Here’s a question for you: Are we a welcoming church? Are we place where people come and are received warmly? What is it like to become a part of this community? Well, for one thing, there times when someone asks you a question that you must seek first to define the terms that are used in the question. What do I mean by saying “welcoming?” What do I mean by saying “church?” What do I mean when I use the term “community?” It’s important to define these terms because that will help us to really explore these questions with depth and honesty. First off, we must always knows in our minds and in our hearts that church always and forever means the Body of Christ that has died with him to sin and been raised to a new life faith with all the saints throughout the centuries that have gone by. Secondly, “community” always has a ever growing outward definition like the rings of a tree that start small but always increase in ever widening circles. We are individually a person who lives in the community of our family that then includes our friends that then includes our neighbors that then includes villages, then townships, then counties, then states, then nations, then the world, then the whole universe, but most importantly, even then those that we hate. And we all have an effect on those outer rings even if that effect gets infinitely smaller and smaller. But what about that term “welcoming?”
I think a simple definition that could suffice is that welcoming is the ways in which we react to a new person or situation. We can either choose to be gatekeepers making sure that the person coming to the door is acceptable, or we can be people that respond to those who come through the gate knowing that we ourselves are people who have come through that gate ourselves as strangers whether it was when we were little infants or as we have grown through the years. How we welcome others says a lot of things about who we are individually and collectively, about what truly is near and dear to our hearts. If we welcome only those who are near and dear to our hearts, then maybe that should show us that what is near and dear to our hearts is ourselves. And that is simply a vanity, self-love, and self-absorption. I don’t preach these words this day as words of accusation meant to expose something that should be changed. I preach these words this day as words of warning that we should indeed guard against that form of self love so that ourselves doesn’t become the most important thing in our lives and that we always seek to reorient our lives and our love on the one who loves us and gives us life each and every day.
In our baptisms we are welcomed into the church, the body as newly adopted beloved children of God. We receive a new identity where the question “Who are you?” is sometimes better asked, “Whose are you?” We belong to God and nothing can change that, but that reality also carries with it a responsibility that sometimes becomes easy to shirk. And really that’s what this teaching from Jesus is all about this day. It’s not so much a teaching about who and why we should welcome others. It’s a teaching about how we, the ones who have already been welcomed into Christ in baptism are to go out into the world and be a part of God’s mission to go out into the world to seek out the lost, the hurt, the reviled, the person who is on the outside, even if he or she lives within our local community.
We are called to do this, because we are called to be a people of God within the world, called to be followers of Christ in where he goes and what he does. Just two verses before our reading for today Jesus says plainly, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” So the thing that should really make us uncomfortable about our reading for today is that it calls us and shakes us out of our ever present lives to go out into the world to engage the world with words and deeds of love and peace. We do this not so that we can receive fame, fortune or assuredness of our place in heaven, but because we have already been given the beauty of God’s unending grace.
What we bring out into the world is not something our own, a creation that we have come up with. We go out into the world bearing Christ and what he has. This means that bearing Christ to the world does not take special schooling. It does not take special talents. It does not take perfectly crafted and beautiful words. Because we simply bring the Word in all of its uncreated glory. For, whoever welcomes us, welcomes Christ, and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent Christ. So in the end, we welcome the one who has already welcomed us with open arms that continually seek out the other with love, forgiveness and grace.