Trinity 4, 8 July 2023, St James Colwall

Matthew 10: 40–42

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

“Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.” Matthew 10: 41.

I imagine the disciples felt a bit bruised, uncertain and maybe fearful. They are at a turning point, on the cusp of changing from being followers to becoming leaders. This is the end of what’s known as the “missionary discourse” in Matthew’s gospel, and, taken out of context, it’s a lovely reading about welcome. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus’s instructions to his disciples. They are being sent out to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. They are being sent out “like sheep into the midst of wolves”, facing rejection, persecution, and interrogation. You may remember last week’s gospel: “I have not come to bring peace but a sword”; Jesus knows not everyone will want to hear what he has to say.

The disciples may be feeling uncertain, but Jesus has spoken like this before. In Matthew 5 we have the sublime words of The Beatitudes—blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. But the Beatitudes also go a little bit dark: Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“ Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Like with today’s text, there is a reward in the Beatitudes: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The word “prophet” is interesting. If you’ve been waiting for a prophet and then, today I start as your new curate, I’d suggest managing your expectations! The “Didache” texts of the early church, used the words “prophet” and “apostle” interchangeably and generally referred to itinerant missionaries. The disciples were being sent out as such missionaries, to spread knowledge of Jesus throughout Israel, travelling from one community to another, teaching and healing.

I have been very lucky. For the past two years I’ve lived and studied at a theological college in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside—a college Melanie knows well! As students, we were sent out into the community, working, and learning in many different contexts. And, as Jesus had warned his disciples, our presence was not always welcome or understood. I provided pastoral support to teenagers affected by road traffic incidents. I worked as a chaplain to the police where nearly every conversation started with an officer saying “I’m not religious…” but often ended over a cup of tea. I spent time in a Category C prison where offenders attended church services because they were less likely to be attacked there.

When I was reflecting on the Missionary Discourse, I felt what Jesus was asking the disciples to do was a form of curacy. They were sent out to learn, effectively, on the job, to put into practice what they had seen Jesus do; indeed, to be Christ-like, sent out to serve. And, like with a curacy, they did so with the support of he who sent them. So that, as we heard on Trinity Sunday, they are ultimately commissioned, having the skills, knowledge, and confidence to build the church after the ascension. So, the “Missionary Discourse” is about empowering the disciples: “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me”.

What does that welcome look like for us today? In our reading: “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.” Scholars tell us that “little ones” refers to the missionaries rather than the general needy or children.

When a child sees destruction,
a child sees fear,
sees their home in ruins
when no help is near.
When a child is a witness to these things,
a witness to these things…
Can we offer hope?

Those words, by Liz Dilnot Johnson, taken from the Requiem for Peace, returning home to St James’s this evening, help us understand both welcome and mission.

In a quest for peace and justice, what is our role? Are we the itinerant missionaries or the welcomers? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. As Christians we are called to be both. As followers of Christ, we too are sent out and we too provide hospitality. Our gospel reading should be comforting—both missionary and welcomer are rewarded.

I spent much of last week on retreat in the Bishop’s Palace. You may know that +Richard has extended his hospitality to Ukrainian refugees, as others in this area have likewise opened their homes to those in need. Not everyone is able to do so, and others have responded by donating items and welcoming people into the community. Those involved in tonight’s Requiem are using their time and talents in mission, sharing this quest for righteousness and justice. Even when we feel powerless, we can follow Jesus’s example and pray. Prayer is active, Christ-like and a meaningful response to challenging situations. Action, combined with prayer, is a formidable force for change.

So, where are you in this “missionary discourse”? Do you feel emboldened and empowered to don your sandwich boards and go out and spread the good news? Perhaps the idea of that makes you uncomfortable and uncertain. We may not face the persecution the disciples were being prepared for, but it can be difficult in today’s society to be known as someone of faith. I’ve been wearing a dog collar for less than a day and I know I’ll have to get used to it being a visible sign of my faith. Yet in the midst of the missionary discourse we are told “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher”. Sharing the good news is about following and living the teachings of Christ, allowing others a glimpse of what it is to live in the light.

In my first conversation with Melanie, she spoke warmly about the benefice’s ethos of hospitality. Yes, she did mention real coffee. It’s an ethos I’ve felt throughout the last few months and I’m sure my family and friends joining us today will feel the same. Jesus and the disciples came from a strong Jewish heritage of hospitality—it had profound meaning, and the Old Testament gives consequences for communities that didn’t extend it. Our own circumstances are different and we’re unlikely to be put into the position of the disciples or those from the early church. But how we receive and respond to people remains central to the faith of those who follow Jesus. Hospitality doesn’t mean using your best fine bone china, or opening your door to strangers; it can be supporting organisations providing safety for vulnerable people.

“Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.” The Jews had a very binary view of who was righteous or not. For St. Paul, the righteous were those who believed and followed Christ. Yet Christ extended his love and hospitality to all. As the community gathers this evening for the Requiem for Peace, we should be encouraged to think and pray about what hospitality means to us and how we can extend it to those in need.