The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10

As we’ve been walking through Matthew’s story, we’ve walked with Jesus through several episodes that reveal his authority. Jesus teaches with authority and orders around demons with authority. He claims the authority to forgive sins, and  points his finger at the sky and demands that the storm obey him. The people in the story who get it are the ones who understand his authority, and either come to him humbly, needing his authoritative action, or who obey his call to follow. The ones who get it are the lepers and tax collectors, the blind and the lame.  They are the ones who, apparently conscious of their own brokenness, recognize the authority of Jesus to do something about it. We’ve been seeing the story through their eyes, and our attention and focus have been centered on Jesus.

And then, here in chapter ten, there is a startling turning point in the gospel. Like a skilled filmmaker who suddenly changes the focus of a lens, bringing what was blurred in the background of the shot into clear focus, Matthew reveals that he is not simply telling the story about Jesus, but about his disciples. They’ve been there the whole time—following Jesus from synagogue to synagogue, town to town, house to house. They’ve been watching him teach, hearing him proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and then they’ve watched him act out that sermon by healing the sick, casting out demons, and offering forgiveness. They’ve been here the whole time, but always in the background. But now, Matthew twists the lens, and they suddenly jump from the background to the front of the story.

It’s one of those moments that makes you go back and rethink the movie. Everything Jesus has been doing now becomes a rehearsal for what he’s calling them to do. Notice what he tells them in verses 7-8: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” It sounds a lot like what Matthew’s been telling us Jesus did, doesn’t it? It’s a radical turning point in the story—the disciples are not just to watch Jesus or even to merely go on learning from him, but are to go out and replicate his ministry to others. The last few chapters have been a barrage of stories that demonstrate that Jesus has authority—now he gives it away. “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority…

This provokes a new, different kind of faith question. Up until now, all the stories have been about what people believed Jesus could do for them:

“Do you believe that I am teaching you the truth?”
“Do you believe I can heal your servant?”
“Do you believe I can protect you from this storm?”
“Do you believe I can forgive you?”

It’s a radical turning point in the story—the disciples are not just to watch Jesus or even to merely learn from him, but are to go out and replicate his ministry to others. As somebody in our small group said last week when we read those words, and were imagining what it was like to be sent on that mission by Jesus, “These are life-changing words.” Now, all of a sudden, the question for the disciples is not “What do we believe Jesus can do for us?” but “What what do we believe Jesus will do through us?” That is a tremendous difference.

But even while we recognize the difference, it’s important to recognize that even though this is a different kind of question, it’s still a faith question. It’s not a question of what the disciples are capable of in and of themselves. Jesus can’t give them authority unless he truly has it himself. There isn’t even a question of the gospel beginning at this point—this moment depends on their faith in everything that’s happened before this. Matthew doesn’t begin in chapter ten, (and there’s no Acts without Luke). Christian mission is never about what we are capable of or not—it’s about what God is capable of. It exists in the tension between what God is at work doing and what we are at work doing. But both of those work together—God is at work through us.

The challenge implicit in all of this is: “Are we ready to be agents of the gospels?” Are we willing to take on the mantle of what Jesus was doing, and take his mission to be our own? Are we content to be recipients of the gospel, or are we ready to become participants of the gospel?

That’s an important question in the gospel, one that I think is implicit in this story. And normally, this is the point in the sermon when I would dramatically hold out my hands and ask you to seriously consider that challenge…but not this week. At this point in the gospel, in chapter ten, we’re still not ready for it. This story, where Jesus sends his disciples out to replicate his ministry, is incomplete. Sure, the mission as it is would be enough to keep their hands full, and it’s full of the gospel—but it’s still an incomplete gospel. After all, the story Matthew is telling doesn’t end here, but ends in another sending story, what we call the great commission. Matthew is a tale of two commissions, or two sendings, and what happens between the two is incredibly important.

So far, Jesus’s disciples have learned about his power, but they have not yet seen him become powerless. They’ve seen him in strength, but not yet in weakness. Between the two commissions, stands the truth of Jesus’s suffering. Before they can receive the great commission, they have to follow Jesus on the road to the cross—and so do we. Because it’s on that road that we finally can  experience the full gospel of Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection—the gospel that we are called not only to receive, but to participate in.