Last Sunday one of our scripture readings was the Great Commission from Jesus at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 28). Jesus sent his apostles out saying: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
By this time in the Gospel story, Jesus is on his way out. He’s gone up a mountain with his closest followers, and he’s well on his way to heaven. He’ll no longer be physically present to lead them and guide them in their new mission.
But the mission isn’t really all that new. Way back at chapter ten of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had sent them out with a similar task. At Matthew 9:36-38 we read, When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”
It seems that even with Jesus there in the flesh, the work of spreading the Gospel and inviting the people to return to God was not a one-person job. Jesus could see that there were more people than he alone could possibly care for. And so, as Matthew tells it, he calls together twelve of his followers. He gives them power and authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
And so the first mission trip of Christianity begins. Many more have followed throughout the centuries, as followers of Jesus have heard the call of Christ to join in Jesus’ mission and the mission of his earliest followers.
I’m thinking of the mission trip that a few of us from here at St. Andrew’s went on a little over a year ago. It’s not that there aren’t good things that we could be doing right here in Saskatoon to serve God and share the good news about Jesus. But like so many others before us, we felt a call to go out, to travel to a new place, to meet new people, and to share God’s love with them in a very practical way.
We went down to a little community outside of Atlanta, Georgia where there had been a bad flood the previous September. And our work for the week was to help in fixing up a home that had been badly damaged by the water. It was already eight months since the flooding, but the single mother and her children who lived in the home were not properly insured, and the only way that the home would get restored enough for them to live there again would be if someone – in this case, an organization of Christian churches – decided to give their time, energy, and money to make it happen.
It was a very well-organized mission trip. We received financial support from the St. Andrew’s Memorial Fund. We booked out flights down to Atlanta and got a rental car to get around where we needed to go during the week. We stayed in the local Presbyterian Church where the congregation had set up rooms with cots for us to sleep on, and they had bathrooms with showers right there in the church. The church kitchen was well-stocked with food for our meals, and drinks and snacks to keep us going throughout the day.
One of the members of the church served as our host, got us set up in the church – our temporary home for the week – and came to join us for evening prayer each night. And a representative from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance checked in with us too, oriented us to the program we’d be a part of, and got us set up at the work site.
It all went rather smoothly, I must say. And though we worked really hard that week, and got really hot and tired and sore from the physical labour, we were really warmly welcomed. And there were lots of people checking in to make sure that our needs were met during our short visit.
That’s a real contrast to the first mission experiences of Jesus’ earliest followers. We can only try to imagine the conditions under which they did their work… the long days they endured, the hot temperatures, the minimal supplies, and the hard places where they took their rest.
And whereas our trip was nicely planned out in advance with the appropriate financial support, they just got up and went. They visited towns and villages where no one was expecting them, where they neither had a room reserved at an inn, nor any money to pay for it, and where there were no church communities to provide for their needs.
Whereas we packed carefully and brought along plenty of American dollars for our mission trip to Georgia last year, Jesus tells the apostles that they should not bring any gold, or silver, or copper in their belts, no bag for the journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff. He sends them out to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons, and he doesn’t even arrange a place for them to stay. He simply tells them to look for people in the villages who will welcome them into their homes. They were to depend on the kindness of strangers.
As Jesus sends them out, Matthew’s Gospel reports that he gives the apostles fair warning about what they’re getting into. Not only will they be likely to be tired and hungry at times, but they’ll actually experience a lot of rejection and persecution along the way.
Jesus compares the apostles to sheep being sent out into the midst of wolves. He tells them that they’ll need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. They’ll get handed over to councils and be flogged in the synagogues. They’ll get dragged before governors and kings because of Jesus.
Of course he encourages them not to be afraid. He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He tells them that God will be right there with them, caring for them, watching over them. Even the hairs of your heard are all counted, Jesus assures them.
And then finally, at the end of this long chapter of instructions from Jesus for the journey, he tells them about the people that will welcome them when they come through town: “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.”
Jesus refers to his apostles by three different titles in this passage. They are to serve as prophets – proclaiming messages from God to the people they encounter, calling the people back into relationship with God, back into the way of life that God has prepared for them. They are to be righteous people – people who live the loving way of Jesus, who do what is right, who do God’s will.
Those titles make sense. The apostles will go out to be prophets and righteous ones as they cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. But Jesus also calls them “little ones.” Though he has blessed them with power and authority to do some wonderful things, they are going out with a great deal of vulnerability. They’re not independent and self-sufficient. Instead, they’ve got to depend on the people they meet to be helpful and co-operative. They are “little ones” who, along the way, might find themselves in desperate need of something as simple as a cup of cold water.
And Jesus is clear that the people who do welcome them, who do provide them hospitality and take care of their most basic needs… these people are just as vital in the ministry of Christ as the apostles that get sent out. By welcoming the missionaries, they are welcoming Christ, and by welcoming Christ, they are welcoming God. And they will receive the same reward as the missionaries themselves, the amazing grace and mercy of our loving God.
I’m thinking of the mission that is closest to us here at St. Andrew’s and perhaps closest to our hearts, and that is the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry just a few blocks away up 20th Street at Avenue E. The Rev. Stewart Folster serves as the minister there… or we could call him the lead missionary. Others work with him there… a mission support worker, Chantel, members of the Board, and others who volunteer their time and talent for the mission.
They do the work of prophets and righteous people among the First Nations poor of our city. They feed the hungry, they welcome the homeless, they offer healing circles and prayer, and they invite the people to turn to the Creator for help and hope in the midst of the difficulties of their lives.
When you think about it, Stewart began the street-front ministry a few years ago without a lot of supplies and resources to back him up. It began with a small rented space and the offer of some coffee. And slowly it grew, and developed, and expanded.
Since SNCM is not a travelling ministry, there isn’t a need for individuals and congregations to welcome these missionaries into our homes and to provide for their needs like the “little ones” in Matthew’s Gospel. But there is certainly a need for congregations like ours, and others in the Presbytery and across the country to welcome the work of these missionaries by giving generously to support what they are doing.
Not all of the followers of Jesus were called to go out on the road. Some of them just needed to be ready to welcome the prophets and take care of their needs. Not all of us Presbyterians will be called to go on mission trips or to become front-line workers in the missions of our inner city. Some of us just need to be willing to support and encourage and provide for the prophets, the righteous persons, and the “little ones” who have themselves responded to the call of Christ to go out.
Jesus said to the missionaries, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”