Welcome – Christ’s radical call
What does it really mean to be made welcome?
I had a great example on holiday of being made welcome at a church (actually I’ve been lucky enough to be made welcome at a number of churches this summer – but I want to share one example in particular..).
“We” were a funny group – my friend Susan & I (who are fast learning to think of ourselves as middle-aged), our friends Nigel & Glenda (just into their 60s), Susan’s daughter Grace (in her 20s) & her husband & 2 children under 3. We were staying in a quiet village in Devon – and spotted that the local Anglican church had an all-age service with baptism on the Sunday we were there. Perfect! We would be lost among the guests for the baptism & could just slip in and out without too much fuss. When you’re a minister on holiday you dread the ‘where are you from and what do you do?’ questions – maybe everyone does! So our funny groups trickled into church about 10 minutes before the service was due to start – to find that the baptism had been cancelled due to illness and we were the only visitors there. “Good morning. Welcome.” We were given the order of service – “Sit anywhere you like – there seem to be lots of spaces just over there if you’re together” – the person on the door was warm and helpful, and found out where we were from. The service was still an all-age service, despite not being a baptism, and began with the vicar welcoming “the visitors from Oxford, Cambridge & Basingstoke”. Later as the offertory was brought down the aisle one of the women behind us leaned forward to say “We usually stand up” (just in case we hadn’t noticed). The highlight for everyone was the point at which a plate of jelly babies was brought round (to demonstrate ‘sharing’) and Rose, aged 2, said loudly “oh Wow!”.
After the service the people in front turned round to talk to us and explain that coffee was available at the back of church, and while we drank our coffee various people came and chatted about the church building, the place we were staying & the weather forecast for the week.
We all left feeling impressed by the welcome from the fairly small congregation, and in fact went back for the midweek communion service a few days later.
We were made welcome. We were allowed to be ourselves, but we were also included in the ‘usual’ way of doing things. We felt that others were glad we were there. We were helped to feel at home.
All these things are incredibly important – and I made a point of telling the vicar how well we felt welcomed.
So when I read today’s readings I knew I wanted to talk about welcome and our role as churches in welcoming people. But Jesus isn’t just giving his disciples tips on how to be welcoming: the gospel demand to welcome others is far more radical than that.
Jesus is at a Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Who’s invited, and where they sit, is not just something that happens – there’s a lot of social positioning going on. Who is the most important guest? Who gets to sit near them? Who is in the most honoured seats? But seeing all this, Jesus warns his listeners not to seek ‘position’, but to be humble – and he warns his host not to invite those he wants to impress, but to make sure he invites those who most need the food and the welcome.
Welcome is to be genuine and is to be for all – not to be a device for social-climbing.
And Jesus doesn’t just tell people to do this, he himself takes hospitality to a whole different level in his life and ministry. Jesus associates with all sorts of unsuitable people and is criticised for it – as well as the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, Jesus associates with sinners, tax-collectors, those who are considered unclean. He welcomes them to eat at table with him.
And apparently, he expects the same from us. He says so in today’s reading. When we are the hosts, when we the church are opening our doors to the community and the world, our list of invitees isn’t supposed to look just like our membership list. When we, his disciples are trying to serve others, we shouldn’t take the names from our Christmas card address list. Those we seek to serve in the name of Christ should be those who are on no one’s lists, those who are forgotten, ignored, or even purposely shunned. That is the unique and challenging call of Christ.
And likewise, when we are invited to be the guests, we should remember that we are there not because “we’re worth it” – as the shampoo ads tell us, but because we are loved despite all our failings. We should never forget that we are here because of the goodness of God and not because of any goodness of our own.
I love Cranmer’s prayer of humble access from his communion service, where we pray :
“We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs from under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy, and on that we depend.”
Of course, neither welcoming others nor being humble about our own invitation comes easily to us.
We’re not alone in this. In the letter to the Hebrews, the early church community in Rome is reminded to be strong and faithful in following Jesus’ example of hospitality. Even they are already having trouble as they tried to work out what it means to be the true community of Christ, to be Christ-like. Who is the gospel really meant to be for? , they are wondering.
So they get this advice, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
These words seem easy enough to understand, and we know this is what we should try to do. But Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom puts a radical edge on these words.
Love your fellow Christians – even the ones you do not understand or you downright disagree with.
Show hospitality - not just to your friends, but to those different from you, and the poor, and the wretchedly lonely.
Never neglect to show kindness – even to the person who glares at you, or who has never shown any kindness back to you, or who seems incapable of love and affection.
This is the radical hospitality we are called to offer in the name of Christ. A welcome for absolutely anyone and everyone. A welcome that seeks out the lost and the broken and the forgotten. A welcome that serves those who most need it not those we most like the look of.
There is only one way to be the kind of people who are strong enough to answer the challenge of this kind of hospitality: we need God’s help: God’s love, God’s spirit. Only God’s power can make us that Christ-like. So let’s pray to be open to God’s moving among us – that our world may know God’s love in this place.
(And yes, we are going to sing 'All are Welcome' after this!)