Service Date: 2 July, 2017
Worship was led by the Revd. Robert Beard. The service included celebration of Holy Communion. The Revd. Beard preached on the Great Commission, Jesus’ sending his disciples out to continue his work, and asked us to consider what it means to commit to continue that work of teaching and healing.
Rejoice and Sing 95 God is love, let heaven adore him
Rejoice and Sing 324 Holy Spirit, ever dwelling
Rejoice and Sing 63 Great God, we sing that might hand
Rejoice and Sing 432 Now is eternal life
Genesis chapter 22 verses 1 – 14
Romans chapter 6 verses 12 – 23
Matthew chapter 10 verses 40 – 42
To be the change
This morning’s gospel reading comes at the end of Matthew chapter 10, which is the second major compilation of Jesus’ teaching after the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 to 7.
The intervening chapters 8 and 9 catalogue various episodes in Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing people, casting out demons, and raising from the dead: in other words, addressing the obstacles that prevent suffering people from experiencing fullness of life in loving relationship with God and with each other.
At the end of chapter 9, St Matthew tells his readers that when Jesus saw the crowds,
he had compassion for them, because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Then he told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.
This prayer, that the Lord of the harvest send out labourers into his harvest, marks a turning point in St Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ life and ministry, because it’s the moment at which Jesus starts to entrust his ministry to others. Up to this point, Jesus has been doing all the teaching and healing himself, with the disciples accompanying him as companions and witnesses. But in the verses that immediately follow this prayer,
Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
They have seen Jesus doing these things, and now it is their turn. Just as apprentices learn first by observing and then by imitating their masters, so the disciples have seen Jesus at work – touching the leper and saying “Be made clean!” (8.2-3), healing the centurion’s servant at a distance (8.5-13), touching and healing Peter’s mother-in-law (8.14-15), casting out demons (8.16), calming the storm (8.23-27), curing the Gadarene demoniacs (8.28-34), healing the paralysed man by declaring the forgiveness of his sins (9.2-8), raising a little girl to life (9.18-19, 23-25), assuaging woman’s haemorrhage (9.20-22), touching and restoring sight to two blind men’s eyes (9.27-30, and speech to a someone who was mute (9.32-34) – and they must now put their observations into practice.
There’s an underlying and unstated message here. In chapters 8 and 9, the disciples have observed Jesus’ words and actions; but words and actions are easy enough. The underlying and unstated message is to do with whether or not the disciples have perceived the faith of Jesus that makes his words and actions effective in all these situations. Do they truly believe in the authority that Jesus is giving them?
Perhaps this is why Jesus goes on to say,
Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Jesus himself has already demonstrated that God’s love and healing power are for all people, not only the Jews, by healing the Roman centurion’s servant; but that may be a step too far for his disciples at this point.
Or perhaps there’s another reason. After all, as we were reminded two weeks ago, it is through the descendants of Abraham that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12.3; 28.14), so maybe Jesus is suggesting that the Jews need to be brought back into their covenant relationship with God, before the new covenant can be established which will embrace Jews and Gentiles alike.
Jesus continues his commission,
As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.
This commission shows that, having instructed them to pray for harvest labourers, Jesus evidently intends the disciples themselves to be the answer to their own prayer; they are to be the labourers for whom they pray. I can hear an echo here of Isaiah’s vision in the Temple:
I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Barack Obama made the same point:
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
5 February 2008
And later, speaking about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as ‘Obamacare’), he asked Congress simply,
If not now, when? If not us, who?
9 March 2010
The disciples, then, are to act as envoys of Jesus, extending his ministry, proclaiming the same good news and performing the same works of healing. But they are also to share his poverty and homelessness, depending as he did on the hospitality of others:
You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.
They should not be surprised, however, if they do not always find themselves welcome:
If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.
On the contrary, they may expect to encounter the same hostility that Jesus often does, for he is sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (10.16). They can expect to encounter persecution and trials (10.17-23), for “a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master” (10.24-25). They need also be prepared for painful division within families, and to be willing to put Jesus’ mission above family loyalties (10.34-38). In return, Jesus promises that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (10.39).
In all of this, of course, St Matthew, is not only recalling Jesus’ instructions to his first disciples, but also speaking to his own community of disciples a few generations later. The message has remained true throughout the first two thousand years of Christian history, and down to the present day. There is still an immense need for harvest labourers, missionaries willing to take Jesus’ teaching and healing out of their own communities and comfort zones into a perilous world. Those sent still need to depend on the hospitality of others, the kindness of strangers. And so in this morning’s reading, St Matthew records a message for those who show such hospitality:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
In the ancient world, and in many parts of the world today, identity was tied to family and community, so that to show hospitality to an individual is implicitly to welcome the person or family or community who sent that person. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus is to receive the presence of Jesus himself and of God the Father who sent him.
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.
The words “prophet” and “righteous” in St Matthew’s gospel can refer both to the prophets and faithful servants of biblical history (cf. 11.13; 13.17; 23.29) and to contemporary prophets and righteous ones (cf. 7.15-20; 13.43,39; 25.37,46).
What are the “prophet’s reward” and the “reward of the righteous” of which Jesus speaks? Elsewhere in St Matthew’s gospel the prophets may expect to receive persecution (5.12), rejection (13.57) and death (23.30-35,37); and yet those who are persecuted are told, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (5.12). Similarly, the righteous are promised that they “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13.43).
Finally, Jesus says,
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.
“Little ones” (Greek mikros) often refers to children, but St Matthew uses it to refer to Jesus’ disciples, especially those who are young in faith or particularly vulnerable, as they are at the time of this first commission (cf. 18.6, 10).
As we welcome Jesus this morning, under the signs of bread and wine, as well as in the love we show to each other, let us consider how we may recommit ourselves to his ministry of teaching and healing, and how we may welcome those who bring that ministry to us.
Revd Robert Beard BD