Here’s the audio of the sermon I preached from Mark 10:35-45 last Sunday. The disciple brothers, James and John, boldly ask Jesus if he will grant them the privilege to sit on his right and left hand when he comes into his glory. Jesus addresses their ambition and desire for power, privilege, and prestige. Our 21st century problem is identical to their 1st century problem. Here’s my take on Jesus’ reply:
In Matthew 28:16-20, we usually miss verse 17: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” What did the 11 disciples doubt during this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? Did they doubt that he had been resurrected? Or that he was the Messiah, the Son of God? Or did they doubt themselves and their ability to carry on after Jesus left them? The interesting point in this is that some of the same disciples who worshipped him, also doubted. What can we learn from the disciples’ struggle in the aftermath of the resurrection? Here’s the link — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Worshipping_and_Doubting.mp3
In John 21:15-19, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Most Bible scholars agree that Jesus is giving Peter the opportunity to atone for his betrayal of Jesus during Jesus’ arrest. But what does this mean for us today? How do we know if we love Jesus? In this passage we find the simple evidence of our love for Jesus.
During these Sundays between Easter and Pentecost, I am departing from the revised common lectionary to explore several of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Here’s the link to the podcast, If You Love Jesus.
Now that Easter Sunday is behind us, what do we do next? How do we as followers of Jesus live in light of Easter’s message of hope and joy? In John 20:19-31 we read the story of Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples after his resurrection. This account is unique to John’s gospel and gives us insight into what Jesus intended for his disciples to do in light of his resurrection. The words of Jesus to his followers have implications for those of us who live in light of Easter, too. Here’s the link: http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Living_in_Light_of_Easter.mp3
In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is near. He then invites those who hear his proclamation to change their way of thinking and living, and believe the good news of the Kingdom’s presence. Jesus then invites Peter and Andrew, and James and John to follow him, with the promise that he will make them fishers of people. The invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to Kingdom living, and means more than just believing facts or doctrine. Here’s the link to this week’s podcast — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/A_Proclamation_and_an_Invitation.mp3
Taken from John 1:43-51, this story of Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael gives us a glimpse in how and why God calls us to follow Jesus. When God Finds You explores the role of scripture, experience, and community that are present in the call of God in the lives of followers of Jesus. Here’s the link to the podcast — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/When_God_Finds_You.mp3
Jesus began to teach in parables because so many who heard him didn’t get it. The Parable of the Sower and Soils tells why many don’t get it, but some do. The important difference between those who do and those who don’t isn’t the soil, or the seed. The difference is in the harvest. Read this parable again. You may see something new, just like Jesus’ followers did.
The Parable of the Sower and the Soils
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NIV
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
A Major Turning Point For Jesus’ Ministry
I have mentioned before that for the next several weeks we’ll be looking at the Gospel of Matthew, and the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God. Matthew likes to refer to the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of Heaven, but those terms are interchangeable. But whichever term we use, we are encountering a dramatic turning point in the ministry of Jesus in Matthew 13.
Because the lectionary is not taking the Matthew passages in the order in which they are found in the Gospel, you might be a little disoriented. But, let me set the context for you. In Matthew the chapters cover these topics:
- Chapters 1-2 cover the birth of Jesus stories.
- Chapter 3, John the Baptist and Jesus baptism
- Chapter 4, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and calling the first disciples
- Chapters 5-7, The Sermon on the Mount
- Chapter 8 and 9, healings (plus calling Matthew)
- Chapter 10, sending out the 12
- Chapter 11, praising John the Baptist, prayer to the Father
- Chapter 12, Sabbath and various teachings
- Chapter 13, beginning of parables with 5 different parables
So, Matthew has a very logical progression. From Jesus’ birth, through his baptism and temptation, to the beginning of his ministry, the calling of the disciples, the landmark teaching of what life in the Kingdom of God is like in the Sermon on the Mount, and then the demonstration of Kingdom power in healing and casting out demons, Matthew presents Jesus’ ministry as different than anything the Jews had seen.
Until we get to Chapter 13, Jesus has also been very careful not to proclaim his messianic mission, or to allow others to do so. When he heals, he sends people back home and urges them not to tell about him. But in Chapter 13, Jesus’ ministry reaches a turning point. He starts to speak to the crowds in parables.
The Parable of the Sower, which many also call the Parable of the Soils, is the first and most dramatic example of Jesus’ use of parables. So, let’s take a look at what he says.
