Matthew 10:40-42

Today we come to the end of our “in a nutshell” series, digging into some of the memorable, pithy phrases with which Jesus’ words were liberally sprinkled.

As I’ve been preparing these sermons, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the role that these phrases play in Jesus’ teaching. When I think about the way that Jesus taught, the first thing that comes to mind is his use of stories, the parables, as we normally call them, the way he used narratives of ordinary life, often with a strange twist to them, to paint a picture of life in the reign of God – for life of the reign of God is, in a way, just that: ordinary life with a twist to it.

And the second thing that I think of, thinking about the teaching of Jesus, is the way he almost always answered a question with another question, challenging those speaking with him to work out the implications of what they already knew.

Both of those modes of teaching speak to a sense in Jesus’ teaching that those he was speaking to already knew, or were close to, the things of God. And I think this is itself an important thought: that all people, created as we are in the image of God, have an instinct, from creation and experience, of what God might be like, of what good is like, of what things really matter.

When I did the Godly Play training, one of the things that really struck me was the way that the language used when telling faith stories to children always encouraged them to explore what they already knew or thought or guessed about God – the phrase “I wonder”, the key phrase in Godly Play, takes us from the hierarchy of teacher and student, towards disciples learning together, sharing insights, each with an instinct for the character of God, that reflects the image of God in us, and the Spirit of God at work in us.

And it seems to me that that is also how these bitesized, nutshell phrases work. Like proverbs, whether those of the Bible or those of common life, these brief sayings capture truth in a way that doesn’t work as a formal proposition to be used in logical argument, but makes sense in the context of a wider understanding of the nature of God.

They aren’t a detailed point of law; they are the vibe of the thing.

Today, as I say, we come to our last reading in this series, and Matthew 10:40-42 offers us a whole series of possible nutshell sayings. But I’ve chosen the bit at the end to dwell on today:

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

The context of Jesus’ words is that he is sending his disciples, the ones who have been living with him, learning from him, out to carry his message through the towns and villages of Galilee. He sends them with one of our other nutshell sayings – You received without payment; give without payment – and with the assurance that you are of more value than many sparrows – and he tells them that those who welcome them, and welcome their words, are truly welcoming Jesus.

But Matthew gives us that message oddly. Mark’s gospel has a much simpler phrase: whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward – but Matthew’s words are more complicated: whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.

Two observations – or perhaps two questions – come to my mind as I read that phrase.

Firstly, whereas Mark was speaking about people giving aid to the disciples – whoever gives you a cup of water – Matthew shifts the beneficiary; the water is given to “one of these little ones”. It’s generally assumed that Jesus is referring to those who need the water – perhaps as he spoke he drew the disciples’ attention to children nearby, thirsty in the hot sun of the day. But the point is clearly that Jesus isn’t just talking about someone doing something for you, for the disciple, but for another, for one in need, for one who, most likely, is not amongst the disciples.

This week, as part of my shifting priorities, I took the opportunity to be at Kids Playtime. There, I think, you might see something quite obviously close to the vibe of Jesus’ words. Where people give to these little ones; not so much water, but time and space and attention, and music and stories, and love.

You could see the same at Ruckus, or at Spark, or in our refugee community sponsorship group; disciples of Jesus giving to those who need what they have to offer, whatever it might be; giving to those who are outside of the community of faith, outside of the congregation of the Church.

Those who were at the congregational meeting might remember the diagram of the ways in which we, as a Church, engage with those who are not part of the community of faith; one of which was just this – acts of loving service.

And perhaps you also remember the rest of the phrase – acts of loving service in the name of Jesus. Here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus broadens that idea – and this was my second observation – to a gift given “in the name of a disciple”.

Once again, this was a situation where I had not remembered the words – if before this series began, you had asked me what Jesus had said here, I would probably have replied that Jesus said something like “anyone who gives a cup of water to one of these little ones in my name will not lose their reward”.

But it isn’t in his name; he says, “in the name of a disciple”.

So what’s going on here? For me at least this began to make more sense when I put it back into that context – the disciples being sent out by Jesus with his message, his proclamation of the reign of God.

Our reading began with Jesus saying, “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”. This is of a piece with what we’ve seen elsewhere, especially in the great commission – “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” – that sense of Jesus giving the mission to his disciples, to us, as his partners in the work that God sent him to do. As we do that, as we carry on the work Jesus was sent to do, Jesus’ words blur the lines between us and him. We are sent as he was, when we are welcomed, it is Jesus who is being welcomed.

There’s a humility here; many of our hymns speak of “the name of Jesus”, from classics like “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow” to the contemporary “What a wonderful name it is, the name of Jesus”. And quite right too.

But Jesus, in a way that is fitting for one who, in the Apostle’s words, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking human form, isn’t precious about his name, isn’t protective of it.

When we are doing what he was sent to do, what he sent us to do, he seems quite comfortable with blurring the lines between him and us.

When we do the things that he did – giving that cup of water to the one in need – it seems he is very happy for us to do it in his name.

And as I reflect on that, and on the modern Uniting Church, I wonder if the lesson for us here is tangential. For it seems to me as if Jesus is far happier for us to work and speak and act in his name than we are to claim it.

And perhaps that’s because we’ve seen the harm done by those who would exclude or reject in the name of Jesus, who would persecute or disempower in the name of Jesus, who would claim his name as justification for all kinds of abuse.

Or perhaps, it is a humility on our part – we don’t know the message, the calling, the mission of Jesus with the confidence to claim his name for what we do.

But when you think about it, nor did those first disciples. Look at the times they get it wrong, how often they misunderstood. But Jesus seems far more willing to share his name than we are to claim it.

If we give the cup of water, but not in his name, or in the name of his Church, it will still quench the thirst. It will still make the world a better place.

But it won’t tell people that it is the love and grace of God that is making that change.

So let’s take courage, and be willing to name that it is because of Jesus that we do these things. If we’re doing it because of him, let’s give people the chance to know that.