St Michael’s, O’Fallon—Matthew 10:40–42
Jesus is very popular these days in church circles. That may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but it hasn’t always been the case in recent decades. Oh, it’s generally been OK to talk about God. But, among Episcopalians at any rate, to mention the name of Jesus, except when reading from or preaching on a passage from the gospels, was, for a good long while, a little … awkward. The dominant emphasis has been on social concerns: issues of peace and justice—you know, almost as if it were one word, peaceandjustice. Most Episcopal Church sermons were shot through, at least implicitly, with the word “should.” We should be getting out there and making the world a better place, a more peaceful place, a more just place. Jesus just didn’t get mentioned very much.
Then, maybe twenty years ago or so, there were those WWJD bracelets: “What would Jesus do?” When Michael Curry became the Presiding Bishop five years ago, even Episcopalians joined the bandwagon. We have been invited to think of ourselves as the “Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” Everybody—from pro-life to pro-choice, from protesters to police, from megachurches to storefront churches, from free-market capitalists to Marxist socialists, from traditional marriage conservatives to LGBT and all the other initials that come after them progressives—everybody is trying to hitch their wagon to Jesus.
Jesus is having a moment.
But we may well wonder, is Jesus being exploited? Is Jesus being hijacked?
Jesus tells his disciples in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” We certainly want to be among those who “receive” Jesus, right? So we certainly want to have confidence that we are receiving those whom Jesus sends, those who speak for Jesus.
But how can we achieve such confidence? How can we know that we are in such a position? How can we be sure that we are receiving those whom Jesus sends, those who speak for him? I suspect that one of the first things we need to do to attain such confidence is to somehow insulate ourselves from what the gospels call “false prophets”—those who purport to speak for Jesus, those who pretend that they are messengers of Jesus, but who are, in fact, deceptive imposters. From what we do know of Jesus in the gospels, I would like to name three of the hallmarks of false “prophets,” false representatives of Jesus.
First, anyone who incites or encourages or otherwise supports hostility based on race or ethnicity or some other ancient enmity between human beings is a false prophet. Why? Because Jesus came among us, even to the point of surrendering his life, in order to forge a new “nation,” a new “ethnicity,” out of the remnants of all the others. In St Paul’s day, “Jew” and “Gentile” were the ethnic identities most likely to be exploited. Today, as we continue to attack the cancer not of simple racial prejudice or animus, but of deeply-embedded systemic racism that structurally perpetuates the power of those who hold it and the powerlessness of those who lack it, there are those among us who trade on fear and attempt to enflame hatred. They are false prophets who do not speak for Jesus. Reject them.
Second, those who foment division based on status—economic, social, educational, political—are false prophets. Why? Because, in Christ, these divisions are robbed of their meaning. In several different places, St Paul tells us that, in Christ, all the divisive categories into which we sort one another are meaningless. In his day, those categories were, in addition to Jew or Gentile, things like slave or free, male or female. We still have those categories today, but we are more apt to focus on black or white (or brown, or any other skin tone), educated and uneducated, rich or middle class or poor, developed world or developing world, influential or powerless. The identity “Christian” is the God-given alternative to any of the other identities the world invites us to embrace. Anyone selling another identity as your hope is a false prophet. Reject them.
Thirdly, those who advocate violence or manipulation—either physical, emotional, or economic—for the purpose of achieving their objectives, even good objectives, is a false prophet. Why? Because God is a God of life and health, and every human being bears God’s image. God desires human thriving. Those who intentionally get in the way of the thriving are false prophets. Reject them.
By contrast, then, authentic prophets, authentic “apostles”—those who are sent (which is the root meaning of the word “apostle”), those who are sent to speak the word of God, also have distinguishing characteristics, of which I will name three:
First, authentic apostles proclaim good news that promotes human flourishing. Those who come saying that they represent Jesus, and have a message of hope and deliverance (rather than scolding and shaming), have earned a hearing. That doesn’t mean that everyone who has an optimistic frame of mind is an apostle, but an apostle has at least that much.
Second, authentic apostles preach and model reconciliation. Possibly my favorite collect in the whole Prayer Book is the one we use on the Sunday before Advent—Christ the King. It talks about a world that is “divided and enslaved by sin” being “freed and brought together” under the “most gracious rule” of Christ our King. A true messenger of Jesus will be passionate about reconciliation.
The third mark of apostles is that they teach the faith of the church that Jesus founded and left the Apostles [upper-case A] in charge of. We have scriptures and creeds and ancient liturgical forms—and, for that matter, bishops—for a reason. These things keep us grounded in the bedrock of God’s revelation to humankind in Jesus Christ.
Finally, if we are to “receive” Jesus by receiving those whom he sends, what does such “receiving” look like? Well, for a third time, I’ve got three things to say. (I swear, this is the first time I’ve ever done this in a sermon!)
First, receiving those who speak for Jesus takes the form of listening and heeding. If we have learned how to spot and avoid false prophets, and then how discern authentic ones, it becomes a matter of simply paying attention, and then acting somehow on what we hear. More easily said than done, no doubt, but … there it is.
Second, receiving those who speak for Jesus takes the form of supporting them. Jesus uses an image of minimalism—a cup of cold water—to represent what he’s talking about. Stewardship comes into play here, certainly, but also prayer and encouragement. Not everyone is necessarily called to be on the front lines of taking the gospel into the world, but if we’re not among those landing parties, we should strongly consider the probability that we are called to support them from the rear—financially, materially, with prayer and encouragement.
Third, receiving those who speak for Jesus takes the form of emulating and joining them. You had to know I would get to that eventually, right? We are called “Christians,” after all, and the Christ—the messiah, the anointed one of God—is none other than Jesus. If we are called by his name, we ourselves are his messengers, carrying the gospel of reconciliation through the blood of his cross into the world, and looking for that cup of cold water as a token of support.
Those who receive the representatives of Jesus receive Jesus himself. Amen.