The Setting of The Parable
Jesus is not having a good day on the day he tells this parable. This is possibly the Sabbath, or the day after the Sabbath. In Chapter 12, Jesus and his disciples have had not one, but four run-ins with the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees.
First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grainfield on the Sabbath, and the disciples get hungry. So, they grab the heads of grain, pull the grain into their hands, and begin to eat. Kind of like New Testament granola, or cereal on the run. The Pharisees see this and accuse the disciples of breaking the Sabbath. (Ever wonder how they saw what the disciples were doing in the grainfield? Probably because they were spying on them, but that’s another story for another time.) Jesus has a reply and says that “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” That was not exactly what the Pharisees wanted to hear.
Next, Jesus goes to a synagogue on the same day. There a man with a withered hand, no doubt from a stroke or some type of palsy, was there. The Pharisees try the Sabbath-breaking bait again, asking Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Of course, their implied answer is “no,” but Jesus gives his own answer by healing the man’s hand.
Then, Jesus left the synagogue, followed by a large crowd. Someone in the crowd pushes forward a man who is blind and mute because he is possessed by a demon. So, Jesus heals him, too. As a matter of fact, Jesus heals everybody who is sick (12:15), but he warns those in the crowd not to make him known – not to give him away, in other words.
The Pharisees, who are spiritually blind, accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the chief demon, Beelzebub. Jesus answers by saying, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.” (12:28b)
Finally, after some more words, the Pharisees regroup and ask Jesus for a sign. As it healing a man’s hand, and casting out a demon so that a blind mute man can both see and speak isn’t enough. Jesus rebukes them.
But, if that isn’t enough, Jesus’ mother and brothers show up. Some thing presumably to take him home, to take him away from all the trouble that he is stirring up. And he says, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (12:50)
A Change In Strategy
Chapter 13 opens with these words: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea.”
Undoubtedly, he needed a break. Jesus had been defending himself and his disciples, and his ministry, all day long if this was just one day. Perhaps Matthew is less concerned about the precise time that has elapsed than with communicating that Jesus is being questioned, opposed, and plotted against by the religious leaders. In any event, something changes in Jesus.
A large crowd gathers around him while he is seated on the seashore, so he gets into a boat, and with enough water to keep the crowd at bay, but still close enough to shore for them to hear him, Jesus begins to teach again.
But his time, he begins to tell a story. Perhaps a farmer is sowing seed in his field and Jesus points to the hillside behind the crowd to make his point – “A sower went out to sow…”
Whatever his motivation for using that story in that setting, this marks the beginning of a new chapter in Jesus’ ministry. For the reason Jesus shifts his teaching approach, we have to read the text we skipped, Matthew 13:10-17 NIV:
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
So, here we have Jesus’ conscious decision to stop speaking so that the Pharisees can pick a fight with him. He’s going to speak in parables that some have called “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning.”
It isn’t that God does not want the Pharisees and other doubters of Jesus to hear and understand. It’s that the result of their hard hearts, closed ears, and blind eyes (remember the man Jesus healed?), is that they don’t get it because they don’t want to get it.
Back To The Parable
Okay, with that in mind, we’re back to the Parable of the Sower and the Soils. We could also throw in the Seed as well – The Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils. Because there are three elements here. Let’s look at them more closely.
The story is right out of the Farmers’ Almanac. Okay, maybe not literally, but it certainly would be understood by the rural folks who had come out to hear Jesus. Farmers, herdsmen, and even small town craftsmen would understand this story.
A sower goes out to sow seed. He’s planting seed in anticipation of a harvest. Possibly, the sower is sowing grain, like the field the disciples just came through earlier that day.
Whatever the crop, the sower is broadcasting seed everywhere. Some falls on the path, some on stony ground, some among thorny weeds. But some falls on good soil, which provides an ideal growing environment.
The seed that falls on the path just lies there and the birds eat it. The seed that falls on stony ground doesn’t have enough soil for deep roots, and so when the hot sun comes out, it shrivels and dies. The seed that falls among the thorny weeds sprouts, but the young tender plants get choked out by the voracious weeds who suck up all the water, thrive in drought conditions, and grow like crazy.
Only the seed that lands on good soil sprouts and thrives, ultimately producing a harvest. But even that harvest varies from seed to seed.
