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Representing Christ

June 30, 2014

“Representing Christ” Matthew 10:34-42 © 6.29.14 Ordinary 13A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I sold Mama’s house in Georgia, I wasn’t going to take two days off work and drive a total of 16 hours to be at a closing table for 30 minutes. So I followed the standard practice of giving Amanda, the estate’s realtor, a limited power of attorney (POA) to act in my stead. She was Tom Cheatham, executor, for the purposes of signing the documents; what she did, I did.

In a more general way, while Mama was still living, I had a power of attorney to act on her behalf in all sorts of ways. The key language was: “granting and giving unto my said attorney-in-fact full power and authority to do and perform every act…as fully as I might or could do if personally present….” I didn’t have to go back and consult Mama at every turn; I did and could do what I thought was right and proper and necessary as if I were my mother.

On a corporate level, in the church for example, there are committees and commissions. The latter has authority rather like that granted individuals in a POA. When teaching elders are ordained, the presbytery appoints a commission to act on its behalf. A handful of people hold a service and lay on hands, and not only is the man or woman ordained for a congregation or the presbytery, but for the whole PC(USA). Something similar is done to close a church or deal with a conflicted situation.

Governments might similarly empower diplomats to act on their behalf under various titles and in particular situations. All these sorts of arrangements, whether POAs, commissions or ambassadors, would fall under the ancient heading of the shaliach or personal representative. In Jewish law of Jesus’ day, a man’s duly authorized messenger “is as the man himself.” What the shaliach did or said was considered not his deed or word, but that of the one who sent him. The one who received and welcomed the shaliach aligned himself with all the messenger stood for. The ancient world had little concept of the individual; one was always part of a family, a tribe, a culture, a people, a religion, and was defined by those associations.

Jesus assigns the status of shaliach to his disciples. They are his commissioners, attorneys-in-fact, spokespersons with his authority. He has been sent, given a mission, by his Father, and he now empowers the disciples to carry it out. So whoever welcomes those who come in his name in fact welcomes Jesus, with all he stands for. As Paul said in Galatians, they are received “as Christ Jesus.”

That could be good news or not so great. On the one hand, if someone is inclined to receive the message and ministry of Jesus, those who represent him are sure to get a warm embrace and enjoy wonderful hospitality. I remember walking into hospital rooms during my Clinical Pastoral Education courses and being welcomed simply because I was a Christian chaplain. The patients knew nothing about me, but I was there as a representative of Christ, and thus must be a worthy and good person. The clerical collar gets much the same response, with greetings and smiles from strangers.

On the other hand, as much of this chapter makes clear, being associated with and authorized by Christ can bring a great deal of hostility. In the time the gospel of Matthew was written, around 85 AD, the church saw itself as “fragile, vulnerable, and under threat,” as some has described it (see endnote 1). Declaring one’s faith was likely to bring conflict in the family, so that one’s enemies would be in one’s own household. Suspicious and frightened neighbors might turn believers in to the local authorities, who would have lots of questions. The wrong answer might lead to torture or even death. But trying to save one’s life would mean losing it, and giving it up would mean finding it.

These days Christians of some stripes bring or risk bringing hostility and hatred on themselves because of the bigoted and mean ways they behave. They may claim to represent Christ, but do they really speak with his words, act as he would act if he were physically present? If we welcome them, are we welcoming our Lord and in turn, the One who sent him? How do we recognize a true representative of Jesus, someone to whom he has given, shall we say, his POA?

There are a couple of ways any of us could approach having that kind of authority. One is to lord it over others. If I speak the word of God, am the official emissary of Christ, then you dare not oppose me, someone might say, and in fact, we do hear such things. It’s the behavior of Dolores Umbridge in one of the Harry Potter movies, as some of you may recall. She is the representative of the Ministry of Magic at Hogwart’s, indeed, High Inquisitor, and any questioning of her actions is by extension a questioning of the Minister of Magic himself. So full of herself is she that she sees any opposition, even to unreasonable demands, as an act of disloyalty to the government.

In the real world, a journalist tells of the response he got from members of a mega-church in Arkansas when he dared point out many factual errors about Islam in televised sermons by their pastor. “I was met with literally hundreds of letters from [the preacher’s] fundie flock, each assuring me that I was going to hell, and that their pastor ‘spoke nothing but the truth,’ and ‘only the Word of God.’ Indeed, at the time, lest anyone doubt the authority of his words, [the church’s] lectern was emblazoned with ‘Word of God’ in large letters across the front” (see endnote 2).

