A sacrament of heaven

Our friend Jack read the Scriptures for us in worship last Sunday. The first reading was a passage from Romans 6, and before Jack read from Matthew 10, he made a comment saying he hoped that I would preach on that text, because the words of Jesus in that passage seemed so difficult and demanding, almost unbearable:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.[1]

Three times the words come down like a hammer, “not worthy of me.” I’m not worthy of Jesus if I love my daughter more than him? Our kids not worthy of him if they love their mom and dad more than him? Terrifying. And even if that’s not what he’s saying here and he isn’t what else could the children possibly hear? We made sure they had already left for children’s worship before Jack read those very difficult lines last Sunday.


All of chapter 10 in Matthew is a send-off speech Jesus gives to the disciples and the church. At the end of chapter 9, we see Jesus looking at the crowds, and he has compassion on them because they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” So he tells his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful” and that they should “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And before they can ask, he sends them out gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” and sends them out. “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” He sends them out, because he has compassion on the crowds who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He sends them to act as his envoys, shepherd’s envoys, the king’s ambassadors servants of the kingdom, traveling light no money, no bag, no extra clothing, entirely dependent 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 own families; their closest and most important relationships may be ruptured because of their loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom of God. He clearly doesn’t send them off on a mission triphe sends them into a whole new life where their relationship with him, and through him with God, would shape them more deeply than any of their most intimate relationships.


Today’s three verses from Matthew are the final paragraph of Jesus’ send-off speech to the first disciples and to the church. Something is different in these closing lines. There’s a shift in focus from the trials of those who are sent to the rewards for those who receive them.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

There’s a shift from high demand to promise. 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 and ministry, in our everyday witness to Christ and the kingdom of God, Jesus himself is present, and wherever our witness is received with welcome, the One who sent him is received.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, congregations of Christians already existed in many cities and towns around the Mediterranean. Itinerant Christian apostles, 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 in his first letter to 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.”[2] In the Didache, a Christian teaching document from around the turn of the first to the second century, churches are admonished to

welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet … if someone says in the Spirit, “Give me money, or something else,” you must not heed him. However, if he tells you to give for others in need, no one must condemn him.[3]

In his writing, Matthew is not merely recalling and recording Jesus’ instructions to the first disciples; he is also addressing contemporary communities of disciples to whom he is connected, speaking directly to those first readers of his gospel, telling them that there is still need to send out laborers into the harvest, to send prophets and teachers, and still those sent depend on communities of believers to welcome them.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

Congregational life in Matthew’s day was very different from ours, we know that. But I imagine that life was also very similar. No community is too eager to welcome a prophet, either because things are going just fine or because things are a little unsettled 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.

I hear Jesus addressing both sides here. To the prophets he says, “Don’t be afraid. Speak the word you have been given without fear. Proclaim the gospel: The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And to the settled disciples he says, “Welcome without fear anyone who speaks in my name, whether you agree with them or not. Receive the fullness of the gospel: The kingdom of heaven has come near.” There aren’t a lot of itinerant prophets around anymore, but there’s plenty of settled Christianity in our city, and there are Christian voices and accents among us that come to us like those of strangers who are passing through. Do we welcome them?

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

What’s a prophet’s reward? We won’t know unless we welcome the prophet. We live far from the the early days of itinerant prophets and house churches, but to be sent and to receive are aspects of being church together that never become a thing of the past. Jesus calls us to be fearless when we venture out with the word we have been given, and 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. Not even the smallest gesture of welcome is too small.

“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.”

This refreshing word points ahead to the final judgment where the heavenly judge says to the righteous, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” There is no act of welcome more basic and beautiful than giving somebody a cup of cold water, and Jesus says he is the thirsty one. And the reward? There’s the joy of being able to do what the Lord has taught us and to serve him in the stranger, the prophet, the littlest ones. And there’s the joy of us little ones being welcomed by Christ in our hunger and thirst for righteousness and sharing the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” Who are the righteous and what is their reward? Again, the word points ahead to the final judgment when the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[4] To welcome one another is to receive Jesus himself, and to welcome Jesus is to receive the one who sent him, and to become heirs to all that God has to give.

I see a prophet sitting on a hot sidewalk, tired from calling the city to repentance so that he too might have a place to lay his head. I see a waitress stepping out of the restaurant across the street, carrying a small tray with a tall glass of water; I can hear the ice cubes tinkling as she crosses the street and kneels beside him.

“You look thirsty, brother,” she says.

It’s just a glass of water, but between them it’s a sacrament of heaven.


[1] Matthew 10:34-38

[2] 1Thessalonians 5:12-13, 20-21

[3] Didache 11:4-5, 12

[4] Matthew 25:34

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