

It is so simple, and you may be saying to yourself, “I already know that, preacher.”

Well, I’m glad you do. I think I’m done for today.


[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 20-21

[2] 1 John 4:1

[3] Matthew 10:41 NRSV alt.