Do you ever think about those first women and men who followed Jesus? We hear about them all the time in the Gospels. After all, without them, Jesus wouldn’t have had people to hear his wise words. There wouldn’t have been all those sick and broken people calling out to him for healing and wholeness. Without those women and men, we wouldn’t have the great stories of forgiveness, as Jesus reached out a loving hand and shared a meal with everyone who came to him with an open heart. They are an essential part of all the stories we know about Jesus.
From the shepherds who went to the stable in Bethlehem on that first Christmas, to the disciples who stood on that mountain looking up at the sky that day Jesus ascended to heaven, to each one of us gathered here this morning, we are an essential part of the story of Jesus and the gift that he is for our world.
But, looking back on those crowds that followed Jesus throughout the mountains and valleys, towns and villages of Israel, I think it would be very fair to ask: “Why were they following him?”
Was it because they had heard about this great wonder-worker and wise man who was teaching their old faith in a new way? Possibly.
Were they just curious and hoping to see a miracle—maybe someone walking for the first time in years or maybe even someone being raised from the dead? Maybe.
It might have been something as simple as their friends and neighbors saying, “Hey, did you hear about that teacher from Nazareth? We’re going to take lunch and go hear him preach on the mountainside, today. Why don’t you join us?” My guess is that there was a lot of that.
But, I think what happened more often was that the people who heard Jesus teach and preach, and who saw the wonders he performed, were changed by what they experienced. I think that they experienced God in a new way and they were so excited by what they experienced that they wanted to share it. Maybe, they were so excited that they couldn’t not talk about it. After all, how many of us feel that way when we’ve seen a good movie or read a good book, or even when we have a good piece of gossip? So, why wouldn’t those women and men, so many centuries ago, have shared the good news about this Jesus in the same way?
What we heard in the reading from Scripture that we listened to a few minutes ago is part of a longer passage in which Jesus is telling these excited followers of his a little bit about what it means to follow him: “Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me… whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… 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.”
Wow! What is Jesus doing? Is he saying that we can’t love our families? Is he saying that we have to go through life suffering and miserable? And what’s the random “cup of cold water” about?
Before we try to answer those questions, let’s take a step back and be in the here and now. Think about how many people (and this might apply to you, too), like to be rewarded for our efforts. Gold stars on our school papers as children. Praise from parents and teachers as we get older. Money as payment for our time and talents in our work. Perhaps being recognized publically with a plaque or round of applause for our community service. I think it’s safe to say that we all appreciate recognition and benefits from our actions.
Well, in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is doing two things: he is promising a reward for those show hospitality and welcome to those who have gifts to share with the community, and he’s offering the promise of a reward to those who show even the smallest kindnesses (like a cup of cold water) to those who were in need.
So, what is this reward? It means we get the privilege of continuing the work that Jesus began in the hearts of his followers two thousand years ago and that he is continuing to do in our hearts right now.
But, this morning, I’d like for us to take few moments to ask the same question of ourselves that I asked about those first followers of Jesus: “Why are we following Jesus?”
I think this a question that we have to ask ourselves often, if not every day. And it isn’t the same as asking why we are here this morning. After all, coming to worship is only one part of being a follower of Jesus.
The fact of the matter is that God has reached out to each of us, God has called each of us to be followers of Jesus—to continue that work. For some of us, that call might have been a dramatic experience of God’s grace and presence breaking into our life in a time of crisis or joy. For others, it’s less dramatic. They have a sense that this is the path that they should be on. I know for myself, it’s a mix. I’ve always been a “churchy” kind of guy, but I also see in my own life, those blessed moments when I seem to be getting a “yes” from God—yes, this is the direction I should be going in; yes, this is how I can best continue the work of Jesus, right now.
How has God spoken to you?
Was it in a happy moment from your childhood, maybe a holiday with loud relatives and too much food?
Was it in the first smile you shared with your partner?
Was it in the birth of a child or grandchild?
Did you hear God speaking when your friend called and told you that he had just been diagnosed with cancer?
Was it when you heard about another senseless act of violence in the news?
Was it in the video reflection we saw a few moments ago when we heard the words, “Just say yes, just say there's nothing holding you back/It's not a test, nor a trick of the mind/Only love”?
These are just some of the ways that God uses the everyday moments of our lives—both the happy and the sad—to invite us to be true followers, to renew our “Yes!” to being the presence of Jesus in the world. This truth reminds me of the words of the mystic, Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”
So that we really know how to do that well, we have words like those we heard from Jesus this morning: “Love your family, but love them in me—they are my gift to you and you are all my family. Show hospitality and kindness—remember, that you also rely on the generosity of others and know what it’s like to be an outsider. ‘Take up your cross’—don’t be afraid to give of yourself, just like I gave all my love for you. Don’t be afraid to say ‘Yes’ to love and hope and faith, because I am working with you and in you and you are not alone.”
There is a quotation from Jonas Salk (the researcher who discovered the vaccine for polio) that I think has a lot to say to us this morning: “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”
And that is just what Jesus has promised us. When we say “Yes” and truly set out to follow the way He showed us, we are given the privilege to share in God’s work of creating a more beautiful, more sane, and more sacred world.