Jesus said, Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The only reason that Christians can confess by faith that Jesus is the Son of God -- the Word made Flesh who dwelt among us -- is because Jesus is precisely that. Faith is not something that we generate from within ourselves, nor is the identity of the one in whom we place our faith something that is available for human investigation or analysis. As is made repeatedly clear throughout the Old Testament, no one can see God. God in Godself is unknowable, as he infinitely transcends all possible categories of created knowledge -- whether of humans or of angels. Which means that the knowledge of God that we possess by faith must be given to us by God as a gift -- a gift that would otherwise remain inaccessible to us. God not only has to reveal himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, but furthermore has to move within us in order that we may recognize Jesus for who he is. Again, because Jesus is the Son of God, his identity infinitely transcends what we are able to observe in the world. Thus, the only way that mere humans could possibly recognize and confess the truth of who Jesus is is if God were to enable us to do so. And this enabling is what we call grace: the inward working of God within us, which raises us beyond what we would otherwise be capable of knowing to the level of faith. And it is at this level of faith that we can know, however dimly, something of who God is.
Now, our reading this morning comes from Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is about to send his disciples out “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He sends them out with both specific instructions and grave warnings: they’re going forth “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” he tells them, and thus must “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” But before he sends them off, Jesus gives them the authority they need to complete their mission: the “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” But note that this authority is given to the disciples -- it’s a gift. And just as the gift of faith is a share in the knowledge of God, so too is the gift of this authority a share in the power of God. Hence the power over unclean spirits and disease that the disciples receive from Jesus. Indeed, were it not for this gift of authority, this mission would clearly be impossible for the disciples. Just as, were it not for the gift of faith, our knowledge of who Jesus is would likewise be inaccessible. They must first be given the grace -- the power of God working within them -- that they need to complete their mission.
I begin with this background because Jesus concludes his instructions to the disciples with a stunning claim, which is what we find in our Gospel reading today. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Jesus identifies himself with the disciples -- perhaps even as the disciples. The disciples are to be his representatives, carrying with them the authority they received to do his work in the world. And with that authority, the disciples effectively become the presence of Christ to those they encounter. They become the extension of Christ to the world. Of course, Christ himself had already established this pattern, for Christ himself came into the world with a mission from the Father, having received power and authority from the Father to complete it. Which is why those who welcome the disciples not only welcome the Christ who sent them, but in welcoming Christ they welcome also the Father. So already, there is this intimate unity that is shared between the Father, Jesus, and his disciples. And what secures this unity is grace: the grace that Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, receives from his Father in heaven that is then given to the disciples. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
So far, I’ve made a connection between the gift of faith that enables us to recognize Christ for who he is and the gift of authority that enables the disciples (and us) to carry out Christ’s mission in the world. And if both faith and authority are gifts from God, then both are necessarily given to us by grace -- for grace is nothing other than the inner working of God within us. But this presents us with a slight problem, at least potentially. We’ve heard it said countless times before that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but the tricky thing about power is precisely that it tends to cause those who have it to shirk responsibility. To imagine that they are exempt from consequences; and that the whole point of power is having the ability to pass responsibility off to those they consider below them. And it’s not at all difficult to imagine either the disciples or us falling into this thinking. After all, whoever welcomes me welcomes Christ? Really? That’s not too far off from the pretense that I basically am Christ; and that whoever likes me is clearly one of the Good People and whoever doesn’t is just a hater who’s gonna hate.
So what’s the corrective to this temptation? How are the disciples of Christ -- whether in this passage or in our own day -- supposed to keep themselves from perverting the graces that God has given them into a presumption of superiority over others? Well, here’s the thing: the identification of Christ with his disciples as they go out in their mission to the world is not a one-way street; in fact, later in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ will flip these roles.
So the task before us is one of discernment. By prayer and obedience, by receiving the graces that God bestows on us with humility and devotion, we gradually acquire a clearer view of things. Our faith grows ever more secure, because the more perceptive we are of where Christ is to be found -- in whom Christ is to be found -- the more perceptive we are of Christ himself. We see Christ more clearly and therefore know Christ more deeply. But this comes with yet another paradox, of which there are many in the Christian life, which is that Christ recognizes us as his disciples only insofar as we recognize Christ in those with whom he identifies. Now, with the eyes of faith, we could potentially recognize Christ in any human being -- that’s the point of the Incarnation. But, as St. Benedict so wisely observed, “it is especially in [the poor] that Christ is received” because it is the poor who present us with nothing but themselves. They are fully and only human, with little to offer us in the way of advancement or prestige. Which happens to make them very much like Christ, which is why he identifies himself with them. Jesus’ mission in the world was just that -- to be fully and only human, and thereby live a life of perfect obedience to the will of the Father. May God grant us the grace to recognize Christ evermore cleary; to repent and rid ourselves of all the contempt and suspicion and prejudice against the Lord’s poor that we have unconsciously imbibed from the world. For only then will we be welcomed by Christ as those who welcomed him. Amen.