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Representing Christ

July 10, 2017

“Representing Christ” 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, Matthew 10:5-15, 40-42 © 7.9.17 Ordinary 14A (texts for Ordinary 13A) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When Mama died five years ago, it became my responsibility as executor of her estate to sell the house that she and Daddy had lived in for decades. What a job that was, for the usual reasons plus some unique to my family. When finally Amanda, the estate’s Realtor®, had found a buyer in the tough Albany, GA market, and the closing was scheduled, I wasn’t going to take two days off work, spend the night, eat out, and drive a total of 16 hours to be at an attorney’s office for 30 minutes. So I followed the standard practice of giving Amanda 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 POA 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 former can only make recommendations to the body that appointed or elected them; they can’t act on their own. The latter, on the other hand, have authority rather like that granted individuals in a POA. When teaching elders are ordained, for example, 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, hear a disciplinary case or deal with a conflicted situation. We also have three permanent commissions in any presbytery: the Commission on Ministry, the Commission on Preparation for Ministry, and the Permanent Judicial Commission.

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 envoys, 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, including the values, obligations, and traditions of his family, tribe, and faith.

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,” and as the apostle put it in 2 Corinthians, God makes his appeal through them. They speak on behalf of Christ.

Being welcomed as Jesus himself could be good news or not so great. On the one hand, if someone is inclined to receive the message and ministry of our Lord, those who represent him are sure to get a warm embrace and enjoy wonderful hospitality. I remember walking into hospital rooms, cold calling on people, during the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) course required for my doctorate, 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. I experienced that a couple of times during CPE. But what I faced was nothing. In the time the gospel of Matthew was written, around 85 AD, the church saw itself as “fragile, vulnerable, and under threat,” as someone has described it (John Petty, http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2011/06/lectionary-blogging-matthew-10-40-42-1.html). As we’ve noticed before, 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 say they represent Christ, but do they really speak with his words, act as he would act if he were physically present? How do we sort out the claims about who is the true agent of our Lord? How do we recognize an authentic 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, if I am the official emissary of Christ, then you dare not oppose me or you are opposing God, 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.

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 such 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? Do people see in our words and actions the compassionate, loving Jesus of the gospels who welcomed the outcast and vulnerable?

How then do we best represent, “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 lived. 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. The author says: “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.

We try, then, 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, re-present, 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 term for them is our word “micro.” They’re those someone else would consider to be so insignificant as to be overlooked, not worthy of attention. But then in Matthew 25, the great parable of the judgment of the nations, our Lord 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 that how we treat the vulnerable is a reflection of our values as a nation. Even a cup of cold water can be significant, life-changing. The renowned writer and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “a single act of kindness has the power to call a whole history of over-againstness into question” (“The Right Answer” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wds3OxzHNAI). A professor once came up with 250 such acts of kindness toward students that he recommended to his colleagues. He said of their importance: “You don’t know what you don’t know about someone” (Tom Carskadon, Mississippi State professor, unpublished remarks). What would we do and say if we knew the life story of someone, the hidden hurts and needs? Who are the vulnerable, the little ones, to whom we, as believers, a church, a state, a nation, a world could be, need to be, showing kindness, and going even beyond kindness, to justice?

A well-known hymn from the beginning of the 20th century reminds us still of the need in the world. “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)!

The hymn writer’s prayer can be and is answered, his dream fulfilled, in us, whenever we serve, wherever we go. We are our Lord’s presence among the restless throngs, his feet to tread the city streets. His sweet, compassionate face is ours. We are his representatives.

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