Matthew 10: 40 to 42. Whoever Welcomes Me
Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A woman went to the doctor who told her she only had six months to live. Shocked, the woman asked the doctor what she should do. The doctor’s answer was, “Marry an accountant.” “Why?” asked the woman. “Will that make me live longer?” “No,” replied the doctor. “But it will seem longer.”
As most of you know, I am an accountant, so please spare a thought for Pauline who has endured almost 47 years of marriage to me. I am a true accountant, who loves numbers and statistics and checking the accuracy of things. Even the BBC has suffered, twice removing statistics from their reports when I pointed out to them , they had got it wrong. I apologise now, if, no not if, for the times any of you have had to listen to me at my worst.
So, you will not be surprised to hear that I can tell you this is the 556th time I have preached a sermon and that, on average, my sermons are 2,107 words in length. That is over a million words!
But, what have I learned since I first stood in a pulpit in an Anglo Catholic Church in Watford, to preach, 20 years ago?
Lots, of things, but here are some of the most significant for me:
- The Bible repays study. If you study the Bible your faith will be developed and strengthened. That’s why being part of a house group can be so helpful; but just reading it helps.
- The Bible is a rich and abundant source of words of advice, wisdom, support, love, life, guidance and knowledge. You can open it at any page and find something of value. You can open it at the same page a month later and find something new and valuable.
- The Bible is a history book, not a work of fiction and what you find in it will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
There are also three practical things I have learned which matter when reading the Bible and especially when preaching; context is critical; context is critical and … … context is critical. Social and historical context, naturally, but most importantly, the context of the words and passages either side of any reading. The writers of the Gospels did not just jot down a random series of the words and actions of Jesus.
Depending on the translation, around 31,000 words of Jesus are recorded in the Bible, and while ten of his words can say more than any (probably all) of my sermons, in purely time used, this accounts for about 200 hours (not much more than one half of one percent) of the three years of Jesus’s ministry. So they have obviously chosen them carefully and placed them in a context of their own so that they could be better understood. They often tell us when the words were spoken, where they were spoken and, if you read around them, why they were spoken.
So, when we look at today’s gospel reading Chapter 10 of Matthew, of which we heard the last three verses read by my Mum, they are amplified and given meaning by the context in which Matthew set them.
They begin, you’ll remember, with the words, “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me”
When I look at what preachers around the world say about this passage, I am surprised, even astonished, to find so many of them talking about this message referring to the need for our churches to be ‘welcoming churches’. I know that the word welcome appears six times in three verses. Matthew 5:13 has the word salt in it three times, but that does not mean Jesus was encouraging Christians to ensure their food was well seasoned.
We should be a welcoming church; we should be a welcoming people and that welcome should extend to everybody, whether they are of faith or no faith. But that is not the point of Jesus’s words to the disciples.
In Mark 9:37 Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” The context was an argument among the disciples about who was the greatest of them. These words put them firmly in their place and had nothing to do with the disciples being a welcoming group.
Luke in 9:48 adds the words from Jesus, “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” Which really makes the point.
What then, is the context for Jesus’s words in Matthew’s gospel?
Well, Chapter 10 of Matthew is referred to as the ‘Mission Discourse’ and the words we heard about welcoming come at the end of that passage. I think it is pretty evident from all the gospels that a primary focus of Jesus’s ministry was to prepare the disciples for their work as missionaries and evangelists after he returned to heaven. This chapter is a sort of concentrated module, or lesson, on the subject.
It begins with Matthew, like a teacher, taking the register of attendees. The names of the twelve are listed.
Verses 5 to 15 record how Jesus, as all good university lecturers might, sends them out to get some practical experience. They have spent enough time with him by then to hear the main messages that Jesus wants them to share and the things he wants them to do in his name. They are sent off, with a few clear last minute instructions about what to take with them and how to conduct themselves as well as a reminder of why they are being sent.
Then, because Jesus knows that they will all return safely from their first mission alone; maybe even because Jesus had given them a mission that was relatively safe as, (a person giving engineering apprentices or architects in training, their first solo challenge might do), verses 16 to 25 are a warning about the dangers they will face in their long term mission.
Verses 26 to 39 expand upon the warnings, but give comfort to the disciples about the protection they will have from the Father. You will find the phrase, “Do not be afraid” repeated three times in these verses.
