40 "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and 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."
Great Expectations quipped Charles Dickens, summarizing the hopes and anticipations of a young man whose head was filled with the dreams of the upwardly mobile. The rock band The Gaslight Anthem picked up on this theme, using this same phrase, Great Expectations, to title a song whose theme seems to be waiting on that certain something that will finally rouse one to action, even as one holds tenuously to the present and all it offers. And it is impossible not to get wrapped up in these sorts of expectations, expectations for our world, our children, and intricately woven into all of these, expectations for ourselves. Yes, regardless of the level of awareness, we hold great expectations for ourselves; and demand that we improve and grow, that we fulfill the never fully-realized potential that exists in all of us, if only we access the right tools, programs or insights that will allow us to grow as we deem we must. And commenting on the relative merit of these pursuits is a bit like trying to comment on whether or not it is a good thing that the leaves on trees are green, for this sense of expectation, this hope for a tomorrow in which we are somehow better people than we are today, well this sort of thing is written into the very fabric of who we are as people. To strive in this way, towards whatever goal we are after, that’s just the way that we, as humans, relate to the world and to ourselves.
And it is not as though this striving is without meaning, without purpose. What would life be without another goal to accomplish, another experience to enjoy, a wider panorama from which to view the world? Yes, there is a definite purpose to all of this; it is why we get up in the morning. What is interesting, though, is whatever we imagine at the end of these pursuits, be it a thinner waistline, a less troubled mind, a more stable 401(k) or a plumper bank account, all of these expectations are self-generated. This does not mean that having them is wrong, but it does mean that, whatever the rewards for our hard work and striving remain deeply entrenched in our own sense of what it means to live a good and meaningful life. And that, that right there, that might just be the problem, especially when we consider what it means to hold great expectations for God. For often it is the case that God is encountered not as the end of our striving, not as the reward for our piety, but rather God is encountered as an interruption, as the holy one who erupts in the midst of our striving and forces upon us a conversion in which these categories of right and wrong, meaningful and without merit are entirely reconfigured.
Now, this might seem an odd way to enter into the Gospel text for the day, with what appears to be its straight forward language of reward. Indeed, it all seems so easy, does it not? This text could very easily be read as a straight-forward prescription on Christian hospitality. However, as with anything that the Christ tells us, there is always more than meets the eye. This section concludes a chapter of instruction to the disciples whom are being sent out for mission, a situation which Jesus describes as being sent out as “lambs amongst the wolves.” And lest the metaphor be misinterpreted, Jesus unsentimentally outlines the “rewards” that will accompany their work of preaching, healing and exorcism. These disciples can expect to be thrown into jail, to be dragged before the authorities to plead their case, disowned by their families and ultimately hated by the world. In short, the disciples are told that it is the cross and the cross alone that will constitute the beginning of their discipleship, that it is only in abandoning themselves, indeed abandoning their expectations, whether great or small, that this whole thing will begin to make any sense at all. It is, then, no wonder that Jesus must assure his disciples that even the hairs of their heads are numbered by the Father who loves them, for what he has just described sounds a lot like a protracted death sentence. So much for rewards, so much for great expectations.
And if the rejection that the disciples are ensured of facing complicates the notion of reward, of what they can expect as Jesus’ ambassadors to a hostile world, we can surely ask why anyone would want to take up the cross, to follow Jesus, in the first place. If one can expect the sort of rejection and humiliation that makes receiving a cup of water feel like the kindest and most thoughtful gesture in the world, does it not make more sense to run in the other direction from this sort of thing? What manner of person walks willingly into this sort of hostility? What on earth would possibly compel the disciples to continue following this Jesus, given what he has told them they will face? Talk about a redefining of their expectations. And if the disciples must undergo a conversion of their expectations, if their expectations for discipleship must submit to the cross, we can be certain that the same will be true of us. But this does not answer the question, it only heightens the tension, perhaps even to an unbearable point. Why, indeed, would one follow a God who asks this sort of thing?
How the beginnings of answer appear is perhaps the deepest mystery of the Christian faith. For what Christ say is in fact so true that it must be experienced to be believed: in following this God, in undergoing the death of our expectations for what this God does in the world and what we can expect as those who bear his name, in the encounter with this God’s strangeness, there is a life, a peace, a joy that we could never anticipate or expect, for unlike the greatness we project for ourselves, this life comes not from us, but from the Christ and his sublime strangeness. Yes, the cross is the way into resurrection, a resurrection that explodes death with the sweet song of the one whose love is finally that is real. And it is this life that beckons the disciples, that beckons you, onward. It is Christ’s own life, made present through the Holy Spirit, that allows for this crazy sort of inversion in which blessing can flow from persecution, joy from rejection, and yes finally even life from death. It is the life of Christ which breaks in on us, which interrupts our expectations for what this God will do and how this God will do it, and shows the more excellent way: the way in sin is graciously forgiven and God is revealed as a love that is more freeing, more beautiful than anything we could begin to expect or anticipate. Yes, the way in which even our expectations, be they blessedly fulfilled or yet unattained, can become again the occasion for the gracious love of Christ to enter our lives. The way in which the love of Christ, gathering us together, sends us out into the world to proclaim and enact the goodness of God, no matter if we encounter hospitality or hostility to this Christ and his mercy. For as St. Paul writes, the free gift has already been given. Christ has taken you from death to life, from fear to boldness, from anxiety to acceptance. You, then, you have been welcomed by the Father with a mercy unending. Go, then, and extend this welcome to others. In Jesus’ name, amen.