Okay, this is a pretty typical agricultural story. Jesus leaves out other threats to plants, like wind, flood, fire, predators, and so on. His point is simple – there are three main elements in the sower, the seed, and the soil.
Here’s The Meaning
Then, after explaining why he’s speaking in parables, Jesus explains the parable to the disciples. Now, we think they were a little slow, because we know the answers. But if we had been in their shoes, or sandals, we would have been as clueless. What does this story have to do with anything that Jesus has been saying or doing up to this point?
The story isn’t about treating others as you want to be treated. It’s not about relationships at all, which is primarily what Jesus has been talking about and demonstrating up to this point.
The story isn’t about anything the disciples understand. What’s the point?
Jesus tells them. The seed is the word of the Kingdom. The NIV translates it as the message of the Kingdom, but the Greek word is “logos” or “word.” The various kinds of soil are the various kinds of people who hear the word of the Kingdom, or the word of God. The harvest is limited only to one kind of person, the person who hears, understands, and bears fruit. The fruit, or the yield per person, does not have to be the same. Some will yield a symbolic 30x, others 60x, and others 100x. The yield is not so important, but the fact that that person, or soil, produces something is.
Quickly, let’s look at the three elements. First, the sower is Jesus. We don’t get that from this parable, but Jesus gives us this answer in the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:36-43, when he says, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man…” We have no reason not to believe that this is true for this first parable also.
Jesus was sowing the word of the Kingdom into every place he went. The main characteristics we need to note about the sower is that he is generous and extravagant. The sower is throwing seed everywhere. He isn’t miserly with his seed, he isn’t hoarding seed, and there apparently is no seed shortage. He is broadcasting seed with generous abandon. Where the seed lands is not so much his concern. His concern is that he get enough seed out there so that there will be a bountiful harvest.
Jesus continually teaches that the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of abundance. In the Sermon on the Mount he encourages his hearers not to worry about tomorrow, what they will eat or what they will wear. He says that God who takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field will also take care of them.
His healing, and especially his healing of all who come to him, is another sign of the abundance of the Kingdom of God. No one gets turned away, there is enough healing to go around. The “shalom” of God never runs out.
The same is true for physical food. There is enough. There was enough to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children. There is never a shortage of anything in the Kingdom of God.
Even in the future, when the Kingdom is fully come, the new Jerusalem is a perfect cube 1500 miles wide, 1500 miles long, and 1500 miles high. It’s like a celestial highrise, only with really nice furnishings. The point of those dimensions is that there’s room for everyone. And, John the Revelator says that the multitude gathered is too great to number, and from every kindred, tongue, tribe, and nation. Everybody is represented, no one is squeezed out because of lack of room, there are not quotas, no limits, no lack in the Kingdom.
By the way, the early church so believed this that they put all their money, goods, and property together and everyone had enough.
So, the sower is extravagant, and the seed is abundant.
The seed is the word of the Kingdom. This is not the Bible, although the Bible would be included in the “word of the Kingdom.” The word of the Kingdom is that which defines the Kingdom. The word of the Kingdom is the call to follow Jesus, to live like Jesus, to act like Jesus, and behave in a different way from others.
That’s why some can hear it and it doesn’t take root. They are not interested. They don’t get it. And, just in case they might someday wake up and embrace the word, the evil one snatches it away. Because if you leave the word of the Kingdom there, it will have a result.
But, that’s also why some embrace it with joy, and then when persecution (or public opinion comes) they wilt like a flower in rocky soil. The word of the Kingdom isn’t just surface dressing, its roots must go down into the soul, to change and transform.
Some hear the word, understand it, but are distracted by the cares of the world and ambition. Some have other ideas about how life should be lived, and those ideas are incompatible with God’s idea of how we should live.
But, then there are those who hear, understand, and produce a harvest – fruit 30x, 60x, or 100x their own size or weight. Which is the miraculous thing about seeds. When given the chance, one tiny seed can produce 20 tomatoes, or lots of cucumbers, or a dozen bell peppers, or hundreds of beans.
What is the fruit? It’s the reproduction of like kind. That’s what seeds do. They contain the potential of an abundance, but an abundance just like they were. Okay, in this day of hybridized and genetically-engineered seed, you can’t say that anymore, but in Jesus’ day seeds produced more of their own kind.
The good soil incubates and germinates the word of God, which in turn produces more just like that seed. Not more soil. But a harvest of the Kingdom. A bounty of Kingdom-bearers, who then are broadcast extravagantly into the world, again, and the cycle repeats itself endlessly.