We can learn everything we need from these instructions about what Jesus expects of mission and evangelism today. We can know that, whatever role God has in mind for us we will have Jesus by our side and the Holy Spirit on our side. When you watch the video from Daniel and Sarah in Brazil at the end of this service, you will hear from two people working in the most difficult and stressful of circumstances, but you will hear from people who are happy and joy filled by the presence of Christ in their lives. They evidently understand the messages of Matthew 10.
So then, what of our reading; verses 40 to 42? What are they about?
About half of translations use the word ‘receive’ instead of ‘welcome’, and although I prefer ‘welcome’, ‘receive’ can be helpful in understanding the point. In ancient times and ever since, people have sent emissaries to other people and places. When they have done so, those emissaries become their representatives. What they say in a negotiation or about a topic, is what their master says. In modern times, the best examples are the Ambassadors appointed by different countries to represent them in other countries. What they say, in their role, should not be personal opinion but a statement of the position of their country’s leader or Government. The formal process of an Ambassador taking up the role is to be ‘received’ by the leaders and Government of the country where they are based.
The Jews at the time of Christ had a well established principle of law; which can be found in Chapter 5 of the section of the Mishnah, entitled Berakhot (Blessings). It says, “A man’s emissary is regarded as the man himself”. If you showed respect to an emissary, you showed respect to the sender of the emissary; there was no difference.
Verse 40: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”. How much clearer could it be? If anyone welcomes a disciple of Christ then they welcome Christ himself. They are his emissaries; sent by him; and because Jesus was sent by God as his emissary, by definition, welcoming him is the same thing as welcoming God in person.
John records Jesus saying much the same thing in Chapter 13: 20, “Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”
For the Jews, if you did not respect the sender of an emissary, then you did not welcome the emissary.
As an aside, this verse reveals the really close relationship between the disciples and Jesus, on the one hand, and Jesus and God, on the other. It is a relationship which any of us can have as disciples of Christ; and all we need to do is accept him as our Saviour.
Verse 41, although it sounds “similar” has a different message for us. “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward”.
Before I explain further, what about this ‘reward’ that is referred to in the verse? It is not specified in this chapter. I imagine though, that like me, some of you when hearing this reading will have been reminded of the parable told by Jesus, found in Matthew 25. It includes the well known words, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
It is not the same message as our reading because it deals with the compassionate response to need that is expected of a follower of Jesus; but the reward specified there is, I am sure, the reward hinted at in our reading. It says, “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world”.
Why would merely welcoming a prophet or a righteous person entitle you to the same rewards as them? Many people, civic dignitaries included, welcomed our Bishop, Viv, when she was appointed, but our reading does not imply that they were immediately entitled to a place in heaven.
The verse says, “welcome a prophet as a prophet”, and welcome a righteous person “as a righteous person”. To do this, you must believe that they are prophets or righteous people. You cannot welcome followers of Christ and thus welcome Christ and thus welcome God, unless you believe that Christ and God exist. Sorry, a long explanation I know, but said simply, in order to welcome Christ’s emissaries, you too must be a believer. And if you believe, you will receive the same reward.
By these words, Jesus expressed the importance of his messengers. The welcome accorded them should be nothing short of the welcome accorded Jesus.
Now to verse 42, which is most like Matthew 25. This verse emphasises the message of the two preceding verses but it also encourages us to care for one another as disciples of Christ; to treat each other as we would treat Jesus himself. Not WWJD, ‘what would Jesus do but WWIDFJ, ‘what would I do for Jesus’?
When a disciple, an emissary of Christ, is needy we have a duty to respond. It is why we must look outward as a church in our giving to missionaries like the Sibthorpes and the Britos Medeiros.
The chapter begins with a list of the disciples. Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Fishermen, tax collectors, scholars, revolutionaries, ordinary people living ordinary lives. They all had failings and weaknesses, they all had very rough edges and an inadequate understanding of God. Yet they were chosen and instructed.
Eleven of them had their lives transformed into God’s messengers. If you ever have any doubts about your own worthiness; remember these people and this chapter. When God calls you, he can and will transform your life and make you fit for the kingdom of heaven.
Let us pray. Lord, as you called the disciples, so call us. Lord, as you transformed the disciples, transform us. We are ready to serve you and to become your emissaries and ambassadors. Amen