‘Whoever welcomes you receives me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,’ says Jesus. If we really believe this, it should give us an indescribable joy. It means that we can really meet God here and now. It means, as we have been saying, the kingdom of God really is coming into our midst. It means that we are not without God’s presence, even when the world around us is confusing and disheartening.
[Jesus said to the twelve:] 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”
When one reads a story from the Bible, or a story generally, one often puts oneself into the story from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. Linguists and students of literature have fancy names for this practice and I learned and forgot some of them in seminary.
It’s usual that we approach things from the point-of-view of a main character or the one doing the action. But sometimes it’s quite interesting to enter the story from the perspective of an ancillary character or one who is even off the page, as it were. For example, what did Sarah do while Abraham and Isaac were away on the mountain?
While for my Adult Bible Study I make my customary reminder not to do violence to the text, this kind of reading is it is an interesting exercise to do such a thing as this, possibly also because it can reveal something about ourselves, God, or the world that we might not have understood otherwise.
You remember the story of the parable of the talents. The master leaves the three servants to manage his money while he is away. Two of them improve the money by investment. One hides the money and returns it unimproved when the master returns.
Who are we? Are we one of the first two servants who work hard knowing that their master is a good and fair man who will reward their industry? Are we the third servant, hating the master for entrusting him with responsibility and denying the responsibility by hiding his money?
Or are we, perhaps, the master? We have entrusted something important, something which represents ourselves, with others. The way the something is treated by the others reveals their attitude towards us. The two who care for the master are rewarded, and the one who hates the master is let go.
The point is that we can discover something about ourselves, God, or the world by this imaginative reading. And this is meant to lead us to change, to live deeper into discipleship.
When we come into this story of Matthew 10, when we hear Jesus’ words to the disciples, with whom do we identify? Do we identify with Jesus, confidently assuring his disciples that the welcome they find will surely be rewarded? Or are we the disciples, who are about to be sent to the towns and the villages and who will be welcomed as messengers of Christ?
Or perhaps we are not the ones who are welcomed at all. Perhaps we are the welcomers. Perhaps we are those children who gather around Jesus on our front cover. The usual caption on a picture like this is ‘Jesus welcomes the children.’ But perhaps we should label it another way - ‘the children welcome Jesus.’
In their early life, you know, children have a very literal understanding of, well, just about everything. The church is where God lives. The corpus on the cross is not simply a statue of Jesus – he is Jesus. And it’s been more than once that a child at communion has addressed me as ‘God.’ Of course, none of those times were with my own children.
Children, or at least children who have been brought up in a safe and nurturing environment, generally welcome adults with a ready trust that few adults are able or willing to have. This is why Jesus says that anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. This does not mean that we have to be children when we receive the kingdom, or have a literal understanding of figures of speech. It means that we are to receive the message of the kingdom with a child-like trust, not with suspicion or sarcasm.
‘Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me,’ says Jesus. If we really believe this, it should give us an indescribable joy. It means that we can really meet God here and now. It means, as we have been saying, the kingdom of God really is coming into our midst. It means that we are not without God’s presence, even when the world around us is confusing and disheartening.
How do we welcome those who are sent in the name of Jesus? It is not necessarily a matter of looking for a particular disciple, although messengers of God come our way perhaps every day and we do not notice. But it is a matter of welcoming the message which the apostles preached.
We welcome the Gospel, which is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification.
We welcome the Scriptures, which are both the record of God’s mighty acts and living words which speak faith into our hearts.
We welcome the word that in the waters of baptism our sins were washed away and that we can daily return to the waters in confession and forgiveness.
We welcome the Holy Communion, in which we receive Christ in his body and blood.
We welcome each other and the stranger, for we know that Abraham encountered God when he welcomed the three strangers under the oaks at Mamre.
That is to say, each liturgy is an opportunity to welcome Christ. Worship can be described as the encounter with God, who comes to us in Word and Sacrament. And we welcome him, not only with our minds, but with our bodies. We gather around him, we listen to him, we eat with him, we follow him out into the world.
Each of these welcomes has its particular bodily sign in the liturgy. For example, our feet take us to and into the church, the place of meeting with God. We make the sign of the cross, the sign marked upon us in baptism, when God’s name is invoked and we hear the word of forgiveness. We bow as the cross is carried past us on its way into the church and on its way out. We welcome the words of the prophets and the apostles as we listen to the Scriptures. We stand for the Gospel reading to welcome Christ among us, and make the sign of the cross on our head, on our lips, on our heart. We reverence the altar by a bow as we pass before it. We greet each other with the sign of peace and we offer our gifts of money and talent for the spread of the gospel and the help of others. We kneel for the Holy Communion and receive the bread with open hands.
This is not to say that we welcome Christ only in the worship service. Far from it! But it is to say that when we welcome him in worship, we are far more likely to welcome him outside of worship. Just as when those children welcomed Jesus into town by their coming to him, listening to him, eating with him; when he left, the children looked forward to his next visit and probably treated each other differently than before he came.
When we identify ourselves as those who welcome Jesus into our lives, as those to whom the good news and its messengers are sent, we truly find that there is a reward there. The reward is transformation of our lives and the faith that we are God’s children. The reward is joy. Perhaps we cannot be so joyful as those children depicted in the picture. But perhaps we can recall the trust we had, and claim even more a trust that even surpasses that of childhood, and welcome Jesus in word and deed with joy, this day and whenever he comes among us.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz
St Stephen Lutheran Church