We Are The Soil
Okay, here’s where the parable leaves off. Jesus’ point was an observation – some get it, and some don’t. Those who don’t get it, don’t for a variety of reasons. But the seed goes everywhere.
The danger of pushing parables too far is that they break down. Jesus was using his run-ins with the Pharisees to make a point. And in the natural world, soil can’t move itself, or change itself.
But, the lesson for us is to be receptive soil. Not for our own selfish ends, but for the harvest. We are the incubators of the harvest. We are not the sower, and we are not the seed. We are not the harvest. We are the soil. But unlike the soil, we can change, we can hear, we can respond. We can be that which nurtures and furthers the Good News, the word of the Kingdom, just as others before us have done.
Tomorrow I’m preaching about Jesus sending the disciples out to do great things — heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. But to that list of great things, Jesus added giving a cup of cold water to a little child. Small gifts have great significance in God’s Kingdom.
The Significance of Small Gifts
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome
When I was a boy of about 8 or 9, I loved to go to my friend’s house and play. We would get busy riding our bikes, exploring the creek at the bottom of our street, or playing ball that sometimes, often, I would stay longer than I had intended. Invariably, when I got home from my friend’s house, my mother would tell me not to stay so long next time, because “you don’t want to wear out your welcome.”
Like many of those wise parental sayings, I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I knew it had something to do with my friend’s mother getting tired of having me at her house. It was good advise then, even if I wasn’t entirely sure of its full meaning, and it still is today.
Here in these three short verses we just read, Jesus has some words about “welcome.” And apparently he wants his disciples to understand the significance of welcoming others, and of the significance of being welcomed in turn.
But to understand that, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 10, and look at the setting. Jesus isn’t just randomly tossing out some “here’s how you ought to behave when you’re traveling” advice. No, there is a specific setting, a context in which Jesus offers these closing words. We know they are the closing words of instruction, not only because they come at the end of the chapter, but because Matthew begins chapter 11 by saying, “Now when Jesus had finished instructing the disciples….”
Jesus Sends Out The Twelve
But what was he instructing them for? Jesus was equipping and preparing the disciples to go out and do exactly what he had been doing. They were to go and do exactly what they had seen Jesus doing. The disciples were to go and proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Remember that last week we talked about Matthew’s Gospel being the Gospel of the Kingdom of God? Well, in the next few weeks we’ll have an opportunity to look at Matthew and at the teaching of Jesus as Matthew presents it. Each gospel writer has a unique message and approach, and for Matthew the Kingdom of God is it.
So, let’s look at the words of Jesus as he gets the disciples ready. Here’s the setup in Matthew 10:1-4:
“1 He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil[a] spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” — Matthew 10:1-4 NIV84
Okay, that’s the setup. Jesus called the disciples together, then gave them authority to do what he had been doing – drive out evil spirits, heal sickness and disease. These are signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has been doing these very things, plus others, to not only announce the Kingdom of God as a present reality, but to demonstrate what life in the Kingdom of God is like.
Remember last week when we talked about the Great Commission, we said that the verses that precede Matthew 28:19-20 were important. Why? Because Matthew 28:18 says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Here, prior to Jesus final instructions to his disciples, he gives them that same Kingdom authority, although limited to evil spirits and healing diseases. In other words, this is a trial run for their ultimate mission.
Luke’s Gospel has a similar account, coincidentally found in Luke 10, where Luke records the sending of the 70 or 72, depending on your translation. The number is not so important as the idea that here a multiple of 12 – 6 x 12 – is being sent out. Luke’s version tells us that now there are more than 12, there are 70 or 72 who have the same authority, are given the same instruction, and who go to proclaim and demonstrate the same kingdom.
And, of course, getting back to Matthew’s Gospel, this becomes the ultimate mission of the disciples, and the last instruction Jesus gives to them, before he ascends back to heaven.
So, this idea of mission, of being sent, of a divine decree directed toward the disciples is a key point. Jesus is not just the Messiah, he is the Messiah with a mission – let everyone know that the Kingdom of God is inaugurated!
The Specifics of the Mission
But, they are not just to run willy-nilly all over the place in their going. No, the sending has specific instructions. There are ways the disciples are expected to behave, there are things they are expected to do. This is not make-it-up-as-you-go, but a well-defined mission. For that we have to read the next verses, Matthew 10:5-15:
“5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[b] drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.9 Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.
