As some of you know I have another set of Doctor of Ministry classes coming up in July. This semester, one of my two classes is on Ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of what makes church church. Now, you might think that all my classes are probably a little about that – church – and you are right. But ecclesiology is the formal word for the study of what truly constitutes church. Think about it – we have probably hundreds of denominations, some large, and some quite small, that are made up of places that say they are churches. And yet, these places do very different things – we worship in different styles. We believe different things about the sacraments. We have different understandings of who can be pastors. We have different ways of organizing. Are we all church? Well, if one of you starts meeting with a group of Christians in your home, and you sing a hymn and read a scripture passage, are you church? Why or why not? What makes church church?
Last week, I preached about the Trinity, and we read together the fourth century Nicene Creed. In it, and in the Apostle’s Creed, we say that we believe in the holy catholic church. This is a theme that is coming up a lot in my books for class. And that phrase – holy catholic church – usually perks up our Protestant ears. I am happy to say though that the one person that actually voiced the question out loud last week to a parent to then ask to me was one of our elementary students! You might notice a little asterisk next to catholic that at the bottom of the page tells us it means universal. But the word catholic is from two Greek words kata and olou, which mean according to the whole. In other words, the word catholic emphasize the oneness of the church – we believe in one church – the whole universal church, that we are all part of, even if we are splinted into fragments. It is one church, and it is for the whole people of God.
So our church, this particular church, First United, here in this particular place, East Syraucse, is fully church – we represent the whole church universal, the body of Christ, in this particular place. At the same time, we are a part of, a piece of, the universal church, which is made up of many members, and the many members make up the one church, the one body of Christ. So we are, at the same time, completely church, and also part of the complete church.
Today our gospel lesson is this short little passage from Matthew. It is so short, we might be tempted in fact, to oversimplify it. To think it doesn’t have much in the way of content for us take in. I know I did: I glanced at it when I was making my preaching schedule a couple of months ago, and noted to myself: Oh, a passage about being welcoming. But there is a lot in these three little verses, and a lot more than words of welcome here. This text takes place at the end of a chapter full of words of encouragement and instruction from Jesus to the twelve. He is about to send them out on a mission – they are about to travel around, preaching and teaching in the cities and villages just as Jesus has been. So Jesus says these words to prepare them. And theses three verses are the concluding words. He says: whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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; 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.’
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. In Jewish law, a person’s agent or a person’s messenger is considered to be like the person himself or herself. They are a legal, or valid stand-in for the one whom they represent. So what Jesus is saying to the twelve is that they are being sent out as stand-ins for him. They are agents of Jesus and so are to be like Jesus is, acting as Jesus would, and they can expect people to respond to them, in turn, as they would respond to Jesus. But not only that, Jesus says, but grace upon grace from God means that even the ones who welcome and receive not just Jesus, but these agents of Jesus – well, they will actually receive the same blessings and benefits as if they themselves were agents of Jesus. Whoever welcomes a prophet – one of the twelve – in the name of a prophet – Jesus – will receive a prophet’s reward – being part of this kingdom of God. That means that Jesus' agents play an extremely important role. How the twelve carry out their mission, how they act and behave when they are sent out to share the good news – well, there are consequences to their actions that are important and life-changing to the people they will meet.
Remembering that we, too, are disciples then, and that Jesus' words to the twelve also apply to us might start to make us really interested in this passage then. Remember what I said earlier about the catholic church. Our church, this particular church, First United, here in this particular place, East Syracuse, is fully church – we represent the whole church universal, the body of Christ, in this particular place. At the same time, we are a part of, a piece of, the universal church, which is made up of many members, and the many members make up the one church, the one body of Christ. We can take that understanding and stretch it further and apply it to ourselves as individuals. If we are members of this church, formally or informally, and the church in a particular place is as fully church as the church universal, and we are the body of Christ, then we are agents, you might say, of First United Church when we are in our communities, at school, or at work, when we go about our daily lives. And since, as part of our church identity, we say we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then that means we are agents of Jesus, stand-ins for Jesus, representatives of Jesus wherever we go.
What does that mean? Well, imagine. Consider. The next time you are driving your car and someone cuts you off in traffic, you are an agent of Jesus. The next time you walk by someone who is homeless, you are a stand-in for Jesus. How that homeless person sees you – well, they are getting a glimpse of Jesus. What will you show them? For our graduates, for Kristina when she heads to college – she is a stand-in for Jesus. Whenever we decide how we will spend our money or our time, we are stand-ins for Jesus. When we have to interact with that person who drives us up the wall, we are acting as an agent of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t mention any time limits to his words. He doesn’t mention that these rules apply only on Sunday mornings or only during office hours or only when we are working on a mission project. Once we are disciples, we represent Jesus all the time. He knew it was hard work. He warned the disciples again and again about what they were getting into. They still took him up on it. Because when we are agents for Jesus, messengers who represent what Jesus wants to say in the world, that also means that be our actions, by our lives, we might be the reason that someone else claims all those blessings from God these verses talk about. So when we invite someone to church and they find a new family here, we represent Jesus! When someone is mourning and we comfort them, we represent Jesus. When we teach a child and we see them learn and grow into a gifted young person, we represent Jesus. Three little verses. So much meaning.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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; 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.’ Amen.