Empowered Disciples

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July 02, 2017

A morning devotional from one of the monks at the Society of St. John the Evangelist recently got my attention: “God of Love,” he prayed, “Your gaze meets mine at every turn and your presence inflames my heart.”  I think something like this prayer is happening in our gospel this morning.  Here’s why:

Matthew has framed his story by telling us in his very first chapter that, through Jesus, God will be with us. [i]   In the last chapter, Matthew concludes his story with The Great Commission [ii]  where the resurrected Jesus, in his final meeting with his disciples, sends them out to make all the nations—Jews and non-Jews--into disciples. And in this context, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be with them every single day. [iii]  Matthew is talking about an ongoing ministry of the Church that includes us, as disciples, walking with Jesus—that is Matthew’s big picture.

[i] Matthew 1:23, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

[ii] Matthew 28: 16-20, The Commissioning of the Disciples

[iii] Matthew 28: 20, “. . . And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


Today’s context is this:

The disciples have been learning from Jesus, watching him as he walks through all the towns and villages—paying attention to where he goes, who he talks with, who he eats with, who he heals.  They have heard Jesus teaching in their synagogues, listening to his announcement about the good news of the kingdom.  The disciples have observed Jesus’ deep compassion for humanity, because they are “like sheep without a shepherd” Jesus has told them.  In constant movement with Jesus, they have learned about their own strengths, and their own weaknesses. 

They have listened to Jesus telling them to pray for workers to harvest God’s field.  As it turns out, they are the answer to their own prayer.  Jesus sends the twelve disciples out with detailed instructions to spread his message to Israel, with humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to risk rejection.  The instructions come with warnings: there will be dangerous folks to look out for, their message of a new way of being God’s people will create divisions, people they are close to will turn against them.  It won’t be easy.  The disciples will be like sheep among wolves. 

But where there is a warning, there is also a promise.  That is where we are in Matthew’s story this morning—the promise.

Jesus is talking directly to his disciples.  He is telling them more about what to expect; he is telling them about an amazing flow of grace—a chain reaction of giving and receiving that comes full circle, back to the Original Source.  Anyone who welcomes the disciples, will welcome Jesus.  Anyone who welcomes Jesus, welcomes the One who sent Jesus.  If the disciples have paid attention, they will know that when they are welcomed into a house, Christ enters with them.  The disciples are empowered to go forth. 

Jesus is telling them that there will be folks out there who will welcome them with an open heart. He wants them to understand that, when they accept that cup of cold water, they should remember what Christ is giving THEM; they should remember what their host is receiving in return; they should know that every encounter carries within it the potential for an encounter with God’s Love.  It is through that Love that we are all intimately connected, and it is a connection of inflamed hearts that keeps on giving every time we pass on that gift to another.  

This kind of encounter reminds me of an evening with my Women’s Interfaith Book Group back in 2012.  Daughters of Abraham, we call ourselves.  On that particular evening, we had been meeting only a few months--just beginning to get to know one another and not at all sure how it was going to work.  One of the Muslim women from Turkey had prepared Turkish tea for us, and she asked me if she could serve it like she did in her own tradition, with her own family.  I watched her as she carried that tray around the table to 18 women, serving every single one of them with her full attention, looking into their individual faces, with infectious joy shining in her own face.  It is impossible to describe how beautifully she served, how humbly she served, how one open, sincere heart opened 18 more.  She had a gift of encountering others that seemed to naturally flow out of her very being.  Later, I would describe the way she served tea as sacramental.  And I have no doubt about the role she played in helping us to bond so well, so quickly.

These encounters, like Matthew describes, and my friend embodied, are moments of grace that, if acknowledged, can transform lives because we pay attention to the presence of grace that inflames our hearts and connects us all. 

            A cup of cold water for someone who is thirsty—it’s universal language for providing a basic need for a sustainable Life.  It could be a hug for someone who is grieving; a listening ear for someone who needs a friend; a kind comment and a smile for someone who has had a long, hard day; a ride for someone who doesn’t have a car.  Anything, it seems, that is done in love has the potential to set off a chain of giving and receiving.  Matthew is not just providing us with a lesson about giving.  It is also a lesson about receiving. 

            There are many examples of disciples working together at Trinity Cathedral that demonstrate this chain of giving and receiving.  At this point, most of my experience is with the Pastoral Care ministry. This team knows, and I know they know because I’ve witnessed their service, that when they call one of us to see how we are doing, or visit us when we are in the hospital, or bring us  Holy Communion because we aren’t able to come to church, or send us a card to let us know they are thinking about us, and praying for us, or bring us flowers from our altar just to cheer us up:  they know that as Christ’s representative they carry an identity beyond their own, and they are inspired by seeing Jesus in our faces. They know they are making connections that will bond us into a sustainable community of faith.

Our Matthew 25, Feed the Hungry, and Stewpot ministries are examples of active service that is inspired by seeing Jesus in the faces of others out in the world.  Our Mary’s Miracles ministry that supports new mothers and new babies is an example of active service that is inspired by Christ being visible in the act of welcoming itself, in giving and receiving hospitality.

“Discipleship,” says Archbishop Rowan Williams, “is a state of being. Discipleship is about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being.”[i]  Discipleship is more than the task we complete.  It has to do with the unique way that each of us was created to give and receive Love in the world.

We are those disciples that Matthew tells about in chapter 28, and we are also, like the disciples in chapter 10, empowered to go forth, to let the light of God pass through us, to welcome the Christ in one another.  The reward that Matthew brings to our attention today, is this:  we find God reflected right back to us through our service, through our special way of being.

In active service, we are creating a web of relationships.  There are many examples of these connections here at Trinity. With open eyes and open hearts, we will notice them.  And, with open eyes and open hearts, we will also notice the gaps that need to be filled. 

If we are paying attention, God’s gaze that meets ours at every turn will inflame our hearts.  It is from your own inflamed heart that you will find your own connections, your own empowerment to go forth as a disciple walking with Jesus. And it is the Church’s role—our role—to help one another to see and feel that flame and walk that walk.  Matthew talks a lot about “fulfillment.”  He wants us to know that the flame and the walk is where the biblical text was always leading. Matthew wants us to know that walking with Jesus and one another makes our own purpose and meaning clear.

The message in this morning’s gospel reading was important enough to the early church that some variation on its theme shows up in every gospel.  In Luke, for example, Jesus declares that “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” [ii]  This flow of giving and receiving is important. It is not just something we have and offer to another in need; rather, it is something we offer and receive in mutual vulnerability.  It is about opening ourselves to the gift of the Spirit, the flow of grace that creates loving relationships, and the flow of grace that empowers us to go forth as a community of faith with inflamed hearts.

[i] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, (eBook by Graphicraft Limited, Hong Kong, 2016), Location 94.

[ii] Luke 10: 16