11 “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” — Matthew 10:5-15 NIV84
I don’t have a lot of time to spend on what all of these instructions mean, but some are pretty straight-forward. Here’s a quick run-down:
Don’t go to the Gentiles or Samaritans.
Do go the “lost sheep of Israel.” By the way, the lost sheep of Israel weren’t lost because they were morally inferior to the Pharisees or other overtly righteous Jews. They were lost because they were the marginalized, the outcasts, those who were lost to the way God was being worshipped, and the Torah was being observed. They weren’t lost due to their own sin, although they were sinners; they were lost because no one in positions of religious authority wanted to have anything to do with them.
Proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of heaven is near.” That was the message, and to demonstrate that this message was true, they were to perform the signs of the Kingdom. We call them miracles today – healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and driving out demons. These also are all theological problems that keep the lost sheep of Israel from worshipping God, that marginalize them and push them to the outskirts of respectable society.
Obviously, being dead keeps you from attending Temple, but raising the dead demonstrated that God’s power reached even to the world of the dead, to the other side of death. Of course, God would demonstrate that most tangibly and dramatically in raising Jesus from the dead. But, being sick either prevented you from traveling to the Temple for worship, or made you ceremonially unclean. The same thing applied specifically to lepers, who had to proclaim in a loud voice and with the sounding of a warning bell that they were unclean. Leprosy wasn’t just a bad disease that in the first century was uncurable; leprosy separated a person from family, friends, and most importantly, the worshipping community. Finally, casting out evil spirits or demons did two things: first, it demonstrated God’s power over evil; and, secondly, it reclaimed those thought to be not in their right minds, like the Gadarene demoniac, for service to God. So, all of these instructions on what to do were for the lost sheep, the outcasts, the marginalized, the despised, the unwanted in society.
In contrast, the disciples are to bring the peace – the shalom of God – to the homes which receive them. For those who do not receive them, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and more, awaits them. And, with these words, Jesus turns the disciples’ attention to the the unpleasant side of their journey.
Conflict and Persecution Are Part of the Assignment
You would think that with the ability to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons, there wouldn’t be a downside. But, just as Jesus encountered opposition and persecution, so will his followers, even on this preliminary training mission. Listen to some of what the disciples will encounter:
17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[e]
37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
This does not sound like a picnic, does it? So, here is this grand mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to demonstrate its power by healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons.
The bad news is that the opposition is strong and on a mission of its own – to stop Jesus from spreading the ridiculous notion that he, Jesus, is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior promised by God.
Because if Jesus is all of those things, and if the Kingdom of God is really coming, then obviously the religious leaders are not in the lead. They are being passed over. God has not included them in this Kingdom revolution that is taking place. Their power is threatened, their prestige is at stake, their livelihood is at risk. Oh, and by the way, the Romans won’t be too happy either, if an insurrection breaks out.
This is pretty dramatic stuff. Majestic in its scope, cosmic in its design, eternal in its duration. This is the greatest drama the world has ever witnessed. And, the disciples get to be part of it.
It’s Not Just About the Drama
But, it’s not just about the drama. For as this chapter closes, and we finally return to our text for today, Jesus has some very simple, calm, and plain words:
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
To get in on this grand Kingdom epic, you don’t have to be a disciple. You just have to welcome one. Jesus promises that anyone who receives his disciples receives (welcomes) him; and anyone who welcomes him welcomes God, the one who sent Jesus.
But, it gets better. Anyone who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet (which means because he is a prophet, or out of respect for a prophet) will receive the same reward as the prophet. So, the widow of Zarephath who gave food and lodging to Elijah received the same reward as the prophet Elijah, who stood up to 450 prophets of Baal, among other things. Jesus even mentions her in Luke 4. So, this lowly widow gets a prophet’s reward for welcoming a prophet.
In other words, her obedience to God was just as important as Elijah’s obedience to God.
The same thing happens when someone welcomes a righteous person. They receive the same reward as the righteous person, because they are being used of God in the same way.
In other words, it’s not just about the drama. We often mistakenly think that unless we can do something big, something grand, something great, that God will not be pleased with us. Part of that I attribute to William Carey, who in his zeal to get English pastors to support sending missionaries to India, said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
But maybe Jesus wants us to rethink that. Of course, some will continue to do great, dramatic, world-changing things. But not everybody. The last instruction Jesus gave to his disciples in this passage was for the rest of us.