The other way to act is with humility. Being a representative of Christ is a tremendous responsibility. We want the glory and character of God to shine through in everything we do and say. Wherever we go, whoever our companions may be, we never are free from our mission and calling. We have authority, but we are also under authority. Here our task becomes more like that of an executor of a will, a fiduciary responsibility to carry out the will of the testator, the one who has made the will. Indeed, when an executor takes on the role, he or she receives “letters testamentary” and must fulfill that responsibility until discharged.

Jesus is the one to whom we owe responsibility now, since he has made his testament, his will, writing it in his own blood. We act no longer for ourselves, but for him and his interests.

We are always representatives of Christ, re-presenting him by our actions and words for all to see and hear. That’s not just the role of pastors or ruling elders. It belongs to all of us. In a business, the person who does some menial task is just as important in making an impression on clientele as someone high up the ladder. So it is in the church. There is no one whose witness is insignificant or unimportant. It’s not just the Pope who represents Christ; all of us are ministers and priests and prophets. What will people think of our Lord when they see our deeds, hear or read our words, attend our worship? Will they be drawn to him and the One who sent him or turned off, as so many are today, by what Christians do?

How then do we best represent or re-present Christ to our neighbors and each other? Three ways. First, by discernment and welcoming of truth. In the early church for which Matthew wrote, there were traveling prophets who made the rounds of the churches in Syria, where he was writing. How could anyone know if these men and women really were proclaiming God’s word?

The Didache, an ancient Christian document from about the same era as Matthew, gives some clues that are still helpful today in deciding who is authentic. Listen for some possible ways to determine who is true and who is false among the myriad of preachers today: “But not everyone who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; only he is a prophet who has the ways of the Lord about him. By their ways will the false prophet and the prophet be known…. And any prophet who teaches the truth, but does not do what he teaches, is a false prophet. …[W]hoever says in the Spirit, ‘Give me money,’ or something else like this, you must not listen to him. But if he tells you to give for the sake of others who are in need, let no one judge him. Welcome anyone coming in the name of the Lord. Receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, but then, test them and use your discretion” (11:8ff). A true prophet did not presume on hospitality or wear out a welcome. If he wanted to hang around, he was also willing to contribute with some skill to the life of the community; if he did not accept such an arrangement, he was a “Christ peddler.”

Matthew offers his own set of criteria in this chapter. A true prophet, indeed, a real disciple, is willing to suffer for truth, does not amass material goods, and lives without fear, knowing that God has numbered even the hairs of his or her head.

So we try to discern who is an authentic messenger, and welcome him or her. Second, we care for fellow travelers on the journey with openness and hospitality. These are the ones Matthew refers to as “righteous persons,” who in his day, were Christians who traveled from place to place, but never claimed to be prophets. A wonderful classic praise and worship song says it all for us today: “Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too. We are pilgrims on a journey; we’re together on this road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear. I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through” (Richard Gillard, “The Servant Song” 1977, in The Faith We Sing).

So, we represent Christ by our discernment of authentic truth, hospitality to each other, and finally, our compassion for the vulnerable. In the day of the gospel writer, “little ones” originally meant new disciples, a bit frightened and uncertain in faith. The Greek word for them is our word “micro.” They’re those someone else would consider to be so insignificant as to be overlooked. But then in Matthew 25, the great parable of judgment uses the diminutive of the same term: “the least of the little,” “the littlest” and expands the scope of our care to anyone who has a need. In them, we meet Christ. They re-present Christ back to his representatives.

It’s been said recently by a government official that how we treat the vulnerable is a reflection of our values as a nation. Jesus tells us we don’t have to do anything big. A cup of cold water is enough. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “a single act of kindness has the power to call a whole history of over-againstness into question” (see endnote 3). Tom Carskadon of MSU once came up with 250 such acts of kindness toward students that he recommended to other professors. He said of their importance: “You don’t know what you don’t know about someone” (unpublished remarks). Who are the vulnerable, the little ones, to whom we, as believers, a church, a state, a nation, a world need to be showing kindness, and going even beyond kindness, to justice?

“Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear your voice, O Son of man. In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds dark with fears, from paths where hide the lures of greed, we catch the vision of your tears. From tender childhood’s helplessness, from woman’s grief, man’s burdened toil, from famished souls, from sorrow’s stress, your heart has never known recoil. The cup of water given for you still holds the freshness of your grace; yet long these multitudes to view the sweet compassion of your face. O Master, from the mountainside make haste to heal these hearts of pain; among these restless throngs abide; O tread the city’s streets again. Till all the world shall learn your love and follow where your feet have trod, till, glorious from your heaven above, shall come the city of our God” (Francis Mason North, 1905)!

Endnote 1: John Petty

Endnote 2: Don Burrows

Endnote 3: “The Right Answer”

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