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In Matthew’s Gospel it is very important to know to whom Jesus is speaking. Today’s gospel is addressed to the apostles. The word apostle was used very loosely in the New Testament and indeed early Christian writings in general. This was before HR departments and “realistic job previews”. For Matthew, an apostle is “one who is sent” a rather literal translation of the word in Greek. He is vague however as to whom the word applies but I think it is a personal invitation to you.
Today we read the last verses of Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel. Chapter 10 is often called the “Missionary discourse”. In it Jesus tells those whom he will send, what gifts he will give to them and what is expected of them.
At the very beginning he summoned his “twelve (principal) Disciples and “gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness” (Matt. 10:1) He then sent them out to proclaim “that the kingdom of God is at hand and to Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons” (10:8)
They were wandering preachers who did not have good reputations in the ancient world: in our terms a cross between a televangelist and the host of a late-night infomercial. Therefore, Jesus’ apostles were to accept no payment from those who would believe and utter no curses against those who would not. Their reward would be only from Jesus “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father” (10:31) This is summed up beautifully in the last paragraph of today’s gospel. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (10:40) This had a very specific meaning in the ancient world. Because of the lack of telecommunications representatives of a king had the authority to speak for and bind the king. The apostles could speak for and act in the name of Jesus. This is a great honor and gift
But notice the paragraph above and note the especially chilling lines: “and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me”. (10:38) Everyone in the Roman world knew what crucifixion was and were properly terrified by it. Readers or hearers of Matthew would also have realized that this is the first mention of the cross in Matthew and it refers not to Jesus but to them.
This theme is present throughout chapter 10. Jesus warns those who would be apostles that they would be handed over to pagan courts and scourged in synagogues. This can be expected by all who follow Jesus. Last week’s gospel spoke of “those who kill the body” and it was addressed to “the twelve” that is the first leaders of the church. Note that they could only be leaders after they were apostles, sent on mission, but that they will not graduate to a position where they would escape the same trials and tribulations. You may also remember that Jesus tells them 3 times “do not be afraid”. Again, very practically Matthew realized that if he leaders lose their courage then all will be lost. And there is much to challenge courage and the leaders would be more exposed not less.
This not very encouraging and the section immediately before today’s reading reminds us: Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. (Mt 10:34). Sword here does not mean war but judgment and no one likes to be judged. It is no wonder that this divided families and that perhaps the greatest test for the Christian would be having to choose Jesus over family and indeed everything that kept their world together. I imagine the apostles were at very least ambivalent about being sent as missionaries no matter how many demons they could expel.
What did they think they were signing on for? Jesus was so connected to the temple that it would have been natural to believe that he would become an eminent teacher in Jerusalem. They might well have assumed that they would be his assistants. Where did the idea of being wandering teacher come from? Take the apostle Andrew as an example. He was a fisherman who with his brother, Simon now known as Peter, and father owned at least one boat. His life was comfortable and might very well have seen no reason to leave his ancestral land. Yet legend has him traveling all over the world from Malta in the Mediterranean to Scotland in the British Isles to bring the good news. This was a difficult road to follow.
When I was ordained in the late 70s, I was not ambivalent as much as clueless. I knew this passage of course indeed had a great love of chapter 10: v 16 Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. If I had any understand of “taking up the cross” it would have been the very domesticated modern idea of accepting the daily little difficulties which occur in our lives with some grace. I have since learned that Jesus was being very honest and he meant he would be taking everything we thought important, that most attempts to act selflessly would be misinterpreted and that the sword of Judgment should be taken literally.
Virtually my every expectation about the future was proven wrong as perhaps it was for most of my classmates. Jesus was leading me to where he wanted me both geographically and a spiritually. Mysterious destinations but he was always there and always bigger than I previously imagined.
I mentioned that this chapter should be read as an invitation. This is eerily significant today. We will all be moved. We are entering a New world, the widely forecasted new normal. Some of you have already been moved to a new location by your companies, family needs or your own entrepreneurial spirit. Even those who return to the same office will be in a different world. Are you sent there on a mission? Before you answer read over the Chapter 10 and balance the power you will receive with the cross you will carry.
You can be apostles in a way that I am cannot for you are in the world in a way I am not but there is advice I can offer you less as a priest than as an elder. It takes a lifetime to realize that Jesus is always with us, he never abandons us and guides our lives in ways we understand perhaps decades after the event. For me it has mostly been the people he has allowed me to know. However cluelessly perhaps even reluctantly we accept the call to follow him we will find our lives more rewarding than any version we could have designed purely by and for ourselves.
Apostles do not know where they will land, but they know that Jesus will be waiting for them when they get there.