Sentence: 'You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God (Romans 6:18)
grant that we your children
may never be ashamed
to confess the faith of Christ crucified,
but continue his faithful servants
to our lives' end. Amen.
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Here (looking ahead to our gospel reading), a prophet's life is a perilous one. To the extent that this ministry is one of anticipation and prediction of the future, a prophet's ministry depends on words today being matched by outcomes tomorrow. Jeremiah's ministry is a running battle between himself claiming one thing and other ('official') prophets claiming another, each with such specificity that both cannot be right.
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
A celebration of God's 'great love for ever' (1) makes a supporting point to the gospel reading when it speaks of 'reward'. The ones who are 'blessed' are those who 'have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord.' This state of blessedness is not so much a reward at the end of some labour, like a bonus payment for a worker, or a holiday at the end of a year of effort, but a continuing state of benefit: walking in the light of God's presence is its own reward.
Continuing Paul's response to the question whether the abundance of God's grace means we may sin as much as we like after discovering we are recipients of God's grace, Paul clearly lays down a principle for Christian living, 'do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires' (12, effectively repeated in 13).
Verse 14 brings us to an associated principle: life is lived under some kind of lord or master. To keep on sinning is to live under the mastery or lordship of sin. For a Christian,that is, a confessor that 'Jesus is Lord,' this cannot be so.
Verses 15 to 18 expand on the principle laid down in verse 14 and verses 19-23 offer further comment in a slightly different vein. In the latter case a theme from verse 18 is taken up. The opposite of being slaves to sin is being slaves to righteousness. Verse 22 underlines the importance of living out this form of slavery: only slavery to God leads to holy living with the result of 'eternal life'. Verse 23 is then a summary of the argument: the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.
It could be easy to (mis)read this message in a kind of social sense: "We, the church, need to be a welcoming body of people." We do, but is that the primary importance of this passage? The focus is actually on the welcome the world gives the church rather than the other way around! Themes here are discipleship, mission and christology.
The context (recalling last Sunday's gospel) is the 'cost of discipleship.' Now Jesus turns the emphasis in a new direction: disciples need not uniformly expect a bad reception, some will welcome them. To these good outcomes Jesus offers encouragement, both to the disciples and to the ones who welcome them.
First, since true disciples are representatives of Jesus, missioners in the mission he has commissioned, a welcome given to the disciples is a welcome given to Jesus himself, embodied in them. In turn, reflecting the relationship between Jesus as one sent from God and God as sender, the welcome to disciples is a welcome of 'the one who sent me' (40).
Implicit here is some kind of reward for welcoming God! To an extent verse 41 makes this explicit, except that we have no idea what a 'prophet's reward' or a 'righteous person's reward' is! Digging deeper into the passage we can get some sense of what is meant. From verse 40 we bring a strong identification, God/Jesus/disciple to verse 41. If we see a similar identification, God/prophet and God/righteous person, then the one who welcomes the prophet welcomes God and the one who welcomes a righteous person welcomes God and in each case the welcome is a form of identification, welcomer/prophet and welcomer/righteous person. Thus a prophet's reward belongs to the welcomer, ditto for a righteous person's reward. In each case the reward (taking into account other talk in Scripture of 'reward') is the privilege of being a participant in the life of God and standing securely in the presence of God.
In verse 42 Jesus moves from the general case of prophets and righteous people being welcomed (which hearkens back to the history of Israel) to the specific case of his disciples (looking around in the present and looking ahead to the future expansion of the kingdom). Even a cup of cold water to a quite ordinary disciple (i.e. one who may not also be a notable prophet or a distinctively righteous person) leads to reward. Given the general expectations of hospitality in the Middle East (food and accommodation), Jesus is signalling here that the slightest of welcomes counts.
Disciples may have some expectation of welcome and not persecution. Welcomers of disciples are welcomers of God and that carries with it rewards of a special kind. Disciples in mission move forward as fast as the welcome accorded them.
Secondly, woven through these verses is a very important christological note, one which undergirds the distinctive christology of John's Gospel with its great themes of the oneness of Father and Son and of the Son as the sent one from God. Jesus is God in human form: when we welcome Jesus we welcome God. When people welcome followers of Jesus they welcome Jesus and thus welcome God into their lives.