Third Sunday after Trinity Matthew 10: 40-42
‘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.’
A prophet, a righteous person, and little ones - sounds like the beginning of a joke. I have sometimes wondered about this passage from Matthew's Gospel. Is this a descending order? Do these actions and people start at the top, as it were, and then work their way down? Is the prophet worth more than the righteous man or are they on equal footing? Or is this the other way round, the story building up to the point where you can see the glory in giving a cup of cold water to the little ones as actually the high point in the story? I have a sneaking suspicion that most people will have difficulty realizing that such a small acts as offering a cup of water actually has eternal significance.
These two verses come at the end of the lengthy instructions Jesus gave his disciples before he sent them out in pairs to heal the sick, raise the dead and set the captives free. (no tall order then!) He tells them they will be welcomed by some, and they will be rejected by others. In other words, you know how it is chaps, some people will like you and some will really, really, not like you at all.
The word "welcome" occurs six times in these two verses that seemed an obvious choice for the focus of a sermon. There are two basic messages; welcoming others and welcoming Christ. I think that the two are inexplicably connected, like the two great commandments. We love God and we love our neighbour. We welcome Christ and we welcome even the "little ones" in his name. The ‘little ones’ in this setting are the disciples not necessarily tiny children.
The story of the stranger who is welcomed – or rejected and then turns out to be a divine visitor in disguise is to be found in several places in the Old Testament. There are the angelic figures who foretold the births of Isaac and of Samson; and the three strangers that visited Abraham at Mamree. There are several in the New Testament as well, the angel Gabriel foretelling the birth of Jesus and the angels in the empty tomb after the resurrection. In the letter to the Hebrews it says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”(Hebrews 13;2)
Angels come in many guises – not many in white gowns; But as the unexpected, the ordinary the easily missed.
Jesus chose a cup of cold water as an illustration for a reason. It was a Jewish tradition that if anyone came to your door, for whatever reason, you welcome them; usually with sweet cakes, olive oil and wine. But if you were very poor water would be offered. Not just any old water but cold water. This would not always be readily available in the house, it would mean a walk to the local well, which would require sacrifice; but it was what they could do – give refreshment to the needy. Jesus never asks us for more than we can give.
Jesus asked the Samarian woman by Jacobs well, ‘Can I have a drink of water please?’
Water, we either have too much or too little. Last winter we had rivers overflowing, floods, masses of rain water and all the reservoirs were full. Meanwhile we are reliably told that 700 million people worldwide face a severe water shortage. Suddenly a cup of water takes on a huge new significance and it becomes infinitely precious.
This passage is not only about giving as giving and welcoming go hand in hand with receiving – on that fateful Friday afternoon, his parched tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth Jesus gasped ‘I thirst’. One of his executioners, a Roman soldier was moved to compassion and put a sponge of sour wine on a stick and held it to Jesus lips, possibly because there was no water on Golgotha, or it might have been a taunt.
Often help comes from the most unexpected quarters. When we stumble and fall and someone comes to help, we do not ask their religion, their politics or even their name; we are simply grateful for their help. Thirsty people do not care where the water comes from – just that it comes.
The giving of a cup of cold water - the "small act" - is the stuff of which a holy life is made. Growth in discipleship and holiness is not to be found in a rare encounter with a prophet, even if you could find one. I suspect we would have to work really hard to have encounters with the truly righteous as well, but we will find discipleship and holiness in the thousands of small acts of kindness that make up the bulk of our lives.
The whole notion of welcoming and giving is fundamental to the Christian way of life and should be central in our church life – it begs the question for us this morning. How welcoming are we as individuals and as a Church/Benefice? This is a difficult challenge at present with the social distancing, but it will not always be with us.
Several years ago at a well known London church, the service was well underway when a young man walked in, he had long hair, torn jeans and bare feet. He looked for a seat but the church was full, he walked right down the aisle and got to the foot of the pulpit where the vicar was waiting to start the sermon, and he sat down cross-legged on the floor. The atmosphere in the church was electric. You could almost hear the thought processes – ‘what does he think he is doing’ – ‘isn’t somebody going to do something.’ At that point the sidesman began to walk from the back of the church towards the young man. He was in his eighties, wore a smart suit and walked very slowly. All that could be heard was the tapping of his stick on the floor. Relief was palpable, at last someone was doing something - the sideman walked right up to the young man, dropped his stick and very slowly lowered himself to the floor beside him. When he had pulled himself together enough to speak the vicar said, ‘you probably will not remember anything of my sermon this morning but you will never forget what you have just witnessed.’
It was of course the cup of cold water that Jesus had spoken about.
Like the original disciples, we are called to spread the good news of the kingdom of God, the good news of God’s love. What a privilege, what a responsibility? But talking about it isn’t enough – it needs to be put into practice. Jesus didn’t just preach about the Kingdom of heaven; he opened the door to it.
During the current pandemic we have seen countless acts of kindness, let us pray that these will continue and we will become a much more caring society, that out of the devastating consequences of the virus goodness will spread, and many cups of cold water will be offered.