“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
And, here is where the rest of us come in. Most of us haven’t healed the sick, raised the dead, or exorcised demons. Most of us haven’t even seen anyone who was demon-possessed. Personally, I’m thankful for that.
But all of us have seen little children. All of us know how good a cup of cold water tastes on a hot, dusty day. And all of us can do that – we can all give a cup of cold water to a thirsty child.
Mother Theresa, who certainly did great things, said, “There are no great deeds, only small deeds done with great love.”
So, if those of us who believe that we’ll never do great things like the disciples did for God, that’s absolutely okay. Because even the disciples tried to run off the little children who wanted to see Jesus. Even the disciples tried to turn away the most fragile and least regarded members of their own society, little children.
Of course, it does take some effort. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ day didn’t come from the water fountain, or the refrigerator dispenser. There was no ice to cool the water, and water sitting in the sun quickly grew tepid and brackish.
No, to get a cup of cold water, one had to draw from the well, or a deep spring. In either event, effort was involved. So, I’m not saying small things don’t take effort, I’m just saying that Jesus thought they were pretty special. And a cup of cold water gets lumped right in there with disciples on a mission to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons.
I could go on and on, explaining in detail what I think this means, but really, that’s it. You know what cold water is, we know who children are. You can make the translation to any situation in life. Small gifts, given with great love in the name of the One who loved us, have great significance in the Kingdom of God.
Sent By Jesus
John 20:19-31 NIV/84
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may[a] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
20:19: “Peace be with you!”
The disciples are anything but at peace. With “doors locked for fear of the Jews” the disciple band huddles in secret on the evening of the resurrection. They are confused, afraid, disoriented, and grief-stricken.
“Peace” is the greeting that Jesus taught the disciples in Luke 10 to bring to every home they entered. And, so the mission of Jesus continues as though nothing has happened.
“Peace” is the shalom of God which encompasses well-being and confidence in God. God’s shalom means things are as they should be. This is not what the disciples believed at this moment. Things were not as they should be: Jesus was gone, dead, and now even his body was missing. Into this chaos, Jesus reassures the disciples that things indeed are exactly as they should be.
20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Two things are going on here: first, Jesus shows them his pierced hands and side. These wounds are the visible evidence that Jesus appears to them just as they had seen him on the cross — wounded for our transgressions. This is no memory of Jesus before, but the continuing presence of Jesus after the crucifixion. The resurrection of Jesus did not change the sacrifice of Jesus. Even a week later when Jesus appears again with Thomas present, his wounds validate his real presence.
The disciples were overjoyed because before them stood Jesus, but alive.
20:21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Now things begin to change. The disciples are about to enter the next phase of their work. This phase of being sent has been tried out in Luke 10 when Jesus sent the 70 into the surrounding region. They were to do what he had just done — bring God’s shalom, heal, restore, share table fellowship, live among people, demonstrate God to and for them.
Again, the shalom of God as greeting means, Things are as they should be. My sending you is as it should be, this is the next step. The disciples sending follows the model of God’s sending Jesus. They are sent with authority, they are sent out from themselves, they are sent to serve, they are sent to live out the new kingdom of God among men, they are sent to demonstrate the salvation (health, wholeness, forgiveness and reconciliation) of God toward creation. Sent in the same manner, with the same mission, by the same Master.
20:22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
But they are also sent with the same Spirit that overshadowed Mary, descended upon Jesus at his baptism, drove him into the desert, empowered him for service, and would be his presence with them from this point forward.
On the day of Pentecost, this same Spirit manifests itself to announce a new beginning to the world that has witnessed the evil of the Roman empire.
20:23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
This passage, regardless of what we think it means, surely cannot mean that we possess the ability to forgive or not, the sins of others. I looked at several old commentaries on this passage, and most said just that — Only God can forgive sins, and therefore this means that when the gospel is preached and people respond, God forgives them.
I believe that Jesus meant exactly what he said. Now, those who wrote years ago that this does not mean that the disciples or we have the ability to forgive sins, probably were writing (and one stated this explicitly) in response to the priestly practice of the Roman Catholic church. One confesses to the priest, who after imposing penitential tasks, absolves the confessor of their sin. But that is not what Jesus is referring to here.
One of the big things that got Jesus into trouble was forgiving the sins of the common people. And, we talked about the reason for that several weeks ago. The Temple was the only place in first century Judaism that sins could be forgiven. The entire Temple enterprise, and it was very much that, was predicated on the idea that the Temple was the residence of God, and that a forgiving encounter with God could only happen there.
Feast days, festivals, and the high holy day of Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — were the elaborate occasions for communal confession and repentance. But, commoners like Mary and Joseph also went to the Temple to offer the smallest offering — a pair of turtledoves — for her purification.
So, when Jesus spoke of forgiving sins, he was at odds with the entire world of Judaism, including the chief priest, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the Council of the Sanhedrin, and most of all, the economic bounty that flowed to the Temple.
So, by telling the disciples that they now have the ministry of forgiveness, Jesus places them in the same position he was in — an adversary to the entrenched religious practice and practitioners of his day.
The most striking example of this is Jesus forgiving the sins of, and healing, the lame man. Here’s Mark’s version, but the account appears in all three synoptic gospels —
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2 So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them,“Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”He said to the paralytic, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” – Mark 2:1-12 NIV84
So, the objection to Jesus’ healing was the same as the objection to this verse by some commentators — only God can forgive sins. But Jesus obviously countered that by forgiving the lame man’s sins, and by healing him.
Actually, there was an old rabbinic saying, “No one can be healed unless first their sins are forgiven.” So, healing, wholeness (salvation both physical and spiritual) involve forgiveness.
To understand what that means, we need to look at forgiveness for a moment. First, this ability or ministry of forgiving (or not forgiving) sin is given to the community. Jesus is not saying, and never intended, that the ministry of forgiveness become the solely the function of an elite group of priests. He was actually removing the function of pronouncing forgiveness from the priests of his day, and giving it into the hands of his followers.
Rather, forgiveness is given to the community of disciples. And, remember, at this point all the disciples, and Jesus’ entire ministry has been within Judaism. So, the disciples become the new community of practice that now holds the keys to the kingdom:
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19 NIV84)
Which also means that when God’s will is done on earth, it is reflecting what has and is being done in heaven. Remember the Lord’s Prayer — “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? That’s exactly what we have here — God’s forgiveness being expressed through his followers on earth even as it is and has been expressed in heaven.
All of which means that the ministry Jesus has given to the disciples is also our ministry. But, you might object, we can’t go around forgiving people’s sins.
Well, forgiveness does two things. First, it recognizes and makes a judgment that something has gone wrong in a relationship. Secondly, it deals with the wrong appropriately, and restores the relationship within the community.
Forgiveness is the ministry of reconciliation — of bringing people back to God and back to each other in the community that follows God.
Paul said, 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. – 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV84
On this the second Sunday of Eastertide, we are not only celebrating the risen Christ, we are also receiving our mission from Jesus. That mission is to be a community of forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, before a world which knows nothing of God’s peace — things as they should be.
Early in his ministry, Henri Nouwen was the chaplain on an transoceanic ship. One night, surrounded by fog so dense that the ship was operating by radar, the captain was pacing with great agitation on the deck. As he turned, he ran into Nouwen, who was standing near the wheel house in case he was needed.
As the two collided, the captain cursed, and said, “Get out of my way. I don’t need you here.” Nouwen began his humiliating retreat, when the captain gruffly called back to him.
“On second thought, stay. This might be the only time you’ll be of use to me.” (A Peculiar People, Rodney Clapp)
The world may not need Jesus or his disciples, or his church, for a lot of things. But they do need us to demonstrate and practice forgiveness and reconciliation. This might be the only way we are of use, and it is the ministry Jesus has given to us.
We often talk about spiritual decisions being either decisions of the heart or of the head, meaning those decisions are either based on feeling or thinking. But when it comes to the decision to follow Jesus, what we’re really talking about is a decision of the feet.
Matthew 4:18-22 is the account of Jesus calling the first disciples — Peter and Andrew, and James and John — two sets of brothers, two families of fishermen. Matthew records the action this way —
“As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” — Matthew 4:18-20 NRSV
The same scene repeats itself with James and John, the Sons of Thunder. “Immediately they left their boat and their father, and followed him.”
Decisions of the heart and head may be internal and individual. But decisions of the feet are public, obvious, and practical. When the Bible says, “They followed him” it literally means they not only felt and thought that Jesus was someone special, but their feet decided to go where Jesus went, and they followed him quickly, immediately, and irrevocably. Decisions of the feet might be what we need more of today.